March 2014 Archives
Human behavior in organizations holds both the highest potential and the greatest risks for the success of the business. There is incredible potential for collaborative action to build and create and improve the quality of life. There is, unfortunately, a dark side to this, too. Humans have the capacity to resist and even actively oppose the systems and processes in place at a business.
Working with the human dimension of business is one of the keys to success. In a similar way that businesses need clear financial direction and must comply with legal and regulatory requirements, it is essential to maximize the human benefits of the workforce in a sustainable way. This is more than minimizing the impact of depression or stopping bad workplace behaviors like bullying. These are important dimensions of successful work, but there is much more to high performance than the elimination of problems. Creating a mindful workplace fosters the development of qualities that help excellence to emerge.
Breaking through barriers: Buddhist monks, in their training, are sent out to spend a February night in the Himalayan mountains with nothing to keep them warm except a damp sheet, and their ability to mindfully maintain their body heat. This is an exercise that I have no desire to imitate (although I live in Wisconsin, so I could have used this skill a few times during this winter), but it is a reminder that the human mind is capable of breaking through barriers that seem to be insurmountable.
There are many, smaller ways that being mindful does allow individuals to extend themselves beyond their apparent limits. One woman completely reversed a six-month pattern of being late for work. Another man was able to overcome his anxiety and effectively train new hires in complicated job procedures--an accomplishment that ultimately helped him get a promotion. Yet another manager began to have the most productive and interactive meetings he had ever had.
These are not isolated examples but common outcomes for those I have worked with to develop their mindfulness skills. Their worksites benefited as much as they did from these changes.
Increased awareness of the positive: Positive psychologists, like Shawn Achor and Barbara Fredrickson have demonstrated significant performance increases associated with happiness at work in their research. But it turns out that knowing this often has a limited impact in the workplace because it is more difficult to notice positive events than negative events. In fact, noticing what is positive seems to require conscious awareness. Mindful practices develop this ability to become more aware of the positive. As a result, there is strong research evidence that mindfulness develops the part of the brain that is associated with happiness.
In the business world, happiness is associated with significantly higher levels of creativity, with better problem-solving skills and more effective relationships. These are important qualities to foster in a high-performing company.
Handling disruptions: Today’s work environment is full of disruptions. Some of this is because businesses are asking more from each employee in a lean workforce. Some of this is due to the electronically connected environment with instant communication demands and access to social media. It also arises when a worker is anxious about potential negative reactions. And, of course, there are the unexpected events that occur.
It is not the circumstances of life, however, that are the problem. It is our reaction to those circumstances that define us. Disruptions happen every day. They happen to every person. Developing the ability to pause and choose a response to those circumstances, rather than to give in to the first reaction, can dramatically change the impact of a disruptive event. Think about a person you consider to be “heroic.” Is your admiration of that individual due to the fact that he or she never had difficult circumstances to handle, or is he or she demonstrating “heroism” because of his or her ability to choose a response that overcame the challenges?
The skill of mindfulness creates a pause in the cycle of reactivity and makes space for a thoughtful response to emerge. Imagine an organization that was able to follow through on its intentions, even in a world where there are so many things that compete for attention.
Developing wisdom: Many skills that are developed in mindfulness training have an immediate impact on the flow of day-to-day work. There is another area of growth that occurs in a longer time span among those who are regularly practicing mindfulness. It is the development of wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to know how things fit within a bigger picture. The practice of mindfulness includes learning to take a mental step back from a situation and look at the context in which it occurs. It promotes seeing and acting in a way that is appropriate to the larger whole.
A high-performing company cannot depend only on a management team that exercises top-down control to accomplish organizational goals. A high-performing company needs workers who are able to see the big picture and understand how to integrate their action into the whole. This is what a mindful workplace promotes.
These are some of the qualities that are promoted in a mindful approach to business. There are specific skills that employees bring to the tasks of the business. These mindful qualities are characteristics that, when shared across the workforce, provide a foundation the brings out the best in each employee.
In my final article, I will discuss the process that companies are using to create a more mindful workplace for their employees.
Psychologist Teresa Amabile, author, with Steven Kramer, of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, and the keynote speaker for this year’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards, identifies the inner work life of employees as a key factor in organizational success.
She writes, “Individual performance is closely tied to inner work life.”
This is a problem for many organizations. There are systems, processes, incentives and consequences put into place to ensure that observable behavior is appropriate in the workplace, but it is more difficult to assess and far more difficult to control the inner work life of an employee. If the state of the inner work life of employees significantly influences their performance, it becomes important to pay attention to this dimension of the workplace experience. But how does an organization do this in an effective way?
Directing observable behavior can be very effective in standardizing processes and promoting productivity. Ideally, it is shaped by careful attention to the systems that contribute to organizational goals. When inner attitudes of employees align with these organizational efforts, there are dramatic improvements in performance that are mutually beneficial for the worker and for the company. One way to foster this alignment is by creating a mindful workplace.
The practice of mindfulness develops a particular way of paying attention. It fosters awareness of the present moment, improves focus and does this in a non-judgmental way. This type of awareness, in a mindful workplace, increases the connection with inner work life.
A mindful employee becomes more aware of his or her inner life as it fluctuates moment by moment. It interacts with ever-changing circumstances. This heightened awareness allows the worker to make the small adjustments that facilitate emotional stability, accurate perceptions and consistent motivation over the long-term. It is an important ability in a complex marketplace in which organizations constantly need to find ways to adapt to new demands and to grow and develop in order to stay viable for its customers.
This mindful workplace, however, requires an adjustment in the way an organization looks at itself. The inner work life of the employee is not as directly influenced by incentives and consequences as observable behavior. It cannot be dictated by a supervisor. However, when the organizational goals align with the inner experience of the worker, he or she will engage in a deeper and more consistent effort and will do his or her best work.
Mindful leadership styles must shift from establishing control to establishing a partnership with the employee (see the APA Monitor article, "Venus Rising"). That is one reason why most companies that are trying to develop a mindful workplace start by engaging the executive team first. When leaders are mindful, they are more able to attend to the inner work life of the employees and link that to the work of the organization in an effective way.
This mindful leadership is a more interactive relationship. Leaders must take time to understand the experience of employees and to more fully explain how the work they are doing has meaning for the benefit of the larger whole. Mindful employees must become more willing to give input to shape and direct the effectiveness of the work that is being done.
We have seen these kinds of shifts in the relationship between the organization and the workforce in the companies that have been recognized as psychologically healthy workplaces. We have seen the development of positive relationships between leaders and the workforce in these organizations. We have consistently seen workers actively contributing to make the company more effective and more successful.
Creating a mindful workplace may be a step toward creating a more psychologically healthy workplace, with the benefits recognized in those companies that have won local and national awards, yielding benefits for employee and organization alike.
In my next article, I will be looking at some of the specific effects of being mindful that promote a better organization.