Mindfulness in the Workplace: An Exploratory Study
Donald W. McCormick, Jeremy Hunter
This paper examines the effects mindfulness meditation has on people’s work lives. In it, we present an analysis of interviews with eight managers and professionals who have a meditation practice. This exploratory study is designed to generate hypotheses about a new topic in the management research literature. Analysis of the interviews suggest that people who practice mindfulness may become more aware of their social and physical environment at work; become more accepting of their work situation; develop more modest, realistic, sustainable work goals; become more selfless at work; become less concerned with material acquisition and wealth; develop a more internal locus of evaluation; become more likely to derive meaning in life from sources other than just work; become better able to cope and remain calm in difficult work situations; become more likely to experience work difficulties as challenges than threats; enjoy their work more; become more adaptable at work; and develop more positive interpersonal relations at work.
Mindfulness; meditation; spirituality
Mindfulness in the Workplace: An Exploratory Study
Talking about practicing mindfulness while he is directing, a film and television director said
It’s also just kept me calm enough to take in what I am seeing. I’ll be on the set, adjust the lighting, and find a little corner—-because I don’t want them [the crew and actors] going, ‘Oh, what’s he doing?’ And I’ll breathe and do something positive to get back in touch with my body—-often for 30 seconds or 60 seconds. And I find that not only am I happier, but I can watch the actors with greater clarity because I am more focused. Because it’s also very subtle; you’re watching eight, ten, fifteen takes of a scene. The differences are subtle, subtle things, and you have to be very focused to see what somebody’s doing. I find that the meditation in an ongoing way really helps that.
This quote is from a director’s answer to a question about his mindfulness meditation practice and how it affected his work life. The director’s comment was revealing in at least four ways. First, it indicated that mindfulness has helped him to be calmer at work. Second, it revealed that mindfulness has helped him to process more sensory information than usual. Third, it suggested that quick mindfulness meditations help him to concentrate when his work called for it. Finally, it pointed out that mindfulness aided him in perceiving important, sometimes subtle information in his work environment. This article examines these and other effects mindfulness meditation has on people’s work lives.
In this article mindfulness is defined as nonjudgmental, concentrated observation of one’s perceptions, thoughts, and emotions in the present moment, with an attitude of equanimity, curiosity, openness and acceptance (Bishop, et al., 2004; Brown & Ryan, 2003).
Each element of this definition will be explained in more detail below.
We present an analysis of interviews with eight managers and professionals who have a meditation practice. This exploratory study is designed to generate hypotheses about a topic that is relatively new to management research. Analysis of the interviews suggest that people who practice mindfulness may be more aware of their environment at work; be more accepting of their work situations; have more modest, realistic, sustainable work goals; be more selfless at work; be less concerned with material acquisition and wealth; have a more internal locus of evaluation; be more likely to derive meaning in life from sources other than just work; be better able to cope and remain calm in difficult work situations; be more likely to experience work difficulties as challenges than threats; enjoy their work more; be more adaptable at work; and have more positive interpersonal relations at work.
At first glance, it might look like this is a topic that only a few meditators would be interested in. But the outcomes that our research suggest are ones that most people want in their work; they want to enjoy their work more, be less stressed, and have their work be more meaningful. Stress management is an important ability for managers (Whetten & Cameron, 2007) and anyone else at work. Many research studies that show that mindfulness can improve people’s ability to manage stress (Shapiro & Carlson, 2009). Building relationships and developing empathy are also important managerial competencies (Goleman, 1998; Whetten & Cameron, 2007), and mindfulness has been shown to help with both (Beddoe & Murphy, 2004; Shapiro, Schwartz, & Bonner, 1998).
Mindfulness in the Literature
Mindfulness meditation is practiced around the world. In the U.S., businesses, universities, government agencies, counseling centers, schools, hospitals, religious groups, law firms, prisons, the army, and other organizations offer training in mindfulness meditation.
In the U. S. business world, interest in mindfulness is rising dramatically. This shows in the popular business press, including books (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005; Carroll, 2004). Many companies have provided training programs in mindfulness, including Fortune 500 companies.
Interest in mindfulness in many non-business organizations is also increasing. Police officers in Los Angeles and Madison Wisconsin have received mindfulness training (Oliver, 2009). Many law firms offer mindfulness classes (Carroll, 2007; Keeva, 2004). Mindfulness has also been taught in prisons, reducing hostility and mood disturbance among inmates, and improving their self esteem (Samuelson, 2007). EDUCATION. Hundreds of hospitals and clinics throughout the U.S. offer mindfulness programs (Elias, 2009). Many government organizations offer mindfulness training, including the Army (Rochman, 2009).
All this activity related to mindfulness in organization leads to this study’s research question—what effect does mindfulness have on people’s work lives?
Scholarly articles ordinarily begin by identifying the prior scholarly conversation that they are part of. This can be a problem for exploratory studies such as this, which by their nature investigate topics that have not been thoroughly researched. There are some conceptual papers in the management literature (Baron & Cayer, 2011; Dane, 2011; A. Hede, 2010; Khisty, 2010), a couple of articles of reflections on the authors’ experience with mindfulness in the management classroom (Kernochan, McCormick, & White, 2007; Pavlovich, 2010) but there is very little in the way of actual research that is based on quantitative or qualitative data and that addresses mindfulness in the workplace.
Although the management literature contains many publications about Langer’s concept of mindfulness, there is comparatively little about present-centered mindfulness. We have found only five publications in the scholarly management literature (Andrew Hede, 2010; Jacobs & Blustein, 2008; Kernochan, et al., 2007; Ucok, 2006; Weick & Putnam, 2006). Two of these three are only partly devoted to mindfulness. The only published research study of mindfulness in a work related context (Jacobs & Blustein, 2008) deals with the important, but limited topic of employment uncertainty. Generally, exploratory studies hover around the edges of related conversations, hoping to either enter one of them or to create a new one. This study is related to the conversations in research literature on mindfulness in psychology, medicine, law, religion, and education. It also addresses the management; organizational behavior; and management, spirituality and religion literature. There is not much in the way of conference presentations or publications on meditation of any kind in the management literature, but what exists is promising—-for instance, Delbecq’s (2002) Academy of Management panel of executives and others discussing meditation and its impact on their work.
There are conceptual papers that are based on the literature of other fields, there are reflections upon individuals’ experience (especially with teaching mindfulness), but no one has asked a group of experienced mindfulness meditators to talk about their experience. That would be a good place to start research on mindfulness in the workplace, and that is what this paper begins to do.
The Two Meanings of Mindfulness
The term mindfulness has two meanings in the scholarly literature—one comes from Ellen Langer’s work (Langer & Moldoveanu, 2000). She uses the term to refer to “the sensitivity…with which people…react to even very weak signs that some kind of change or danger is approaching” (Couto, 2003). Her definition of mindfulness is “something akin to proactive vigilance” (Daniel Goleman, personal communication, November 27, 2002). Karl Weick (Weick & Putnam, 2006) uses this definition in his work on mindfulness in organizations. In this article, however, “mindfulness” refers not to Langer’s use of the term but to its traditional meaning, which has its origins in Buddhism. Reudy and Schweitzer (Ruedy & Schweitzer, 2010) use the term “present-‐centered mindfulness” to make clear that they are referring to this latter meaning, in which one focuses one’s attention on the present moment. Other than this paragraph, everything in this article refers to present-‐ centered mindfulness. Some social scientists, most notably Boyatzis and McKee (2005), combine Langer’s (1997) and present-‐centered concepts of mindfulness, but in this article they are kept separate. Langer herself (1989) differentiates her use of the term from the present-‐centered way it is used, as do Weick and Putnam (Weick & Putnam, 2006), Ruedy and Schweitzer (Ruedy & Schweitzer, 2010), and Dane (Dane, 2011).
This study draws on three data sources. Interviews with professionals and managers about the effect contemplative practices have on their work lives make up the primary sources. Eight of these interviews (411 pages) were analyzed, using the qualitative data analysis software program Atlas.ti. The people interviewed included a writer of fiction and nonfiction; a physicist, a magazine journalist; the chair of a music department in a major research university; an architect who also was an academic dean; an investment manager and a television/film director. A second source of data is the scholarly literature. Finally, we also draw upon our own experience of mindfulness. Both authors are long-term mindfulness practitioners.
An Exploratory Study
Since there is so little existing research to build on, our research question calls for an exploratory design (McNabb, 2004). An exploratory study requires that there are few or no existing studies of the topic, “the sample has personal experience in or knowledge about the topic; and the participants are able to talk about the topic” (Wood, Kerr, & Brink, 2006, p. 122). Our study fits these requirements. Our goal is that of the ideal exploratory study, which as an early or first step in developing new knowledge about a topic, leads to “suggestions of hypotheses for further study or to an idea for a conceptual framework” (Wood, et al., 2006, p. 121).
As an exploratory study, this study was designed to develop concepts and hypotheses, not to test hypotheses. Almost all scholarly work, research and publications in management are hypothesis testing studies, and those who are unfamiliar with the difference between them and hypothesis generating research may object to many aspects of our design (like the small, far-from-random sample being analyzed). Criteria like the randomness of the sample are appropriate for judging hypothesis testing research designs, but they don’t apply to exploratory studies designed to generate hypotheses (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). In exploratory research, flexible, descriptive research designs are paramount. Convenience samples are common and “very few, if any, variables are under the researcher’s control” (Wood, et al., 2006, p. 121).
The interviewees reported many different work-‐related outcomes of their mindfulness practice. They are described below. The general categories of outcomes include values, interaction with the work environment, response to difficulties in the work environment, and interpersonal relations at work.
Changes in Values
Interviewees reported that mindfulness practice changed their values. Their locus of evaluation moved from the external (valuing material acquisition, wealth, fame, recognition, and the opinions of others) to the internal (valuing happiness and spirituality). Second, they reported going from having a single source of meaning and identity in life (their work) to having many sources of meaning. Finally, they reported becoming less egotistical and more selfless. These changes are discussed below.
From an External to an Internal Locus of Evaluation
Interviewees reported that mindfulness practice led them to focus less on outer concerns and more on their inner lives. One interviewee said, “What is considered being successful or deadbeat has more to do with how happy you are and your attitude to the world, and less to do with how much you acquire and how much money you make…those treadmills of success are getting to no particular end.”
Many interviewees talked about moving from concern about external, work-related rewards both material rewards and recognition by others – to a focus on inner concerns, such as happiness. The filmmaker told of an upending experience that he had ten years before. It motivated him to start meditating. He had finished a film that he considered to be perfect, but was surprised to find that instead of feeling elated, he was depressed.
Eventually, his meditation practice led him to value inner happiness much more than social accolades or material wealth, and now,
I’m essentially a really happy person. I have neuroses and fears and things, but I’m not inherently depressed [anymore]… I would trade that for the Oscar, or accolades, or riches. Because when I hit that wall ten years ago, it wouldn’t have mattered if I had ten million dollars; it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d won every award I could win.
Interviewees said that after they began practicing mindfulness, the approval of others faded in importance. Another way to put this is that their locus of evaluation went from external to internal. Locus of evaluation is a central part of Carl Rogers’ theory of personality and psychotherapeutic change. It refers to a person’s source of authority—her or his center of responsibility. People who look to themselves to decide whether a behavior has value have an internal locus of evaluation; those who look to the expectations of society, or try “to behave in terms of values set by other people” (Rogers, Kirschenbaum, & Henderson, 1989, p. 173) have an external locus of evaluation. Rogers argued that dependence on the expectations and values of others predictably indicates psychological disturbance, and that individuals must develop an internal locus of evaluation in order to become fully functioning, autonomous individuals (Thorne, 2003).
One interviewee in our study said that before meditating, her sense of identity so depended on her job—-something clearly external—-that “it used to be a validation of being a human being.” She said that since she began mindfulness meditation, she has become “much less ambitious. I worry less.”
Another interviewee said,
Just, you know, through meditation and the other aspects of my [mindfulness] practice, that certain things are more real…to me now…And things that seemed real, now don’t seem real. Again, it’s like that shift from the material world to a kind of inner world and a kind of interconnected world…My need for validation from other people has gotten a lot less, I would say.
The journalist said that recognition became less important to him.
There’s not the kind of stroking or ego-gratification, you know, for getting off the treadmill—-for getting off the track as I have. So I don’t regret it. I’m glad I’ve done it, and I know why I’m doing it. But it means I have to forgo that kind of recognition for now. The recognition of what other people think of me is not the most important thing, is what it comes down to.
An interesting example of selflessness shown through a reduced concern for the opinions of others and an increasingly inner locus of evaluation was a change in career ideals for the Dean, who now aspires
to be less than visible—-sort of like the Lone Ranger. I always thought…that it was pretty cool that the Lone Ranger would leave town. Nobody knew who he was, but the town was better. He didn’t leave a business card; there was nothing named after him.
From Single to Multiple Sources of Meaning
Study participants often said that before they began practicing mindfulness, their jobs were their one (or primary) source of meaning in life, and that now they have many sources of meaning.
The journalist said that after practicing mindfulness meditation, his work of networking in the glittery world of the entertainment industry became less meaningful,
When I worked at [well-known entertainment magazine], I spent more time being out and about going to industry functions, keeping up relationships, just networking—-than I do now. I don’t really want to do that all the time now, because it just doesn’t mean anything to me. Now, again, I don’t mind doing some of it, but my life is not—-I no longer am immersed in that world.
The director also mentioned that he used to depend solely on his work for meaning, but that he is no longer is so dependent.
If somebody said to me today, ‘You’ll never make another film. That’s it. Your career in this field is finished.’ I would feel sad, ‘cause I like doing it. I would not feel my life was without meaning. I don’t think five years ago I could have made that statement. I think five years ago I would have said, ‘Oh my God, my life is over! What’s the point? Who am I? What am I going to do?’
And I guess part of what the study and practice has done, it’s separated what I do for a living from who I am, from my value as a person. Which in turn makes me feel less ambitious.
One interviewee said that mindfulness helped him to become less tightly attached to his career.
I do aspire to get to the point where I can accept each day as it comes, and invest myself wholly in what I do. But only for the sake of investing myself wholly in what I do, not for some future gain… which to me is what ambition seems all about. So I’m not sure where this is going to lead, and I can even see getting to the point where I stop in this business altogether and go teach, or write a book, or go work with the kids.
The relationship between this individual’s life and his work has become more balanced. But the concept of work-life balance that appears in the management literature does not capture the change the interviewees mentioned; it refers only to the balance between work and family life. Some of the interviewees talked about a better balance between their work lives and family lives; but overall they talked about more than that—-they said that they enjoy life as a whole more.
Sources of Meaning Other than Work. Originally, the director didn’t just depend on his work; he felt his work had to be great for his life to have meaning. His mindfulness practice changed his singular focus on finding meaning through work. The practice helped him to find meaning through a range of experiences.
Because I can change the world just by being who I am, I have come to believe that if I smile at someone in the store, it’s as legitimate a way to change the world as to try to make the greatest movie ever made. Both are valuable.
Increasingly, he valued nature and leisure time.
When I go and look at a sunset, I feel whole and fulfilled. Present. Glad to have been born—in a way that maybe some movie in of itself could never do…
So much in the way that I spend my time has changed. Now I go for long hikes. Hiking has become a big part of my life. I’ll take off on a weekday, wandering three-four hours in the Santa Monica Mountains, just watching birds fly. Sit on the mountaintop and meditate for half an hour, and finding joy in that. Something I just never would have allowed myself. I mean, I would have laughed if you told me five or six years ago I would do that. I mean, my wife and I had never gone on vacation together. I’d never leave town. ‘What’s going to happen? What if something happened? What if I miss something?’ You know? And now we get into the car and drive off to Zion and hike around in the park and it’s just – So every part of my life has changed.
Other interviewees also moved away from workaholic dependence on work as their sole source of meaning in life. One interviewee put it this way, saying that he does “not… see work as the end-‐all, be-‐all. You’ve got to have a life! There’s so many other things worth doing.”
From Egotism to Selflessness
Many interviewees reported that mindfulness meditation resulted in more selflessness, although they usually phrased this change in terms of a reduction of their egos. When asked how mindfulness meditation has changed him, one person said, “I have an awareness now; I have cultivated the awareness of a reality beyond my own ego.” Another said, “Now, very often in the course of the day, if something disappoints me or I’m getting puffed up `cause I’ve been complimented on something, I’ll have this awareness that that’s just my ego. So those kinds of things which I used to live by more, have receded in importance to me.”
The department chair phrased his movement towards selflessness in terms of centering in the spiritual self, as opposed to the egotistical self. He said that when he was working mindfully and was optimally effective, “The mind has to be not attached to some external thing, but rather centered in the core of its own Being—-the Self. Not the small personalized ego-‐self, but something much broader and infinite.”
The Dean’s selflessness expressed itself as a desire to be helpful, but without recognition or accolades.
People that came to teach under me are now running schools. One was just hired last week to run the University of [Name Deleted] School of Architecture. Another one is running [Name Deleted] State. So they’re out and about, and I’m proud. I’m really hoping that people don’t even remember who I was, and part of that has to do with overcoming the ego enough to where I can actually accept that if it happens.
The director reported that when his egotism shrank, he became a better filmmaker— one who could recognize his mistakes (and therefore fix them). “My ego’s much smaller these days. I used to feel I was the artist and I had a vision. And now I think, ‘Yeah, I’m the artist. I had a vision. And I can be really wrong.’”
More Effective Interaction With the Work Environment
Interviewees reported a change in the way they interacted with their work environments. This included, first, increased external awareness, that is, a more direct, sensory experience of the world; second, increased acceptance of their work environments; third, their goals becoming less grandiose and more grounded in their actual experience; and finally, enjoying their work more. These changes are discussed below.
Greater External Social and Physical Awareness
Becoming mindful of one’s thoughts, perceptions, and emotions is a process of developing internal, or self-‐awareness. The interviewees’ reports suggest that mindfulness meditation not only helped them to develop internal awareness, it led many of them to experience greater external awareness, by which we mean heightened awareness of information in their social and physical environment. This is helpful to managers, since it includes increased perception of detail and subtle social cues.
Mindfulness practice does this by moving its practitioners’ attention from concepts to a more direct perception of the sensations, emotions, thoughts and actions that underlie them. When we experience something again and again, we often substitute a concept of the experience for the experience itself—-the concept acts as a placeholder for the direct experience. We then relate to this concept instead of to our actual perceptions. These concepts shape our expectations. We don’t notice subtle changes in the thing itself, because our expectations about the world filter our direct experience of it, allowing us to perceive what fits with our concepts and interfering with our ability to perceive anything that isn’t in the pre-existing concept. Mindfulness removes the conceptual filters that overlay perception, which results in a less mediated experience of what we see, feel, smell, and hear. It is seeing “things as they really are,” free “of our expectations based on our past experiences” (Jon Kabat-‐Zinn, 1990, p. 35). Or, as Weick and Putnam (2006) put it, “mindfulness meditation is a direct means to move toward less dependence on conceptualization” (p. 285).
This increased perception of one’s physical and social environment is crucial for some types of work. The added information, and the resulting increased responsiveness, can improve face-‐to-‐face interpersonal and team interaction, and it allows a more flexible, adaptive, and spontaneous response to situations and others at work.
The department/musician chair gives a good example of this when he said how essential mindfulness was for his work—and especially for musical improvisation. He clarified this by mentioning what Walker and Avant (2005) would call a contrary example—-saying that when mindfulness was gone,
you can be really disconnected with what is happening around you. When that happens in improvised formats, the music is doomed. There is really no hope, because interaction—and thus heightened perception of detail and the ability to respond—is all-important.
Then he contrasts this to a state of mindfulness—-the
other extreme when…your perception of detail…is keen…You actually are aware of more information in your environment. While this experience is naturally valuable for anyone in any discipline, for the improviser—because the environment is changing—it is critical to invoke this state.
He explained that increased external awareness of his environment helped him to quickly—spontaneously—-respond to others in his team (his musical group).
The film and television director said that the quality of his work had improved because of this heightened awareness of “the world…other people…my own heart. That whatever I do create will come from a more honest and deep place.”
Sometimes enhanced external awareness helps people to perceive subtle, but important, aspects of subordinates’ performance. In the quotation that begins this article, the director reported that mindfulness meditation led him to perceive more subtleties in the performances of the actors he managed. He even meditated on the set to focus more on external awareness. His heightened awareness resulted in a less filtered, more accurate perception of his work situation. As such, his experience fit with Weick and Putnam’s (2006) speculation about the applicability of mindfulness to help people avoid “conceptual moves that…develop misperceptions of themselves, their work and their context” (p. 281).
There is a significant difference between the way we experience the world moment-to-moment and the way we remember or think about it afterwards. The processes of remembering, thinking about and evaluating our experience often distorts it. Nonetheless there is “a powerful structural bias in favor of the remembering self” (Kahneman & Riis, 2005, p. 300) that leads us to rely on it when it comes to managerial and other types of decision making. Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in part for his work on the way that these biases cause dangerous distortions in the decisions we make. This bias is present in many managerial decisions, and when it is, the deconceptualization and increased external awareness of mindfulness counteracts this bias by increasing our direct, unfiltered experience of the world.
Mindfulness practice involves observation of one’s experience. This is acceptance of what is essentially internal—thought, emotion, sensation and perception. But just as the practice of internal awareness resulted in greater external awareness, so did the practice of internal acceptance result in greater external acceptance. A number of interviewees reported that mindfulness led them to greater external acceptance-‐-‐acceptance of the circumstances that created their experience. They didn’t need to control their environment as much. One interviewee reported that his mindfulness practice resulted in his desire “to control the universe” becoming “a tenth of what it once was.” This makes sense, since controlling or trying to change something is the opposite of accepting it.
The Director’s Story. This theme of external acceptance is reflected in the interview with the director, who reported that he had become more accepting at work and enjoyed it more as a result.
Before he began practicing mindfulness meditation, he felt driven by ambitious goals of creating great art. He agonized over accepting jobs in less prestigious venues such as television. In his interview, he recounted the kind of self-recriminating thoughts he had when considering such a job, “Oh, it’s not art and it’s not meaningful and that would diminish myself as an artist, and what are people going to think of it? If they hear, they won’t think I’m an artist.” Now, when he gets a television job, he no longer torments himself over the decision nor does he hate himself when he accepts it. He accepts that sometimes he directs TV shows, and brings a more open, focused and inquiring approach to the job as it is. At work, he tries to pay attention to what he is doing in the moment, instead of fantasizing that he is doing something else (like being a great artist). Increasingly, he accepts his actual work circumstances, and, because of this new openness to realistic thinking, he has been able to enjoy this work and profit from these jobs in more than one sense.
Now I think “Hey, maybe if they pay me thirty-grand to do like three weeks’ work [interviewer laughs] that’s okay.” And I haven’t done things that were abhorrent. I would do a television show that’s something that I believe in. I mean there’s also craft, and craft is valuable. But so what if it’s not art—-if it’s only crap? Crap is valuable. I learned stuff doing [crap] and I’ve worked with some very nice people and had some very nice times—-and what the hell. I would never have allowed myself that freedom a few years back. I would have agonized, asked questions, ‘Is this okay?’ ‘What does it mean?’ I just don’t ask those questions so much anymore. I just accept that things are what they are.
He went on to explain that his old strategies for happiness failed him, and so instead he engaged in “an attempt to be more and enjoy what is…now I’m much more accepting.”
He talked about how he accepted day-to-day problems at work, and how they were less likely to make him upset, cranky or angry-which was important since making a movie is so routinely full of recurring disasters. He pointed out that filmmaking
is an art you can’t control. It’s not something done sitting alone in your room with an easel [like] painting. Or sitting at a typewriter. It is eighty, ninety, a hundred, two hundred people-‐-‐along with the technical things that break down… You can’t control it all. You can’t control how the actors will say everything; you can’t control how the lights and sun will look on a given day. You can’t control “Oh, it’s raining, and it’s supposed to be a sunny day.” You can’t control it.
He manages many people and a lot of technology, so his situation is that of many other managers. He says that one way to respond to such a difficult situation is to “bemoan it and be bitchy and cranky,” and that this is common response—-“a lot of filmmakers get really angry and miserable.” In contrast to this, however, his mindfulness practice has helped him learn to accept aspects of his work that are out of his control.
Many interviewees reported a change in their goal orientation as a result of their mindfulness meditation practice. One said “I’m less goal, or long-term goal oriented,” and another “My goal is to goal-less,” and a third “I also focus much more on the day and the present than projecting onto where I’m going to be in the future.” Though this might seem to be of dubious benefit, it actually can improve a workplace.
One interviewee identified a common misconception—-that when people say they’ve become less goal oriented, others assume that the person has become undisciplined and lazy. But with mindfulness practitioners, “less goal oriented” is not about laziness; it is about paying closer attention to their daily experience, learning from it, and using what they’ve learned to define goals, including difficult goals, that they are able to attain. This differs from the way most people define their goals, which is based on imagining some ideal state.
Interviewees found that practicing mindfulness whittled down grandiose, impossible work goals. Their sources of meaning used to be few, limited, and infrequent—imagining that the only possible source of meaning was accomplishing something great at work. But now they find meaning in many places—including the experience of their actual work. Their goals became less grand—focusing less on fame.
An example comes from the director, “At this point now, I want to enjoy my work; I want to work to add something to the world if I can—-as I can. But I just want something to pay the rent and let me also keep working my [mindfulness] practice, and where life goes my life will go.” His goal became to “just try to be a good person and add something nice to the world.” The director often saw grand goals lead to misery
You look at some of the people who are our greatest of the great artists, and their lives are horrible. And I don’t want that any more. I used to be jealous. I used to think “I don’t know if I have that kind of genius in me.” Now I thank God, thank God, I’m a storyteller; I’m a craftsperson. I like what I do. I’m good enough at what I do that I certainly have some people who like what I do.
He found realistic goals more meaningful.
I don’t feel anymore that I need to one day be Martin Scorsese or Stanley Kubrick for my life to have meaning…My father was in the arts and theater and he said, “Art makes you immortal, and that’s how you make your mark, if you do it right. If you do, you know, then you will create something that will live beyond you and your life will have meaning.” That completely disintegrates for me as a concept.
Greatness, and the ambitious goals that make it possible, no longer made sense to him. Asked about the effect his meditation practice had on his goals, he replied that
it’s been sort of massive and yet subtle at the same time. But the biggest thing, it has in some ways undermined my ambition, or at least what I thought was my ambition. I’m certainly far less ambitious than I was five years ago.
He describes the relief that comes when ambitious goals don’t dominate a person’s life. “People of that kind of world-changing, epic-creating genius are driven to it, no matter what. And they’re taken there by the fates and God and whatever. And if you’re not, then great! You’re off the hook.”
Despite all this, he still has work goals, “I still have things that I want to do. I still work very hard to make them happen.” He also acknowledged that his reduced ambition may lead to less career achievement, as it is traditionally defined. “So, it may be that my career will be damaged by this. It may be that I will never achieve something that I might have achieved. I don’t care, because I’m enjoying my life.”
Interviewees often said that mindfulness helped them to enjoy their work, and to be happier in general. We were originally tempted to say that mindfulness increased job satisfaction, but after looking at the literature on job satisfaction, we realized that it was a complex concept that was defined in ways that didn’t reflect our findings. One theorist articulated nine aspects of job satisfaction and the enjoyment of work was only one of these. Other theorists didn’t even mention the enjoyment of work. So we use the narrower, more precise term of job enjoyment.
One interviewee put it plainly, saying that before he began mindfulness meditation, he “had a lot of pain” but that now he was “very happy.” The director said that he now comes “to the set with a smile every day” and is “in a good mood.” Another interviewee said that because of mindfulness practice, he was now enjoying his life. And another interviewee said this about how his attitude towards work changed after taking up mindfulness. “It’s lots of fun. It gets to be more fun. Q: A more enjoyable process? A: Absolutely. And if it’s more enjoyable for me, it’s going to be more enjoyable for the people around me.”
Better Ways of Handling Difficulties
Interviewees said that they changed the ways they responded to difficulties in their workplaces. First, they went from seeing difficulties as threats to seeing more as challenges. Second, they became more level-‐headed. Finally, they became more adaptable. These changes are discussed below.
Seeing Difficulties as Challenges
In the research literature, resilience and psychological hardiness are the terms used to describe people’s ability to withstand or manage the negative effects of stress (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005). Psychological hardiness has three aspects, one of which is “feeling challenged by new experiences rather than viewing change as a threat to security and comfort” (Whetten & Cameron, 2007). Many interviewees said that mindfulness helped them to see difficult situations as challenges instead of threats. The director, for example, said that other directors often cope with difficulties at work by saying, “’Fuck everything, I’m quitting. I’m going to my trailer and drink for three hours.’ [This is] not unheard of behavior on a movie set.” But when he faced typical difficulties involved in moviemaking, he saw them as a challenge instead of a threat. He tried to
make an adventure of this, you know. “What goes wrong? How can we turn it into something good? How can we turn the accidents into happy accidents? Okay, the set fell down. Well, what can we do to—well the set looks kind of good half fallen down. What are we going to do with that?”
He said that one particular aspect of mindfulness, equanimity, helped him to view workplace difficulties as challenges.
Every day is a disaster, so people approach it as a disaster. So to be able to [instead] approach those disasters with a sense of equanimity—-with a half smile. “OK. Well look what happened. What do we do? Do we do A? Do we do B? Do we do C? Anyone have any ideas?”
He went on to say how much better that approach was to the alternative, in which “they hear me [panic and exclaim things like] ‘Oh, my God, the film is scratched!’”
Many studies show that mindfulness reduces the negative effects of stress (J. Kabat-‐ Zinn, et al., 1992; Miller, Fletcher, & Kabat-‐Zinn, 1995; J. D. Teasdale, 1999; John D. Teasdale, Segal, & Williams, 1995) Teasdale, Segal, Williams, Ridgeway, Soulsby, & Lau, 2000). One of the ways mindfulness may reduce the harm caused by stress is by increasing peoples’ ability to see challenges as threats.
The Oxford English Dictionary Online defines level-‐headed as “Having a ‘level’ head; mentally well-balanced or cool. Hence level-headedness.” But the Encarta World English Dictionary adds something in its definition: “remaining rational and fully in control in difficult situations or emergencies.” Combining these two gives us the most appropriate definition for this study-mentally well-balanced, cool, rational, and in control in difficult situations or emergencies. The equanimity that comes from mindfulness practice allows its practitioners to be calmer in difficult, stressful situations. As such, level-headedness is one of the most important outcomes of mindfulness for leaders.
A good example of level-headedness is the investment manager who described how, when the stock market goes down and it affects her work, she no longer “gets sucked into that…I used to get scared…But] the spiritual just kept me straight.” She said that mindfulness helped her to maintain equanimity when facing upset clients. She told of a time “when the market went down on Friday—-233 points…and clients are calling and saying ‘What are you doing?’ and all of that.” She responded with mindful equanimity, reassuring her clients, “I’m there to say ‘You know, this is part of a cyclical market.’” She said that she knew the fall in stock prices was bad and that her clients were upset, “but I’m not going to jump out of a window over it.” She focused on the present. “I’m sitting at my desk; I’m hearing a voice over the telephone.” She remained level-‐headed and didn’t allow her clients’ panic to overwhelm her.
Another interviewee said, “I don’t get freaked with the difficult stuff anymore… now when life’s difficult; that’s okay. It’s still difficult; it’s just okay that it’s difficult.”
The director said that his mindfulness practice helped him to remain calm in the face of disaster, and that he worked hard to bring his mindfulness practice to his work setting by
never yelling. [I] deal with problems in a calm way, with a sense of humor. When you make a movie, they’re sort of a controlled accident. Every day there are disasters. Sets fall down. People don’t show up. The film gets scratched.
When people face stressors in their workplace, responding with some equanimity makes coping easier.
The research literature supports interviewees’ reports of the importance of being composed and focused in demanding situations. Weissbecker, Salmon, Studts, Floyd, Dedert, and Sephton’s (2002) research argues that mindfulness helps people to act effectively under high degrees of stress. One researcher (Strand, 2006) uses the term “non-‐ anxious presence” for the level-‐headed, grace under pressure quality that results from mindfulness practice. In Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion, Boyatzis and McKee (2005) argue that mindfulness helps us to act “in accordance with our values even when the pressure is on” (p. 113) and call mindfulness “essential for sustaining good leadership” (p. 114).
Adaptability means being “able to adjust easily to changes and new conditions; capable of being modified to suit different purposes or conditions,” according to the Encarta World English Dictionary. Some interviewees reported that their mindfulness practice made them more adaptable. The director, for example:
And I can be excited about what the actors are doing, instead of getting into that trap that directors usually fall into—-“Oh, it isn’t just the way I want it to be” or “I had this dream of it being a certain way and it’s different. ” I tend to celebrate the differences. Of course, it’s that way in my head. These are human beings creating something; it’s not going to be what’s in my head that will make it better. And I’m much more able to be excited when an actor creates something, and at least be very open to ‘maybe it’s better than what I thought.’ And if it isn’t, maybe they’ll get my way too. But also that spirit of compromise—-that spirit of let’s do it once their way and once my way. And sometimes they were right.
The department chair said that the adaptability provided by mindfulness is essential when performing certain tasks. A jazz musician as well as a department chair, he said that when the “ability to spontaneously adapt to what everyone else has played is keen—-the improvisation becomes a meditation.”
He also said that mindfulness made him more creative—-“the meditative experience is very, very valuable in this way, and it also enables musicians to not be so attached to the conditioned kinds of patterns that everyone brings to their respective disciplines.” Kabat-‐ Zinn (1990) echoes that sentiment when he points out that mindfulness “allows us to be receptive to new possibilities and prevents us from getting stuck in the rut of our own expertise, which often thinks it knows more than it does. No moment is the same as any other. Each is unique and contains unique possibilities.” The department chair/musician emphasized the importance of mindfulness-‐induced adaptability when he described
a state of mindfulness [as one where] the mind has to be not attached to some external thing…at that point and time, you’re aware of your environment but you’re free from it. You’re not bound by, say in this situation, the commentary happening around you and sometimes directed at you. Yet at the same time, you’re aware of that, but you are grounded in something that is transcendent of that. So you’re able to be infinitely flexible and then to find that opening at the right time.
Mindfulness freed him to respond to his environment in an optimal manner.
Some other outcomes of mindfulness meditation may interact with each other. In the case of adaptability, external awareness may also aid it—helping meditators to “adjust easily to changes and new conditions” because they perceive more of those changes and more subtle aspects of those conditions.
More Positive Interpersonal Relations
Building supportive interpersonal relationships at work is an important managerial ability (Boyatzis, 1982; Goleman, 2006; Whetten & Cameron, 2007), and many of the interviewees reported that mindfulness practice improved their relations with others at work. For example, the department chair said that
one of the most frequent testimonies I get from students is that when they undertake a regular meditation practice, they actually can feel some effects during the day. When they meditate in the morning, they feel more mental clarity, [and] more flow and ease in their interpersonal reactions and relationships,
The director specified the way that his mindfulness practice improved the way he related to others at work, saying that he became more loving, more compassionate, calmer, and less blaming.
I deal with my crews, my actors…with a kind of joy and love and compassion. I think I’ve always had some…but I think it’s been much more fed by this [meditation practice]. The last one [movie] was a really fabulous experience; we all had a wonderful time, and there was a real sense of community. I tried very hard, too. The director is the one setting that [community] up; you’re the one to establish the tone. And I made a real conscious effort to bring the values that I’m working on in my [mindfulness] practice onto the movie set…
I think a part of it is just coming to the set with a smile every day. You know, be in a good mood. Which, again, I think, as a director affects everybody. Everybody is looking to you to take their cue. So I walk on the set in the morning and I’m smiling, saying ‘Hi’ to everybody, asking how their families are—-kind of rechecking with everybody, and making people feel like they’re part of the family. That energy really starts the whole set to feel like that.
He went on to say that his relations with others at work also became more open. This increased openness to others and their ideas reflected not only an improvement in his relations with others, but also other outcomes of mindfulness that this study uncovered: reduced egotism, greater acceptance, a reduced need for control, and adaptability. “I was able to start communicating about some things that I might have kept inside before. I thought of myself as a very honest, out-‐there person. But what I started to realize was, no, I kept a lot of things to myself.”
Mindfulness helped some interviewees with a particularly difficult aspect of interpersonal relations—-interpersonal conflict. Conflict management is an important management competency (Boyatzis, 1982; Goleman, 1998; Whetten & Cameron, 2007). The director reported that mindfulness made him more open to compromise, and that when things went wrong, he was not antagonistic; he was calm and did not yell at other people.
The improvement in conflict management is not surprising; research showed that mindfulness training reduced conflict in romantic relationships (Hayes, Follette, & Linehan, 2004); increased cooperation (Cloninger, 2006); reduced aggression (Birnbaum, 2005); and that it lessened the grip of rigid, mindless automatic behavior patterns that aggravate conflict (Dumas, 2005). The research has been mixed with regards to the question of whether mindfulness increases empathy (Beddoe & Murphy, 2004; Shapiro, et al., 1998), but it has been mentioned so many times in the literature that we were surprised that empathy was not mentioned by the interviewees.
We started by saying that the goal of this exploratory study was to develop some hypotheses that could be tested in future research or to suggest a conceptual framework. We developed some hypotheses but have not yet seen how the concepts fit together into a conceptual framework. Table one summarizes the effects of mindfulness in the workplace reported by the interviewees in this study.
Thinking about directions for future research about mindfulness in the workplace, an obvious next step would be to test the hypotheses suggested here. Other directions also come to mind. The interviews were unstructured, so follow up structured interviews might be useful for clarifying some of the ideas and relationships that were implied but not described in detail. These interviews would also be good for investigating outcomes that seemed likely but weren’t mentioned. We were surprised, for example, that no one mentioned increased self-‐awareness, which is a major managerial competency (Goleman, 1998; Whetten & Cameron, 2007) and seemed a likely outcome of mindfulness. Finally, we have suggested concepts to explain the outcomes of mindfulness but have not presented a framework that explains the links between these concepts. Developing that would be an important theoretical task.
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Originally presented at the 2008 Academy of Management Annual Meeting Anaheim, CA.