When I tell people that I am conducting research on mindfulness, I often get frowns. “You are supposed to be a serious academic. How can you be involved into this wishy-washy, spiritual stuff?” After very mindfully accepting my frustration I accept this feedback and explain. True … mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist spirituality and true … for some mindfulness is considered the path to enlightenment. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with that … I focus on mindfulness as a psychological tool that was originally used in clinical settings (hospitals, therapy) and is now increasingly finding its way into business. I also focus on mindfulness as it has been researched in academia and where its value has been confirmed on outcomes such as physical well-being (e.g. people with chronic back pain), mental well-being (e.g. life satisfaction), behavioral self-regulation (e.g. intrinsic motivation), and interpersonal interactions (e.g. less defensive to feedback). For a nice overview of previous research on mindfulness see Brown, Ryan, & Creswell (2007).
Here however I want to highlight the role of mindfulness in terms of leadership and more specifically authentic leadership. A recent study by myself Frederik Anseel (Ugent), Luc Sels (KUL), and Nicol Dimitrova (VU Amsterdam) that was published in Journal of Vocational Behavior demonstrates that mindfulness enhances work engagement (the dedication and energy one has for their job) and that these effects can be better understood through being authentic. Let me clarify with an example. Suppose this afternoon you are doing a work-related activity you do not particularly appreciate (for me that would be administration, for others that might be something else). Before I engage in that activity however I try maintain an open and receptive attention (=mindfulness). I will try to look at this activity at though this was the first time I did this. That curiosity increases the likelihood that I will re-appreciate the activity and become more engaged in it. Furthermore, it will help me realize that -deep down inside- I really do not want to be doing this. Becoming aware of this automatic reaction (= your true self), noticing it and eventually consciously choosing to engage in the activity will also enhance your engagement because it is your conscious choice, your own decision.
Let’s look at another example that may be easier to highlight the nuances. Suppose I offer you one M&M and I ask you to eat this mindfully: discovering all of the unique aspects that this M&M has to offer. Try it! Take an M&M and eat it in no less that 5 minutes discovering its texture, flavour, and yes even sound, … (FYI this is a typical mindfulness exercise except there they usually do it with a raisin). I wanna bet that you will be more engaged in that activity then when you eat a bag of M&M’s on automatic pilot while watching TV. You get absorbed in the activity, forgetting time and place, eager to find out what else this M&M has to offer, experiencing intense joyment at this simple but intrisically motivating activity. The state that you are in is what we call “being in the flow”.
Ok M&M’s are ok, but what about brussel sprouts (assuming that -contrary to myself- few people like this). When we learn children to eat Brussel sprouts we urge them on to “try it”, see what if has to offer, even if our automatic response is to reject it because of the bitter taste. The more we try it however an remain open to it, the more likely we are to “internalize” it, make it part of who we are and our preferences. This is our natural tendency to adaptation and integration. Unfortunately, the wisdom we instil on our children however is not something that we necessarily also practice ourselves. So if you as a leader want your followers to become more engaged about the “harder parts” of your job (seeing them as challenges rather than hindrances) you had best display that openness yourself, not delegating those things down that you find less intrinsically motivating.
There is good news in this study for those people who are still skeptical about sitting on a cushion every day to meditate. We also found that mindfulness has beneficial effects regardless of a mindfulness training. Indeed … some of us are already more mindful before they even considered meditating. Some of us walk, run, cook, listen to music, sit in a sauna, … to allow time to “come to ourselves”. Truth be told however: a 10-minute meditation is way more efficient than a 3 hour walk on the beach. Recent research looks at the effects of these mindfulness-shots (for example we demonstrate in another study that the M&M-exercise I had you engage in earlier enhances your creativity). For those still not convinced, take a look at another study that is “hot from the presses”. A mindfulness shot can make sure you get more money out of your next job negotiation (Rebb & Narayanan, in press).
Curious for your thoughts on this.
Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2007). Mindfulness : Theoretical Foundations and Evidence for its Salutary Effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18(4), 211–237.
Leroy, H., Anseel, F., Dimitrova, N., & Sels L. (in press). Mindfulness, Authentic Functioning, and Work Engagement: A Growth Modeling Approach. Journal of Vocational Behavior
Rebb, J. & Narayanan, J. (in press) Mindfully Eating Raisins Improves Negotiation Success: The Effect of Mindfulness on Negotiation Performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision processes