Current thinking about mindfulness assumes that promoting mindfulness in organizations will have beneficial effects for those organizations—but while experience shows that mindfulness may increase the resilience of an individual, other broader outcomes are not guaranteed.
However, when tailored for an organization and shaped by an understanding of effective work design, mindfulness may well provide benefits not only for individuals within an organization, but for its work teams and the organization as a whole.
A New Organizational Awareness
As a result, a variety of mindfulness-based training has been developed for workplaces and for specific target audiences, such as managers. These training programs vary greatly in length and modes of delivery (apps, webinars, in-person) to meet the demands and budgets of organizations. In addition to formal training, a number of informal practices have been developed that foster mindfulness at work: mindful communication, mindful emailing, even mindful transition between tasks.
The general approach to workplace mindfulness is one of promotion in the hope that it will have beneficial effects for employees and their employers. Primary amongst those hopes is that mindfulness-based initiatives are effective in reducing stress and increasing resilience. In addition, there is some thought that such initiatives can promote mental health, and even help to minimize mental illness. Understandably, organizations are interested to understand the ability of mindfulness to enable employees and leaders to thrive and be effective in the work environment.
It is important to note, however, that an organization must be ready for the introduction of mindfulness practices. For example, there is an emerging debate about whether it is wise, or even ethical, to offer mindfulness training if its primary purpose is to address some of the serious problems of modern workplaces such as excessive workloads or poor management. That said, in many situations, organizational mindfulness can at least help an organization to improve how it operates.
Moving Mindfulness from Individual to Organization
Why should mindfulness practice produce significant changes in workplace experience or lead to better organizational outcomes? It seems unlikely that simply encouraging people to practice mindfulness could greatly change the effects of the pressure to perform, or of dysfunctional leadership. Similarly, can we be sure that introducing mindfulness to work environments characterized by blame or even bullying would make a difference to that culture? The answer depends in part on whether mindfulness is incorporated beyond the individual level to the team or organization level.
We can certainly imagine mindfulness practices and skills among team members that could affect team and organization processes and outcomes. These might include such benefits as reduced conflict, improved working relationships, greater awareness of errors or problems in work processes, and ultimately improved team productivity.
We must also take into account how organizational factors might impact these outcomes.
For example, the potential benefit for teams or organizations where many individuals are practising mindfulness will be impacted by the extent to which there is:
- a clear, shared purpose,
- a good value fit between individuals and the organization overall, and
- a supportive and authentic leadership.
Mindfulness and Shared Purpose
In this light, one could define team or organizational mindfulness as “collectively paying attention to the team experiences and their underlying objectives, tasks, roles and structures, in a consistent and non-judgmental way.” Experience has shown that through a sustained collective awareness of purpose, performance, processes and problems, teams are better able to ensure effective team functioning.
Just as one returns to the present moment in the practice of individual mindfulness, so mindful teams will repeatedly turn their attention to purpose and performance.
This allows team members to be more aware of the dynamics of their team, and more capable of adopting appropriate team structures and processes in the areas of decision-making, conflict management and overall people management.
Finally, we need to understand how supportive and mindful leadership can lead to important benefits for organizations, including creating the conditions for team productivity and innovation.
Compassionate leadership can help to create the conditions for altruism and intrinsic motivation, as well as for the development of other important characteristics such as risk-taking, speaking openly about errors, concerns and problems, developing better ways of completing tasks, and even for creating a climate of optimism, efficacy and cohesion in teams.
Of Panaceas and Potential
In addition to developing increased mindfulness in individuals, it is expected that employers will begin to better understand the need for programs incorporating team and organizational mindfulness in all of its aspects.
Meanwhile, given the need to further broaden our understanding of mindfulness in organizations, we must keep in mind the humble acknowledgement that we only know so much—and that offering training in mindfulness simply as a panacea for modern workplace problems will not be successful.
Taken to heart and applied to greater organizational purpose, it is far more likely to lift all boats and bottom lines. Only in this way can mindfulness in organizations live up to its promise and potential.
Published in: PeopleTalk Winter 2019