Can mindfulness improve how we work?

Back in the 90s, I learned to meditate. I was in college, getting my psychology degree at the time. Meditation caught my interest because of all the research being done on the mind-body connection. This was 20 years ago, so the mind-body research was a hot area. Meditation was being studied as a way to change certain qualities of your mind, such as cutting down on your anxiety or stress level, to see if that might affect your body's health and well-being. Researchers continue to study meditation and its affect on a person's physical health. They also study meditation's effect on our emotional and mental states such as compassion or resilience. It's a fascinating area of research.

Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff via Compfight

Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff via Compfight

Aside from improving physical health and overall well-being, meditation practice has applications to performance at work. Particularly, developing our ability to concentrate along with developing qualities of mindfulness may help us to make better decisions at work, increase our motivation to improve, work more efficiently, and also manage our relationships more effectively.

Mindfulness is a specific quality that can be developed intentionally by a person -- most often through a regular meditation practice. It basically entails: holding your attention focused on the present moment; being aware of your feelings, your thoughts and sensations without judging; observing others and their behavior, actions, etc, without judging.

The power of focus: concentration

Many meditators report that daily meditation practice improves their ability to concentrate. Anyone in any job would probably agree that a stronger ability to concentrate would help with their productivity and performance at work. Case in point: as a parent with young kids, I've seen my ability to focus at work gets weaker when one of my kids is not well. If one of my daughters is getting sick or having a problem at school, it seems like 25% of my attention is occupied for half the day with my kid's well-being. I spend my time thinking, worrying and problem solving, trying to figure out how to help them. It pulls me away from my work somewhat until I can figure out a solution.

You don't need to be a parent with young kids to have this problem of issues from home/family affecting your work. These life stressors can come from anyone close to you, such as as close friend who is struggling with health or financial problems. Or maybe you are caring for aging parents, dealing with personal financial problems, handling relationship problems with a partner or spouse, or grappling with health issues affecting your partner or spouse. We all have these stressors outside of work to deal with, and meanwhile, we have to keep getting stuff done at work. We have to maintain a professional demeanor. So, does mindfulness offer a remedy or a solution to managing the many commitments we have at both work and at home?

In Your Brain at Work, David Rock writes "Maintaining a good focus on a thought occurs not through how much you focus, but rather how you inhibit the wrong things from coming into focus." And this is where developing mindfulness seems to help. Research on experienced meditators show that they have developed added neural circuitry in the pre-frontal lobes of the brain. This enhancement to your pre-frontal lobes is like having a stronger muscle that you can flex; it helps you inhibit "the wrong things from coming into focus" that Rock refers to. The experienced meditators have a neural circuitry that you could say is more efficient than non-meditators. When we have practiced states like "observing without judging" over a period of weeks, months, or years, we change our neural circuitry to become more efficient like these experienced meditators. We limit the power that distracting thoughts have.

Observing without judging

"Observing without judging" is a powerful practice. Many times our judgments about a situation, a person, or problem, are counter productive. Some situations require quick judgment and responses. However for most of us, problems at work are not too clear cut. There's a complex interplay of people and organizational politics, or team dynamics. It is often better to suspend judgment at first and simply observe, reflect, and "sit" with a problem, or with a difficult situation. "Observing without judging" can lead us to draw on intuition to arrive a solution that feels right for the circumstance we're in.

Another application of this "observing without judging" practice is in personal growth. Harvard Business Review recently reported on research showing that the key to success appears to be self-compassion, not self-esteem. To develop self-compassion, you have to get past judging yourself harshly, and you have to show kindness and understanding towards yourself. In To Succeed, Forget Self-Esteem (Harvard Business Review), Heidi Grant Halvorson writes, "When you are self-compassionate in the face of difficulty, you neither judge yourself harshly, nor feel the need to defensively focus on all your awesome qualities to protect your ego." Researchers Juliana Breines and Serena Chen (University of California, Berkeley) found that self-compassion increased a person's motivation to improve and avoid making the same mistake down the road.

I'm excited about these research findings showing links between mindfulness, self-compassion, and work performance. Those of us who want to make our teams and our organizations better have solid research on which to base new training and developmental programs. In particular, I'm excited about helping my people at work to coach more effectively through practicing "observing without judging."

When Google conducted a rigorous internal study on their managers, using data from multiple sources including performance reviews, they found that their best managers were effective coaches. It's clear from Breines and Chen's research that part of coaching a person must include helping the coachee to develop self-compassion, which leads them gently to a motivation to improve. Creating more effective 'coaching managers' at work is just one of many applications of the research. I can't wait to see what other findings come out of this line of research. As I develop new approaches to my work based on this research, I'll be sharing it here on this blog.

Do you receive good coaching at work? Do you provide it? What ties do you see between mindfulness, self-compassion, and effectiveness as a coach or a person being coached at work?