The traditionally Eastern practice of mindfulness is becoming more and more common in Western business settings. A number of Fortune 500 organizations such as General Mills, Apple, Prudential, eBay, Aetna, Target, Proctor & Gamble, Google, and even the U.S. Marines offer mindfulness programs to their employees. It is not unusual to see articles on mindfulness in Forbes and on the Harvard Business Review Blog. While mindfulness in the workplace is increasingly accepted, this also means a growing body of information—and therefore potential misunderstanding and confusion—around the topic. So what does it mean to be mindful, and how exactly is mindfulness relevant to the workplace? What are the benefits of being mindful, and what evidence do we have to support this? This is the first in a series of blog posts that will provide answers to these questions.
Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts is widely credited with bringing mindfulness into the American mainstream in the late 1970s. His definition of mindfulness consists of two parts: moment-to-moment awareness of our current experience, and acceptance of the experience that is unfolding. Acceptance in this context does not mean you approve of or are even comfortable with the experience, but it does mean that you notice what is occurring with a lack of judgment or intervention. In other words, being mindful means that you choose to pay close attention to what is going on in the present, whether it is pleasant or not, without changing anything and without commenting (either out loud or to yourself)—you simply observe. This includes using our senses to take in what is happening outside of us, and noticing what is happening internally, like our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations.
Much of the time, many of us are not mindful. Instead, we are distracted from a direct experience of the present moment and instead are thinking about the past or the future, or we impose stories and judgments on the current experience and those involved with it, including ourselves.
Imagine you are in a meeting, a common scenario at work. Are you mentally a million miles away, thinking about how well your presentation went yesterday? Trying to decide what the heck you are going to do for dinner later? Do you find that you have a running internal commentary while others speak? “That proposal can’t possibly work.” “Tim’s idea is the best one.” Do you respond in a knee-jerk fashion to reactions you have, like interrupting when you get excited or checking out of the conversation when you get annoyed? Or, are you listening—really listening—to each person as she speaks, with full attention and curiosity? Are you able to notice and identify your internal reactions, your thoughts as well as your feelings, as they happen? Do you pause and reflect before responding thoughtfully to what others have said?
No matter how mindful you are today, it turns out that mindfulness is a skill that can be developed and strengthened, just like learning a language or running every day to improve your physical fitness. And among people who practice mindfulness, a wide range of benefits have been documented that are highly relevant to workplace performance, such as:
- Higher emotional intelligence, which has in turn been linked to stronger leadership effectiveness and improved business results
- Greater focus and ability to stay on task and enhanced memory for details of a task, as well as less fatigue and a better mood after task completion
- Improved mental well-being, such as reduced stress, anxiety, and depression
- Improved physical well-being, such as lower blood pressure and blood glucose, and strengthening of the immune system.
In addition to these benefits, adopting a mindful mindset is at the heart of leadership development. This will be the topic of the next blog post in the series.