Organizations have recognized the promise of mindfulness to improve performance. They provide courses to teach mindfulness meditation to give employees tools to promote clear thinking and manage stress and burn-out. Those efforts are most effective when they are part of a broader program that recognizes that mindfulness has profound effects on individuals.
Mindfulness is the capacity to objectively observe everything that is going on externally and internally while being fully immersed in it. Mindfulness-based meditation increases concentration, objectivity, and attention, while reducing stress and anxiety. It is a foundation for emotional intelligence and healthy relationships.
But it is not a magic pill cure-all. It takes more than mindfulness to sustain more effective working and living. And it takes more than a course to integrate mindfulness into the organizational culture. There are limitations and potential side effects.
It Takes Time, Effort, and Values
Organizations want greater mindfulness to promote stress relief, enhanced performance, and increase healthy collaboration. However, studies(1) show that mindfulness without positive values has a limited impact on prosocial behavior, the kind of behavior that benefits others. They also show that there may be side effects like anxiety, depression, and disassociation without an integrated approach.
Obstacles to optimal performance like unhealthy habits, biases, attachments, aversions, conditioning, and neuroses can take decades (or even lifetimes) to fully dissolve. They do not just disappear because you mindfully observe them. To address them requires an integrated approach in a program that includes mindfulness training as one of several strands. To be truly effective, mindfulness must be intertwined with:
- Meaningful intention
- Realistic expectations
- Understanding the realities of interdependence, continuous change, and cause and effect
- Concentration to enable focus and calm
- Effort to patiently persevere
- Values based behavior
Intentions and expectations must be meaningful and realistic. Otherwise, side effects like stress, disappointment and anxiety may get in the way. Mindfulness practice can even become another challenging chore. A sense of failure can step in when expected dramatic change does not occur or unexpected barriers repeatedly arise.
Intentions magnify and focus the effects of meditation. Mindfulness meditation is a means to the end of fulfilling intentions. Organizations implement mindfulness-based programs to improve performance, reduce stress, enhance focus, and to promote employee happiness, health, resilience, and adaptability.
Some individuals want to better understand the way their mind works and to transform their behavior. Some want to experience deep calm, clarity, unconditional compassion, loving kindness, contentment, joy. Some want to express those qualities as service and optimal performance.
There is no conflict between efforts to improve our performance, psychological, and "spiritual" intentions. They are all interrelated. The intention to use meditation as a performance enhancer or feel-good technique – meditation as medication – can lead to the discovery of the psychological and spiritual possibilities – meditation for liberation. The benefits of psychological and spiritual intentions include performance improvement.
What are your intentions and are your expectations realistic?
Realistic expectations assist us in avoiding unnecessary stress. Some leaders expect that by implementing mindfulness training their employees will be able to work harder and longer. They may be disappointed. For example, when they find that mindful awareness opens some employees’ eyes to the need to work fewer hours under less stressful demands. Or those instances when individuals do not implement what they have learned. Expecting that training alone will do the trick is unrealistic. A sustained program is needed.
Here are ten realistic expectations that should be addressed in any mindfulness program:
- Old habits take time, motivation, and effort to change
- Mindful awareness applies everywhere and while doing anything
- Formal practice is important, moment to moment practice is essential
- Patience, effort, support, and self-acceptance are needed
- Mindfulness meditation is not for everyone
- There can be increasing periods of calm, clarity, and flow
- Thoughts and feelings will not stop
- One’s relationship to thoughts and feelings will change
- Mindfulness-based practices may produce anxiety and cause depression or anger as one becomes aware of previously unconscious thoughts and feelings
- ‘Allowing’ everything; obstacles are a source of learning, an opportunity for self-growth
Pacifying the Old Stressors
Mindful self-awareness results in a change of the relationship with one’s sense of self and to the thoughts and feelings that define it. As the relationship with thoughts and feelings changes, stressors will lose their impact. Practitioners become responsive rather than reactive. They stop automatically grasping at things they like, pushing away what they don't like and ignoring everything else. They cultivate accepting, observing, and learning from their experience.
Mindfulness meditation works best to achieve intended benefits when it is combined with relaxation training, sustained effort, wisdom, clear intention, realistic expectations, and behavioral change. Paradoxically, this effort then becomes an effortless and natural part of organizational life.
George Pitagorsky’s mission is to guide people to create healthy, happy, and highly effective teams, organizations, and communities. He has decades of experience as a globally recognized project, program and process management expert, teacher, and technology executive. His experience includes six years as CIO for a multi-billion-dollar government agency, and as a principle in a technology start-up. As Director of Program Development George brings over ten years of experience in that role for an international learning organization.