Much of the research demonstrating benefits of mindfulness practice – stable attention, reduced stress, emotional resilience, and improved performance at work – focus on the benefits for the individual practicing mindfulness. But the workplace benefits extend far beyond that: Mindfulness has a huge impact on relationships. We’ve seen this in our work at eMindful, and it’s supported by considerable scientific research.
Humans are relational by nature, and the quality of our relationships deeply influences our health and well-being. The importance of relationships in the work environment is no exception. Satisfaction and performance at work are strongly linked to one’s ability to work well in teams, develop leadership skills, communicate effectively and resolve conflict.
Team performance obviously relies on relationship skills, and mindfulness training that improves these skills affects both the experience and productivity of teams. One study of health care workers found that a mindfulness-based mentoring intervention resulted in better active listening, more patient-focused discussion and collaboration, as well as greater respect among team members. Moreover, the newly learned mindful communication habits seemed to stick; one year later the team members still demonstrated the same skills.
Mindfulness has become particularly popular in the business world as a component of leadership training. CEOs and senior executives have revealed that practicing mindfulness helps build leadership skills, connect to employees and achieve business goals. Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini explains the role of mindfulness practice in his daily routine: “Every day I get up at 5:30 to do my practice, because I know I’m heading into a chaotic world… and unless I can bring myself to that environment in a steady, mindful way and be present in the moment, I can’t help the people around me and lead them.”
Bertolini’s personal experience is validated by formal research. One study showed that leaders’ mindfulness was associated with employees’ work-life balance, job satisfaction, and job performance. In that same study, employees of mindful leaders also experienced less exhaustion and burnout. The researchers attributed these findings to leaders being more attentive to and aware of employees’ needs, while self-regulating their own impulses and personal agendas.
Studies confirm the idea that mindful leaders are more attuned to their employees’ nonverbal communication, body language and emotions. In one study, more mindful individuals were better able to recognize the emotions displayed on others’ faces. In fact, it is not uncommon for leaders who complete mindfulness training to say communication feels somehow different, like they are truly listening to their employees for the first time.
Communication, conflict management
Much of the improvement in teamwork likely stems from improvement in communication skills and conflict management. Research suggests mindfulness is associated with better conflict management, with less aggressive communication, and better perspective-taking. During conflicts, people who rate higher in mindfulness have been shown to exhibit more positivity in interpersonal interactions, fewer inappropriate reactions, and less hostility. Mindfulness leads people to process events and feedback in a less self-referential or personal way, which fosters greater attention to group outcomes over self-concerns.
In a study of groups without leaders, teams that were randomized to a short mindfulness exercise had better scores on measurements of team bonding, and they performed better as well. These mindfulness-enhanced skills are helpful not only in better teamwork, but also in enhancing negotiation. One study showed that negotiators randomized to a short mindfulness intervention were more successful in distributive bargaining.
Mindfulness may improve negotiations and team functioning by affecting the emotional tone (positivity vs. negativity) of the team. Since mindful individuals tend to be less reactive to negative events, and recover from negative emotions more quickly, they can influence the collective mood and reduce emotional contagion – the tendency for “negative people” to “bring down” the mood of the group. By practicing focused, kind attention and skillful self-management, mindful people tend to influence through example, engaging and inspiring others.
In summary, practicing mindfulness yields personal benefits, and it can benefit everyone around you. Leaders who practice mindfulness listen differently and communicate more carefully. One result is that they have employees who are more productive and report better job satisfaction. Since mindfulness leads to less reactivity, greater focus on others’ needs, and overall positivity, practicing mindfulness also enhances teamwork through better perspective-taking and more skillful self-management. In my personal experience as a coach, clinician and academic researcher, mindfulness makes working relationships more enjoyable and productive. I’m delighted that research is beginning to confirm how the impact of mindfulness on relationships contributes to better business outcomes.
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