Sankalp Chaturvedi Imperial College

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Mindfulness is a very important skill for all employees, especially leaders, to practice if they want to succeed in business

Mindfulness: the new buzzword gaining traction among practitioners seeking to create a positive culture in business. Have you wondered what it is and where it originated? There are several nuanced ways to understand the concept. Its origins are deeply rooted in eastern contemplative traditions, such as Buddhism, where it is considered an essential element of the road to enlightenment – the vehicle if you like. Fair enough, you may think, elements of Eastern philosophy have been popular for decades: the Beatles’ music was laced with strains of the sitar; Yoga and Tai Chi are mainstream fitness techniques; and Feng Shui is practiced in offices and homes alike.

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As you hear the term mindfulness being bandied about with increasing frequency, you may write it off as a fad: another example of quasi-spiritual mumbo jumbo creeping into the everyday lexicon; an affectation favoured by would-be hippies in Silicon Valley (where Eastern philosophy sits alongside a preponderance of Indian talent). Because, yes indeed, big tech companies are getting in on the act. The likes of Facebook and Instagram can be found in attendance at Wisdom 2.0 mindfulness conferences, the CEO of Salesforce is a meditation enthusiast, Intel has a mindfulness programme, while Google has – get this – a head of mindfulness training.

You’ve heard all of this, and sure, that’s all fine and good for these gargantuan West Coast operations, but what about in the real world? What use is mindfulness to the hard-working, everyday employee who needs to get by in day-to-day reality? Who lives and dies by their results? Who just does not have the time to be mindful?

You’ll be working with a bunch of unhappy people who hate their jobs, and quite possibly you

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Well, we’ll get back to that, because if that sounds like you, you are exactly the kind of person who could use a bit of mindfulness in their life. But first, we need to convince you of its value; luckily, there is academic research in this area – even more luckily, much of it involving yours truly. I have been fortunate to be involved in this stream of research for the last 12 years.

In one study, we hypothesised that, if a leader within an organisation was mindful, this would have a positive effect on not just the job and need satisfaction of their reports, but also on employee performance and their willingness to go above and beyond their role description (often described as ‘citizenship behaviours’). I’m sure that, by this stage, you can anticipate perfectly well that we found this hypothesis to be borne out by our research.

By “leader”, we are not simply talking about the figurehead holding the position at the highest level, but those at every level of the organisation who are responsible for creating changes in the lives of any number of people. The relationships we identified were significant: reports with more mindful leaders had lower levels of emotional exhaustion, better work-life balance, showed lower levels of counterproductive deviance, and – this is the one for the sceptics – scored higher in performance metrics.

If you think about what mindfulness actually entails, these findings make perfect sense. Mindfulness is to be both attentive (in the moment, paying specific attention to a thing, a person or content) and aware (to where you are – the environment), without judgement. To put it simply, in this context, it’s about being in the ‘here and now’ in your interactions with others. Do this, and they will naturally feel valued and respected, a greater sense of interpersonal justice. And what do those who are valued and trusted do? They do a better job, they care more and they’re less likely to leave the organisation. Hey, they might even have something to which it is worth listening to say to you too (and when they’ve got something questionable to say, it’s worth being present enough to see and understand why).

What use is mindfulness to the hard-working, everyday employee who needs to get by in day-to-day reality?

And the converse, therefore, is that if you are not present in your relationships, your organisation will suffer a pejoration of employee performance, a loss of talent, and – quite simply – you’ll be working with a bunch of unhappy people who hate their jobs, and quite possibly you.

This becomes more important the higher up the hierarchy you go, as complexity increases. Don’t think it just works one way though, because another study in my research stream found that more mindful employees were more likely to be considered by their supervisors to perform at higher level. So, you can begin to see the effect it has at multiple levels.

Here though, let’s consider for a minute the reason we are discussing mindfulness at this present moment. And that is because of the time in which we live, in which we are faced with an unprecedented amount of information from an equally unprecedented number of sources. We hardly need to spell out the various things competing for our attention; how can you be expected to concentrate on a single thing when the phone in your pocket alone might be the conduit to five different social media accounts, three email addresses, your diary, the entire pantheon of Western music, and even the potential that some old-school person could call you (though remember that owning your own tiny personal portable telephone has only been become de rigueur this century).

Here are two stats for you to consider: in 2007, more knowledge/information was contained in a week’s worth of The New York Times than the average person had access to in their entire life in the entire 18th century (known for, among other things, a little something called the Enlightenment). And between the start of the 2000 and 2012, studies measuring the average human’s ability to concentrate on one thing have shown that said metric fell from 12 to eight seconds. To put that into context, a goldfish can manage nine seconds. And these are old stats: we are approaching 2018 now!

Remember that owning your own tiny personal portable telephone has only been become de rigueur this century

While our social media accounts sprawl out into hundreds or thousands of people, you must ask yourself: what do these relationships mean? Of what do they even consist? Why have all this information if you cannot retain it?

And this is where mindfulness comes into the equation. If you were wondering when we were going to address the point made in the title, here it is. Stop trying to do everything at once. We associate multitasking with efficiency and productivity, when really that is not the case. Modern work is complex and has the potential to cause stress and emotional exhaustion as it is; engaging in some mindful practice can be the antidote. Do one thing at a time, cutting out distraction, do it well, then move on to the next when you’re ready. This practice, combined with your improved listening skills (to people you respect and rely upon, remember), your appreciation of things around you, that is how you get things done. Learn to breathe… pause… and then act.

Perhaps we are too preoccupied by ‘doing’; western leadership research tends to reflect this. We might do better to look to the East and focus instead on ‘being’, which is far more conversant with mindfulness. Part of being is to be attentive to the task and yourself, and to be aware of what is going on around you. This will spur interpersonal sensitivity and the concomitant consideration of others.

Too busy? The only thing you’ll be too busy to do is succeed.

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About Dr Sankalp Chaturvedi

Dr Sankalp Chaturvedi is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Leadership at Imperial College Business School. He is also currently leading the Gandhi Centre for Inclusive Innovation at Imperial, and teaches on Executive Education programmes.

His research is primarily focused on leadership, mindfulness, organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB) and interpersonal trust. Specifically, he is interested in the role of both psychological and contextual factors associated with understanding and motivating leaders and followers at the work place.

Sankalp Chaturvedi

About Sankalp Chaturvedi

Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Leadership
Sankalp Chaturvedi is an Associate Professor (Organisational Behavior & Leadership) at Imperial College Business School. Currently, Sankalp is also leading the Gandhi Centre within the School. He holds a PhD from the NUS Business School, National University of Singapore. Prior to his PhD, he completed a Masters in Human Resource Development and Management from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (India) and a Bachelors in Engineering from RAU, Udaipur (India).

The central focus of Sankalp’s research is in the areas of leadership, mindfulness, interpersonal trust and organizational citizenship behavior (OCB). Broadly, he is interested in the role of both psychological factors (motivational orientations ) and situational factors (e.g., leadership, trust). His articles have been published in many journals, including the Journal of Applied Psychology, Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, Strategic Management Journal, Leadership Quarterly, Journal of Management, Journal of Vocational Behavior and Entrepreneurship Theory & Practice.