Regular mindfulness practice underpins stronger and more effective interpersonal relationships, argues Imperial College Business School's Laura J Noval.
In recent years, the use of mindfulness, particularly in a corporate setting, has risen exponentially. What originated as a Buddhist practice has now become a frequently used tool for individuals and organisations alike to relieve stress, alleviate anxiety, and improve one’s mood.
Defined in Western psychology as a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, mindfulness has also been said to foster positive interpersonal behaviour. Similarly, there is a growing belief among mindfulness advocates that its long-term use can increase an individual’s empathy and compassion.
In today’s workplace, the necessity of sustained interaction with colleagues, customers, employers and other stakeholders makes positive interpersonal behaviour vital. It’s because of this that we need to understand whether, and how, mindfulness can affect our behaviour in the workplace, and if it truly can help foster more positive interpersonal relationships.
Mindfulness increases ‘prosocial’ behaviour
When we talk about interactions between colleagues in the workplace, we must acknowledge a core component of this: prosocial behaviour – behaviour that is positive, helpful, and intended to promote mutual trust. In understanding the role of mindfulness at work, I, along with a number of other academics, undertook research into whether its use increased prosocial behaviour in the workplace, and work-related contexts.
Our research was broken down into five studies, which took place across different sectors and geographical regions. Participants were split into two groups: one taking part in mindfulness exercises while listening to an accompanying eight-minute recording, while the other did not take part in mindfulness exercises and instead listened to an alternative recording. Both groups were asked to listen to their recordings, and the mindfulness group performed the mindfulness exercises, at the start of the day.
A more compassionate workforce
In the first four studies, we found that mindfulness made employees more helpful, compassionate and generous. These ranged (in the first and second studies) from assessing the workplace behaviour of participants in a US-based insurance company call centre, and an Indian IT consultancy, to evaluating the participants’ generosity and empathy by asking full-time employees, recruited through the alumni mailing list of a South Asian business school, if they were prepared to give away some of their bonus to a co-worker in need.
Finally, in the fifth study we compared the impact of a general mindfulness intervention with one that was specifically dedicated to raising empathy and compassion (loving kindness meditation). We found that, in both cases, the mindfulness exercises lead to prosocial, and ultimately compassionate, behaviour.
Barriers to interpersonal relationships
From our research, it’s clear that mindfulness increases different types of prosocial behaviour, and so can have a positive impact on interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Whether it’s being more friendly and helpful, or compassionate and generous, mindfulness fosters better relationships between employees.
Its use in a corporate setting becomes all the more important when we acknowledge the fact that the current workplace does very little to promote prosocial behaviour and successful interpersonal relationships.
Numerous factors, from time constraints which place employees under great pressure to focus on themselves, to workplace competition between colleagues, present barriers to effective interpersonal relationships, encouraging behaviour that’s inherently self-centred. Mindfulness is evidently well-placed to help colleagues overcome these barriers, not only by improving the practitioner's internal mood, but also by helping to regulate and enhance their relationships.
It’s because of this that I hope my research will set an example to employers, and to employees, highlighting the value of using these practices in the workplace. Simply by starting their morning with a few short and simple exercises (seven minutes' worth will do the trick) employees can set themselves up for a day in which their mood is better, and their behaviour is more compassionate and helpful, leading to ultimately stronger and more effective interpersonal relationships with their counterparts.
Laura J Noval is an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Imperial College Business School.
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