Learning more about the science of meditation in the workplace

At first glance, mindfulness and business don’t seem to have much in common. So why are the nation’s most innovative business schools—including Wharton, Stanford, Harvard and a few select others—devoting so much attention to it? Could it be because a number of convincing studies confirm that meditation is good for leaders, good for job success, and good for company culture?

When considering mindfulness, business, and success, you might begin by taking a closer look at what is meant by “success.” Indeed, “How do you define success?” is a standard MBA admission interview question. To your mind, does “success” include well-being, life balance, and fulfilling relationships, or is it first and foremost about money in the bank?

According to NYU Stern School of Business Professor Scott Galloway, author of the popular book The Algebra of Happiness, “Most people coming out of business school reach what most people would call success in terms of their position, career, opportunities, and income level. However, I believe there is a huge difference between success and happiness, and there is no perfect correlation between success and happiness.”

When we can inform our success with well-being, it changes everything.

As president of Stonemark Construction Management in Southern California and founder and Chief Meditation Officer of Mindworks, Bart Mendel works with people from all walks of life. An internationally acclaimed meditation teacher, Bart says that some of the most prosperous executives and entrepreneurs he’s met are also some of the least fulfilled when it comes to their personal lives. Bart has first-hand knowledge of meditation’s ability to bring more balance, self-knowledge and purpose to a hectic, C-level life. He teaches the importance of cultivating both one’s own well-being and that of others: “When we can inform our success with well-being, it changes everything. We begin to see every aspect of our lives as a tapestry, with the thread of benefit interwoven. How do I benefit myself and others in every situation? With this being-of-benefit manifesto, success becomes more of a process than a goal.”

For leaders and entrepreneurs, there are two distinct and overlapping advantages to meditating: personal fulfillment and the development of the professional qualities that spell success. Bart developed his Mindworks Course The Mindful Executive with both outcomes in mind. But before diving in, you may be interested in learning more about the science of meditation in the workplace.

A comprehensive overview of the leadership qualities that are enhanced by workplace mindfulness training (WMT) is presented by a European team in their 2019 article Mindful Leader Development: How Leaders Experience the Effects of Mindfulness Training on Leader Capabilities as presented in Frontiers in Psychology. The authors reference many studies and go on to report the outcomes of their own WMT experiment. One very interesting observation was that not one of the participants in the 10-week course noted any adverse effects—the training was a positive experience for all.

The authors point out that some of the qualities that effective leaders must acquire include self-awareness and an ability to regulate and manage emotions, both their own and those of others, since leader behaviors tend to color the tone of the workplace. They maintain that it is important to acknowledge that the actions of leaders have a great impact on the job satisfaction and general well-being of those around them. They provide strong evidence that leadership qualities are naturally enhanced by meditation. “Our outcomes suggest that leaders improved three self-leadership capacities: mindful task management, self-care and self-reflection, and two leadership capacities: relating to others and adapting to change,” they conclude.

An article published in the Harvard Business Review called Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain looks at two areas of the brain that are “of particular interest to business professionals.” Both are positively impacted by mindfulness. The anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with self-regulation, is demonstrably more active in meditators than non-meditators. This part of the brain is also linked to learning from past successes and failures and applying conclusions to new situations, a crucial skill in decision-making, especially in these fast-paced, unpredictable times.

Meditation has been shown to positively impact the brain in a number of ways, and the hippocampus is the other region that the authors of the HBR article have singled out. It seems that a healthy hippocampus helps regulate stress and bolsters resilience—also especially important for business executives—and that meditation nurtures the hippocampus.

“While more research is needed to document these changes over time and to understand underlying mechanisms, the converging evidence is compelling,” they conclude. “Mindfulness should no longer be considered a ‘nice-to-have’ for executives. It’s a ‘must-have’: a way to keep our brains healthy, to support self-regulation and effective decision-making capabilities, and to protect ourselves from toxic stress.”

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A third article that grabbed us was recently published in [email protected] Mindfulness Can Help Unlock Your Company’s Collective Intelligence takes a look at how meditation can have a positive impact on company culture. Here the authors have found that even short mindfulness breaks—as little as 7 or 8 minutes at a time—increase empathy and the ability to put oneself in one’s co-worker’s shoes. This contributes to collective intelligence, and collective intelligence contributes to a positive and effective work environment.

“By increasing self-awareness and empathy, mindfulness impacts two areas that directly promote collective intelligence,” the authors write. These are:
• “Communication and Prosocial Behavior: Team members who embrace mindfulness are better listeners and can react in an emotionally intelligent way when tension or disagreement arises. Their style of interaction encourages other team members to speak up and participate in creative processes and allows them to integrate their diverse cognitive styles.
• “Leadership: Mindfulness training helps leaders improve their ability to self-reflect. Mindfulness is also associated with important leadership capacities such as flexibility, authenticity, and humbleness.”

In conclusion, whether meditation is practiced by executives on their own or integrated into company culture, the personal and collective benefits are truly compelling.