This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center.
After reviewing the pieces I have previously written over the years for the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center, mindfulness seems to be a constant theme. I mentioned it when discussing burnout in the workplace. I also introduced the practice as a tool to enhance active listening. Therefore, I would like to expand upon the practice to further discuss how it could positively impact organizations. Specifically, mindfulness can facilitate empathy and cognitive flexibility, both of which are key to enhancing employee engagement and improving organizational workplaces.
Kabat-Zinn (2003) defined mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment” and exercising nonjudgment of the experience, moment by moment (p. 145). Chiesa and Serretti (2009) defined mindfulness as “the development of a particular kind of attention, characterized by a non-judgmental awareness, openness, curiosity, and acceptance of internal and external present experiences” (p. 593). In sum, mindfulness is the awareness of accepting each present moment as it unfolds without passing judgment on the experience, receiving whatever presents itself within that instance. Mindfulness is developed through practices like breathwork, meditation, and yoga.
Previous scholarship has investigated the relationship between empathy and mindfulness (e.g. Birnie, Speca, & Carlson, 2010; Wei, Liao, Ku, & Schaffer, 2011). Empathy is having the ability to understand the experience, emotions, and feelings of the other (Wei et al., 2011). Wei et al. (2011) determined that empathy is a significant mediator between attachment avoidance and subjective well-being, where mindfulness can help establish higher attachment levels. Specifically, those with higher levels of attachment avoidance will be more likely to demonstrate low empathy for others, and those who demonstrate secure attachments are more likely to be empathetic and exhibit an increase in the subjective well-being. Bernie et al. (2010) also examined empathy with 51 participants who participated in an eight-week MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) program. After completion of the program, the participants showed an increase in self-compassion, spirituality, mindfulness, and perspective-taking.
Enhancing Cognitive Flexibility
Cognitive flexibility is one way to further define perspective-taking since the skill helps a person understand that, in any situation, there are alternatives available (Martin, Staggers, & Anderson, 2011). People who exercise cognitive flexibility are willing to entertain another viewpoint that may differ from their own. Cognitive flexibility reduces dogmatism or close-mindedness and develops the ability to not only believe other options exist but also consider the options viable (Martin et al., 2011). Cognitive flexibility can also lead to the development of participatory work environments rooted in trust from all levels in the organization. Participatory leadership requires vulnerability as top management relinquishes control and places more power in the hands of employees across the organization (Raes et al., 2011).
Given the connection between mindfulness, empathy, and cognitive flexibility, providing employees with tools on how to incorporate and apply mindfulness techniques in the workplace could lead to cultivating greater employee engagement. This is especially true for management as they enhance both empathy and cognitive flexibility. Employees value supportive managers who are willing to listen to different viewpoints, which requires cognitive flexibility and perspective-taking on the manager’s part. Therefore, mindfulness training and consistent practice could be an untapped resource to enhance the employee experience.
1.) Start a mindfulness practice today, even if it is 5 minutes. This could include traditional meditation (body scan, open awareness, breath), walking meditation, eating meditation, or movement like easy yoga. The key is to get started and to make the practice become a habit.
2.) There are great apps available such as the Interval Timer, which is free, or the Calm app, which is roughly $60 a year. Both are great resources, and I use the Calm app almost daily.
3.) From there, journal your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations after the meditation. This will help you recognize your habitualized thoughts or feelings that may or may not be limiting your experience.
I hope you consider adopting a mindfulness practice. It has the potential to transform how each of us interacts with the world around us by enhancing our cognitive flexibility and enriching our ability to empathize with others.
Birnie, K., Speca, M., & Carlson, L. E. (2010). Exploring self-compassion and empathy in the context of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Stress and Health. Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com)
Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: A review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15, 593-600.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future, Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 125-143.
Martin, M. M., Staggers, S. M., & Anderson, C. M. (2011). The relationships between cognitive flexibility with dogmatism, intellectual flexibility, preference for consistency, and self-compassion. Communication Research Reports, 28, 275-289.
Laura L. Lemon, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations. She can be reached at email@example.com.