A Trait of Mind: Cultivating a Mindful Workforce

The neuroscience of mindfulness at work: How silencing the mind relates to other predictors of resilience.


Revised terms and conditions of ‘paying attention’

In a world partially isolated and increasingly divided, the societal anchors that instill in us a sense of social safety remain target number one. Change and uncertainty leave the body-brain system vulnerable and unable to solutionize at the necessary pace. The result is a depletion of performance energy and a lowered ability to effectively strategize and execute a plan to get you out of the mess. In the process, relationships and productivity suffer, further exacerbating stress-related fatigue. And because we can neither control the changing world nor perfectly manage the mental (and concomitant physical) suffering that incurs, there has been a revival in admitting and accepting that you, or rather we, are not okay. The default mode does not apply perfectly anymore, and tapping into executive resources to assess what needs to change and how can be challenging and requires additional energy. We have to start paying closer attention, from a different perspective, to ensure that our brains assign the right amount of energy to the right tasks (read this article on High Performance Energy.

The most vital tool at our disposal that enables us to pay closer attention, and to do so in a nonjudgmental way (because it is okay not to be okay), is mindfulness. In recent years, mindfulness has become the new zeitgeist, with a specifically renewed interest in its applications in the business world, thanks to science adding a more credible tone to its reputation. Publications on mindfulness went from less than 100 per year before 2006 to 2808 publications in 2020 alone (Baminiwatta & Solangaarachchi, 2021). But the topic remains novel and mysterious to most, and therefore, closely scrutinized for its value and means of application. There are many ways to practice mindfulness and many different opinions on each of them. Unfortunately, there are also many barriers to the scientific study and measure of mindfulness that we cannot ignore (Van Dam et al., 2018; Young et al., 2018).

These obstacles hinder our ability to integrate the practice as a daily wellness rhythm and as an essential ingredient for team and organizational interconnectivity. And in the process, we risk missing out on the true meaning and gains of mindfulness. This article provides an overview of the neuroscience, benefits, and applications of mindfulness in the context of team and organizational prosperity. 


A ‘Mindful’ Approach to Mindfulness

The founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, Jon Kabat-Zinn, describes mindfulness as: "Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgementally."
It is defined as an awareness of experience characterized by a type of non-activity, in that you are not pursuing what is pleasant nor trying to avoid what is unpleasant. Global spiritual leader, Thich Nhat Hanh, says that “Mindfulness shows us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world. Through mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others.” Considering these definitions, especially the latter, it is easy to state a case for prescribing the maximum dosage of mindfulness to mitigate mental suffering and inform strategies towards deeper connectivity and more effective interpersonal collaboration in the workplace. 

However, the minute we start describing mindfulness as a potential tool ‘towards’ something, albeit improved health, improved emotional resilience, or unlocking high performance, we risk moving away from its true intent of ‘being’ and not ‘doing’. It has been suggested that mindfulness is exploitatively used to gain more productivity out of the workforce which benefits shareholders more than the employees themselves (April & Kantor, 2020), and that its application to build ‘super leaders’ is a misunderstanding of the true meaning of the practice (Sauer and Kohls, 2011). If mindfulness teaches us to accept and not resist difficult emotions in the workplace, it can also be exploited to keep employees accepting of a company’s culture instead of constructively challenging it (Forbes, 2012). 

But in reality, if the implicit ethic of mindfulness is the liberation of sentient beings from suffering, it can just as aptly be described as a tool towards prosperity - even if your idea of ‘prosperity’ relates to performing at the highest level. 


Looking at the brain to understand the mind

Although there are many forms of mindful meditative practice (e.g., mindful walking, mindful movement, mantra meditation, loving-kindness meditation), for the most part, mindfulness entails some form of focused attention or open monitoring or a combination of the two; and most of the scientific research on the subject focuses on these methods. 


Open Monitoring vs Focused Attention Mindfulness Techniques

Mindful Meditation - Different Types Meditation is not a singular state of mind; it changes from moment to moment depending on where our attention is. To better understand the neural systems at play, we need to consider the interactions between different attentional networks. (1) The default mode network (DMN) is a type of ‘idling state’ between tasks. It activates during mind wandering, self-reflective thinking (what makes me ‘me’?), and social cognition (processing emotional and interpersonal information). (2) The central executive network (CEN) is involved in directing attentional resources during cognitively intensive tasks (utilizing working memory for high-level problem-solving). (3) The salience network (SN) detects goal-relevant stimuli, specifically noting and storing information most critical (salient) to what we are doing/deciding (Devaney et al., 2021; Menon, 2011). The SN functions as a type of ‘switch’ between the DMN and the CEN, signaling to the CEN that cognitive resources are needed.  

The most common result from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies indicates a deactivation in the DMN during meditation (Garrison et al., 2015). But as your mind starts to wander during meditation, DMN activity increases again, then the SN notices this and refocuses attention back to the CEN, restoring the state of low DMN activity. In other words, mindful presence allows us to exert control over the DMN which enables the SN to determine what is most important to us in the moment to allow the CEN to focus more efficiently on executing appropriate actions (Doll et al., 2015). We also see a thickening of gray matter in the insula, a region critical to the integration of sensory, emotional, motivational, and cognitive functions, so we can comprehensively assess what triggers us, how we react, and why (Afonso et al., 2020). Older studies using electroencephalogram (EEG) also report changes in electrical brain activity during meditation that indicate a sort of hybrid mental state of combined relaxation and mental alertness (reviewed in Deolindo et al., 2020). 

Brain imaging studies reflect what has long been reported by experienced meditators, the combination of decreased feelings of stress (mental suffering) and increased creativity for problem-solving (Mineo, 2018). Over time, as we habituate the practice, mindfulness becomes a trait of mind more than just a state of mind, and we become more skillful in controlling the switch over between the different networks.  


How do we measure a mindset?

Apart from the well-established physiological benefits (e.g., lower blood pressure, reduced chronic pain, improved sleep, improved immunity) and psychological ones (e.g., reduced anxiety, depression, and stress) to practicing mindfulness (David Creswell et al., 2019; Galante et al., 2021), the actual benefits far exceed any physiological accounts. The true impact is the space of realization: that our emotional reactions are driven by physiological manifestations that are impermanent and passing; that we don’t have to be bound by our experiences and thoughts, and that we don’t have to suffer because of them. In the Buddhist sense, mindfulness means more than a quality of attention that improves health and mood; it instills profound ethical principles, such as putting aside greed and self-concern (Farb, 2014). 

The point is not that mindfulness in particular changes your brain. Everything you do impacts the structure of your brain. The key lies in ‘how’ mindfulness changes your brain, as it moves from being a state of mind (more temporary) to becoming a trait of mind (more permanent) through continuous practice. Our most primitive responses still relate to our survival as part of ‘the group’ (Tomova et al., 2020). Necessary facets of belonging include our ability to bond with others, make meaning together (shared purpose), to trust, and effectively collaborate in sharing resources that improve our chances for survival. Mindfulness drives a more accurate and appropriate observation of the ‘self’ and the perspectives of others (Leary & Diebels, 2017). It aids our ability to identify how we can contribute to ensuring that we belong. It enhances our capacity for empathy and compassion (towards others and ourselves; Davidson & Lutz, 2008). 

Mindfulness, therefore, represents a type of ‘fix-all’ to our current conundrum: it reduces stress and enhances creative problem solving; it helps us to focus attention on what needs to change and how; and it promotes social safety and collective creativity that enables herd adaptation in the new remote and hybrid work environment. 


Mindful Organizations: From shareholders to stakeholders

Emergent properties from behavioral neuroscience research and our own data have led to the development of a behavioral code, the Neurozone® High Performance Code, that informs building resilience to promote a state of high-performance readiness: We refer to a specific set of behaviors that help drive a baseline relaxed physiological state of low stress, heightened creativity, and optimized energy-to-task allocation (i.e., a state from which we are ready to perform at a higher level). Mindfulness meditative practice and trait mindfulness are largely represented in this code as key behaviors towards building resilience for high performance. 

The full benefits of mindfulness are only realized when it starts to become a way of being. The formal practice of mindful meditation induces a state of mind that is more temporary, but over time, with continuous practice, you start to cultivate mindfulness as a trait of mind. Recent data from our research (n=46) support the notion that trait mindfulness may be a more significant predictor of resilience than mindful meditative practice alone:


Mindfulness as a trait vs Mindfulness Meditative Practices


Interesting correlations were also noted between trait mindfulness and mindful meditative practice on critical constructs that drive social safety and collective creativity in work life and teams:


Neuroscientific Benefits of Mindfulness

*Correlation Key:

0.10 - 0.30 = Small correlation

0.30 - 0.50 = Medium correlation

0.50 - 1.00 = Large correlation

*A significant correlation/relationship means that an increase in one is associated with an increase in the other one and vice versa. 

Although the formal practice of mindful meditation may already impact critical group aspects such as cognitive empathy and entrustment, these findings indicate that trait mindfulness may drive deeper connection and collaboration among team members (meaning in work-life, identity in team, and competitive collaboration).


What does it mean practically?

Despite all the benefits, integrating the practice of mindfulness in the workplace remains a challenge. Stereotypically driven biases may impact the buy-in of the entire team/organization. The fact that there are many ways of practicing mindfulness means that one size may not fit all. The formal practice of being still and focusing on your breath may even evoke more anxiety for some. The good news is that its renewed popularity has brought several resources that provide tips for incorporating mindfulness at work (e.g., Mindful Working). In summary, here is what is needed to integrate mindfulness for teams and organizations:

  1. Lead: The practice must be enthusiastically driven by leadership. If team members see mindful behavior modeled in their leadership, they’ll be more likely to adopt the approach themselves. 
  2. Educate: Given the vast array of practices, a good starting point is to offer training or information sessions to get all employees on the same page about the benefits of cultivating mindfulness in the workplace. 
  3. Co-create and experiment: Allow creative brainstorming sessions where team members can contribute new ideas on alternative ways to cultivate mindfulness. Allow all members the opportunity to add to the creative process without judgment. Learning and experimenting together will also help to buffer out any awkwardness and allow members to bond and hold each other accountable. 
  4. Measure: As individuals and as teams, we need to measure the impact of doing versus not doing mindfulness on wellness and performance. Through self-observation and regular self- and team reflection, all members will notice the benefits and stay motivated in cultivating mindfulness at work and in their personal lives.  
  5. Language: Start making mindfulness part of the team and organization’s everyday language. Keep the practice front of mind through organization-wide reminders and shared mindful moments. Set regular check-ins with the team on how the practice is evolving and impacting performance outcomes. 

Mindfully synchronized brains

A systemic shift towards a more mindful organization means that employees and teams operate within a culture that promotes empathy, compassion, and bonding (Centeno and Fernandez, 2020); shared purpose towards meaning-making; improved stress management and support; enhanced innovation and creative outputs (Janssen et al., 2018); improved mood states and conflict management (Yu & Zellmer-Bruhn, 2018); and energy-boosting behaviors like gratitude, optimism, and curiosity that directly impact motivation and confidence (Gonot-Schoupinsky et al., 2020; Layous, 2020; Mohammadi et al., 2020). But the most fundamental impact of building trait mindfulness is the manifestation of a more global mindset – a growth mindset – where employees and teams cultivate a deeper awareness of the interconnectivity of the organization (and its teams) as part of a living system where everything affects everything.  

Consider that synchronized brains work collectively better (Reinero et al., 2021), and then imagine the possibilities of mindful inter-brain synchronization at an organizational level!

08 September 2021

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