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Does mindfulness hurt business performance?

Mindfulness is hot. Google is a big proponent of mindfulness training, so that gives it the ultimate good management seal of approval? Nothing to question, right? You know I’ve got to respectfully disagree.


So what if a couple of respected researchers have evidence that mindfulness training reduces motivation? Check this out: “Hey Boss, You Don’t Want Your Employees to Meditate”. No these are respected academics not looney-tunes. Don’t shoot the messenger.


The researchers (University of Minnesota and Catolica Lisbon School of Business) did a controlled experiment in which they gave tasks to two groups, one that had undergone mindfulness training and the other didn’t. The short version of the conclusion is that having had mindfulness training reduced motivation in those trained in it without increasing quality of output. In short a net negative.


Now this is not an effort to pan mindfulness. I think that this has some big benefits. You’ve just got to know what they are though.


On the other hand, I have been known to be a sceptic of similar approaches; see for example my post “Does Work-Life Balance Reduce Innovation?” It’s the same idea; again not necessarily opposed to work-life balance. You’ve just got to know what you’re getting yourself into. Don’t tell Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or otherwise noted workaholics about this though.


That being said, should you just drop mindfulness as being another passing fashion, or can you still make use of it, motivational ill-effects (if such is indeed the case) notwithstanding? So here goes.


The big issue is that everyone wants performance; even the government, dammit. So if you introduce meditation and so on, you don’t want to kill whatever motivation you have otherwise managed to encourage. In fact, the whole aim of modern management is to increase performance. That’s why performance management (OK yet another fashion) is so popular.


It’s not as if performance management itself doesn’t have problems of its own, as we can see here: “What are the Challenges that Face Performance Management?” It’s just that mindfulness is so relatively new that it hasn’t yet registered as a potential challenge in and of itself. So it’s quite possible that in training departments of many companies the left hand may not know what the right hand is doing, and especially not know that the two streams are potentially in conflict.


I’m very aware of this because my own company, the Perth Leadership Institute, (  has developed a behavioral finance –based approach to performance management which shows managers and executives how to change their behavior to increase its impact on profitability and valuation outcomes (“The Financial Signature® Program”).


But one of my friends, Matt Tenney, is an expert in mindfulness and showed me some time ago that the two approaches fit together nicely. The link is behavior modification. If you know what you are aiming at from a profitability and valuation perspective, and you know the behaviors that need to be modified in order to achieve these outcomes, you can use mindfulness to help do that.


That’s really important because behavioral modification is the most important outcome of any training and development program and it’s too often not implemented because it’s so hard to do.


So here’s the message. Mindfulness can have unwanted effects and you have to know what you’re doing and the outcomes you want to achieve. Duh. But these are things that managers, training people and HR can often forget.


In general you should try to team up mindfulness with performance management so that people understand what your real objectives are in terms of the impact of the training on them. Or you should at least show the relationship between mindfulness and performance as part of the training, just so they don’t forget, or even to remedy an issue where they just don’t understand.


But you've got to be careful of doing mindfulness training without any sort of organizational context in which performance isn’t shown as being part of the equation.


Otherwise you might get some of the old hands out in the field who have to make stiff sales quotas even more skeptical of new-fangled management approaches like mindfulness, soft-skills training and EQ.


You need those guys and gals to pay the bills and put bread on the table. They are the ones paying for the training. And you certainly don’t want their motivation to flag.


In other words you also need to be mindful of where the organization gets its value from and make sure that the mindfulness approach and training recognize that too.


That, btw, is the aim of our performance management program to increase profitability and valuation.


Full disclosure as always.











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