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Workplace Psychology | Peer-Reviewed Research

Don't Mind If I Do

Why Managers Need Mindful Workers

Based on research Erik Dane and Bradley J. Brummel

Why Managers Need Mindful Workers

  • People are mindful when they attune to their environment and thoughts while staying in the present moment.
  • Research shows employees who are more mindful may perform their jobs better and want to stay with their employers longer.
  • From a management perspective, this highlights the importance of helping employees develop greater mindfulness.

Research has demonstrated that mindfulness positively relates to academic performance, judgment accuracy and problem solving. Mindfulness also has been associated with a host of psychological and physical benefits, including increased life satisfaction and relationship quality, decreased depression and stress and more effective self-regulation of thoughts and emotions.

So mindfulness is always good, right? Well, while mindfulness has certainly been explored in a wide range of contexts, the effects of mindfulness in the workplace largely remain a matter of intuition and generalization. After all, a classroom is not an office, and students are not employees. We shouldn’t generalize between contexts in the absence of empirical evidence.

Erik Dane, a former management professor at Rice Business, and his co-author Bradley J. Brummel of the University of Tulsa sought to fill this research gap by studying mindfulness in a dynamic workplace setting. Doing so allowed them to explore the effects of mindfulness on two important work outcomes: job performance and turnover intention. They specifically chose a dynamic workplace, the restaurant industry, because it requires workers to make a series of interdependent decisions in real-time – or in the present moment – and would thus be ripe to reveal the impacts of mindfulness.

And indeed, the survey-based study of 98 restaurant servers revealed a positive association between mindfulness and job performance. The more mindful the employees were, the more highly their managers rated their job performance.

Surprising? Perhaps not, but the researchers didn’t stop with this confirmation of the beneficial effect. They delved further into the association between mindfulness and job performance by disentangling it from a close conceptual cousin of mindfulness: engagement. This distinction has important implications for managers.

Dane and Brummel suggest that mindfulness differs from engagement in a subtle but important way. Whereas mindfulness is a cognitive construct, engagement is an affective construct. In other words, mindfulness involves a person’s mental processing of the multitude of events in the work environment, whereas engagement involves a person’s feelings about the work environment that ultimately drive his or her motivation to perform. For example, a mindful restaurant server may perform well because she constantly scans the expressions of her guests, how full their iced tea glasses are and the status of their orders in the kitchen. In contrast, an engaged server may perform well because she is absorbed by and dedicated to her job, which drives her to succeed.

But is it possible for a high-performing employee to be highly engaged in the workplace, yet not be highly mindful? Yes. Dane and Brummel found that mindfulness had a positive effect on job performance independent of engagement, which means managers should strive to nurture employees who are both engaged and mindful. Engaged employees may be high performers because they are enthusiastic and passionate, but they may become even higher performers when their attention is focused mindfully.

The study revealed a more complicated relationship between mindfulness and turnover intention. Considered without regard to how engaged employees were, the study found that highly mindful employees are less likely to want to leave their jobs than less mindful employees. Mindfulness may enhance self-regulation, which in turn helps people cope with stress in a dynamic workplace. When examined together with engagement, however, mindfulness did not predict employees’ intention to leave their positions.

Here again, the ultimate takeaway for managers is that both mindfulness and engagement matter in the workplace, whether they facilitate beneficial work outcomes separately or in combination.

While some people may simply be more mindful than others, evidence exists that mindfulness can be enhanced through practice, training and experience. Meditation-based programs such as mindfulness-based stress reduction, for example, may help employees focus attention on the present. With the empirical evidence of positive work outcomes associated with mindfulness now in hand, managers should continue to be mindful of this emerging scholarship as other important organizational outcomes and workplace contexts are examined.

Erik Dane is a former professor and was the Jones School Distinguished Associate Professor of Management in organizational behavior at Rice Business.

To learn more, please see: Dane, E., & Brummel, B. J. (2014). Examining workplace mindfulness and its relations to job performance and turnover intentionHuman Relations, 67(1), 105-128.

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