When I was a management consultant, I felt the necessity to push harder, play the politics, and keep my guard up. It was a competitive, cutthroat world.
Yet, at the same time, I was trying to cultivate mindfulness—an awareness of my inner experiences, such as thoughts and emotions, and external events, without evaluating, analyzing or reflecting upon these.
Many of the benefits of mindfulness sounded like they could be liabilities at work.
- Studies suggest that mindfulness can weaken the ego and self-serving behavior. I wondered: Did this mean if I practice mindfulness, I will become less ambitious?
- Mindfulness keeps you in the present moment as opposed to the future. Would I therefore become less goal-oriented as I grew more mindful?
- Meditation has been shown to reduce aggressiveness. But don’t we need a certain level of aggression to get ahead?
- Mindfulness promotes acceptance of the way things are. Is being satisfied with the current state good for your career?
But recent research suggests that I was creating a false trade-off for myself. In fact, mindfulness might actually help you climb that career ladder, and not just by helping better regulate emotions, improve decision-making, and reduce stress and exhaustion, as research has discovered.
A new study by Sukumarakurup Krishnakumar and Michael D. Robinson examined whether mindfulness at work can counteract Machiavellian tendencies like the ones I felt, which are characterized by impulsive hostility, cynicism about other people’s motives, and counterproductive work behaviors—or CWB’s for short—like competitiveness and self-serving actions. CWBs create a hostile work environment, and can reduce workplace productivity, civility, and overall company effectiveness.
The first part of the study assessed three factors in 81 undergraduate business students, all of whom were working at least part-time. The first, dispositional mindfulness, tries to measure the level of mindfulness that naturally occurs to varying degrees in individuals. For example, people who are less disposed to mindfulness might find themselves doing jobs or tasks automatically without being aware of it, or spilling things out of carelessness. Researchers also measured hostile feelings and Machiavellian tendencies.
Their results showed that hostile feelings actually predicted Machiavellian tendencies. Furthermore, the study found that participants higher on the mindfulness scale had fewer Machiavellian tendencies. This leads to the conclusion that mindful people feel less hostile, which in turn is predictive of lesser Machiavellian tendencies.
The second part of their study applied this insight to the workplace. This time they assessed CWB’s as well as mindfulness and Machiavellianism in 91 psychology undergraduates, all of whom worked at least part-time and had a certain level of job autonomy. The CWB assessment measured behaviors related to abuse (e.g., “hit or punched someone at work”), production problems (e.g., “purposely worked slowly when things needed to get done”), sabotage (e.g., “purposely damaged a piece of work property”), theft (e.g., “stole something belonging to your employer”), and withdrawal (e.g., “came to work late without permission”).
As before, results indicated that the more mindful participants were, the fewer hostile feelings they had on the job. Furthermore, less hostility predicted fewer CWB’s. In short, mindfulness can act as a protective factor against hostility, CWB’s and thus, Machiavellianism in the workplace.
Overall, Krishnakumar and Robinson suggest that 1) people with a certain level of mindfulness felt less hostile both in general and in the workplace, and 2) less hostility meant fewer Machiavellian tendencies and CWB’s. Hostile employees are less able to concentrate on their jobs than more mindful employees, because they are distracted and unconsciously driven by these hostile feelings. Mindfulness reduces hostility and CWB’s, which will in turn increase task performance, civility, and productivity.
These insights reveal a great deal about unconscious dynamics at work. I recall the time I was put on a project team with a particularly hostile co-worker—someone I knew could not be trusted and was only out to climb the career ladder at all costs. I could feel the stress accumulate into a fist of tension in my chest every time he walked into my office. I was guarded about what I said and how I said it. I questioned his every statement.
I eventually found myself keeping information from him so as to protect myself from his sabotage. I would not tell him important things the client would tell me. I fully believed I was only doing it to protect myself from this awful colleague. I never realized I was starting to behave counterproductively as well.
Once I developed a practice of mindfulness, however, I became more aware of my feelings, especially around people like this guy. I became aware of my chest tightening, and got better at catching myself before I pulled up my walls of “protection.” Instead, I could take a step back from this Machiavellian colleague, push “pause”, and see him for what he was: someone who was preoccupied with his career, possibly even insecure about his future, who was perhaps unwittingly reacting to his own hostile feelings.
Being mindful enabled me to approach my work as a leader with the big picture in mind. When I was able to stay calm and focused on my work instead of focusing on office politics, I felt happier and more productive. The more mindful I became, the more successful I was.