Mindfulness of… Futility?: Meditation and Workplace Motivation

Mindfulness of… Futility?: Meditation and Workplace Motivation

We at DFC are notorious fans of work-life balance. As a trend in both business and private life, mindfulness meditation caught our eye early on, and it remains a hot topic today.
In (very!) short, mindfulness meditation involves paying close attention to the present moment, without judgment. It helps increase a practitioner’s sense of their presence in the world, and may uncover what is true to them, and therefore actually important for their contentment.
This has great benefits for the private citizen, and we’ve seen that mindfulness can have a positive impact at work too — from decreasing stress to increasing self confidence, to boosting working memory. But a new study on the connection between workers’ mindfulness meditation practices and their motivation on the job shows that there might be too much of a good thing — at least from a “boss’s” perspective.
Behavioural scientists Dr. Kathleen D. Vohs and Dr. Andrew C Hafenbrack conducted five experiments on groups of workers, some of whom meditated and others, as controls, journaled or daydreamed. The researchers then instructed their subjects to complete several business tasks, like editing memos. They then quizzed each subject on how motivated they were to complete this busy-work and found that those who had meditated mindfully were on average less inclined to do it. From the New York Times:
“Those people didn’t feel as much like working on the assignments, nor did they want to spend as much time or effort to complete them. Meditation was correlated with reduced thoughts about the future and greater feelings of calm and serenity — states seemingly not conducive to wanting to tackle a work project.

Then we tracked everyone’s actual performance on the tasks. Here we found that on average, having meditated neither benefited nor detracted from a participant’s quality of work. This was bad news for proponents of meditation in the workplace: After all, previous studies have found that meditation increases mental focus, suggesting that those in our studies who performed the mindfulness exercise should have performed better on the tasks. Their lower levels of motivation, however, seemed to cancel out that benefit.”
While the researchers’ Times article gently warns bosses “you don’t want your employees to meditate,” BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow claims that what “bosses” want is not motivation, but blindness to personal potential. Doctorow sees a correlation between this pooh-poohing of meditation and the criminalization of “mind-expanding” substances back in the ’60’s, when “the boss class realized that people who could perceive greater truths would be unshackled from meaningless materialism and the need to work to attain status goods.”
There is a powerful connection between meditation and personal fulfilment. But there seems to be a darker flip side — where existential anxiety spurs willingness to do work meaningless to oneself in aid of someone else’s goal. The former is great for the quality of life: the latter great for business. I wonder, as capitalism begins to falter and all the old rules fly out the window, which will fail first?

Of Bicycles and Scarves: Knitting on a European Commute​

This week, I find myself in Hamburg, Germany, visiting my youngest son, who works here as a chef. It’s been a while since I’ve visited northern Europe, and I am struck afresh by the many small differences between Canadian daily life and life here. Delicious, strange berries! The coffee culture!
Also, people here are a lot more relaxed about city biking. It’s lovely to see collaboration and friendliness (well, a German level of friendliness) between cyclists and drivers, especially coming from a country where that relationship can get a bit… intense.
Dutch design student George Barratt-Jones has taken the eminently reasonable European pastime of peacefully riding a bike, and turned it into something even cooler — a gadget! Inspired by a cold day waiting for a train and Einhoven station, Barratt-Jones envisioned a stationary bike that powered a loom, which, with five minutes of exercise, would spit out a knitted scarf. So, he built it. From his project description:
“Imagine [it’s] the midst of winter. You are cold and [bored] waiting for your train at the station. This pedal powered machine gets you warm by moving, you are making something while you wait and in the end you are left with a free scarf! That you can decide to keep yourself or give to someone who needs it more… [It’s] all about spreading joy and making those boring moments more fun.”
Check out the video of the Cyclo Knitter in action here!
I love how this designer found a little niche of unused time and turned it into something productive for his fellow passengers. And I love how bicycles are involved! Now, if only we could bring this spirit of collaboration to Canadian biking — though, with our winters, I feel like we’d have to generate snowsuits, not scarves.

New Proof: The Peter Principle in Action​

We at DFC consider ourselves enormously lucky that we get to be our own bosses. This is for the usual reasons: We set our own goals  are thoroughly invested in every aspect of our company, and do our work while surrounded by natural beauty of the Frontenac Arch! But there’s a new reason why we’re glad no one’s in charge of us coming down the pipes…
Three professors have taken it upon themselves to attempt to prove the “Peter Principle;” a formulation first presented semi-facetiously by Dr. Laurence J. Peter in 1968, that states: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” The researchers — Danielle Li (MIT), Kelly Shue (Yale), and Alan Benson (Uminn) — crunched the performance-related numbers from a staggering 53,035 sales reps at 214 different American companies over six years. They did so to see if subjects followed the Peter Principle trajectory: doing well in a position and being promoted as a result, until they hit the failure point of landing in a position they cannot meet the demands of, and can therefore not be promoted up from. Bingo: managerial incompetence.
During the experiment, 1,531 of the best sales reps were promoted to managers, where the numbers quickly showed they began performing poorly. The researchers found a trend of repeated promotions for excellent salespeople, without consideration that their skills — that they were excellent at — might not transfer to management. This led to periods of instability not just for the promoted person, who took a productivity hit while they learned their new job, but for the entire team under them. From Forbes:
“A company that relies too heavily on sales as a criterion for promotion pays twice for the mistake. Removing a high-performing sales associate from the line potentially upsets her client relationships and puts the revenue of those accounts in jeopardy. The team newly under her direction is at greater risk of under-performing as she struggles in a role that demands quite different abilities. […]

The starkness of the results took Dr Benson by surprise. “I expected that the best salespeople would become merely-good managers: some skills translate to management and others don’t,’ he said. ‘To see that the best salespeople were becoming the worst sales managers was surprising.’”
The conclusion standard companies can draw from this new proof of the Peter Principle is that promotions are not as easy as they might seem, and can cost a lot of productivity if candidates are not accurately assessed for their real skills, rather than a demonstrated level of amorphously defined “success.” The conclusion that non-standard companies (like DFC!) can draw? Maybe it’s better to be your own manager — because if your manager is incompetent, you have no one to blame but yoursel