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Mindfulness of… Futility?: Meditation and Workplace Motivation

Mindfulness of… Futility?: Meditation and Workplace Motivation

mindfulness meditation

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?