The Power of Presence: Mindfulness as a Catalyst for Gratitude and Helping at Work
Over three decades of research demonstrates the central role of organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) in workplace functioning. OCBs refer to discretionary behaviors performed by employees that are not explicitly recognized by the formal reward system, but in the aggregate promote the effective functioning of the organization (e.g., helping coworkers, being courteous, being a “good sport” during difficult or frustrating tasks). A large body of research shows that these “extrarole” behaviors promote a range of positive outcomes in teams and the
organization, more broadly (e.g., greater productivity, efficiency, customer satisfaction, reduced turnover). Yet, research suggests that today’s modern workplace also present a multitude of stressors and distractions – from interpersonal conflict and politics to various extrinsic goals and incentives – which have the potential to divert employees’ attention away from engaging in OCBs. Based on these observations, my colleagues, Katina Sawyer (George Washington University), Michelle Duffy and Ellie Stillwell (University of Minnesota), and Kristin Scott (Clemson University), and I were interested in understanding how attention may “fuel the prosocial fire” at work.
"...mindfulness is generally defined as a “state of receptive attention to and awareness of present events and experience.”
Specifically, we examined the role of one notable form of attention, mindfulness, in promoting employee helping behavior – a type of OCB that involves voluntarily helping others with, or preventing the occurrence of, work-related problems. Despite its multiple cultural and historical meanings, mindfulness is generally defined as a “state of receptive attention to and awareness of present events and experience.” In a nutshell, mindfulness involves paying attention to what is occurring within (e.g., thoughts, emotions, sensations) and around you (e.g., sounds, smells, interpersonal interactions), without evaluating or attaching any meaning to those experiences. This non-evaluative stance on one’s experiences is believed to stem, in part, from the capacity of mindfulness to allow us to separate our sense of self – our ego – from our experiences. In so doing, an abundance of research spanning various disciplines has shown that mindfulness promotes a more objective perspective on one’s experiences, prevents rumination on the past or worrying about the future, and, overall, allows for improved self-regulation of negative thoughts and emotions, while enhancing individuals’ experiences of positive emotions.
"...mindfulness may allow us to more fully attend to and accept the various benefits we receive from others at work."
We theorized that mindfulness – by broadening employees’ attention to what is occurring around them in the present moment and allowing them to “detach” from their egos – allows them to overcome stressors and distractions around them at work and recognize the various ways in which others go out of their way to improve their work lives. Simply put, mindfulness may allow us to more fully attend to and accept the various benefits we receive from others at work. As an example, a mindful employee may be more likely to notice when a coworker has sacrificed their afternoon to help him or her with a deadline; may be less likely to view their coworker’s help as a “bruise on their ego;” and may be less likely to view their coworker’s help as motivated by instrumental (vs. altruistic) reasons. In so doing, mindfulness may serve as a catalyst for the employees’ experiences of gratitude – which is a positive emotional state defined by a feeling of appreciation in response to an experience that is beneficial to, but not attributable to, the self. As an “other-oriented” emotion, research has consistently shown that when people feel gratitude they are more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors toward their benefactors and others in turn.
Using data from an eight-week mindfulness training program for staff at Villanova – a program called “Mindful Mondays” – we found that on days when employees were in a more mindful
state at work, they reported greater levels of gratitude and prosocial motivation and, in turn, engaged in greater helping behavior as rated by their coworkers. These findings are not only illuminating with respect to their implications for our understanding of “why” mindfulness promotes positive outcomes at work, but are also vital with respect to their practical implications for employers. Indeed, an emerging body of research in organizational psychology is beginning to accumulate on the benefits of mindfulness training on employee health and performance. Regarding the latter, recent findings show that these programs have the capacity to increase task performance, reduce the occurrence of employee aggression, and, as our study suggests, improve helping behavior. Overall, these results point to the “power of presence” at work and the importance of employers paying greater attention (no pun intended) to this area of research.
Christian Thoroughgood, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about him here!