Category Archives: mindfulness

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Love in the Workplace

Tina Turner asks us in her memorable song, ‘What’s love got to do with it?’ Well, if we are thinking about wellbeing and productivity in the workplace, it apparently has a lot to do with it.

The idea of compassion and empathy in the workplace may sound a bit odd – something that does not sit neatly with the usual associations we have with ‘the office’, where key values revolve around efficiency, value for money and successful achievement of targets.
Often little relationship is acknowledged between soft ideas such as emotional literacy and the effective delivery of services. Yet increasingly it is seen that morale and our inner states bare a direct relationship to factors like productivity and efficiency.

Books like Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman‘ and The Empathy Factor by Marie R. Miyashiro, as well as research by Sigal Barsade and Olivia O’Neil, stress the relationship between empathy and compassion in social, work and corporate environments and impact on competitive advantage and worker and team morale.

“Increasingly, today’s most successful companies are bringing love, joy, authenticity, empathy, and soulfulness into their businesses; they are delivering emotional, experiential, and social value – not just profits” (Wharton School of Business in their endorsement of the book Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose).

More and more our work entails being a part of teams in which the quality of relationships affect the quality of service. Also the growing international character of our working environments and the risk of cross-cultural misunderstanding underline the importance of emotional intelligence as an integral skill. My understanding of emotional intelligence is that it has an intra-personal dimension that connects me to my own feelings and needs and an interpersonal dimension that enables me to respond appropriately to others’ feelings and needs.

I recall the challenge of working with a local authority in east London in the early 90s and the ready dismissal of the relevance of such dimensions of emotional intelligence as empathy and compassion as ‘touchy feely’ and ‘tree hugging’ notions that had no practical place in the work environment. We have come a long way since then.

Sigal Barsade, Wharton management professor, describes the workplace ethos in which empathy and a concern about co-workers is present as “companionate love”. Her research, alongside Olivia O’Neil from George Mason University, links this to higher levels of morale, team work and customer satisfaction, i.e. successful delivery of services. This has been confirmed not only in their study of a long-term healthcare facility, where one might expect high degrees of empathy and compassion, but also in workplace scenarios beyond healthcare settings. The follow-up study looked at a broad range of industries as varied as real estate and public utilities. Across the board the presence of empathy – or, in Barsade’s phrase, “companionate love” – was associated with greater worker and customer satisfaction, commitment and accountability.

Where there is an evident interest in the personal wellbeing of co-workers by each other and managers, the consequent compassionate and empathic environment seems to enable the work to get done at a higher standard with relationships intact. Where there is a high quality of communication, grounded in an awareness of feelings and needs by managers and workers, the organisational needs, goals and targets are likely to be efficiently served.

So maybe love does have a lot to do with it, Tina. Maybe our Chancellor Sanjeev Baskar’s playful admonition to graduands each year at the Brighton Dome to show him love – or should that be ‘lurve’? – if they want to become graduates also applies to our offices and workplaces around the University. Our wellbeing and efficiency may depend on just how much ‘lurve’ we show one another.

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Mindful Structures: Working People not Pawns

I recently wrote about mindfulness practice and its impact across a range of domains for wellbeing and suggested the possibility of a ‘Mindfulness Based Conflict Transformation’ model for doing conflict. It might happily sit within the family of other approaches like ‘Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy’ etc..

I am aware that underlying many conflicts in the workplace there are other factors beyond the ‘interpersonal’ dynamics that play a part in fueling conflict. These dynamics are themselves informed and exacerbated by systems of management and communication. We are in need of Mindful Structures as well as Mindful approaches to conflict.

What might these mindful structures look like? There are many possibilities which might suit the needs of diverse work situations. Whatever their shape they will bear certain qualities in common:

1. They will emphasise worker engagement and not just performance management. Management and supervision of members of staff will allow space for support as well as managing workloads and helping workers fulfill targets. There will also be a degree of flexibility in adjusting targets to more humane levels. I recollect a friend telling me that he had been committed to a range of targets by the funders of his organization, which he would work to, but he thought it would be to the damage of his own wellbeing. It may be a challenge to incorporate this kind of flexibility and in the end we may attain an optimal – if not perfect –balance between targets and worker wellbeing.
2. Transparency and communication will also be a feature of mindful structures. Top down dictates will give way to collegial approaches to setting aims and targets where possible. This may be more possible for smaller to medium sized third sector agencies than for statutory sectors. Where the situation may not allow for such ease of planning, targets and aims will be clearly communicated and opportunities created for negotiating the best strategies for working collegially toward work goals. Structures allowing for those who are responsible for delivery of service to listened to have a impact on employee morale, even where a degree of ‘top down’ management is entrenched.
3. Finally, in concert with the above, mindful structures will be seen to gather and respond to feedback from workers in meaningful ways. Feedback may be gathered from supervisions processes, surveys, suggestion boxes or other means but must be seen to be more than ‘non-sultation’ and mechanical. It must be genuine. It may not always be a case of saying ‘yes’ but will always engage openly and with reasons for any decisions taken. Perhaps in some cases it will even allow critical reflection on time-honoured habits of managing work places and risk creative thinking alongside workers to generate new possibilities. It will not necessarily be inefficient but will value the wellbeing of human workers –as opposed to ‘human resources’ – over the holy cow of efficiency. The irony may be that in doing so, in the long term, businesses, organisations and agencies will deliver a higher quality product.

But on that note we may be introducing another aspect of mindful structures: they think in terms of the big picture. I still remember the story of George Buss Sr. leading a group of business tycoons to visit Japan. Their Japanese counterparts reminded them that the Americans’ first port of call when companies face challenging times is to make workers redundant in order to keep profits high. The Japanese, on the other hand, initially would take a cut in salary in order to keep their workers employed. Redundancies were a last resort. This perfectly captured the difference between short-term foci on profits and long-term foci on the wellbeing of workers.

That sounded like a pretty mindful strategy to me. After all, workers are people, not pawns.