As an Agile coach and meditation teacher-in-training, I regularly spot opportunities where Agile and mindfulness are aligned. Here’s a summary of the three key benefits of meditation and mindfulness in knowledge work environments, such as technology companies.
Benefit 1: Higher performance due to more effective stress management
What does stress do to your performance? Let’s suppose we drew a chart, with your performance on the y-axis, and the amount of stress you’re under on the x-axis. What relationship do you find between these two in your personal experience?
How about some examples. First, let’s think about lifting a car off of someone in the event of a life-threatening emergency. Relaxing isn’t going to help here. So, there’s probably some kind of positive relationship as our adrenaline gets flowing, perhaps with a plateau as our freeze, flight, or fight instincts fully kick in.
What about tasks that are labor-intensive and don’t require a lot of novel thinking, such as digging a ditch, harvesting produce, or electronics assembly? I think the curve is going to be pretty similar.
This seems pretty reasonable, right? More pressure, more performance. It’s been genuinely true for the vast majority of human labor throughout history. And yet, we’ve all been in stressful situations at work that seem to rob us of our creativity and productivity. What’s going on?
In 1908—over 110 years ago—two psychologists named Robert Yerkes and John Dodson observed an empirical relationship between stress—which they called physiological arousal—and performance. They found—as we’d expect—that for simple tasks, more arousal equals more performance… up to a point.
They also discovered something quite interesting: for complex, novel, or challenging tasks, there’s an entirely different relationship. For these tasks—the majority of what we do in office buildings—increased arousal compromises performance beyond a point. Further, the more complex, novel, or challenging the work, the less arousal is optimal.
Extreme levels of arousal can acutely activate our amygdala, which produces a reptilian freeze, fight, or flight response that not only harms our productivity, but can also lead us to act in ways that harm our relationships and careers.
Therefore, I think the Yerkes-Dodson Law tells us two things: first, it’s perfectly reasonable that many leaders associate increased physiological arousal—stress, anxiety, even panic—with greater performance. This approach is perfectly suited to the simple tasks that to this day make up a majority of human labor and our dominant management philosophy simply hasn’t caught up to what’s optimal for a new kind of work. It may even well be that our leadership has internalized this so deeply that they cannot see any other alternative.
Second, it tells us that if we want to maximize our performance in our knowledge work environments, we’re going to need to find the sweet spot between lethargy and stress. If you’ve ever experienced flow, you’ve experienced this sweet spot: you’re totally alert, but also totally relaxed. In fact, skilled meditators have known this for a very long time: they walk a very thin line between dullness that saps them of their mental clarity and agitation that makes seeing our minds clearly difficult.
For those doing the work, meditation is a powerful means for reducing stress once it has arisen. I think this is one of the major reasons why mindfulness is becoming so popular in knowledge work environments. But meditation can take us further if we practice an effective technique diligently. Long-term, meditation will reduce and even eliminate the conditioning that gives rise to anxiety or panic, thus assuring stronger performance.
Ultimately, the only truly durable solution is improving our leadership approach. Meditation is a crucial tool for leaders who are willing to embark on the challenging, life-long quest of psycho-social development. It can give our leaders the extra awareness they need to observe this relationship for themselves, just as Yerkes and Dodson did over a century ago. Leaders will also benefit from the reduction in anxiety-provoking conditioning, which may make them less likely to create anxiety for their teams.
Benefit 2: An optimal balance of attention and awareness is required to listen well
You may be familiar with the “3 levels of listening:”
- Internal Listening: “I’m ‘listening’ to you, but I’m mostly thinking of what I’m going to say next and paying attention to what’s going on internally in me…”
- Focused Listening: “I’m listening to you with 100% of my attention, not only hearing your words but also fully-attuned to your non-verbal communication and emotions.”
- Global Listening: Similar to Level 2, but with a profound awareness of the full context in which the conversation takes place.
Unfortunately, it is difficult for many to listen at either level 2 or 3, regardless of how much we intend to do so. Our strong egoic sense of self keeps bringing us back to our internal, inner universe.
As my teacher, Dr. John Yates, describes in his book The Mind Illuminated, our minds operate with both attention (similar to focused vision) and awareness (similar to peripheral vision) simultaneously. Our society overemphasizes attention at the expense of awareness. It is as if we have a powerful spotlight, but its illumination is too narrow for us to know that it is pointing in the wrong direction.
Here’s an example of how this might work. Let’s suppose I sit across from you, and I’m intending to listen to you carefully. All of my attention is focused on you. But that’s all that I’ve got. That attention is so narrow that I cannot see that my attention on you has been eclipsed by an intruding thought.
A correct and disciplined practice rapidly develops strong introspective and extrospective awareness, bringing attention and awareness in balance. We can become aware of these intruding thoughts as they threaten to hijack our attention. Rather than suddenly find myself mired in my thoughts when I intended to listen to you fully, I can see that they are arising in the corners of my psyche and intentionally reinforce my attention on you. In a matter of only months—or a few years at most—we can develop a continual awareness of where our attention is placed. This allows us to direct our attention as intended and hold it there indefinitely.
Benefit 3: Meditation improves our ability to engage in constructive conflict
The Conflict Dynamics Model describes conflict as being either constructive (cognitive) or destructive (emotional) and either active or passive. For instance, constructive active conflict might entail seeking to understand everyone’s perspectives or expressing our emotions thoughtfully. Constructive passive might be taking more time to reflect on our response before taking it or reasonably adapting our plans. Destructive passive would be hiding our thoughts and emotions when they’d be useful to the conversation or avoiding it entirely. And destructive active includes personal attacks or a “win at all costs” attitude.
Our ability to remain in constructive, cognitive conflict with others relies predominantly on our ability to emotionally self-regulate. A wide and growing body of research provides strong evidence that a regular meditation practice dramatically improves our ability to manage our emotions. For example, a 2013 study shows that just eight weeks of meditation reduces the size of the amygdala (the brain’s freeze, flight, or fight center) and increases the thickness of the prefrontal cortex (involved in self-regulation, awareness, decision-making, and concentration).
Thus, meditation helps prevent us from winding up in a “freeze, flight or fight” or “amygdala hijack” mode when we are in conflict with others by improving our ability to manage our strong emotions when they arise.
Better yet, an effective, diligent meditation practice can bring us deep into our psyches and defuse the “ticking time bombs” of our conditioning (due to past traumas, etc). Many of us learned destructive active and passive approaches to conflict during traumatic upbrings or other events. This isn’t something we should be ashamed of: it’s not our fault, but it is our responsibility. For instance, acting out is an expected and reasonable reaction for a young child in the midst of familial crisis. There’s a little part of our mind that saw that that response was effective and remembered it for seeming similar events in the future. Those events—such as a fight with our spouse or disagreement with a peer or manager—can activate the same response, but now it’s no longer appropriate. The practice of meditation can bring us face-to-face with these parts of our minds and allow us to develop them into new, more constructive reactions to conflict.
So these are three key benefits of meditation in knowledge work environments such as technology companies: more effective stress management, better focus and listening, and the ability to engage in more constructive conflict. Have you found others? Please let me know and thanks for watching!