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Reading about great inventors makes me nostalgic for a work environment that may have never existed. Take Albert Einstein. The man was a born and bred tinkerer. As a boy he often visited his father’s electrical factory, where he fiddled with precision gadgets and learned to take a proactive approach to innovation. Later in life, whenever he recognized a problem or noticed that an existing appliance was lacking in some way, he came up with solutions. He invented a hearing aid, a gyrocompass, and a cooling mechanism for a refrigerator. He tried his hand at aircraft design. He even made toys for his children. Over his lifetime he received over two dozen patents for devices, and inventing things wasn’t even his primary career.
Reading about Einstein’s inventorial pursuits I felt the spirit of a child at play. Einstein stumbled into his successes through trial and error. His ingenuity came out of curiosity and playfulness, which he recognized was a gift. He attributed much of his success to his imagination.
He once said:“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”
It is rare to find such imagination and curiosity in the modern workplace. In fact, when I visit clients, I seems to me that there’s an absence of enthusiasm. Employees are at their desks, plowing through emails, looking at LinkedIn, sitting in on conference calls while scrolling through Instagram.
Many employees appear to be unhappy – for any number of reasons. I rarely go a week without seeing a grim new statistic, like how more than 83% of employees are stressed out by their jobs or are feeling unmotivated because the expectations placed on them by management seem outlandishly unrealistic.
In short, employees in large complex firms say they’re burnt out, overworked, and undervalued. They cannot focus on one thing at a time and are forced to multitask (which is highly inefficient). They feel that they don’t have the time for creative or strategic thinking. From a host of studies I’ve looked at, only about a third of employees achieve a sense of meaning and significance from their jobs, and many of them are actively looking for escape routes.
Even in a not-so-great job market, top employees are eager to find new opportunities. In March, 2014, nearly 2.5 million Americans quit their jobs. That’s edging very close to 2007’s pre-financial crisis retention rates. It’s very possible that your best people are sending out resumes as we speak.
A number of factors could be contributing to employees’ dissatisfaction, including, but not limited to: the economy, our techno-obsessed culture, or any number of existential issues.
Managers can’t take all the blame for the misery of the masses, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to change things. We need to do something bold. If our employees are as distracted and disengaged as researchers claim, we need to do a lot more than give out bonuses or plan a staff retreat.
As managers, how can we reinvigorate our employees? As individual contributors, how can we adjust our own attitudes? I’ve learned that some companies are betting on a practice that has been around for hundreds of years: mindfulness meditation.
For the uninitiated, mindfulness meditation can be described as a technique for tuning into the present moment by focusing on one’s surroundings. Advocates claim meditation can alter the body’s responses to stress, anxiety, depression, and illness. The results are real: Neuroscientists have proven that regular mindfulness practice improves focus, creativity and innovation, well-being, emotional regulation, and empathy.
In-office meditation sessions are a regular part of worklife at Twitter and Facebook. Google has an in-house team dedicated to teaching mindfulness. So far, over a thousand Google employees have taken the company’s meditation training course, and 400 more are on the waiting list.
What was once relegated to Buddhist monasteries and grungy California co-ops is now an increasingly popular way of life.
Managers see a direct connection between mindfulness and productivity:
“I always align the qualities of peace, joy, compassion with success and profits,” Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s head of mindfulness training, told the Guardian earlier this year. “It’s starting from where people want to start and helping people succeed in the way they want to succeed. “And I would say that if you want to try it, you’re free to try it and if you don’t try it and Joe does, Joe’s going to make more money than you and you’re free to come and try this any other time.”
Positioning meditation as some kind of “get rich quick” mechanism feels like a stretch to me, but in my experience, meditation really does make people more productive, more focused, and less insecure. Focusing on your surroundings silences mental chatter and forces you to confront what is right in front of you. You live moment-to-moment, and your perceptions of the world change. You stop viewing your job as a chore. You learn to see your work as a series of challenges.
In the future, mindfulness training could be as commonplace as subsidized gym memberships or holiday parties. I encourage you to be ahead of the curve. Your employees may not have the capacity for Einsteinian innovation, but if you give them the tools to reframe their attitudes, I promise you will reap rewards.
“In many situations, goodness is good for business,” Google’s Tan said when he spoke with the Guardian. “If you, as the boss, are nice to your employees, they are happy, they treat their customers well, the customers are happy to spend more money, so everybody wins. Also if you treat everybody with kindness, they’ll like you even if they don’t really know why. And if they like you, they want to help you succeed. So it’s good for your soul and it’s good for your career.”