In past decades, the construct of mindfulness, an open, non-judging awareness of the current experience (Baer, 2003), has received growing attention in psychological research. In recent years, a number of researchers have begun to explore whether, how, and to what degree individuals can benefit from mindfulness in the work environment.
This research focuses on the relationship between leaders and followers. Although some theoretical work has addressed the potential role of mindfulness in the leadership process (e.g., Glomb et al., 2011; Sauer and Kohls, 2011; Sauer et al., 2011), empirical evidence is scant. Two studies reported by Reb et al. (2014) provided evidence for a positive effect of leaders’ mindfulness on follower well-being and work performance. Similarly, Reb et al. (2018) found a positive relationship between leader mindfulness and followers’ reports of leader–member (LMX) quality. These studies, did not investigate how leaders’ mindfulness manifests in actual behaviors that influence their interactions.
The main purpose of this research is to enhance our understanding of the underlying behavioral mechanisms linking leaders’ mindfulness to follower outcomes. We adopt a communication-centered view of leadership (de Vries et al., 2010; Fairhurst and Connaughton, 2014; Ruben and Gigliotti, 2016) and propose that leaders’ mindfulness relates to a specific communication style of leaders that we term “mindfulness in communication.” This communication style, in turn, is assumed to predict followers’ interaction satisfaction as well as their overall satisfaction with the leader.
Given the diverse research strands on mindfulness, mindful definitions vary. However, most definitions share two key elements: attention and acceptance (Bishop et al., 2004).
- Mindfulness means fully paying attention to what is occuring in the present moment, both to internal (i.e., emotions and thoughts) and external stimuli with an open, non-judging attitude.
- Baer (2003) defined mindfulness as “the non-judgmental observation of the ongoing stream of internal and external stimuli as they arise” (p. 125). The non-judgmental aspect of mindfulness does not imply that mindful individuals do not make any judgments. It rather refers to the ability to pay attention and to equanimously observe the current experience instead of getting carried away by the own immediate reactions (Dreyfus, 2011).
- A key process of mindfulness, is the ability to mentally “step back” from one’s own experiences which allows an individual “to observe rather than to identify with thoughts and emotions” (Hülsheger et al., 2014, p. 2). This process has been labeled as reperceiving (Shapiro et al., 2006) or decentering (Hayes et al., 2004), both referring to a shift of perspective leading to the experience of thoughts and emotions as transient mental states and not as aspects of the self.
- Research has consistently recognized that the average frequency and intensity with which individuals experience states of mindfulness varies between individuals, suggesting that there is a trait-like tendency toward mindful states (Brown and Ryan, 2003; Glomb et al., 2011; Hülsheger et al., 2013; Jamieson and Tuckey, 2017; Mesmer-Magnus et al., 2017).
- Accordingly, it is well-established in the literature to use the terms dispositional mindfulness or trait-mindfulness to describe this tendency (e.g., Chiesa, 2013; Good et al., 2016; Mesmer-Magnus et al., 2017) and to employ self-report measures for its assessment (Bergomi et al., 2013; Sauer et al., 2013b). Longitudinal studies revealed a significant and positive association between individuals’ overall dispositional mindfulness scores and state mindfulness scores, assessed in their regular day-to-day lives (Brown and Ryan, 2003; Hülsheger et al., 2013, 2014, 2015). Also, there is solid evidence that dispositional mindfulness can be increased by mindfulness practice such as mindfulness meditation or other mindfulness-based interventions (for meta-analytic evidence see Eberth and Sedlmeier, 2012; Cavanagh et al., 2014; Quaglia et al., 2016).
For the sake of simplicity, we herein use the term mindfulness (or mindful leaders) to describe those higher in self-reported dispositional mindfulness.
Mindfulness and Leadership
In organizational research, scholars have mainly focused on intrapersonal effects of mindfulness and mindfulness-based interventions (e.g., Hülsheger et al., 2014, 2015; Roche et al., 2014; Shonin et al., 2014), whereas the effects of mindfulness on interpersonal interactions and relationships have been largely neglected (Good et al., 2016). The interpersonal relationship between the leader and the followers is at the core of leadership (Northouse, 2013). Yet, only a few theoretical papers have addressed the role of mindfulness in leader–follower relationships (Glomb et al., 2011; Sauer and Kohls, 2011), to examine the possibility that mindfulness generally helps leader better deal with various demands of leadership.
Reb et al. (2014) found that followers of leaders who score highly on dispositional mindfulness reported higher levels of well-being and job performance. These studies identified psychological need satisfaction as a mediator in the relationship between self-reported dispositional mindfulness of the leader and follower outcomes.
There is emerging evidence that leader mindfulness is reflected in specific leadership styles, as perceived by others. Specifically, Pircher Verdorfer (2016) conducted a study which found a positive relationship between leaders’ mindfulness and followers’ perceptions of specific servant leader behaviors, that is, humility, standing back, and authenticity. Interestingly, our notion of mindfulness in communication fits well with these features. In fact, it is plausible that leaders who are mindfully present, accepting, and calm when communication with others signal humility (e.g., being open to different views and opinions of others), the ability to stand back (e.g., not chasing recognition or rewards), and authenticity (e.g., being open about own limitations and weaknesses).
Leaders and Followers
Reb et al. (2018) found a positive relationship between leader mindfulness and follower reports of LMX quality. This effect was mediated by reduced employee stress and perceptions of increased interpersonal justice. Importantly, psychological need satisfaction and reduced stress describe internal states of followers. While interpersonal justice refers to perceived fair treatment, Reb et al. (2018) conceptualized and measured it as a subjective assessment and therefore, the question of what behaviors mindful leaders actually show remain largely unanswered in their studies.
Our findings provide additional evidence for a positive link between an individual’s (the leader’s) dispositional mindfulness and the well-being of other people (their followers), suggesting that mindfulness is not only an internal capital but also aids individuals in interpersonal relations. These results are in line with the findings of Reb et al. (2014) who first provided scientific evidence for such interpersonal effects of mindfulness in leader–follower relationships. Also, our results expand evidence that has been provided in a very recent study by Reb et al. (2018), in which leader mindfulness predicted follower reports of enhanced LMX quality. With this, our study also contributes more generally to the perennial interest in leadership research regarding the effects of leaders’ affect and emotions on their followers (for reviews see Gooty et al., 2010; Rajah et al., 2011; Walter et al., 2011). Mindfulness, which is assumed to play an important role in emotion regulation, affect, stress, and well-being (cf.,Good et al., 2016; Lomas et al., 2017; Mesmer-Magnus et al., 2017), constitutes a concept that is likely to offer new and fruitful insights for research in this area, where the emotional states of individuals have wide-ranging consequences on others.
Leaders’ mindfulness in communication is likely to foster followers’ satisfaction on the content level because less information gets lost between “sender” and “receiver” and the information is processed in a less biased manner. This assumption is supported by various findings, linking mindfulness to increased attention focus and less attentional biases (e.g., Chambers et al., 2008; Flook et al., 2013; Roeser et al., 2013). Leaders who communicate mindfully can help satisfy the basic needs of followers, which results in increased satisfaction (Deci et al., 2017).
The need for autonomy describes the desire to be in control of one’s environment. One way for leaders to help ensure that followers experience some level of control is to provide voice, listen attentively, and treat requests seriously (Folger and Cropanzano, 1998). By paying full attention and listening to their followers, leaders signal that they are open to the input of their followers and are serious about what they have to say (Ashford et al., 2009). Furthermore, by showing an open and non-judgmental attitude, leaders demonstrate that they are willing to see things from their followers’ perspective and offer them voice-opportunities (Ashford et al., 2009; Lloyd et al., 2015), which enables followers to address and openly speak about organizational problems.
Leadership and Communication
Research suggest that mindfulness fosters a specific communication style, which is relatively stable across situations and followers. Communication in leadership is not a linear process, in which intentional messages simply flow in a straight and predictable line from the leader to the follower. Rather, leaders and followers continuously interact and communicate reciprocally. This is also reflected in the literature on LMX quality. High-quality relationships are characterized by cooperative communication (Sparrowe et al., 2006).
Given the inherent power differential associated with most leader–follower relationships (Dulebohn et al., 2012), the way leaders shape their communication with followers is pivotal for fostering relationship quality and relevant work outcomes, such as followers’ satisfaction, commitment, and performance (Penley et al., 1991; Fix and Sias, 2006; Abu Bakar et al., 2010).
Mindfulness and Leader Communication
A leader’s communication style represents a “distinctive set of interpersonal communicative behaviors” (de Vries et al., 2010, p. 368). Mindfulness is particularly suitable for promoting the quality of communication. Drawing on the mindfulness research, we propose that mindfulness in communication consists of three facets:
- being present and paying attention in conversations,
- an open, non-judging attitude, and
- a calm, non-impulsive manner.
These features inherently reflect interpersonal attunement (Parker et al., 2015) and thereby fit well with a relational view of communication in leadership, in which influence is understood to result from interaction (Ruben and Gigliotti, 2016).
Mindfulness and listening
An inherent element of mindfulness is presence or “the bare awareness of the receptive spaciousness of our mind” (Siegel, 2007, p. 160). With this, the link to communication is straightforward: bare awareness, or the conscious and “direct experience of here-and-now sensory information” (Parker et al., 2015, p. 226) is expected to result in a high level of attention in interactions. Mindful individuals focus on the immediate now are not distracted by thoughts and rumination concerning past or future events. This, in turn, is an important prerequisite for effective listening (Brownell, 1985). In a survey by van Vuuren et al. (2007), showed listening to be the second most important factor of leader communication style for follower commitment. Furthermore, there is empirical evidence that careful listening is associated with transformational leadership (Berson and Avolio, 2004) and effective interpersonal influence (Ames et al., 2012).
A qualitative study conducted by Alvesson and Sveningsson (2003) revealed that leaders themselves consider listening a central feature of their role. Empirical support for the notion that leaders’ dispositional mindfulness may translate into improved listening skills comes from several studies linking mindfulness and mindfulness trainings to reduced rumination and improved attentional performance (e.g., Chambers et al., 2008; Jensen et al., 2012; Flook et al., 2013; Roeser et al., 2013).
One rational for linking leader mindfulness to leader communication style is based acceptance as an essential feature of mindfulness. Acceptance refers to “being experientially open to the reality of the present moment” (Bishop et al., 2004, p. 233), “without being swept up by judgments” (Parker et al., 2015, p. 226). This non-judgmental, present-centered awareness may help leaders to keep an open mind in interactions with their followers and to be open to other perspectives and opinions without rashly evaluating and categorizing incoming information. By paying attention in a non-judgmental manner, mindful individuals are better able “to retain information and thus see their true significance rather than being carried away by their reactions” (Dreyfus, 2011, p. 47). In this understanding, mindful leaders are not free of making judgments and evaluations. However, before doing so, they give their followers the opportunity to fully communicate their message and let their attention not be influenced by automatic reactions and rash interpretations.
Another rationale refers to research linking mindfulness to effective emotion regulation (Chambers et al., 2009; Heppner et al., 2015). Accounting for this effect, scholars have consistently referred to the process of reperceiving (Shapiro et al., 2006) or decentering (Hayes et al., 2004) and argued that mindfulness permits individuals to disidentify from their emotions and experience them as transient cognitive events rather than aspects of their self and thus as less threatening. There is robust empirical evidence that mindfulness is associated with lower levels of negative affect and higher levels of positive affect (Baer et al., 2006; Luberto et al., 2014; Pepping et al., 2014; Prakash et al., 2015). Accordingly, mindfulness enables leaders to better deal with negative affective states and stressful events. In terms of communication, better emotion regulation should be reflected in an increased ability to maintain composure in tense situations instead of being overwhelmed by emotions.
Mindfulness in communication is likely to satisfy followers’ need of competence, which refers to feelings of growth, ability, and achievement. Specifically, through paying full attention and a high degree of acceptance and calmness, leaders show their followers that their opinion and viewpoints are regarded as important and worthwhile to consider, reflecting genuine appreciation of their strengths and unique abilities (Van Quaquebeke and Felps, 2016; Deci et al., 2017).
Leaders’ mindfulness in communication is likely to result in an enhancement of followers’ experience of relatedness. When individuals have their relatedness need met, they feel secure and safe in their environment and in their relationships with others. Leaders who pay full attention with an accepting, non-judging attitude, they are likely to impart a feeling of value and respect in of their followers (Reb et al., 2014). Furthermore, this kind of leadership communication behavior may foster a feeling of psychological safety and intimacy in their followers (Ashford et al., 2009; Lloyd et al., 2015) as well as a feeling of being cared for (Van Quaquebeke and Felps, 2016) which has empirically been linked with relatedness (Reis et al., 2000).
Given that communication is central to leadership (Alvesson and Sveningsson, 2003; Yukl, 2010; Ruben and Gigliotti, 2017) follower satisfaction is likely to correspond to an increase in overall leadership approval (Miles et al., 1996). Fully present, non-judging leaders who remain calm, even in intense situations, are likely to elicit positive affective reactions in their followers due to an immediate satisfaction of basic psychological needs. Reversely, non-listening, rashly judging leaders, who easily get worked up are likely to elicit negative affective reactions from their followers. According to affective events theory (Weiss and Cropanzano, 1996), such affective reactions, especially if experienced repeatedly, will likely result in generalized satisfaction judgments about the leader. This notion is reflected in prior research, positioning the way leaders listen and pay attention to their employees say is an important facet of employees’ satisfaction with their leader (Scarpello and Vandenberg, 1987). Two other studies by Bechler and Johnson (1995) and Johnson and Bechler (1998) demonstrated that evaluation of leadership skills is positively related to perceived listening skills.
Our focus on interpersonal benefits of mindfulness points to several practical implications, especially with regard to leadership development.
Mindfulness can be trained (for meta-analyses see Grossman et al., 2004; Chiesa and Serretti, 2009; Cavanagh et al., 2014), research on mindfulness interventions in the workplace is still in its infancy. However, in practice, there is already a growing interest in mindfulness-based training programs, and many organizations presently use mindfulness-based trainings in personnel and leadership development (for examples see Marturano, 2010; Tan, 2012). This interest of practitioners is accompanied, and partly caused, by a growing body of non-scientific, popular literature, and a number of articles in newspapers and magazines, praising the benefits of a “mindful leadership style” (e.g., Caroll, 2008; Boyatzis and McKee, 2014).
Mindfulness may not just promote personal wellbeing and resilience, but also may have positive effects on interpersonal skills and communication behavior. Since communication competencies are key to effective leadership, mindfulness-based interventions and training may represent a promising tool for effective leadership development.
It is important to consider potential pitfalls of mindfulness too. For instance, it is conceivable that a leader may use mindful communication for the mere purpose of impression management with selfish or unhealthy goals in mind (Reb et al., 2015b). An ethically informed view on corporate mindfulness, as advocated by several scholars in the last years (Purser and Milillo, 2015), may help to prevent potential dark side-effects of mindfulness.
As a general note of caution, workplace mindfulness interventions are not without risks. Several studies have shown that some participants may experience mindfulness interventions and related outcomes as challenging and distressing (Cebolla et al., 2017; Lindahl et al., 2017). Mindfulness is not a panacea for all sorts of challenges and problems leaders (and followers) face in their organizational practice. Mindfulness interventions can be useful if they are conducted by experts and carefully tailored to the needs and individual requirements of the participants. Furthermore, as Purser (2018) pointed out, the trend of mindfulness interventions at work can also be problematic because it tends to focus exclusively on the individual when it comes to cope with stress, instead of changing tasks or thinking about job design.
JA and APV contributed conception and design of the study. JA contributed the acquisition of participants and data collection, and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. JA, APV, and KK performed the statistical analysis, wrote sections of the manuscript, and contributed to manuscript revisions, read, and approved the submitted version.
Conflict of Interest Statement
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
The reviewer MV and handling Editor declared their shared affiliation at the time of review.
The authors thank Felix C. Brodbeck for his insightful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. An earlier version of this paper has been presented at the 49th Congress of the DGPs (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychologie), Bochum, Germany.
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Keywords: leadership, mindfulness, communication, mindfulness in communication, listening, leader–follower relationship