Boss-Employee Mindless Conversation

mind·less    (mndls) adj. Giving or showing little attention or care; heedless

If you have been unlucky enough to work with a supervisor who seems to be miles away when you approach him for help or clarity with an issue or maybe worse one who nods off or keeps checking his phone in the middle of a discussion with his team members, then you know exactly what this post is about. Mindless (or rather the lack of a mindful approach) supervision is increasingly seen as a major cause of stress and employee disengagement.

A sense of Interpersonal Justice:

In a study carried out by researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Scientists, researchers showed that infants as young as three months are able to pick up social cues when processing objects in the world around them – scientifically referred to as Social Referencing.

Given that even infants can pick up expressions, its easy to understand how a conversation or an interaction between a supervisor and the team member goes beyond the formal structure or stated intent. Kinesics is the interpretation of body motion communication like facial gestures and expressions. Often when a person says something and doesn’t mean it, the reality is betrayed by subconscious cues.

For example, lets say a team member is in a unaided discussion (i.e. no PPTs or Videos, or audio-visual aids) with her supervisor, going over the performance of a product in the marketplace. The lack of any audio-visual distraction means that she is observing her boss instead of looking at a screen. The discussion starts off with her supervisor launching into a long diatribe about how “we” need to fix the problem, and how “he” will support in any way and how “what has to be done has to be done, lets do it”. Then it’s her turn to tell her thoughts on the issue, and the supervisor is already checking his mails and nodding his head randomly. “Keep going, I am listening,” he says while his non-verbal signals convey an entirely different message all together. Needless to say the team member is not going to have a very good feeling about the conversation or her supervisor.

Mindfulness, or more colloquially the ability to be in the “here and now”, is often associated with improved relationships. When the supervisor is ‘fully present’ in the course of an interaction or conversation with a subordinate, the person feels more valued and as being treated with respect – amounting to a heightened sense of interpersonal justice. Various research studies have found a positive correlation between a sense of interpersonal justice and higher job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

Mindfulness, Employee Performance and Employee Well-Being:

In a rather interesting study done by researchers from Cambridge, NUS and Imperial College, an attempt was made to determine the interpersonal effects of mindfulness in the workplace. The study is different from any done on the impact of behavior of leaders on employees in that it focuses on “how leaders’ quality of awareness and attention influences their employees”

The first hypothesis that the study tested was to check if the trait of mindfulness is positively associated with various facets of employee well being (the study looks at four of them – Employee Emotional Exhaustion, Work-Life Balance, Overall Job Performance and Deviance (Negative/Undesirable actions at work))

The study determined that leader mindfulness was significantly related to both employee well-being and performance measures.

When the supervisor is more mindful,

  • The employee’s emotional exhaustion is lower (r=-0.4)
  • Employee Work-Life balance improves (r=.28)
  • Overall job-performance improves(r=.32)
  • Employee Deviance is lower (r=-.57)

The relationship of mindfulness with various dimensions of employee well-being and performance points to the potentially important role of leading mindfully in organizations.

Tips for leaders to be more mindful at work:

Being mindful is not a fad. Several Silicon Valley Technology firms and Wall Street firms are among those who take it pretty seriously. Google employees have access to an internal course titled “Search Inside Yourself”, which is designed to help them manage their emotions – ideally making them better workers in the process. The cofounders of Twitter and Facebook who have moved on to start new enterprises place a great deal of emphasis on contemplative practices – with regular in-office mediation sessions and optimizing work schedules to maximize mindfulness of their employees.

If you aren’t lucky enough to work at one of these more aware companies, try following one of these tips outline in the book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World authored by Dr. Penman.

  1. Keep a three-minute breathing space in between work:

In the course of a work-day there are several events that can be a source of (unnecessary) stress. The easiest way to counterman the effect is to find a quiet place (this could even be your desk), stop whatever it is you are doing and just breathe deeply for three minutes. Couple this with the act of consciously unplugging from all the devices that are constantly throwing a barrage of information and updates at you. The text message, tweet, email, WhatsApp, Facebook update can all wait a few minutes. Don’t eat your lunch in front of your laptop and leave your phone behind. Go to the common area and have an actual conversation with your team member. It will do wonders to the level of engagement.

  1. Make “strategic acceptance” a part of your solution:

When you feel stressed out about something, Dr Penman advises that you don’t try to fix it but forcing yourself to be happy or calm. Just accept how you feel as it is. He does not say you should accept a bad situation, but just accept your feelings and them focus on what you can do to improve it.

     3. Tune into the distractions:

With the advent of open-workplaces and a general lack of real-estate, one has little or no privacy at work. You will have phones ringing, people talking, printers whirring – all of which can be sources of stress. Dr Penman says that instead of fighting the noise and trying to shut it out, tune into it. Notice the sounds around you and try to see if you can isolate the effect they have on your body. The very act of noticing the sound, robs the sounds of their ability to distract and stress you out.

Being more aware of yourself and being mindful will help you engage successfully with your peers and your subordinates in a more effective manner. A 2010 Survey carried out by the Economic Intelligence Unit found that 84% of respondents believed that alienated employees are one of the biggest threats to their business. A quarter of the employees in a survey done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said that their jobs were a major source of stress in their lives.

As a leader, manager, supervisor, you owe it your team to not become the boss everyone hopes will “get removed or kicked upstairs” soon. All it takes is three minutes of deep breathing and some conscious effort.

Acknowledgements and References: 

Image courtesy of

Reb, J., Narayanan, J., & Chaturvedi, S. (2014). Leading mindfully: Two studies on the influence of supervisor trait mindfulness on employee well-being and performance.

How being mindful makes for a happier workplace, Jul 29,2013, Rachel Nickless, Financial Review

In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad. It Could Make Your Career, June 18, 2013, Noah Shachtman, Wired

Mindfulness At Work: 5 Tricks For A Healthier, Less Stressful Work Day, June 24, 2013, Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post

Study shows 3-month-olds are sensitive to emotional cues referring to objects in the world, June 10, 2008, (e) Science News.

Re-engaging with engagement, Economist Intelligence Unit

Bad bosses can be bad for your health, August 5, 2012, Sahron Jayson, USA Today

Study: Indian Women Are the Most Stressed on Earth, Rachel Goldstein, July 13, 2011, TIME

We love discussions! Please do leave a comment on what you think about this post.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.