By reducing guilt, mindfulness meditation also reduces the guilt-driven desire to repair any harm that might have been caused to others by a mistake or a transgression. In contrast, an alternative meditation approach, which focuses participants on others rather than self, increases a love-driven desire to repair harm.
A manager overreacts to an employee’s minor mistake and yells at the employee in front of his peers. Afterwards, the manager feels some guilt about the outburst for several reasons: she generally strives to be supportive of her employees, the employee is usually very trustworthy, and the mistake was easily repaired. The manager apologizes to the employee, emphasizing that she appreciates his performance and work ethic.
This general scenario is repeatedly daily in companies around the world. A business leader, manager or employee commits a transgression that goes against that individual’s personal values and causes harm to others. Feeling guilty about the transgression, the individual will engage in reparative prosocial behaviour—that is, the individual will attempt to repair the harm done to others.
Ironically, however, the positive dynamic of guilt-driven reparative behaviour can be disrupted by an initiative intended to reduce stress and conflict in the workplace: mindfulness meditation.
The goal of mindfulness meditation is to reduce stress and other negative emotions in the workplace that can impact individual performance and corporate results. Mindfulness meditation achieves this by helping individuals to be focused in the moment, in a non-judgemental way. A common and typical mindful meditation technique in the workplace is focused-breathing meditation, in which participants are asked to focus inward to their own body and mind by focusing on their own breath, paying attention to the thoughts and emotions that arise as they are doing so. The result is an induced state of acceptance and calmness.
A recent study from the University of Washington, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and ESSEC business school in France, however, reveals the unintended consequence of induced state mindfulness: individuals are so focused on looking inward that they pay less attention to other people and to relationships, and they care less about the emotions of other people. As a result, they are less likely to feel guilty about a transgression they may have committed, and thus are less likely to feel the need to ‘repair’ the social damage caused by the transgression.
Through a series of experiments, the authors of the study confirm that induced state meditation reduces reparative prosocial behaviour after transgressions because it reduces guilt.
In their final experiment, the researchers demonstrate the benefit of an alternative meditation technique: loving kindness meditation. This technique consists of bringing to mind other people and sending wishes that each is happy, healthy, and free from suffering. The differentiation between the focused-breathing and loving kindness meditation is clear: the first is inward-focused, the second focused on others. As a result, while the focused-breathing meditation leads to less reparation because of reduced guilt, loving kindness meditation leads to more reparation because of the increase in a different emotion: love.
The psychological benefits of mindfulness in reducing negative emotions have been almost universally praised. The purpose of this study is not intended to throw a boulder in the pond, but simply to alert managers and leaders introducing mindfulness exercises into the workplace of the potential unintended consequences of reducing negative emotions.
The study also shows that not all mindfulness meditation is the same, and that introducing a technique such as loving kindness mediation can generate the benefits of mindfulness without employees losing their concern for or focus on others.
Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Guilt and Prosocial Reparation. Andrew C. Hafenbrack, Matthew L. LaPalme, and Isabelle Solal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (December 23, 2021). http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000298
Further Relevant Resources:
Andrew C. Hafenbrack’s profile at University of Washington, Foster School of Business
Matthew L. LaPalme’s profile at LinkedIn
Isabelle Solal’s profile at ESSEC Business School
Ideas for Leaders is a free-to-access site. If you enjoy our content and find it valuable, please consider subscribing to our Developing Leaders Quarterly publication, this presents academic, business and consultant perspectives on leadership issues in a beautifully produced, small volume delivered to your desk four times a year.
For the less than the price of a coffee a week you can read over 650 summaries of research that cost universities over $1 billion to produce.
Use our Ideas to:
Speak to us on how else you can leverage this content to benefit your organization. firstname.lastname@example.org