Leaders: Try a Little Mindfulness

The toxic work culture at the ride-hailing company Uber was among the reasons why a group of investo

The toxic work culture at the ride-hailing company Uber was among the reasons why a group of investors recently forced out its CEO Travis Kalanick. Company culture typically comes from the top; employees take their cues from company leaders about what behaviours are acceptable in the workplace. The issues at Uber, which received extensive media coverage, included battles between the company and its drivers over some of its compensation practices, and an investigation into around 200 bullying and sexual harassment allegations.

When Uber evaluates CEO and other C-Suite candidates, besides the traditional personality and competence assessments it should also evaluate their mindfulness, according to the results of a new study co-authored by several CEIBS faculty members. The researchers explored how leader mindfulness enhances employee performance, and their results show that leaders who are more mindful are more likely to follow fair principles (what academics call procedural justice) when making important decisions. This includes allowing employees to express their views, giving them influence on the decision, and adhering to ethical standards. In the case of Uber, it seems that the CEO mostly ignored the perspective of his employees (e.g. when they complained about company culture/practices) and of the drivers (when they complained about declining pay). A more mindful approach would have helped him to be open to the signals by his employees and to adhere to ethical standards, which may also promote performance in the organization. As the researchers found, this is in part because increased procedural justice reduces employees’ emotional exhaustion. This study by CEIBS faculty is one of the first to examine how a person’s mindfulness can influence the attitudes and behaviours of others.

The researchers conducted three studies in their exploration. The first involved an online survey of 277 US employees across a wide range of occupations and industries which asked questions designed to rate their leaders’ mindfulness and their own degree of emotional exhaustion and performance at work. The second study was done in China. The researchers surveyed 54 team leaders and 182 employees from various organizations in China. Leaders were surveyed on their degree of mindfulness and asked to provide contact information of at least five direct subordinates. The subordinates were later contacted and asked to complete an online survey that measured the degree of their leaders’ procedural justice and their own emotional exhaustion. Next, the researchers asked the leaders to rate their employees’ performance. The final study was a laboratory experiment. The researchers recruited 62 senior managers from various organizations in China and randomly assigned them to one of two conditions, an experimental condition (mindfulness), and a control condition (unfocused attention). The participants then listened to a 10-minute pre-recorded audio clip based on which condition they were assigned to, and afterwards completed a survey designed to measure their mindfulness and degree of procedural justice.

The results suggest that promoting leader mindfulness may be an effective way to reduce unfair behaviours. Besides measuring the mindfulness of candidates for supervisory roles, companies may want to promote a culture that recognizes and rewards the benefits of mindfulness. The researchers also suggest that companies should consider mindfulness training programmes. The improved employee well-being and performance that would result, particularly when mindful leaders are better able to follow fair principles in their decision-making, would seem to outweigh the costs involved.

The results of the study have been published by the Journal of Business Ethics in the paper titled “The Interpersonal Benefits of Leader Mindfulness: A serial mediation model linking leader mindfulness, leader procedural justice enactment, and employee exhaustion and performance”.

he authors are Assistant Professor of Management Sebastian C. Schuh, Lecturer of Management Michelle Xue Zheng, Professor of Management Katherine R. Xin, and Professor of Management Juan Antonio Fernandez . Read the paper here.