There’s a fundamental contradiction when organizations ask employees to maintain a fast pace of work and be creative. What often happens in hectic workplaces is that employees resort to autopilot or habitual ways of working. When they don’t have the time or space to incubate novel and clever ideas, they may miss out on opportunities to reframe a problem and see new possibilities for potential solutions.
How do you help your team develop their creativity? Research has found that a short period of mindfulness training can have a positive impact on creative output. To explore this idea further, we conducted a study with a midsize U.S.-based real estate firm to examine whether a mindfulness training program could influence a team’s creativity.
In our study, we split up a team of 10 people into a meditating group and a control group. To start, we gave all 10 people a creative task: to brainstorm as many unusual uses for a brick as they could think of. Then we administered a 10-minute mindfulness exercise and afterward asked them to continue brainstorming the creative task. We found that seven out of 10 people increased the number of creative ideas they had in only 10 minutes. This experiment corroborates previous studies and went a step further to see how the team as a whole was affected by a weekly mindfulness intervention and training. With this same group of people over the course of five weeks, we administered a group creative task and found that the meditating group identified double the number of creative ideas as the control group. The group process was noticeably different, where the meditating group was 121% more able to build on the ideas of others. When we create group dynamics that are in flow, where one person’s idea spurs another person’s, the idea develops to a point that it wouldn’t have on its own.
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With mindfulness techniques we have an opportunity to strengthen the creativity of our work teams. We know that mind training can nurture key areas in the creative process. The burgeoning research suggests that people who practice mindfulness have more cognitive flexibility, are able to see beyond what they’ve already done, and are better at solving problems requiring insight. This facilitates what creativity experts refer to as the incubation and insight stages of the creative process. Mindfulness requires time and attention, or nonconceptual awareness, where a person does not get stuck thinking about ideas they have had in the past and observes everything as if they are seeing it for the first time, which contributes to turning off the autopilot driving thoughts and actions. The research indicates that people are open to more-original ideas after just a brief meditation practice. And when we apply this to a team of people, we begin to magnify this effect.
Both the research mentioned above and our own research suggests that to foster a culture of innovation, leaders need to give greater attention to their employees’ mindsets and consider championing mindfulness practices throughout their organizations. By cultivating milieus where employees are encouraged to be creative, they’re able to move past a mere focus on organizational efficiencies and to develop ways of working and thinking that haven’t been seen before.
Companies such as Google and Aetna offer corporate-based mindfulness programs to strengthen their employees’ emotional intelligence and well-being. Other firms are following suit to either develop their own mindfulness programs or hire a consulting firm to help integrate mindfulness into their cultures.
What else can companies do to develop mindful teams and cultures? Here are some steps they can take:
Connect mindfulness to corporate values. Demonstrate a deliberate intention to develop a mindful culture by linking the mindfulness benefits to the organization’s stated values. For example, if “embrace and drive change” is a value, as it is at Zappos, highlight how mindfulness practice facilitates greater awareness of cognitive and emotional reactions to change. Through this awareness employees can become cognizant of their fear of the unknown, see more objectively, and react less habitually to create greater opportunity for change.
Create corporate-based mindfulness programs. Train employees in mindfulness practices and in how to apply the benefits to daily life. For instance, ask employees to consider: (1) which habits support efficiency and which habits get in the way of considering something new, and (2) how the creative process works and what methods can integrate that process into the workplace.
Supplement in-house leadership development programs. Offer a condensed version of the corporate-based mindfulness program during routine leadership training sessions.
Allow for mindful moments. Offer opportunities for employees to slow down, to incubate, and to see with fresh eyes. In meetings, for example, kick off with a brief settling-in period. Offer people the opportunity to become fully present to the agenda at hand. By taking a deep breath, invite employees to leave past concerns and future worries aside until the meeting is over. This contributes to developing an attentive mindset.
You can also provide quiet places in the office where employees can meditate. We call these “wellness rooms.”
Provide the proper resources. Offer employees resources for developing their creativity and mindfulness practice: webinars, meditation aids, lunch and learns, speaker series, retreats, and so on.
Organizations have an opportunity here. Simple mindfulness practices can begin to shift their teams’ levels of creativity and can be a necessary tool for addressing the complexities of today’s workplaces.