Mindfulness at work increases generosity

November 27, 2019

Research by Professor Gretchen Spreitzer finds that even a brief daily meditation leads to more positive behavior toward others.

Key takeaways:

    • People who engage in mindfulness practices at work display more helpful behavior afterward, toward both customers and colleagues.
    • This effect occurs even with a fairly small investment of time, such as seven minutes of daily meditation.

Companies have been turning to mindfulness practices for years to help employees reduce stress and work more effectively. But recently, researchers have started to wonder if mindfulness offers interpersonal benefits as well.

Gretchen Spreitzer

Gretchen Spreitzer

In a new paper, Michigan Ross Professor Gretchen Spreitzer and colleagues find that engaging in mindfulness exercises at work — even a simple seven-minute meditation each morning — leads to more helpful and generous behavior.

“Mindfulness is being in the present moment — not being distracted thinking about what just happened, or being concerned about what’s coming next. It’s being aware of how you are feeling and behaving in the present moment, without judgment,” Spreitzer explained.

Seeing the value in the concept, many companies now offer guided meditation, breathing exercises, or yoga classes, with promising results reported on health and stress levels. Spreitzer and her colleagues, however, wanted to know if engaging in mindful practices also affects behavior toward others.

“When you are more present in the moment, does that also allow you to be a better colleague, to be more helpful, to be more compassionate? And, indeed, that’s what we found: People were more helpful,” Spreitzer said.

Spreitzer and her colleagues conducted several different studies, in different settings, all of which supported the core finding that mindfulness practices lead to more generous or helpful behavior. The results were recently published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Spreitzer collaborated on the work with Andrew C. Hafenbrack of the University of Washington’s Michael G. Foster School of Business, Lindsey D. Cameron of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Chen Zhang of Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in China, Laura J. Noval of the Imperial College Business School in the United Kingdom, and Samah Shaffakat of Liverpool John Moores University’s Liverpool Business School in the UK.

In one study, some employees of an insurance company’s call center were asked to do a slightly different mindfulness exercise each day for a week. The researchers found that employees who engaged in mindfulness exercises were more helpful to callers. “They actually spent more time on the calls as a result of being more mindful. They were asking more questions, really trying to understand the situation, and addressing the purpose of the call,” Spreitzer said.

Another study conducted at an IT consulting company found that employees who engaged in a brief, focused breathing meditation were judged by their colleagues to be more helpful than those who did not meditate. A third study found that people randomly assigned to meditate for a few minutes were more financially generous afterward.

The researchers concluded that mindfulness inspires positive behavior in two ways: by increasing empathy toward others and by seeing things from other people’s points of view. Overall, the findings suggest that a company can gain happier customers and a happier workplace by introducing mindfulness practices.

“It doesn’t take a major investment of time,” Spreitzer said. “It can just be seven to 10 minutes online, listening. And that makes it much more palatable for a business.”

Gretchen Spreitzer is the Keith E. and Valerie J. Alessi Professor of Business Administration and a professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

This article was originally published as a Ross News Blog post.