Research finds impacts of mindfulness and leadership style on employees' well-being

Joelena Leader

Dr. Megan Walsh (PhD) is an Assistant Professor of Human Resources and Organizational Behaviour whose research focuses on leadership, well-being, gender, and mindfulness. Walsh’s recently published study explores how employee mindfulness and leadership style can have an impact on well-being. The study revealed how mindfulness can intensify the relationship between leadership style and employee well-being in relation to their leaders’ leadership style. Unexpectedly, this work uncovered how mindfulness can negatively impact employees who have leaders with abusive leader styles. Walsh and colleague Dr. Kara Arnold (Memorial University) are continuing this work through a SSHRC Explore grant. Dr. Walsh shares more about her research in a Q&A.

Q: What was your research study about?
A: A large area of my research looks at how mindfulness can benefit us at work. I explore this through two different lenses – one, the benefit of mindfulness for leadership and secondly, the benefit of mindfulness for employee well-being in relation to their leaders. A study I recently published in the journal of Stress and Health with my colleague Kara Arnold, The bright and dark sides of employee mindfulness: Leadership style and employee well‐being, was based on my dissertation research and we are now exploring this topic further through a SSHRC Explore grant.

Q: What were some of the key findings and outcomes of your study?
A: In this study, we found that employee mindfulness can amplify the relationship between leadership style and employee well-being. For people who had transformational leaders – highly motivating, inspirational leaders – employee mindfulness boosted that relationship. If you were a mindful employee, then you would get the most out of that transformational leader which is a great thing for employees’ health. On the flipside, we found that if you have an abusive supervisor – somebody who puts you down, bullies you, leaves you out – and similar hostile behaviours, then employee mindfulness exacerbates that relationship. It makes it worse. This was not what we were initially expecting to find. We thought employee mindfulness would act more as a resource and help employees to maintain well-being despite any abuse they were experiencing from their leader. Unexpectedly we found that it can actually make the situation worse.

Mindfulness is a heightened awareness to the present moment, so when an employee is mindfully aware and paying close attention to their surroundings and inner emotions, then they may also be paying more attention to abusive leader behaviours and how bad it is making them feel. It is heightening that experience and having a negative impact on their well-being. It is not the most optimistic finding in terms of mindfulness playing a role in employee well-being, but it is interesting because there are likely many explanations for this.

Q: Could you share a bit about the methodology?
A: We used a time lagged survey asking employees at one time point to rate their supervisor to assess their abusive or transformative behaviours and then how mindful they were. At the second time point we asked them about their well-being. Given it is a survey methodology, there are many potentially confounding variables which is why we really need to look further into those findings. We want to look more in-depth into this relationship in future research and this is what our next study, funded by a SSHRC Explore grant, is looking at. My colleague Dr. Arnold (Memorial), Zhanna Lyubykh (PhD student from the University of Calgary) and I will explore the topic through other methods to examine the processes and to see whether there might be some boundary conditions explaining this relationship.

Q: What is the significance of the study?
A: This is one of the first studies to find a negative effect for mindfulness at work and we need to delve more into explanatory processes and other potential interactions that could be happening. This work signals to us that we need to take a critical eye in terms of looking at mindfulness whether it is through practice or research. That is, not assuming that employee mindfulness will have positive effects in every situation. It requires drilling into the interpersonal processes around this dynamic because much of the mindfulness research, and particularly focused on mindfulness in the workplace, has focused on how it helps us manage stress and the impacts. Understanding how mindfulness helps us relate to other people, on the other hand, is an under researched topic and I think that is where future work needs to be done.

Q: Do you have any comments about what these findings might mean for leaders and organizations during COVID-19?
A: I think during the pandemic many employees are looking to their leaders to be a source of support more than ever before. Transformational leadership training would be beneficial. That is one specific style we looked at in our study. Making sure leaders are being supportive, inspiring their employees, and giving them the resources that they need to work successfully in remote or unpredictable and stressful environments will be important. Again, seeing how employee mindfulness can boost that positive relationship is something I think we should take forward to the pandemic times. However, it is also important for organizations to ensure that their leaders are equipped to avoid abusive behaviour. Most leaders do not intentionally want to be abusive; rather, they often lash out because of their own feelings of stress or frustration. Making sure leaders have the resources and training they need to maintain good behaviour is key.

Q: What recommendations do you have for employees who have abusive leaders?
A: From the employee’s perspective, make sure you are recovering from work and trying to maintain your well-being despite those negative things that might be happening. Ultimately, that will help to make you more resilient. Be mindful of your own well-being and recognize how the workplace is influencing you as a person. It is also necessary to recognize when it is time to step away from bad situations or to address them directly – perhaps ask yourself if there are alternatives to working with this person or tell the leader or someone in HR how this behaviour is impacting you and your work. Taking what you can into your own hands and building that resilience to persevere would be the main takeaway.

Walsh is also collaborating on an Insight Grant with colleagues at Memorial University, University of Alberta and McMaster University on understanding how mindfulness can help leaders to mitigate destructive leadership and negative behaviours for improving leadership and well-being.

To learn more about Dr. Megan Walsh’s work, check out her Profile Page!

Walsh, M. M. & Arnold, K. A. (2020). The bright and dark sides of employee mindfulness: Leadership style and employee well-being. Stress & Health

Walsh, M. M. & Arnold, K. A. (2018). Mindfulness as a buffer of leaders’ self-rated behavioral responses to emotional exhaustion: A dual process model of self-regulation. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(2498), 1-15.

Hancock, A. J., Gellatly, I. R., Walsh, M. M., Arnold, K. A., Connelly, C. E. (2018). How do followers see their leaders and does it matter?: Insights from a person-centered analysis. Academy of Management Proceedings, vol. 2018, issue 1. Published online July 9, 2018.

Walsh, M. M., & Arnold, K. A. (2017). Mindful leadership and employee well-being: The mediating role of leader behaviours. In E. K. Kelloway, K. Nielsen & J. Dimoff (Eds.), Leading to Occupational Health and Safety: How Leadership Behaviours Impact Organizational Safety and Well-Being. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Arnold. K. A., Connelly, C. E., Gellatly, I. R., Walsh, M. M., & Withey, M. J. (2017). Using a pattern-oriented approach to study leaders: Implications for burnout and perceived role demand. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38(7), 1038-1056.

Arnold, K. A., Loughlin, C., & Walsh, M. M. (2016). Transformational leadership in an extreme context: Examining gender, individual consideration and self-sacrifice. Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 37(6), 774-788.

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