Racing to never-ending deadlines, work piling up, doing more with less. Employees are asked for higher quality, faster turnaround time, greater efficiency and more innovative output….but is creativity possible with today’s workplace mindset where “busyness” is the modus operandi?

There is a fundamental problem with organizations trying to be both efficient and generate innovate ideas. The corporate culture is biased toward rewarding an accelerated pace and greater cost-consciousness. However, more often than not, companies fall back on their fine-tuned “autopilot,” habitual ways of dealing with day-to-day issues. When asked for something new and creative, employees tend to tweak what has already been done. There is little time to germinate, to think of novel and clever ideas. In other words, the current focus on efficiencies is the antithesis to cultivating a creative environment. And yet, the global IBM CEO’s report (2010) warns us that in order to remain relevant within the complexities in the 21st century, we need to think creatively. It cites a survey in which only half of the leaders polled thought their firms were prepared to face the “highly volatile, increasingly complex business environment.”

More often than not, companies fall back on their fine-tuned “autopilot,” habitual ways of dealing with day-to-day issues. When asked for something new and creative, employees tend to tweak what has already been done.

So how do we develop this creative and agile workplace? We start with a shift in mindset. A purposeful slowing down, a re-calibrating of our minds by stepping out of the fray. Slowing down can actually help us speed up.

“When you slow things down, you stop the autopilot”
Bill Duane, Superintendent of Well-Being and Sustainable Performance Learning at Google.

As a leadership consultant and social scientist, I have been investigating mindfulness and its impact on the creative process in the workplace. One good definition of mindfulness comes from the Greater Good Science Center: “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” With mindfulness, practitioners purposefully focus their attention on the present moment, either in a formal daily meditation or informal mindful moments.

Over the last few decades, mindfulness research has suggested that people who establish a mindfulness practice not only support their health and well-being by decreasing stress and re-balancing physical and emotional systems (Dane & Brummel, 2013), but also help shift their mindsets in order to see novel ways of working. Most importantly, perhaps, it doesn’t cost anything—or at least not much!

Slow Down to Speed Up: How Mindfulness Fosters Creativity

Mind training can nurture key areas within the creative process. The burgeoning research suggests that people who practice mindfulness have more cognitive flexibility (Moore & Malinowski, 2009), are able to see beyond what they’ve already done before, and are better at solving problems requiring insight (Ostafin & Kassman 2012). This facilitates what creativity experts refer to as the incubation and insight stages within the creative process (Csikszentmihaly, 1996). Mindfulness requires time and attention, or conscious non-attention, to the problem at hand to help turn off the “autopilot” driving our thoughts and actions. When a mindful person is working on a creative task, they are able to focus their attention fully on the problem, then step away to focus fully on something unrelated. This shift of attention allows for ideas to incubate and a creative insight to develop. If that person’s attention is scattered,  past ruminations have a tendency to mix with expected ways of seeing the problem and possible novel ways of solving problem. Research suggests people are more open to original ideas after just a brief meditation practice (Moore & Malinowski, 2009), (Ostafin & Kassman, 2012).

Mind training can nurture key areas within the creative process. Research suggests that people who practice mindfulness have more cognitive flexibility, are able to see beyond what they’ve already done before, and are better at solving problems requiring insight.

With many approaches to mindfulness, certain methods appear to nurture different skills. To enhance creativity, the technique of open awareness meditation is recommended and has been found to promote divergent thinking, a style of thinking that generates many new ideas (Colzato, Ozturk & Hommel, 2012). Open awareness meditation is a process of perceiving and observing sensations without focusing on a fixed concept like your breath. Although the person may start with attention to the breath, they soon move to monitoring awareness without judgment or getting caught in the story behind the sensation….allowing sensations to just come and go. When solving problems that require creative thinking, open awareness meditation helps to release “autopilot” ways of thinking so the person can see with “fresh eyes.”

When solving problems that require creative thinking, open awareness meditation helps to release “autopilot” ways of thinking so the person can see with “fresh eyes.”

To better understand this connection between mindfulness practice and increased creativity, this spring, I studied two workgroups in a mid-sized Connecticut real estate firm as they brainstormed critical work issues. Remarkably the workgroup who received five weeks (one hour each) of open awareness mindfulness training found a significant increase in attention and awareness and higher levels of creative ideas. These promising findings (to be published early in 2017) encourages organizations to take this phenomenon seriously.

The research suggests that to foster a culture of innovation, leaders need to give greater attention to the mindset of their employees and consider introducing mindful practice throughout their organizations. By cultivating opportunities where employees are encouraged to think outside the box, they move past a mere focus on organizational efficiencies and develop new ways of working together to foster creative thinking, decision-making, and so on. It could be that an unexpected mix of employees to solve a problem or unique working hours provides a better fit for a particular project, for instance.

Companies like Google and Aetna offer corporate-based mindfulness programs to strengthen their employee’s emotional intelligence and well-being. Other firms are jumping on the bandwagon and following suit to either develop their own mindfulness program or hiring a consulting firm to support integrating mindfulness and related practices into their culture.

5 Ways Companies Can Create a Mindful Culture

Here are key areas where organizations can influence the shift in mindset:

1. Connect mindfulness to corporate values. Demonstrate deliberate intention to develop a mindful culture by linking mindfulness to the organization’s stated values. For example, if “Embrace and Drive Change” (Zappos) is a value, highlight how mindfulness practice facilitates greater awareness of a person’s thoughts and feelings. Through this awareness employees can begin to recognize their fear of the unknown, see more objectively, and react less habitually to create greater opportunity for change.

2. Corporate-based mindfulness programs. Train employees in open awareness mindfulness practices and how to apply the benefits to daily life. For instance:
• What habits support efficiency and what habits get in our way of considering something new.
• How the creative process works and methods to integrate that process in the workplace.

3. Supplement in-house leadership development programs. Offer a condensed version of the corporate-based mindfulness program during routine leadership training.

4. Allow for mindful moments. Opportunities for employees to slow down, to incubate, to “see with fresh eyes.” In meetings, kick off with a brief settling in. Offer the opportunity to become fully present to the agenda at hand. By taking a deep breath, invite the employees to leave past concerns and future worries aside until the meeting is over. This contributes to developing an attentive mindset.
• Wellness rooms: Provide quiet places to meditate.

5. Provide access to resources. Offer employees resources relating to developing their creativity and mindfulness practice: webinars, meditation resources, Lunch and Learns, speaker series, retreat offerings, etc.

Organizations have an opportunity here. Simple mindfulness practices like open awareness meditation can begin to shift an employee’s mind for the better and can be the necessary answer to today’s more complex workplace. Why not have a healthier, happier, more connected, and innovative work culture….when you can just pay attention to the present moment: the sounds, the environment, your feelings, your thoughts, and your physical sensations. Sometimes the most complex problems require the most basic response.


Colzato, L. S., Ozturk, A., and Hommel, B. (2012). Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Front. Psychol. 3:116. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00116

Csikszentmihaley, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and innovation. New York: Harper/Collins.

Dane, E. & Brummel, B. J. (2013). Examining workplace mindfulness and its relations to job performance and turnover intention. Human Relations, 67 (1), 105-128.

Moore, A. & Malinowski, P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and Cognition. 18, 176-186.

Ostafin, B.D. & Kassman, K.T. (2012). Stepping out of history: Mindfulness improves insight problem solving. Consciousness and Cognition, 21 (2), 1031- 1036.

Ellen Keithline Byrne

Ellen Keithline Byrne, PhD candidate, is the founder and managing partner of Elle Partners, a leadership consulting firm. She and her colleagues focus on cultivating innovative leaders and teams to develop mindful, courageous and vital work environments where the business and staff thrive together. Ellen is a PhD candidate in Human and Organizational Systems, Licensed Professional Counselor, and Certified Professional Coach. Prior to her focus on professional and personal development, she was in sales for Xerox Corporation. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, Steve, and has three children.


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