Posted 12.26.2017 | by AMRA

When workplace conflicts boil over into outright expressions of hostility, employees may feel harmed and mistreated and workplace functioning is disrupted. Liang et al. [Journal of Applied Psychology] conducted a series of four studies to test if mindfulness plays a role in decreasing hostile and aggressive behavior in places of employment.

The first three studies examined whether mindful awareness and acceptance can weaken the link between feelings of hostility and the overt expression of those feelings. The fourth study explored the ways in which mindfulness might accomplish this.

The first three studies used employees from Amazon MTurk (average age = 36-39 years; 44%-48% male), a crowdsourcing Internet marketplace, as participants. The fourth study drew employees (average age = 37 years; 49% male) from a larger employee database.

In the first study, 101 employees visualized and described a past negative incident with their supervisor. Participants were then randomly assigned to either a mindful awareness, mindful acceptance, or mind wandering condition. In each condition, participants read flashcard statements designed to elicit one of these mental states. The cards included statements like “consciously attend to your breath for a few seconds” or “let your mind wander to whichever thought it wants.”

Afterwards, participants were presented with a voodoo doll representing their supervisor and asked how many pins they would like to stick in it. The flashcards participants read affected how many pins they chose to use (partial η2=.07). The mindful awareness group used significantly fewer (6 pins) than the mind-wandering group (15 pins). The mindful acceptance group (8 pins), however, didn’t differ significantly from the mind-wandering group.

In the second study, 342 employees completed the Mindful Attention and Awareness Scale (MAAS), the Acceptance sub-scale of the Philadelphia Mindfulness Scale (PMS), and a self-report measure of feelings of hostility towards their supervisors. They also rated how often they acted hostilely towards their supervisors by being rude, making fun of them, etc. The results showed that when mindful awareness was low, the positive relationship between hostile feelings and hostile actions was significantly stronger than when mindful awareness was high. Mindful acceptance had no significant effect.

In the third study, 82 employees completed daily surveys measuring their hostile feelings and actions towards their supervisors over the course of a workweek. They also completed measures of daily mindful awareness (adopted from the MAAS) and daily mindful acceptance (from the PMS). Hostile feelings and actions were significantly positively correlated when mindful awareness was low, but not when it was high. Mindful acceptance did not have a similar effect.

The fourth study explored whether mindful awareness weakens the link between hostile feelings and aggressive actions by decreasing either “surface acting” or rumination. “Surface acting” is pretending to be friendly while hiding one’s true negative feelings.

A total of 204 employees completed 3 online surveys spaced one week apart. The first survey assessed hostile feelings towards supervisors; the second assessed surface acting and rumination; the third assessed mindful awareness and expression of hostility toward supervisors. Mindful awareness, anger, and expressed hostility were measured as in the second study. Surface acting was assessed by self-ratings of how often employees hid their true feelings or pretended to feelings they didn’t have. Rumination was measured by self-ratings of the frequency of intrusive supervisor-related thoughts.

Once again, higher levels of mindful awareness significantly weakened the link between angry feelings and hostile actions. Higher levels of mindfulness were significantly associated with lower levels of surface acting and rumination. When surface acting was high, there was a significant association between feeling angry and expressing hostility, but not when surface acting was low. Levels of rumination, however, didn’t affect the strength anger-expressed hostility link.

Altogether, these results show that mindful awareness weakens the link between experiencing anger and expressing hostility in the workplace. Mindful awareness promotes self-control without resorting to the faking of positive emotion.

Employers wanting to reduce workplace aggression might consider either hiring employees who are higher in trait mindfulness, or offering mindfulness training as part of a conflict-management intervention in the workplace.

Reference:

Liang, L. H., Brown, D. J., Ferris, D. L., Hanig, S., Lian, H., & Keeping, L. M. (2017). The dimensions and mechanisms of mindfulness in regulating aggressive behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology.

[Link to abstract]