Do you know about the marshmallow test?
No, it’s not about seeing how many marshmallows you can toast and eat by the fire. It’s the classic Marshmallow Study conducted in 1968 at Stanford University by clinical psychologist Walter Mischel that became one of the longest running experiments in psychology. The initial study examined 600 children to see how they would behave when given a marshmallow and left alone. Each child was given a choice: wait for the experimenter and you get two marshmallows or just eat the marshmallow while you wait.
It’s fascinating to watch some of the children’s strategies for handling the choice. Subsequent follow-ups demonstrated that the children who waited – in other words, delayed gratification – performed better later in life with academics, attention, stress management and relationships than kids who rang the bell first (ate the marshmallow).
You may be wondering – what’s a 1968 study about children and marshmallows has to do with workplace relationships? While “mindfulness” was not on any scientist’s radar screen back then, the marshmallow study speaks to early patterns of self-control that follow us into our adulthood. Impulse control is learned early, and what’s still not completely understood is how much is native to a brain or learned through the power of social conditioning.
One thing is certain – while some of us may be born with more of a predisposition towards patience and self-discipline, none of us are born with the skills to be mindfully self-aware.
Take a few (delightful) minutes to watch this video of the children participating in the marshmallow study. Which one would you guess is most like you were as a kid? As much as I would like to think I had the willpower of the kid in the zebra suit, I’m probably more like the girl who ate bits of the marshmallow till it was gone and then took matters into her own hands and went looking for the person in charge.
Work Relationships are Rarely Easy
As I’ve written before in these pages, mindfulness is a skill that requires a commitment, over time, to develop and maintain desired behaviors. A daily meditation practice is only one way to engage acting mindfully. While there’s ample evidence of the physiological benefits of regular meditation, the practice alone won’t necessarily transform how you relate to other people.
Mindfully relating to others at work is an especially challenging and important skill. After all, relationships are the foundation of business. Business happens because people make it happen. Unless you work completely alone, you get things done with and through other people. And “performance” is based on feelings, even when those feelings are outside of conscious awareness.
One of the most significant findings of the last two decades is a greater understanding of the social nature of brains. Advances in our understanding of social neurobiology, show that our interactions with others shape our brain’s neural pathways including those that are genetically programmed. Recent studies show that the brain responds to nonverbal messages and emotional cue throughout life.
In his book, The Developing Mind, social neurobiologist Daniel Siegel uses the phrase the “feeling of being felt” to describe relationships that shape the mental circuits responsible for memory, emotion, and self-awareness. Brain altering communication is triggered by deeply felt emotions that register in facial expressions, eye contact, touch posture, movements, pace and timing, intensity and tone of voice.”
What You Value
If we value the growing body of neuroscience that demonstrates the impact and power of neural interdependency, the question becomes one of choice in deciding how to relate to others. Developing greater mindful awareness of our communication habits is one level of proficiency in relationship building. But it takes a deeper understanding of our motives in relating to others, especially in work relationships, to build mindfulness that can become our default state.
Developing greater mindfulness is a practice, the definition of which is simply, “done with repetition.” While you may want to be more mindful with your manager, expanding mindful awareness of your habits, in all of your work relationships, will give you better insights than simply focusing on one person, although that may be a good start. While there is often a tendency to want to “solve” our more intractable people problems first, try to resist the temptation to start with the most “difficult” person you know.
For beginners, it’s helpful to practice mindfulness when you are more relaxed to give yourself the space to calmly observe your reactions and those of others. Recognize that mindful awareness is not an “event” or “technique” or “strategy” that you use. Rather it is a commitment to a way of being that is transforming not only how you behave but how you perceive the world.
11 Ways to Practice
While you may not have much choice in who you work with, you can choose how you want to behave with them. When you behave towards other more mindfully, you’re likely to increase that others will perceive your positive intentions, even if your communication or actions aren’t perfect.
But remember intentions without actions won’t amount to the changes you would like to experience. “First, said the Greek sage and philosopher, Epictetus, say to yourself what would you be; and then do what you have to do.”
Thanks for reading,