Research on Mindfulness and Leadership

Joelena Leader

Dr. Megan Walsh is an Assistant Professor of Human Resources and Organizational Behaviour whose research focuses on the key themes of leadership, well-being, gender and mindfulness. Walsh and colleagues Dr. Erica Carleton (U of S) and Kara Arnold (Memorial) recently won a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant to investigate the role of mindfulness in addressing stereotype threat for women in leadership.

Walsh studies how mindfulness can improve leadership styles. Walsh defines mindfulness as an “open and purposeful awareness and attention to the present moment that can typically be cultivated through practices such as meditation.” In her Ph.D research funded by a SSHRC Doctoral Scholarship, she found that being more mindful could help make leaders more charismatic and motivating, and can also help leaders avoid abusive tendencies, despite the stress of leadership positions. In another study, she assessed the benefits of mindfulness from employees’ perspectives in relation to leadership behaviours. “If you have a good leader and you are more mindful as an employee, your mindful awareness boosts the positive effect of a positive leader. On the other hand, if you have an abusive supervisor, which is alarmingly common in our workplaces, having that mindfulness should help buffer some of those negative impacts,” she commented.

In her current research project funded by SSHRC, Walsh examines mindfulness by looking at the benefits in relation to gender and leadership. Walsh and her colleagues are specifically looking at “how mindfulness can help buffer stereotype threat for women in leadership positions and also women who may aspire to become leaders” using both lab and field experiments featuring mindful interventions with women.
Stereotype threat occurs when a person becomes concerned about confirming stereotypes surrounding their own group and their performance tends to suffer as a result,” she explains.

A classic example is the stereotype that women are not as good at math as men. When women internalize this stereotype, they tend to perform very poorly on math tests, even if they are highly skilled in mathematics. Similarly, “when women are reminded about gender stereotypes in relation to leadership, the stereotype that women are not as effective in leadership roles as men, this tends to make their leadership aspirations suffer as well as performance if they are already in leadership positions,” says Walsh.

“The real root of the problem is that stereotypes about women are not based in reality.”

Research has shown that mindfulness can buffer the negative effects of stereotype threat in the classic examples Walsh provided, however, the application of mindfulness to leadership is an entirely new and innovative application that her research is investigating. Walsh commented that the “stereotype threat literature is well researched and well established in psychology and we’re extending those ideas from psychology and applying them to business.”

“Ultimately the more that we see women in leadership positions over time, the more the stereotypes start to change. What a leader looks like will begin to shift as well. We hope that interventions that develop mindfulness can be one tool to help more women reach those positions and ultimately change those perceptions. That is the long-term goal. That is my goal as a researcher – to change the way we look at women in leadership.”

There is drastic underrepresentation of women in leadership positions in Canada and more broadly. Walsh explains that, “at middle management levels, women tend to be represented more fairly, but when you get to the upper levels of organizations that’s where you typically see this huge drop-off; for example, only 7 percent of top tier positions in fortune 500 companies are held by women and stereotype threat is one factor that can contribute to that.”

“We predict our research will show that mindfulness is a valuable tool for women to consider using to help combat stereotype threat and organizations can look at it as a tool that they could implement in the workplace as well,” said Walsh.

The significance of this topic should not be understated. According to Walsh, “the real root of the problem is that stereotypes about women are not based in reality. We have ideas about what femininity looks like and then we have ideas about what leadership looks like. The problem is that those two representations do not match.”

She continued, “In terms of getting more women into leadership positions, ultimately the more that we see women in leadership positions over time, the more the stereotypes start to change. What a leader looks like will begin to shift as well. We hope that interventions that develop mindfulness can be one tool to help more women reach those positions and ultimately change those perceptions. That is the long-term goal. That is my goal as a researcher – to change the way we look at women in leadership.”

The next steps for Walsh and her research team is to examine whether gender stereotypes in advertisements on social media have an impact on leadership aspirations and performance for young women. They plan to use lab interventions to show the effect and impacts of mindfulness on mitigating stereotype threat influencing women leaders’ aspirations and performance. After the experiment, the team is going to conduct a 4-week intervention online with women leaders at the national level.

Walsh is also collaborating with colleagues at Memorial University, University of Alberta and McMaster University on future studies on leadership and well-being with the focus on integrating theoretical models and exploring interventions to improve leadership and well-being.

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

RECENT PUBLICATION HIGHLIGHTS

Walsh, M. M. & Arnold, K. A. (2018). Mindfulness as a buffer of leaders’ self-rated behavioural responses to emotional exhaustion: A dual process model of self-regulation. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(2498), doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02498

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.

Arnold, K. A., & Walsh, M. M. (2015). Customer incivility and employee well-being: Testing the moderating effects of meaning, perspective taking and transformational leadership. Work & Stress, 29(4), 362-378.

Arnold, K. A., Connelly, C. E., Walsh, M. M., & Martin Ginis, K. A. (2015). Leadership styles, emotion regulation, and burnout. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 20(4), 481-490.

Walsh, M. M., Dupré, K., & Arnold, K. A. (2014). Processes through which transformational leaders affect employee psychological health. Zeitschrift fuer Personalforschung. German Journal of Research in Human Resource Management, 28(1-2), 162-172.


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