I’ve been reflecting on some recent research into workplace motivation published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (and reported in The New York Times) by Kathleen D. Vohs and Andrew C. Hafenbrack, which concluded that meditation was not a good thing for workplace productivity.

This was surprising to me, given all the evidence about intrinsic motivation and its connection with performance, which underpins the work I do with high performing teams.  However, digging into the primary research in more detail than a newspaper editorial permits, the reality behind the shout-out headline becomes apparent—and less relevant to the kinds of work we’re usually talking about.

Fundamentally, their research was not about team activities; it was about individual tasks. And it also dealt with issues of productivity in soul-deadening, industrial-era type of tasks, like repetitive office administration.  A lot of these jobs still exist, or elements of this kind of activity interspersed with the more creative and flowing types of work which can bring greater feelings of satisfaction and autonomy. And to an extent, it stands to reason that being mindful about your filing might not be especially helpful—when you are occupied in something boring but necessary, being present in the moment is probably neither a requirement nor a joy.

Time-traveling to an imagined better future, or reflecting on lessons learned, might be a better use of your attention when you’re doing tedious work—work that neither inspires you nor uses all of your creativity.  So it’s not surprising that focusing wholly on being present in the moment might impair motivation overall. And if “management” views the purpose of motivation as being to drive change toward a better a state of the universe (for example, one in which all the filing is finished), then a practice which encourages acceptance of things as they are in a calm and focused manner will not drive completion of mundane tasks more rapidly.

It surprised me that this question needed answering in the first place. Are we so obsessed with finding “meaning” in everything that we can’t just get the job done for mechanistic tasks? Is it good enough to just get work done and to find fulfillment and purpose in what we do outside of work? It has been postulated that trying to impose meaning and value-driven motivations on people who are just not “feeling it” can actually have an adverse effect. When people feel a need to fake some kind of existential alignment with organizational values or compromise what really motivates them about their work, the result is burnout and greater stress.

It’s far better, in my opinion, to focus on group awareness and meditation. What really motivates the team as a whole? What helps them align with each other to become something truly synergistic? How do the combine together into a creative force greater than the sum of the individuals?  Very few of us work in isolation. Focusing on the team as the unit is what leads to greater cohesion and connectedness—which in turn leads to higher productivity and performance.

Knowing yourself and your intrinsic motivation is the first step toward aligning together as a highly effective emotionally intelligent team. It’s about shared accomplishments and shared success. We should encourage everyone in our organizations toward greater self-knowledge and awareness… Not because it will make them do their filing or invoicing more quickly, but because it will lead to better alignment and engagement teammates, and we’ll all benefit.

It doesn’t matter what the task is. The janitor who told JFK, “I’m helping put a man on the moon!” didn’t need an exercise in mindfulness meditation to mop the floor more effectively. He was aligned with the mission of his high-performance organization, and that was all the motivation he needed.