Mindfulness and its relevance in the workplace
Mindfulness is everywhere – what was once the provenance of Buddhists in mountain retreats is now being practiced in companies like Google, Unilever, Proctor and Gamble and GM, by CEOs in over 40 breakouts at DAVOS 2014, right the way to the trading floor in investment banks. Chade- Meng Tan, head of mindfulness at Google, drives an initiative to teach emotional intelligence through meditation, and their most popular class of the dozen that are offered has a waiting list of over 6 months. Goldman Sachs has moved up 48 places in Fortunes Magazines best place to work list, reportedly due in large part to its mindfulness classes and practices – Sally Boyle, head of human capital management for EMEA has said: “In years to come we’ll be talking about mindfulness as we talk about exercise now.” But is this just the latest fad, the latest panacea for a stressed society – or does mindfulness really bring something new to our understanding of people and the workplace?
The concept of mindfulness, of being aware in the present moment, and having a mindful acceptance of feelings and emotional states, has been around for centuries. Brought into secular practice predominantly through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn in the University of Massachusetts in the late 1970’s, it has become common place in clinical psychology and therapy, particularly in helping stress induced disorders such as depression and anxiety. However, there is has been a sudden mainstream business interest in the practice, likely driven by the recent and accelerating changes in society over the last 10 years. Our ever increasing pace of life driven by new technology, hyper-connectivity and rising expectations, coupled with increasing risk and declining levels of consumer and employee trust have led some leaders to reassess how they can stop and reconnect with themselves and others in more authentic and richer ways. Leadership Guru Otto Scharmer believes this shift to a “connection economy” provides new leadership challenges that require us to access awareness of our own selves and others and mindfulness is being explored as a way to cultivate these skills.
Academic research, neuroscience and case studies in mindfulness show multiple benefits to the practice, from increased resilience, clarity of thought, increased concentration and attention span, improved decision making, reduced stress and increased well-being. This is thought to come from two core psychological processes. Firstly mindfulness helps people decouple themselves from events, experiences, thoughts and emotions, which then decreases the degree to which these can automatically effect our thoughts and feelings. This in turn improves a number of other psychological processes including improved emotional regulation, enhanced working memory, increased persistence, and decreased rumination.
Whilst we all have a general level of “mindfulness”, some of us more mindful than others, it can be trained. This is predominately done through use of meditation techniques, from a full 8 week meditation course, through to simple 5 minute breathing exercises. However at its core, mindfulness has seven key attributes, all which can be cultivated in, and have a direct impact on, day-to-day working life:
- Fully sense situations vs continual analysis: The human brain has a huge capacity for continually analyzing, planning and comparing. However we often get carried away with this, and fail to take account of information we might be receiving from our other senses such as intuition and body language. As mindful leaders use all their senses and information available to make the best, balanced decisions available
- Making conscious choices vs operating on autopilot: We are programmed to respond unconsciously based on previous experiences and knowledge (see our article on Kanneman fast & slow thinking). This is a great evolutionary tool, but a mindful leader turns of the auto pilot regularly before making decisions and acting, to look at new information and the situation as it really is
- Accepting things as they are vs striving for preconceived ideas: Mental and emotional time is often wasted on thinking how things “should be” – when this is at its worst, it can become a toxic variety of tunnel vision where only perfection will do. This is both an issue of having too fixed preconceived ideas – a clear direction is important for success in business or tasks, but there needs to be space for flexibility and creativity – and also lack of acceptance of what is actually the outcome. Mindful leaders are able to accept things for what they are, and allows them to deal with problems or unexpected situations in the most effective and appropriate ways possible.
- Seeing thoughts as mental events only vs solid and real: We all get caught in the trap of having negative thoughts (eg “this is impossible, I cannot do this”,) which in turn breeds negative feelings (eg frustration, tiredness), and more negative thoughts (eg I feel so tiered, even if this were possible I do not have the energy). Increasing psychological flexibility – the ability to recognize and stop ruminative patterns of thought and focus on the positives – helps leaders remain motivated and focused. A mindful leader is able to see their thoughts as just mental events when they happen, and stop the subsequent spiral of negative feelings by reframing them positively.
- Approaching vs avoiding uncomfortable things: Mindful leaders are able to approach challenging and uncomfortable situations and personal thoughts and feelings straight up, rather than putting them off and letting them subconsciously influence the rest of their day. Like a trip to a dentist, suppressed, or avoided situations often take on a life of their own, becoming over inflated fears or worries that are actually far easier and simple than prolonged expectations make them out to be.
- Remaining in the present moment vs reliving the past or worrying about the future: As leaders, we know reflective learning is important – a post mortem or lessons learnt session teaches us a lot about our business. Conversely, it’s incredibly important to look forward – a good medium and long term strategy is vital to business success. However mindfulness teaches us that forward thinking and backward rumination are only useful when applied to the here and now. As a business, more time needs to be attended to the here and now, and mindful leaders benefit from spending less time ruminating about how something has been done in the past, or worrying about the future.
- Making time for nourishing activities vs just doing depleting ones: Work-life balance has been on the agenda for years, however mindfulness highlights the importance of identifying the tasks and activities that give us and our colleague’s energy. This can be in, and out of work, and can be small or large. A mindful leader makes time for these tasks and activities, and prioritises them along with the “big decisions” to improve not just work/life balance but also the quality of work.
Key sources include: Williams & Penman: Mindfulness, finding peace in a frantic world; Bush: Working with Mindfulness, Glomb, Duffy, Bono, Yang: Mindfulness at work, Research in personnel and human resources management; Chambers, Gullone, Allen: Mindful emotion regulation and integrative review, Clinical psychology review; George: Developing mindful leadership for the C-suite. Harvard Business Review; Hockman: Mindfulness, getting its share of attention, NY times; Yes, goldman sachs really is a great place to work, Fortune; Chade- Meng Tan: Search inside yourself