Only recently, while running a mental resilience workshop for middle managers, I was cornered during the coffee break by the Head of Department.
“So this is a pleasant surprise – no candles, no woo-woo. This stuff is amazing. We need to teach this to all our staff.”
To me, this is a fair comment. With the rise of McMindfulness, I am more than happy to let people decide for themselves whether mindfulness training is of benefit to them. There is no need for brainwashing or hype.
So what is the business case for training leaders in mindfulness approaches (MA)?
One working definition of mindfulness could be: “Mindfulness is the deliberate act of observing our thoughts with kindness and curiosity.”
Within the last 30 years, this simple technique has gained support in many areas of 21st Century life. Examples include the adoption of mindfulness by the NHS to deal with depression and recommendations by the UK government that education, health and business should adopt mindfulness practices.
Research has shown that mindfulness can enhance attention, control, concentration, relationships, emotional intelligence, resilience, decision making, productivity, effectiveness, time management, creativity and cognitive performance. Studies have also shown that mindfulness can reduce absenteeism, anxiety and mitigate the negative impact of stress.
Therefore, it is not surprising that mindfulness has been adopted by a number of organisations including Apple, Google, IKEA, General Motors, and Proctor and Gamble.
Mindful leadership training focuses on the potential of mindfulness as a means to enhance leadership. Through the practice of mindfulness, leaders are effectively developing a mental muscle. Just as we work out at the gym to improve physical resilience and strength, when practising mindfulness we are training our mind to watch mental activity without preference. This allows us to ‘step back’ and see what is arising in our thoughts without being hijacked or caught up by our habitual patterns.
Space is now created between us and our thoughts. It allows us to understand that we don’t have to identify with our thoughts or follow our established routines or thinking. It is within this one-second moment more skilful actions are chosen rather than reacting in a predictable and habitual way.
Therefore, with regular practice, the more skilful states of mind that we practice with, we begin to ‘re-wire’ our minds. Over time, we become less reactive and more responsive.
Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, eloquently describes why we should pursue mindful leadership:
There is no best way to do anything independent of context, so the leader cannot have privileged information. When leaders keep everyone in their place with the illusion of know-ability and possession of this privileged knowledge the benefit to them is that we “obey” and leaders feel superior. The cost is that they create lemmings. Their mindlessness promotes our own mindlessness which costs us our wellbeing and health. Net result, the leader, the led, and the company all lose.
It’s nice to imagine a company where everyone is mindful. But it will take some time to achieve the ideal even if possible. Meanwhile, we need leaders whose major, perhaps only task is to promote mindfulness in those around them. By learning how to exploit the power of uncertainty maybe all of us will wake up.
In a business context, mindfulness training can develop three main areas of benefit to leaders:
Increasing our ability to focus, allows us to listen fully and gain understanding, rather than adopting our usual knee-jerk reaction. We are able to ‘see’ how our own bias can affect our interactions with others.
Developing awareness of our thoughts, speech and behaviour gives us a level of emotional regulation. Destructive emotions can be brought under our control alongside a less judgmental attitude. With a consistency of practice, we become less inclined to adopt ‘expert mindset’, rather we create enhanced conditions for novel and innovative ideas to naturally arise.
When we live in the present we begin to realise that a lot of our thoughts are driven by anxiety (future) or guilt (past). Living in this present moment allows us to approach situations, challenges and decisions with clarity and discernment.
Of course, there is always an option to add a candle or two, but these are not essential to get the best out of mindful leadership training.