Leaders today operate in an increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex & ambiguous) world. We know from research and personal experience that the world is changing at an unprecedented rate. Leaders are unable to develop their resilience at the same rate. Think about a typical day. We’re bombarded by emails, interruptions and demands even before stepping through the office door. The peripheral hum of requests is ever present, even when we’re not at work. Feeling stressed? No wonder. Research by Professor Mark Williams at Oxford University’s Mindfulness Centre demonstrates that we are more stressed today than we were 40 years ago.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the awareness of what is happening as it’s happening. It’s the ability to recognise and step out of autopilot. To move from the usual default mode of constantly doing to being present in the moment. A self-observation of thoughts, self talk, feelings and emotions without judgement. This can allow you to clear the mental clutter, providing greater clarity of thinking and decision making.
Who is using it?
Corporate interest in mindfulness has grown exponentially over the last 10 years. It’s likely that you’ll already have heard of it or know someone who practices mindfulness. Many organisations have developed their own programmes with Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) leading the way with Chade Meng Tan at the helm. The SYLI programme uses a combination of mindfulness, neuroscience and emotional intelligence with impressive results. Converts include the NHS, Transport for London (TfL), SAP, Salesforce, UKSport, Deloitte and Spotify. As facilitators of mindful leadership courses we’ve even worked with the V&A to develop a bespoke mindfulness programme. What all of the organisations we’ve worked with recognise is that creating and sustaining a mindful culture usually starts at the top.
Why become a mindful Leader?
Benefits of mindful leadership include;
- Stress reduction
- Increased resilience
- A reduction in burnout
- Metacognition (the ability to observe your thoughts, feelings & emotions)
- The development of emotional intelligence
- A more engaged workforce
- Increased positive emotional states
- Improved self awareness & self regulation
- Increased ‘flow’ state
- Greater team cohesion
- Reduced staff turnover
- Increased neuroplasticity
- Reduced stress related absenteeism
- Greater clarity of thought
- Improved decision making
- Increased creativity and innovation
Business leaders are increasingly recognising the value of mindfulness in the workplace. Dan Goleman outlines the benefits and results of practicing mindful leadership in his recent work ‘Focus’. So convinced of the efficacy of mindfulness, Janice Maturano, ex General Mills VP left to found the Institute of Mindful Leadership in the US with impressive results, forming what Time Magazine describes as a “Mindful Revolution”. Practicing mindfulness won’t magically decrease your workload, improve the economy or make your colleagues nicer to work with. What it will do is change the way that you perceive and respond to those events.
Mindfulness as a corporate metric
Leaders often become caught in a cycle of sacrifice, working long hours, emailing into the night, skipping lunch and breaks, neglecting precious time to renew. We know from extensive research that renewal is crucial in developing (and maintaining) resilience. Not surprisingly, what happens at the top of an organisation filters down resulting in a culture of sacrifice, running on empty with an absence of renewal. Such sacrifice is inaccurately viewed as a badge of honour or a sign of commitment. The opposite is true. Making time for renewal will ultimately improve your performance and that of your team. Mindlessly ploughing through will slow you down and increase your error rate.
In True North Bill George describes a mindful leadership style as one “transforming a workplace from ‘I’ to ‘We.’” Creating an environment where leaders provide a workplace space where individuals are supported and developed. It may sound counter intuitive but research by Case Western Professor Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee increasingly suggest that mindful leadership outperforms command and control every time – resulting in happier, healthier employees and ultimately higher productivity and profit. Our own research into the impact of an eight week mindfulness programme for leaders, ‘Bullet Proof 9 to 5’ers” demonstrated an increase in resilience (self assessed) of up to 50% and a decrease in stress for participants. The evidence suggests mindful leadership is good for leaders, good for employees and good for business.
As a leader how can you develop it?
The good news is that you can start to become a mindful leader right now. Professor Ellen Langer advocates leaders creating ‘environmental mindfulness’ in their organisations. But where to begin? As with all culture change, modelling behaviours from the top is often the most effective way to start. The quickest way to familiarise yourself with mindful leadership is to find a reputable course that will teach you how to apply the principles in a workplace setting. There are also some informal steps that you can employ right now:
10 mindful leadership hacks
- Set an intention to lead more mindfully
each day. This will place you in a mindset where you become conscious of your leadership and its impact on others
- Start with yourself. Create a ripple effect across the organisation by practising and modelling mindfulness on a regular basis.
- If you commute to work, try the S.T.O.P. practice each time you come to a red light (or a tube or train stop). Stop (S). Take a breath (T) and observe (O) how you are feeling. Notice any thoughts that occur and any sensations in the body, observing them
without judgement. P is for Proceed. It only takes 60 seconds and is a great way to build mindfulness into your day.
- Before you begin each day, whilst switching
your computer on, pause. Take a few mindful breaths, follow your breath all the way from the tip of the nostrils, into the nasal cavities, down the throat, into the lungs and out again. This practice will ground you before the day begins.
- Consider tech free meetings. Switch off for the duration of the meeting, ensuring that everyone is truly present and able to mindfully listen. It may sound radical, but try it and watch the dynamic of meetings change.
- Slow down. Self-regulate internally to break that doing, doing, doing cycle. Take a mindful pause before moving from one task, conversation or meeting to another.
- Set mindful reminders around the office to disrupt automatic pilot. Use sticky notes, a reminder app or set an alarm on your phone as a signal to stop and bring your attention back to the present moment.
- Remove obstacles. If you’re introducing mindfulness to your organisation ensure that you remove any systems or procedures that create blocks to a mindful environment.
- Be present. Listen to others, giving them your full attention. Bring
compassion and empathy to your communication. Really tune in to the emotional state of others as well as your own. Consider how you will respond rather than being reactive.
- Practice with others. If you are able to practice with your team or others who are interested it’s an effective way to build a regular mindfulness practice. Lunch time slots are great.
Boyatzis, Richard E., et al. “Examination of the neural substrates activated in memories of experiences with resonant and dissonant leaders.” The Leadership Quarterly 23.2 (2012): 259-272.
Goleman, Daniel. “Leadership that gets results.” Harvard business review 78.2 (2000): 4-17.
Pickert, Kate. “The mindful revolution.” TIME magazine 3 (2014): 34-48.
Gelles, David. “The mind business.” mind 5 (2012): 15.
Langer, Ellen J. The power of mindful learning. Hachette UK, 2016.
Gill Crossland Thackray is a business psychologist, visiting professor, consultant and trainer. She is currently conducting PhD research into the impact of mindfulness and compassion upon leadership efficacy. She is a member of the BPS, ABP, BNA, CIPD, ILM and a CPD qualified trainer. She holds an MSc in Mindfulness Studies and has trained with Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute She runs mindfulness at work courses and mindful leadership courses in London and Cumbria. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a complimentary copy of her research Bullet Proof 9 to 5’ers: A study of the impact of an 8 week mindfulness course on leadership resilience, stress and anxiety.