Taking Mindfulness to Work
When I talk about mindfulness or meditation with my colleagues and friends, most of the time they are aware of the benefits to health and overall wellness. For example, people I know generally agree with the reports I’ve seen about how meditation reduces stress, exercise and deep breathing support the immune system.
However, when I talk with my clients (either directly or indirectly) about mindfulness in a business setting, I am sometimes surprised that there is not the same level of recognition of how mindfulness is an important leadership competency. I think this disconnect is the result of the need to answer two important questions:
What does “mindfulness” mean in the workplace setting?
What is the connection between mindfulness and personal/organizational effectiveness?
This blog will provide some context and answer these two questions. My intention here is also to extend an invitation to cultivate a mindset that promotes better leadership and better results.
Defining Mindfulness at Work
To address the first question, I would point to what I believe is the most simple and powerful definition of mindfulness, from Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness is “Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” In my experience, this mindset and its practices have very important applications to the workplace.
To begin with, paying attention is always a good thing. It is not always easy and not always pleasant to pay attention- but it’s always useful. At work, we are constantly paying attention to the things around us, including:
- Our customers, both internal and external
- Our processes, including decision-making, product development, delivery, innovation
- Communication (incoming and outgoing)
- Personal Productivity and individual effectiveness
At its core, being “mindful” means paying attention.
Simply superficially looking at things, however, is not enough. We must keep our purpose in mind. By purpose, I mean our direction and objectives. In terms of leadership effectiveness, what are we looking for when we pay attention to these things? It’s not enough to merely be aware of something- seeing an important team spiral downward into dysfunction when a key member leaves is not in itself valuable. More is demanded of leaders.
To refer back to the examples above, paying attention “on purpose” might mean we are asking the following questions in relation to the focus of our attention:
In regard to our customers:
- Am I achieving the results I want in terms of customer satisfaction?
- Am I leading and participating on teams in such a way that we are exceeding the expectations of our internal and external customers?
In regard to processes:
- Am I making the decisions the organization expects me to make?
- Am I measuring the right things in terms of efficiency?
- Are my teams functioning at a high level?
In regard to the quality of communication:
- Am I clear in communicating expectations to my team and do I fully understand what they need from me?
- Do people in my organization generally trust one another?
- How well are we managing conflict?
Regarding productivity and individual effectiveness:
- Am I spending my time in the most useful way, closely tied to my goals?
- How well am I managing my stress and the stress of others?
- Am I engaged in my work?
Kabat-Zinn’s term “non-judgmentally” means paying attention with acceptance and not with reactivity or undue urgency. This may be the most demanding component of mindfulness, because it requires us to stay centered and observant, and resist the urge to “fix” something that doesn’t need to be fixed at the moment. Paying attention non-judgmentally means observing with equanimity. If action is required, it happens in an informed, measured manner, not impulsively or in a “knee-jerk” way.
Making the connection
A few years ago I met Kiran Bedi, an inspirational woman who had served as a senior leader in Delhi’s police force. Dr. Bedi was responsible for officer training and drew considerable attention when she proposed that members of the force learn about something that had helped her be more effective in her own work: meditation. Meditation, she explained to her commanding officer, helps officers behave less reactively and make better decisions. When I heard her speak about this premise several years later, after hundreds of officers had participated in a huge meditation experience event, she put it very simply: “How can you regulate others if you cannot regulate yourself?”
For most of us, the levels of stress in our work do not approach those of police officers. But we do have stress, and the stressors aren’t likely to abate any time soon. So what can we do to practice mindfulness to reduce our stress at work?
Practices that work- at work
You can’t speed your way through mindfulness. It takes time and patience to create and maintain your own tranquil island in the often-stormy sea of the 21st century workplace. Here are a few suggestions that have worked for me and others I’ve counseled. Each could be the subject of its own blog (if not treatise), but they are worth noting briefly:
1. Transition time.
Whenever possible, create space between meetings. For example, end meetings at ten minutes before the hour to give you time to separate from a meeting before going into the next one.
2. Make time for physical and emotional balance.
We all know that exercise is good for our bodies, but the evidence is clear that it also helps reduce stress and helps us think more clearly as well. Emotional balance is important, too. This means paying attention to our emotional barometer and taking care of ourselves on this level. If you’re angry at work, if at all possible take a walk around the corridor or, even better, outside. If you are anxious about a presentation or deadline, acknowledge that. And do things that support you emotionally. For me, music helps a great deal, as does exercise.
This is a key tool for mindfulness, and one which comes up often in my individual work with clients. Although at work it can be challenging to create extended reflection time, shorter times work fine. The key is our focus during these times. I’m talking about reflecting in a non-judgmental way, as outlined above. Reflection does not mean brainstorming or data dump- it means creating some altitude and looking at our circumstances, and our contribution and reaction to them.
4. Practice, practice, practice.
The mindfulness mindset is, at its core, an intention. It’s directional. Turning that intention into productive habits involves practice. Consistent constructive actions, whether big or tiny, create new habits and positive change. But that takes practice, because moving toward more of what we want means facing into the headwinds of our day-to-day activities and routines.
I am working on bringing mindfulness into my work life whenever and wherever I can. I invite you to do the same and enjoy the results, and I am interested in learning about your experience.