The art and science of mindfulness
We’ve all done it. In a fit of fury or just plain annoyance, we’ve hastily typed a snarky email to a colleague and hit ‘Send’, without first thinking of the repercussions. It’s known as action addiction: often when things happen we want to fix it immediately. There’s even a neurological incentive to do so: we get a hit of dopamine from feeling like we’ve taken quick, decisive action.
It’s human nature to act before thinking, right? It is, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. The concept of mindfulness is not new; in fact, as a concept it is over 2,500 years old. However, its relevance to the corporate world is increasingly being recognized thanks to recent developments in neuroscience.
Detailed brain scans show that the practice of mindfulness changes both the physical structure and activity of regions of the brain associated with emotional regulation, memory, learning and decision-making. In addition, mindfulness practice reduces reactivity, giving us a bit of space to choose our responses rather than reacting automatically. These capabilities are critical for effective leadership and, with mindfulness training, they can be enhanced, regardless of where you’re starting from.
“Mindfulness practice is essentially attention training combined with attitudes which promote awareness and self-control,” says Eric Winters, trainer and coach, Chocks Away Mind Skills Consulting. “The result of mindfulness is greater awareness – of self, others and context – and less reactivity. These mindfulness skills are foundational to greater emotional intelligence.”
For professionals, being aware of your own state, your intuitions and strengths, and having a greater ability to manage your emotions and behavior, supports the notion of authentic leadership – that is, being able to more consistently walk the talk.
“Teams respond well to people they experience as genuine,” says Winters. “Relationships with teams improve as people sense they are truly being listened to rather than neglected or taken for granted.”
Mindfulness also develops empathy for others, a vital trait for sustaining productive working relationships. And noticing how others respond to your leadership is valuable feedback in recognizing what’s effective and what is less helpful leadership behavior.
Stress buster, Innovation booster
Life is stressful and so is work. An acronym helps to sum up what we all face: PAID – that is, Pressure, Always on, Information overload, Distracted.
“These pressures impact our productivity, creativity and even our wellbeing,” says Gillian Coutts, senior trainer, The Potential Project. “The pace of change externally now is constant and organizations need to adapt, so this idea that we’ll be able to control and get all the ducks lined up in a row and then life will be great is not the reality. We can’t use the methods we’ve used in the past to grapple with the issues we currently face.”
For all employees, the enemy of innovation and creativity is stress. When we’re stressed our minds narrow to focus on the threat at hand, and our thinking is habitual. Mindfulness can help diminish stress and nurture the broad, open and flexible thinking required for innovation. Indeed, Winters notes that one of the most important aspects of mindfulness is that it helps us to step out of autopilot, when we behave and think in routine ways, and instead step into more flexible thinking and behavior required for innovation.
Despite being picked up and utilized in companies like Sony, Microsoft, GE and Amex, there is naturally scepticism from many when anything to do with changing the way the brain functions is proposed, and mindfulness is no different. Yet neuroscience provides a rigorous scientific evidence base for the effects of mindfulness practice.
There are, naturally, some misconceptions that need to be cleared up. Mindfulness is not, for example, an approach to empty the mind. It’s not an approach to make you feel better. It doesn’t require any odd sitting postures or chants.
“The objective is not to reach some sort of enlightened state,” says Winters. “It’s not something you have or do not have. Mindfulness is a skill, a capacity we all have to some degree. Mindfulness practice allows us to develop that skill to improveour ability to make better choices and live and work more effectively.”
Mindfulness can be learnt either in groups with a mindfulness teacher guiding its practice, or by listening to a recording guiding your attention. The ideal approach involves a combination of the two.
“It’s taking that capacity you’re building neurologically and placing that within the workplace setting, so you then end up with both an individual impact, and at the same time there starts to be an organizational cultural shift where you start to move towards these enhanced behaviors. It helps to move it away from the airy-fairy,” Coutts says.
Like most things in life, mindfulness can be sustained, but it requires the discipline of regular daily practice. The Project Group recommends daily 10-minute practice, which can be done at home or in the office. “It’s like a muscle-building or physical exercise – once you stop training you lose the benefits after a while,” says Coutts.