We have seen mindfulness sessions at the Davos Economic Summit in Switzerland, widely respected corporate leaders such as Arianna Huffington talk eloquently about mindfulness in her book Thrive and a growing number of highly respected world class academics have published numerous research papers and highly readable books on the subject. It’s also easy to plug into this mindfulness movement via online applications such as Headspace and Smiling Mind.
The science (or neuroscience) behind mindfulness is now coming into focus. We are beginning to understand more clearly how it can affect the brain’s thinking process and, perhaps more importantly, how it can positively change the way the brain thinks, how it affects our emotional responses, and our future outcomes in life.
As an executive coach I have been deeply interested in this whole field on mindfulness for many years, but have definitely noticed that discussions on the subject with executives and HR professionals have moved from the “are you crazy” to the “how can it benefit us.” Mainstream businesses are now looking at the latest research and some leading edge risk takers are even rolling out mindfulness programs, with extraordinary success.
The Search Inside Yourself program at Google is a great example of using mindfulness to develop new positive styles of thinking and behaving. With a degree in Electronic Engineering myself, I can justifiably say that engineers are not always recognized for their empathy and softer people skills. Google’s aspirations with Search Inside Yourself is to encourage the growth of emotional intelligence abilities in their engineers. And the development of a habit of mindfulness to allow them to notice their old conditioned patterns of thinking and move into more choiceful, empathetic behaviours when interacting with colleagues. Google also wanted their engineers to develop more ‘mental space’ for big ideas. As an added bonus, mindfulness can provide many other positive benefits.
Much nonsense is still talked about mindfulness however, so if you are considering introducing mindfulness for yourself or your organisation, but don’t know where to start, or what the possible business benefits could be, then my experience of the scenarios below may be helpful to consider.
This is the most common reason that I find organisations and individuals are looking at mindfulness. It’s becoming clear that our western model of business is coming under more and more pressure. In the United Kingdom in 2013/14, the Health and Safety Executive has reported that 39 per cent of all work related illness is due to stress, anxiety or depression – a total of 11.3 million working days.
The pace of change of technology, social and commercial innovation has created a business world where executives are always on call, always available and always having to deal with ever more complex and demanding problems. The world is getting more complex and our attention is always switched on, which is a state of hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is associated with the biological fight or flight response and largely driven by the stress hormone cortisol. We evolved the biological stress response to keep us safe in a dangerous primitive world where survival meant we humans would need to react quickly to run away or fight. Once the danger had passed our physiology would return to a normal resting state. Not so in the modern world where executive stress is constant and relentless. Prolonged heightened levels of cortisol is associated with all kinds of bad outcomes, including heart disease, diabetes, depression and hypertension.
By developing and regularly practicing a state of mindfulness, we become more able to observe our moment–to-moment thinking, much of which is unconscious and can often be the source for negative feelings such as anger, fear, frustration, self pity, indignation and envy. If we are able to consciously notice, and make sense of, our thoughts, feeling and actions, we can also choose to break out of unhelpful patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving to create more positive and helpful outcomes.
Often in my coaching sessions, I sit across from executives who are in a continuous and mindless state of suffering. Their minds are running repetitive thoughts of worry about the future and the past. These ‘mind loops’ are thankfully easy to spot when executives are taught how to mindfully breath and slow down overactive neuropathways. They can then consciously understand how the brain perceives the present moment based on past experiences. Wouldn’t it be wonderful instead if we could all mindfully chose to celebrate life by feeling calm and centered, having more kind, engaged relationships through seeing the best in one another, with a positive attitude of gratitude for our daily life. We know that life is a very precious thing and that one day it will come to an end. So in the meantime let’s enjoy every moment by realising how.
Science tells us that a state of mindfulness engages the parasympathetic nervous system – the one associated with calm, objectivity and balance. Science also tells us that the daily practice of meditation results in positive changes to the brain’s neural circuitry to make it easier to become mindful thereby allowing practicing individuals to break out of old unhelpful thinking habits to create the conditions for them to make better choices and, by association, achieve better outcomes at work and in life generally. In my view the only valid reason for not engaging in the practice of mindfulness is if no one has yet told you of the great personal benefits.
One caveat that I would raise is to be careful that your organization does not use mindfulness as the only tool to deal with executive stress. Just because you have rolled out a mindfulness program does not absolve your business from responsibility for executive burn out.
2. Leadership Development
Every few years, at least, most large organisations will run a leadership development program for their top talent. There are an endless number of variants, models, techniques and tools that can be included in such programs: emotional intelligence, strategic leadership, situational leadership, coaching conversations, conflict management, systems thinking etc, etc. Many of these models, tools and techniques are helpful and, when used effectively, can improve individual leadership performance. So why do most leadership initiatives fail to deliver sustained positive results in the longer term?
The problem is – “same old thinking, same old results”. Our subconscious thinking habits have been acquired throughout our lives. We experience the world through our five senses and every historically significant experience we have had contributes to the process of connecting arrays of neural cells in our brains, thus determining how we think, feel and behave in the present as a response to external stimuli. This is what I call past thinking. It is our personal reality, or personality.
I believe that leadership development programs can only bring real results if they enable the creation new habits of leadership thinking, feeling and behaving. Mindfulness is the key that accelerates development and opens the door to new levels of performance. Mindful leaders have a keen sense of intuition, and have the ability to bring focused attention to old unhelpful patterns of biased thinking and feeling. Continuous mindful use of new leadership models, tools and techniques improves cognitive focus and quickly results in new thinking, feeling and behaving thereby resulting in new outcomes. In my experience, mindful leaders are more resilient, less judgemental and better able to cut through the unhelpful chatter of ever-present organizational politics.
It is empowering to understand that mindful leaders simply make better decisions. They know how to self-inquire, to make decisions from a place of calm, rather than fear. Perhaps a lesson for our political leaders as well.
3. Innovation and Creativity
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them; they cannot be changed without changing our thinking”
Albert Einstein penned this sentence around 80 years ago, but today it still really resonates and lives for me. Many people are trapped inside narrow constraints of black and white thinking. By nature, human beings want to bring order and certainly to an uncertain world. We often don’t feel comfortable or safe in an environment that is unknown or uncertain. We naturally tend to rationalise, identify, organise and bring certainty. This tendency is driven by our primitive need as human beings to feel safe and secure in our environment. The problem is that this can lead to black and white thinking that stifles openness, curiosity, creativity and innovation. Old thinking begets old outcomes. New thinking and exploration requires that we are open to taking risks that challenge our sense of security and personal safety. We must be prepared to be vulnerable. Brené Brown puts this point across beautifully in her book The Gifts of Imperfection:
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”.
Innovation and creativity require us to have the ability to break free from old Newtonian type cause and affect thinking. Future thinking requires that we have the capability to stand in the present and imaginatively sense the limitless possibilities that have not yet happened. We must bring the future to life in the present. This can only be achieved if we are truly mindful of our old conditioned patterns of thinking and fully open to future possibilities. Symbolically we must let go of the old and visualise new scenarios at a deep level so that we can experience the heightened emotions associated with achieving new outcomes. Not an easy concept to grasp, but one that underlies the emerging understanding of human creativity.
It is my very firm viewpoint, the time now is upon us to bring the latest science-based knowledge of the workings of the human brain out of the science laboratory and college classrooms and into the boardroom, executive offices and business meeting rooms. I believe we are at the very beginning of a new era in the way we work and do business in the modern world. We are moving from an industrial and technology-centric world into a more human-centric world. There is a growing recognition that the external economic and social stresses of globalisation must to be balanced by also taking care of our inner world of spirit, purpose and personal fulfillment.
Noel Brady, Senior Partner at Inside Out, Global Executive Coaching Firm
Image: Mindfulness via Shutterstock