Mindfulness is not about tuning out to reduce stress, but about getting unstuck, feeling less stretched and expanding the range of what’s possible. Here are 6 reasons for mindfulness at work that will help you respond to ambiguity and disruptive change.
From Stress Reduction to Expanding Possibilities
You’re a functioning leader, manage stress well, and enjoy good relationships with your colleagues most of the time. So why would you want mindfulness at work? If your image is of someone tuning out to reduce stress, or becoming so calm and chill they become indifferent—then maybe you don’t. But mindfulness is not just periods of self-care, but the deliberate cultivation of foundational skills attention and connection, leading to capacities you didn’t even know you had. In this APA-cited study, 6-week mindfulness training at work was shown to reduce work-life conflict, increase job satisfaction and increase the ability to focus attention.
The benefits of mindfulness are clear: enhanced attention, empathy and resilience, and reduced anxiety and stress. But it’s the stress reduction part that has stuck in people’s minds. Perhaps this is because the early work occurred in clinical settings, e.g., Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s pioneering at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
[click_to_tweet tweet=”People who practice mindfulness DO experience less stress, not because they avoid or deny it, but because they have expanded their capacity to deal with what life throws at them.” quote=”People who practice mindfulness DO experience less stress, not because they avoid or deny it, but because they have expanded their capacity to deal with what life throws at them.”] It’s like expanding the water intake pipe into your house from ½” to ¾ or even 1”. There’s less stress on the pipe (you) because there’s greater capacity to carry the flow. This greater carrying capacity that our world demands is why every leader should practice mindfulness, for it builds capacities of mind and heart that prepare you for an unpredictable world.
6 Reasons for Mindfulness at Work
Your attention is more in demand than ever
You are constantly being bombarded by information. With 24/7access to information and entertainment, you become accustomed to a constant pull for your attention. Yet as Herbert Simon first pointed out, a wealth of information can lead to a poverty of attention.
Your attention is also being systematically highjacked by social media. As Tristan Harris, of Time Well Spent points out, consumer technology is intentionally designed to become addictive. This may build advertising revenue at the cost of your personal well-being.
The demand to multi-task is pervasive. But constant switching of attention degrades the quality of attention. You become used to a constant but shallow stream attention vs the deep attentional thought that wicked problems require.
- You need to learn to selectively direct your attention, at will
The quality of your results depends on the quality of your relationships
Knowledge work is relational and team oriented. You work with a range of clients, suppliers or stakeholders. Their needs may be hard to define, impossible to fulfill; at the very least they change regularly. The people you work with may be contract, project based or come from another culture. To deliver results, you depend on the work of others. So the quality of your work results ultimately depends on the quality of relationships of people you work with.
- You need to learn to communicate with agility and sensitivity
Fear is a realistic response in an unpredictable world
The rising levels of anxiety are not a sign that we are crazy, but that we have good reason to be afraid. My executive clients stay awake at night for very good reasons; global volatility, trade wars, climate change, technology disruption all lead to massive uncertainty. Chronic low-grade fear (aka anxiety) can lead to poorer cognition, weaker memory, loss of flexibility, and poor judgment. Just think of one or two poor decisions you have taken in the past. What was your state of mind at the time? (I know. Not good!)
- You need to manage emotional reactivity in order to make sound decisions.
Overdrive doesn’t work forever
Many of us (myself included) pride ourselves on our work ethic and our ability to deliver results in demanding environments. We learn to enjoy—become addicted to?—the adrenaline rush of high performance. But top athletes know that sustained peak performance demands cycles of intensity then rest and recovery. We can sucked into protracted period of supposedly high performance, but not realize the quality of our output has shrunk. Constant overdrive has high physical and emotional costs, and is ultimately a poor use of talent.
- You need to develop sustainable cycles of high performance and recharging.
You are on autopilot more than you know
Studies have shown that up to 50% of the time, we are on autopilot, performing in well honed habit grooves. Specific regions of the pre-frontal cortex are associated with what is called the default mode network. In my book Mind Your Life, I call this the Default Attentional Network—DAN. This part of our brain is actively when we are not intentionally thinking about anything in particular. The trouble with DAN is twofold. First, it works well in times of stability, but not in times of change. Second, this background activity is usually not pretty, involving rumination, doubt, endless what-ifs or envious fantasies.
- You need to recognize automatic thinking and develop creative new solutions.
You need to lead yourself if you want to lead others
Whether it’s business school, professional training or specialized credentials, we all have multiple ways to learn ‘the tools of our trade’. In a globally competitive world, these are no longer a competitive differentiator. How do you become the kind of person that others want to work with? The leader that inspires others. Athletes know that beyond their outer game of skill training, they also need to develop their inner game of mental and emotional resilience,
- You need to manage yourself before you can manage others.
Developing mindfulness at work goes well beyond stress reduction. What would happen if you could direct your attention at will, communicate with agility, manage your instinctive emotional reactions, know when and how to recharge, move beyond stale automatic thinking and manage yourself first? Not only would you be a different kind of leader, you’d be a different kind of person. You’d have moved from feeling stretched to flourishing, bringing out your inner potential, and deliver results you had not thought possible.
For an introduction to practicing mindfulness at work—or anywhere— check out my book Mind Your Life: How Mindfulness Can Build Resilience and Reveal Your Extraordinary.
For additional resources or training, check out Jeremy Hunter, the Founding Director of the Executive Mind Leadership Instituteat the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University, whose work has inspired this blog.
A co-author of the APA cited above is Julianna Raye. Check out fabulous online training at Unified Mindfulness