We’ve all heard of mindfulness and in recent years it’s been making its way into the workplace but how does it relate to leadership and can it really impact our effectiveness to the point where it contributes to the bottom line?
Leadership has changed and expectations have changed with it. It less about instruction and more about inspiration, less about managing and more about motivating. We need to meet constant work demands and look after those who work for us too. To deliver on expectations and results but remain balanced and avoid burning out in the process. It’s just as critical to lead ourselves though as well as leading others. We know, as leaders, we’re expected to deliver results. But it’s as much about how we deliver as it is what we deliver and as leaders we cause a ripple effect across our departments and business units. The tone we set, the way we show up and the examples we set ripple throughout our teams and therefore our business.
I’ve been a senior leader and I’ve had the privilege throughout my HR career to work with many others and be involved in Leadership Development in different businesses, various industries across multiple countries. I’ve noticed some reoccurring themes in terms of what works well and what doesn’t. I know how leaders engage employees and the impact this has not just on team morale but their performance too. I have also developed a passion for mindfulness through my own journey and personal experience as a leader and how I’ve seen it work when brought into the workplace with my own programmes.
We know that if our employees thrive so do our business results. They are the ones, after all, responsible for the output. We also know as leaders that if we are to meet our targets and deliver on our expectations we need a good team around us who will support us and go the extra mile. Understanding others is key as is the ability to motivate, inspire, listen, trust and empathise with them – all skills mindfulness helps us develop. But our ability to lead others really does start with the ability to lead and manage ourselves and where mindfulness can make the difference.
I learned mindfulness many years ago as a way of managing my stress and workload as a busy leader and it did this, but so much more. The more I practiced the more benefits I experienced and this lead to an impact on my productivity I’d never anticipated.
The biggest impact for me has been having a clearer, focused, sharper mind and how this has increased my effectiveness. We know what it feels like trying to wade through paperwork, a never ending to do list and back to back meetings when we’re tired, can’t think straight and our brain feels a bit foggy. We have this multitasking myth that we can do many things simultaneously. In fact we feel it’s a necessary skill in a world where we have to do more things in less time. Yet a Harvard study suggests that rather than multitasking our brains are in fact just switching from one thing to the next very quickly and therefore not really focusing on any one thing properly. Mindfulness is training the brain to focus on one thing at a time and give the present your unwavering attention and concentration.
Sounds slow perhaps? Let me introduce you to the concept of slowing down to speed up. If we focus on one thing at a time it doesn’t take as long to complete and what we produce is likely to be of better quality. If we have decisions to make or problems to solve it is also not likely to take as long when we’re thinking clearly and not trying to focus on other things at the same time, hence saving time. If we get things done right the first time we don’t have to re-do them and if we’re operating at our best it doesn’t take as long.
Many scientific studies now done on mindfulness have found that it alters the brain, the grey matter increases and those who practice experience physical changes in the brain as a result. By improving the brains function we are also improving our effectiveness. But beyond the physical impacts mindfulness has been linked to; improved sleep, lower blood pressure, better memory and less stress there’s much more.
When we practice mindfulness we become more aware, of ourselves and of others. This can have significant impacts if we’re in a meeting room full of people we need to influence and we can tap into skills of empathy and awareness to help better understand our audience and how the meeting is going. But this awareness also equips us with the ability to navigate difficult conversations and conflict resolution whilst tapping into the self-awareness that helps us regulate our own mood and reaction to frustrations.
When we train the mind to focus and be present we’re more alert to what’s going on around us. We can hear the unspoken in a meeting by noticing body language and the feeling in the room. When we are in a meeting and focused we hear what’s being said rather than thinking about our to do list or what’s for tea with only half an ear on what’s actually happening right in front of us. Thus making us better able to learn and respond too.
A clear mind is also a spacious mind. Think of a glass of dirty water, it’s murky and you can’t really see anything in it. Now sit it on the table and watch the sediment sink to the bottom and clear water settle on top. This is like the mind. When we rest it and take time to be still and quiet the busy thoughts subside, the fog clears and we get clarity on top. In this clarity we have space to think, to have ideas, to be creative. This helps us with solving problems but also making sound decisions.
And it doesn’t stop there. Mindfulness has also been linked to Emotional Intelligence (EQ) which we’re also starting to hear a lot more about in the Leadership space. EQ is now considered to be more important than IQ in terms of our success as a leader. Emotional Intelligence is considered to help with better communication and relationship building. It is the ability to manage our self and better understand others. To empathise, motivate, persist in the face of set backs, manage frustrations and regulate our mood. It allows us to think before we act and plays a key role in decision making, self-esteem and resilience.
Mindfulness also trains the brain to be a more positive place which helps with things like Imposter Syndrome and negative self-talk when we’re under pressure at work or settling into a new promotion. Mindfulness is the new must have leadership skill alongside the likes of Emotional intelligence and Executive Stamina. So how can we develop it?
By making the most of the momentary pauses in our day and prioritising time to sit and just be. This can be difficult in a world where we’re conditioned to be doing rather than being. But remembering the concept of slowing down to speed up, these few minutes spent being still and quiet save us more time throughout the day with our energised, sharp, focused mind-set. For me it’s 10 minutes each morning when I get up sat with my eyes closed focusing on my breathing. It’s taking time to notice what’s around us on the walk to work and tuning into how we feel and taking some deep breaths each time we pause to wait for the lift, the bus, the kettle to boil or between meetings. It’s taking a walk in the park at lunchtime and noticing the sights, sounds and smells or doing a guided meditation before bed. There are so many opportunities to practice mindfulness but in our technological age these pauses are often filled with multitasking on our devices which has the opposite effect on our mind.
It’s like training a muscle though, it takes practice, little and often is the key and it won’t happen overnight. We don’t walk into the gym and expect to lift the heaviest weight. Start small and build up, keep it consistent and you’ll notice a difference. Similar to when we’ve been training at the gym for a while we don’t just feel strong whilst we’re at the gym but all day. Mindfulness is like a mental gym and given our current mental health statistics is something we should all be investing in to help thrive as individuals and help our businesses flourish.
Those in New Zealand can take the first step on this journey and learn from those who’ve brought this into their life and organisations and what it’s done for their business as well as their own personal performance. Check out the first NZ Mindful Leaders Conference in March 2018 and register for tickets here
Jess Stuart is a former HR professional turned Author & Coach with a passion for Mindfulness. With 15 years working in personal development and leadership development across many industries and countries visit the business page of the website for more www.jessstuart.co.nz