Mindful Leadership: A Closer Look at an HR Trend

Post originally appeared at Emergenetics International.

I just returned from a week-long session with a group of HR leaders at which we discussed current trends in leadership development. One quickly percolated to the top – the mindful leader.

Mindful leadership is a phrase that gets thrown around to describe a leader-like characteristic organizational leaders want to see in others and also incorporate into their own lives. In general, HR leaders agree that organizations need leaders who are not only self aware, focused, strategic and creative, but who also are mindful of how they make decisions and interact with others. Relationships are key in today’s economy. So to help their employees grow, some of these companies practice mindfulness exercises as a part of their leadership development smorgasbord.

This fascinated me. While it’s well documented that mindfulness is generally beneficial, I wondered how these organizations wove a traditional Buddhist practice into their cultures. How was it affecting those who learned a meditative practice as well as those who didn’t choose it? Did employees feel it was mandatory? Who taught the classes? Did the teachers know how to help the students through tough patches? Of those who started a practice, who continued on?

These questions circled because I recently coached an executive who worked in an organization that practiced mindfulness exercises as an option for decreasing stress at work. He was so excited about what he was learning and how it made him feel that he decided to integrate a short meditation into the first 60 seconds of his team and division meetings. Bad call. Because of his status in the organization, people felt obligated to follow his lead and didn’t want to offend him. However, the practice wasn’t a fit with most of his colleagues who felt he should keep his mindfulness discovery to himself. He came close to losing the trust and respect of the people with whom he worked.

Five years ago I started a daily mindfulness practice. I generally enjoy its benefits, but at times I can’t concentrate because of external thoughts or physical discomfort. To be honest, sometimes I don’t want to sit and meditate for 20 minutes so I skip it. I do have a teacher who draws me back in for one reason – I feel less stressed when I meditate on a regular basis. With it I’m more centered, observational and creative. I know this is not very scientific, but I feel better. However, the process isn’t easy and takes focus, drive and commitment. This kind of choice isn’t for everyone; in fact, it’s very personal.

The HR leaders in my group pointed to current research showing that practicing mindfulness leads to more grey matter in the brain. In one particular study, “concentrations of grey matter increased in areas of the brain responsible for memory, learning, emotional regulation, self-referential processing and perspective.” Here’s another point: After an eight-week mindfulness practice, part of the brain’s flight, fight and freeze center, the amygdala, showed decreased density by imaging on the right side. As the amygdala shrinks, the prefrontal cortex, associated with awareness, concentration and decision making, becomes thicker. These relatively new findings seem to hold a lot of promise.

As the HR leaders talked, something else tugged at my thoughts: If someone practices mindfulness, develops better awareness and decreases stress, she’s able to better regulate her environment. After all, if she is more capable, she can work harder and longer. So, who really benefits from the mindful leadership training if it’s sponsored by an organization?

In that moment we were talking about the upsides of mindfulness, but a negative side could be perceived. Furthermore, I know from experience that many organizations like to take on programs without fully thinking through all the ramifications of their choice. The client situation I mentioned earlier in this post illustrates a possible negative outcome. I told the HR leaders that I’m not against the practice, I simply wanted them to realize any potential pitfalls in their desire to help their people. After all, they are uniquely placed to be stewards of organizational culture and leadership development.

Instead of using a traditional Buddhist approach to mindfulness in organizations, I suggest a secular approach that involves noticing the moment. I’ve been drawn more and more to Ellen Langer, Ph.D.’s work in mindlessness and mindfulness at Harvard University. Some have dubbed Dr. Langer the Mother of Mindfulness. She describes mindfulness “as the simple act of actively noticing things with a result of increased health, wellness and happiness.” She encourages people to focus on the present state. She’s never meditated in the Buddhist sense and she says that “eastern notions of meditation inspire post-meditative mindfulness, which is different from actively noticing in a present state.” Her unconventional studies illuminate what neuroscience pinpoints: “Our experience of everything is formed by the words and ideas we attach to them.”

Actively noticing things is quite specific and more powerful than simply saying that one wants to be present. What does “being present” really mean, especially to someone who is potentially unaware or mindless to the present moment? The act of noticing immerses us in the present state and allows us to observe something that will alter our perception of the experience. When I sit back and observe someone, I can either rely on my experience of that person or my judgment, which won’t get me anywhere new. If, on the other hand, I decide to look for three new things about that individual, my perception of the person evolves and grows. All of a sudden it opens a new world based in curiosity. This is awareness at its core.

Here’s what it comes down to: If you actively notice someone’s behavior, you’ll start to see things that weren’t perceptible before. By doing so, you may learn something new about that person that questions a belief or perception you had. That’s what the Emergenetics Profile sets people up for beautifully. By illuminating behavior on a sliding scale, you’re given a framework in which to operate. This is a simple way to practice what Dr. Langer describes as mindfulness—and, according to the research I mentioned above, get smarter in the process.

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