The golden heart of soft skills

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Written by Liz Hill-Smith on 1 September 2013 in Features
Features

Mindfulness is becoming more accepted as a tool for developing leaders, says Liz Hill-Smith

Many leaders are running on autopilot. The constant demands of their roles build strong patterns in how they pay attention, and in their typical responses. While these often serve them well, this can reduce their recognition of, and responsiveness to, new and challenging situations.

Great leaders are typically good at creating the space to reflect, and to be able to select from a wider range of responses to situations. If we can take greater command of our thoughts and self-talk, we can increase our capability to develop creative solutions to complex problems more effectively. Mastery of this competence can transform a person from an exceptional technical thinker into a better performer all round.

In this article, I will explore what mindfulness is and how the mindfulness 'industry' is evolving. I will look at how mindfulness practices have recently established a strong credibility in the health field, and are now gaining traction in organisations operating at the forefront of leadership development. I will examine what impact mindfulness has on three areas of particular importance to organisational leaders:

  • strategic decision-making
  • innovation and creativity
  • emotional intelligence.

I will also examine what is actually happening in a couple of case-study organisations, which have been encouraging mindfulness practices for some time, and the impact this is having on their leadership community and on organisational outcomes.

In conclusion, I will provide a summary of the current status of mindfulness in the world of soft skill development, and signpost areas for ongoing exploration and experimentation.

Defining mindfulness and its benefits

So what is mindfulness? It is about bringing one's complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis, without judgment.

Initially it came from teachings from Eastern cultures, particularly Buddhist traditions. Mindfulness is one of the eight constituents of the Noble Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha in founding Buddhism almost 2,500 years ago. However, it is often taught now independently of religious or cultural connotations. In the late 1970s an American doctor, Jon Kabat-Zinn, attending a retreat led by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, saw the potential of mindfulness for treating chronic medical conditions. He later adapted Hanh's teachings on mindfulness into a structured eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course, which has been validated as a clinical intervention.

Psychotherapists have adapted and developed mindfulness techniques, using them in conjunction with cognitive behavioural techniques to achieve successful outcomes.

In 2013 mindfulness is becoming increasingly talked about and understood. Mindfulness practitioners, including Buddhist monks, are popping up everywhere to teach it to leaders in business, children in school, depressed people, stressed people, to anyone who wants it. Recognised programmes, such as Kabat-Zinn's MBSR, are now recommended in the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence's health guidelines in the UK1, and there is rapid growth in accreditation programmes for practitioners and trainers in the field. There are more than 200 iPhone apps for mindfulness, with this number rising every month, and more than 3,000 books available.

Now that the cost of doing MRI scans is coming down, more research is being done into the impact of mindfulness on brain size, activity and changes.

Yet what is so difficult about mindfulness that it needs so many books, apps and accredited programmes? At its essence, it is basically a simple technique that involves breathing and, focusing only on that breathing, being entirely present in that moment, accepting thoughts and feelings that come by, and letting them pass on without judgment. Variations can include paying attention to what is going on in various parts of your body, in turn, or in paying attention only to the immediate task in hand. Some people develop mindfulness because pursuits such as regularly playing a musical instrument can foster it. However, it is usually learned through a mixture of guided instruction and personal practise.

Learning how to do it is easy, and basic practices can be introduced and taught in minutes. What is very much harder is to make it a regular habit. To create the time for even a few minutes of mindfulness in a busy day can be very challenging. Mindfulness is often boring and, while doing it, it is easy to think of something that needs doing that gives a good reason to step away from it. Like exercise, it is through practise and repetition that real benefits build. Mindfulness is like exercising the muscles of the brain, yet it is a very easy exercise to skive off.

That said, mindfulness has established a strong credibility in the health field. Since 2009 it has been written into the NICE guidelines for treatment of depression to which UK clinicians now turn for most up-to-date recommendations on treatment. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is specifically recommended for people who are currently well, but have experienced three or more previous episodes of depression. Interestingly, the 'dosage' size is also quite precisely spelt out in the NICE guidelines - eight weeks' worth of two-hour sessions plus four follow-up sessions over the following year.

Experiments with school children using mindfulness in the classroom also suggest a reduction in symptoms of attention deficit disorders2. There is more to be explored around the health impact of mindfulness, and researchers have commented that, because of the focused nature of medical trials, there are likely to be wider potential benefits that have not yet been noticed. 

The use of mindfulness techniques in the field of sports further adds to their credibility. Dr Steve Peters, who coached the Team GB cyclists to astonishing success in the London 2012 Olympics, has mindfulness concepts at the heart of his approach3.

The credibility from the health field is, however, making it easier for mindfulness to gain acceptability in the field of management and leadership development. There are many parallels between the benefits seen from its practice and the competences that organisations want to see in their leaders, particularly in today's constantly changing world of organisational life. The list of large organisations at the forefront of leadership development that have run or are running mindfulness programmes is a long one. It includes Google, General Mills, AOL Time Warner, Apple, AstraZeneca, BT, Deutsche Bank, IBM, McKinsey, Procter and Gamble, Reebok, Transport for London and many others4.

Although mindfulness is often positioned as a support to employees in reducing stress, other benefits are also frequently noticed. For example, Transport for London offered a six-week group stress-reduction workshop. Teaching mindfulness techniques alongside psycho-education and cognitive behavioural therapy, the number of days off for stress from those attending the course fell by 71 per cent over the following three years. Absences for all conditions fell by 50 per cent over that time. In addition, 80 per cent of participants reported improvements in their relationships, 79 per cent improvements in their ability to relax, 64 per cent improvements in sleep patterns and 53 per cent improvements in their happiness at work5.

So mindfulness clearly has positive benefits for the stressed, the depressed and for children with poor attention spans. I will now turn my focus to the business leader. Many leadership competences include relationship skills, strategic decision-making and innovation. What impact does mindfulness have on these?

Strategic decision-making

Specific research into the impact of the eight-week MBSR programme suggests that it increases the grey matter concentration in the regions of the brain involved in learning, memory processes and, crucially, perspective-taking7,8,9,10. It can help people to see situations from a broader or bigger perspective. Amazingly, it has also been shown to help people develop the ability to set aside their personal agenda and focus on the wider one11,12,13,14.

In addition, when compared with a control group, those people who practised meditation activated a different network of brain areas that helped them to make more rational decisions15. Mindfulness practice also helped people let go of judgments16,17, which aided decision-making. It reduced rigidity of thinking and lessened the tendency to be blinded by experience and thus overlook novel and adaptive ways of responding18.

Innovation and creativity

Various experiments have demonstrated that participants who have had mindfulness training or practice demonstrate greater lateral thinking problem-solving ability19,20,21,22,23,24,25. They also show a greater propensity to come up with more creative ideas during divergent thinking activities26. They typically show greater flexibility in their thinking process, and more awareness of the thinking process being used at any time27. The mindfulness techniques also resulted in better observation of the things around them28and a greater working memory29- both contributors to enhanced creative processes.

Emotional intelligence

When we turn to look at the impact on EI in leaders, we are particularly interested in how it affects personal resilience and the building of high-quality relationships. Here, there seems to be a strong link with greater mindfulness practice, leading directly to greater EI30. Research with medical students and physicians shows that mindfulness can increase empathy levels31. Other research shows that mindfulness leads to greater awareness of the social dynamic32,33. It also raises positive emotions and improves psychological functioning34. Self-regulating thoughts, emotions and behaviours enhances social relationships in the workplace, making employees more resilient to challenges and increasing task performance35.

Resilience

When we come to look at the impact on resilience, it is being shown that it can help people cope better with difficult emotions, in some part through lowering blood pressure36,37. MRI scans suggest that a key part of the limbic system, the amygdala (sometimes called the brain's 'fear centre'), becomes smaller in the brains of people who practice mindfulness meditation38. Among cancer patients, the MBSR programme was found to improve their emotional stability by up to 50 per cent39.

Brain scans also show that mindfulness helps people to develop a more positive outlook, by shifting activity from the brain's right prefrontal cortex to the left40. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex is associated with a positive mood, whereas activity in the right is associated with depressive states.

So, given this incredible evidence, what is happening to those organisations that have been encouraging mindfulness practices for some time? We would expect to see some pretty amazing things happening in their leadership communities, and also on the organisational outcomes achieved. Let us examine some case studies.

At General Mills, the Mindful Leadership Program has been running since 2006. More than 290 officers and directors have passed through one of the programmes covering mindfulness meditation, yoga and dialogue. Survey research completed in 2009 showed that 83 per cent of participants said they often "take time each day to optimise my personal productivity" - up from only 23 per cent before taking the course. Eighty two per cent said they often "make time on most days to eliminate some tasks/meetings with limited productivity value" - up from 32 per cent before the course. Among experienced leaders completing the four-day course, 80 per cent reported a positive change in their ability to make better decisions with more clarity, and 89 per cent reported enhanced ability to listen to themselves and to others41.

IF Insurance initiated a mindfulness training intervention with a range of business and HR objectives, including becoming the healthiest insurance company in the Nordic region, making work a source of energy, development and performance, and developing the highest potential in each employee42.

Eighty eight per cent of the participants reported "a highly increased ability to stay focused"; 76 per cent "highly increased positive relationships within their teams"; 68 per cent "highly increased personal efficiency and productivity", and 60 per cent "highly increased ability to counteract stress".

To quote its head of risk management, "the results of the mindfulness programme showed immediate benefits. After only four weeks, a big difference could be seen within the organisation's teams. All participants reported improved ability to focus, increased productivity, better co-operation and less stress".

There are many similar case studies that confirm that the positive impact extends well beyond handling stress into enhancing some of the more complex capabilities of managers and leaders. In terms of business performance, both General Mills and IF Insurance have performed well over recent years, and continue to show strong growth and stability despite the global recession43,44.

In conclusion

Mindfulness looks like it is here to stay, and has a central role to play in the development of leaders. The evidence is compelling, and the timing is right thanks to the coming together of four key factors:

  • the increased complexity and uncertainty of the business world
  • smartphone technology that makes it too easy for leaders to multitask and hard for them to 'switch off'
  • continuing reductions in the cost of MRI scanning resulting in the opening up new areas of neuroscientific research
  • the increasing experimentation with, and evaluation of, mindfulness approaches.

Could we be on the verge of a revolution of the human brain - in which we finally become able to really understand our grey matter and use it to its full potential?

One aspect I have not considered in this article so far is the connection with the Buddhist concept of loving kindness that is an essential part of its teaching of mindfulness. That is where mindfulness is coupled with a sense of love and kindness to your fellow man. This seems such an essential and important component, yet risks being neglected in the corporate adoption of mindfulness. If mindfulness is to develop as a way to really create positive relationships and happiness, as well as wealth and success in business, this concept of loving kindness is key.

As the sales director of IF Insurance comments: "I joined the programme expecting that I would become more focused and productive. That has happened and I am grateful. However, I realise another much bigger change: I experience of myself and my employees that we are becoming better human beings."

Over the last few years we have been introducing mindfulness into our work coaching and leading senior executives. Positioned appropriately, it is well received, and it is clearly evident that it has a central place in our work in developing exceptional leaders.

There was a huge amount of research to draw on in writing this article. However, there are a few gaps that I would be curious to see filled. What happens to those participants who drop out of trials of mindfulness-based interventions? This has been rarely explored. In addition, the whole question of side-effects is under-researched. Furthermore, it also seems that more work can be done to ensure the behavioural aspects of sticking to a mindfulness programme are addressed, particularly within the busy corporate setting. How much practice is enough? And how best can it be built into a busy corporate life?

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

About the author

Liz Hill-Smith is a principal consultant at the Berkshire Consultancy. She can be contacted via www.berkshire.co.uk

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