Bringing Mindfulness To Work (Part 2)

My Fall offering of my on-line ATD class, Essentials of Developing A Mindful Workforce, is wrapping up today, and next week I’ll be speaking at the ATD Talent Next Conference in a two-part session called Bringing Mindfulness To Work.  Both offerings address the two questions that I most often get on mindfulness:  how to bring mindfulness to your organization, and why to bring mindfulness to your organization.

For those of you who can’t join me in-person or on-line, in October, I provided a summary of how to bring mindfulness to your organization.  This month, I’m addressing the why.  This month’s post first appeared in my blog in early 2016 under the title, Why To Bring Mindfulness To Your Organization.

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Last month I offered suggestions on how to bring mindfulness to your organization. In this post, I focus on the “why” – what do we gain from practicing mindfulness? From my scientist background, I want to see the evidence and data that supports claims. So this post includes a summary of research that supports concrete, specific benefits that come from practicing mindfulness. This in turn can help you gain credibility and support for your own mindfulness program.

In my last blog post, I described what it means to “practice mindfulness.” This is important to understand since all demonstrated benefits of mindfulness tie back to this definition. The idea of needing to practice in order to gain benefits is becoming more accepted. This is in contrast to a few years ago when the prevailing wisdom said that you really didn’t have to spend a lot of time or effort on mindfulness – just pause for a breath or two here and there, and benefits realized. But based on his own study, Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist at the University of Massachusetts, says, “I think it’s safe to say [mindfulness practice] is brain-training at work. Anything you train to do, you do better.” And Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, said at the Mindful Leadership Summit in November 2015, “In 20-30 years, ‘mental exercise’ will be talked about in the same way as physical exercise is today.”

So what do you gain from practicing and developing mindfulness? Research shows that people who practice mindfulness show these differences compared to those who do not practice mindfulness:

Improved cognitive ability. In a simulated stressful, multi-tasking work environment, those trained in mindfulness were more focused, had a better memory for details of the task, and reported less fatigue and a better mood after task completion. Separate research showed that experienced mindfulness practitioners were better able to disengage from upsetting images and focus on a cognitive task. In a stressful work environment, this translates to an ability to remain calm and problem-solve. And a 2-week mindfulness-training course improved participant GRE scores by 16%.

Increased self-awareness. Practicing mindfulness allows us to develop self-observation, and this is at the heart of many models of leadership and organizational development. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge talks about identifying our “mental models,” building on Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris’s work that tells us that we have to reflect on the way that we think. Self-awareness is also one of the central attributes of emotional intelligence, which in turn has been correlated with improved leadership effectiveness and business results.

More tolerance for discomfort. When we practice mindfulness, we stay with our present experience as-is. This can be challenging when our situation is unpleasant. However, the power of remaining open to our experience was demonstrated by a study in which experienced mindfulness practitioners were able to handle higher degrees of pain than non-practitioners. So when we are willing to stay open to the present situation, even if it is uncomfortable, we actually increase our ability to handle discomfort – a highly-relevant attribute in stressful work environments.

Better mental & physical health. A meta-analysis at Johns Hopkins concluded that mindfulness decreases anxiety and depression, and mindfulness reduces cortisol levels, a hormone related to stress. And a summary from the University of Massachusetts shows that diabetics who practice mindfulness have significantly lower blood glucose levels, and mindfulness training in standard cardiac rehabilitation has been shown to reduce mortality, weight, and blood pressure. If we want to perform at a high level at work, it begins with tending to our mental and physical well-being.

There are many valuable benefits that result from practicing mindfulness. Determine which resonate most with your organization, and cite backing research to shore up support for a mindfulness program at your organization.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me. To learn about new blog posts, follow me on Twitter or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.

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Bringing Mindfulness To Work (Part 1)

I’ll be speaking at the ATD Talent Next Conference in November for a two-part session called Bringing Mindfulness To Work.  The session contains some content similar to that of my on-line ATD class, Essentials of Developing A Mindful Workforce.  Both offerings cover two core topics of growing interest in the business world:  how to bring mindfulness to your organization, and why to bring mindfulness to your organization.

If you can’t join me in-person or on-line, this month and next I’ll be giving a summary of how and why to bring mindfulness to your organization.  This month’s post first appeared in my blog in early 2016 under the title, How To Bring Mindfulness To Your Organization.

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Mindfulness in the workplace is gaining staying power and credence, backed by a growing body of research and data demonstrating the positive results of practicing mindfulness. Companies such as Intel, PWC, McKinsey, and AstraZeneca, and other organizations like the U.S. Marines, Harvard Business School, New York Knicks, and Seattle Seahawks offer mindfulness programs. Given how mainstream mindfulness is becoming, I frequently get asked, how do I establish a mindfulness program at my own organization? Here are some of the answers to that question.

Getting support for a mindfulness program is the first step, and, like any program you are advocating, you must speak to three things:

  • What is the concept/thing we want to offer?
  • How does our organization benefit from concept/thing?
  • How do we provide concept/thing to our employees?

I have addressed the first two points in previous blog posts – so in this post, I’m going to focus on the last item.

At the Mindful Leadership Summit in November 2015, Golbie Kamarei, who brought mindfulness to the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, said that in her experience, there are three needs that participants have:

  • Exercises and learning around developing mindfulness
  • Data and research that support the benefits of mindfulness
  • Group connection and community

The way she addresses these various needs is through a group mindfulness practice that meets twice a week at lunchtime. She emails participants in between meetings to stay connected and to offer other materials, such as articles on the latest research into mindfulness. She mentioned that these programs are not required – they are provided on an opt-in basis, but no one is forced to participate.

It is also important to let participants know what to expect. The most common question I get during my talks on mindfulness is, what exactly is meant by a “mindfulness practice”? “Practice” means engaging in guided exercises that develop concentration capacities by focusing attention on your immediate experience. These exercises repeatedly bring attention to an object, such as your breath, then expand attention to your broader experience, such as noticing what you are thinking and feeling. So “practice” in this context is no different than practice to improve your ability to play a sport, play an instrument, or learn a new language – you engage in exercises designed to develop specific skills. Some good mindfulness exercises are provided here by the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, free of charge.

It can be helpful to anticipate and address some common challenges of those new to a mindfulness practice. Here is some feedback I frequently hear:

  • I can’t sit still. When people say this, they really mean, “I’m not used to being still, and I feel very uncomfortable.” It makes sense that when we are rewarded for completing tasks and juggling multiple responsibilities, “doing nothing” feels odd and unrewarding. Like anything, it takes practice until something starts to feel natural and a willingness to be patient until you get there.
  • I’m not very good at this. There is a common misunderstanding that experienced practitioners can zoom into the present and stay there. In reality, even experienced practitioners often drift off. Mindfulness practice is not about being “perfectly present,” it is about noticing when your attention has drifted off and bringing it back to now, over and over again.
  • It’s not working. With just 30 minutes of practice a day for eight weeks, researchers see differences in the brains of those who practice mindfulness vs. those who don’t. So practice does pay off nearly immediately. Since brain scans are not accessible to most of us, invite people to assess progress in other ways – do I seem to be less stressed? More focused? More self-aware?

One of the best ways to gain support for your program from both participants and sponsors is by presenting program benefits. In my next post, I’ll provide a summary of research on mindfulness that can help give your program credibility.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me. To learn about new blog posts, follow me on Twitter or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.

 

The Resilient Leader

In a recent blog post, I talked about how resiliency is a leadership quality given more weight these days. I focused on one aspect of resiliency, effectively dealing with stress. But “resilient” has a broader meaning, which is the ability to handle adversity. There is a natural connection between mindfulness and resilience. People who practice mindfulness experience lower levels of anxiety and depression and report reduced levels of chronic pain. Mindfulness practitioners are better able to maintain cognitive focus in stressful, multi-tasking work environments. And leaders who manage emotions well have better business outcomes. What is the common link in these experiences?

The best explanation I have heard is not a scientific one but instead is an analogy. When we deal with challenging circumstances, the environment we find ourselves in and our accompanying thoughts and feelings might seem overwhelming. This can be akin to being caught in a wild river, struggling, swept along, and out of control. When we practice mindfulness, we practice non-judgmental moment-to-moment awareness. We observe everything happening in this moment, almost like a third party would. It is like teaching ourselves to sit on the river bank and watch the rapids. Through mindfulness, you create a gap between yourself and any situation, thought, or feeling. And watching the wild river is different than being caught in the wild river. This space between ourselves and a stressful environment in turn allows us to cultivate these other capabilities, which help us be resilient:

Developing comfort with discomfort. Many of us think that the best way to deal with challenging events is to push them out of our minds, to distract ourselves from them.  However, in one study, experienced mindfulness practitioners were able to handle higher degrees of pain than non-practitioners. And the researchers in the study could tell from the brain activity of the participants that the mindfulness practitioners actually turned greater attention toward the pain sensations while viewing them more neutrally. When we are willing to stay open to the present situation exactly as it is, we actually increase our ability to handle discomfort.

Reappraising the situation. We have a “negativity bias.” We have evolved to scan the world for “hazard” (negative) instead of “opportunity” (positive), to ensure our survival. This means that we notice and remember things that made us angry (like insults) more than things that made us happy (like praise). Mindfulness allows us to pause in the moment and consciously focus on what is right instead of what is wrong, and to identify what is going well, even in difficult circumstances. Mindfulness gives us the ability to step back from our skewed view of the world, that focuses on the negative/stressful, and rebalance our perspective.

Responding differently. When we are in stressful environments, we can often be our own worst enemies. We tend to resort to old patterns that might create additional angst for ourselves, like snapping at someone instead of calmly and thoughtfully responding. Mindfulness allows you to break the loop of auto-pilot behaviors and make more constructive choices. One study found that mindfulness training was twice as effective at helping people quit smoking compare to a more traditional smoking cessation program. Mindful attention to our behaviors enables the ability to self-regulate and make different choices, choices that may diffuse and reduce challenging circumstances.

We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we relate to the things that do happen to us. When you develop the skill of mindfulness, you change your relationship to difficult circumstances and increase your ability to deal with stressful environments more effectively. Then whether you can stop or change the situation is no longer as important, no matter how challenging.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me. To learn about new blog posts, follow me on Twitter or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.

How To Give Feedback

Leaders know that an important part of their job is to help their employees grow and learn.  And this can’t happen without providing feedback, on what is working well as well as what can be improved.  This doesn’t mean once a year at a scheduled performance review, this means on an ongoing basis.  Giving (and receiving) feedback should be a regular part of your organizational culture.  If you have room to improve your feedback habits, here are some ideas on how to start.

A recent white paper from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), Busting Myths About Feedback, What Leaders Should Know, provides research and insights that help leaders navigate the feedback process. The paper first makes the distinction between “positive” feedback, which reinforces behaviors and performance to be repeated, and “negative” feedback, which identifies opportunities for development. Both are important, but there may be misunderstandings about the balance to strike between them.

One survey found that 94% of human resources professionals said positive feedback had a greater impact on improving employee performance than negative feedback.  However, the CCL research found that employees would prefer less positive feedback and more negative feedback.  And another study found that both positive and negative feedback can be motivating.  With these findings in mind, what are some best practices for giving both reinforcing and corrective feedback, and how to deliver feedback so that it is useful and constructive?

Strike the right balance. While both corrective and reinforcing feedback should be part of your repertoire, it might be difficult to know how much of each you should provide.  The CCL study suggests a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback.  A separate study, at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, found that highest-performing teams had a ratio of nearly 6:1 positive to negative comments while low-performing teams had a ratio of 0.36:1, or three negative comments for every positive comment. You don’t necessarily have to keep track of your exact count of each, but consider that a higher ratio of reinforcing to corrective feedback may be the balance that your team needs.

Behavior, situation, impact.  Feedback is ultimately about changing (or encouraging) behaviors – so describe the actual behavior you observed, and do it as soon as possible after the event.  Stick to facts (“You interrupted my presentation”) rather than interpretation (“You were rude”), and be specific when describing the situation. You might have had five meetings yesterday, which one are you referring to? And in explaining the impact on you (“I felt frustrated because I was in the middle of making a point”), you avoid judgments on the person you are providing feedback to.  This same process works when providing reinforcing feedback.

Practice, practice, practice. If we are not used to giving feedback, it can feel uncomfortable, and we might not be sure what to say.  Like anything we need to improve, you might need to practice. This could mean you write out or think through what to say, or even try it out with someone else first, to see how it lands (and get feedback on how you deliver feedback!).  Check yourself for word choice and tone.  While you want to be honest and straightforward, you also want to be tactful, considerate, and empathetic in your delivery.  Make an effort to build feedback into your interactions more regularly, both corrective and reinforcing.

Providing feedback is the responsibility of a leader – in fact, your employees expect it.  When you make feedback a regular part of your interactions with your team, you enable them to continue to learn and grow, contributing to the development of themselves, your team, and your organization.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me.  To learn about new blog posts, follow me on Twitter or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.

Surviving Stress

The topic of resiliency in the workplace is becoming more popular, and one aspect of resiliency is the ability to handle stress.  Leaders are constantly put in stressful situations, such as tight deadlines, organizational change, and high-stakes decision-making, and our employees experience the same stress.  Stress takes a toll on our mental and physical well-being and can keep us from seeing and thinking clearly.  So how can we navigate stressful situations so that we remain clear, objective, calm, and rational, and set a tone of steadiness and confidence for our teams?

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist and author of The Upside of Stress.  I was fortunate to see her speak at a conference in May on the same topic as her book. Dr. McGonigal has reviewed a body of research that provides concrete ideas of how we can shift our relationship to stress to decrease the impact of stress on us.  And she points to these three things in particular:

Reframe the experience.  We normally associate the typical signs of stress – pounding heart, fast breathing – with anxiety.  But, she says, what if instead we looked at these signs differently?  What if instead we told ourselves things like, “My heart is beating hard to prepare me for action,” and “My faster breathing is getting more oxygen to my brain, to help me respond.”  A study at Harvard did just this and taught participants to view the body responses that accompany stress with different meaning, as a positive thing.  During stressful events, these participants experienced less stress and more confidence.  Their biological responses were more like someone who was experiencing joy, not stress – instead of their blood vessels constricting, their blood vessels stayed open and relaxed.  Your perception of stress matters.

Recognize the “upside” of stress.  In the short-term, stress can feel uncomfortable.  But in the long-term, stress can actually support resilience.  When we are stressed, our body releases a number of hormones, like adrenaline (which ratchets up our heart rate).  Another hormone we release is DHEA, and this is associated with resilience under psychological stress.  In a study led by Columbia University, the researchers found that participants who adapted a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset produced higher levels of DHEA than participants with a “stress-is-debilitating” mindset.  In addition, those with the “enhancing” mindset had greater cognitive flexibility under stressful conditions.  When we believe that stress brings out the best in us, we actually boost a physiological response that supports long-term resilience.

Reach out to others.  Oxytocin is commonly known as the “cuddle hormone” because we release it when we hug other people.  Most of us don’t realize that we also release oxytocin when we are under stress.  Dr. McGonigal explains that when we produce oxytocin as part of our stress response, it is our biology telling us to reach out to others, to seek support.  It also enhances our empathy, making us more likely to notice if someone else is struggling and more willing to reach out and help others.  A traditional work environment might encourage us to “suck it up and deal,” and each of us must find our own ways to deal with a stressful situation, on our own.  But openly acknowledging common stressors and creating and enabling an environment where employees support each other can be an important aspect of your team being resilient in the face of stress.

Many of the events that cause us stress are unavoidable.  But how we think about and respond to stress is within our control.  With deliberate shifts in how we respond to stress, we can reduce the impact that stress can have on us, our teams, and our workplaces.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me.  To learn about new blog posts, follow me on Twitter or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.

The Power of the Present

When I speak and write about mindfulness, the question I get most often is, “If I practice mindfulness, what does that get me?” I usually point to the growing body of research that demonstrates the impact of mindfulness.  I also tell people that when they are mindful, they are more present and aware, and this in turn supports the development of certain leadership skills and capabilities, like attentive listening.  But when you put the pile of research aside, what is the impact on our lives of living in the present, in this moment?  And what does it mean to actually live that way each day?

Connect with people not technology. We give so much habitual attention to our smart phones that we have a hard time putting them away.  When we have the chance to interact with others in person – loved ones, co-workers – we keep one eye (or both eyes) on our phones.  We miss the chance to connect, to listen, to empathize, to share. I recently had dinner with four other people at a conference, new connections, and three of them spent most of the meal on their smart phones.  I didn’t know much more about them afterwards.  What opportunities do you miss when you give more attention to your phone than to the people around you?

Slow down and pay attention.  The other side effect of constant email, texting, social media, and web-surfing is that it’s easy for us to feel bored.  But there are things around us every day that are worth paying attention to. When was the last time you noticed the blue of the sky, or the smell of rain, or the new flowers blooming in Spring?  My spouse and I go on motorcycle trips every year.  We deliberately choose scenic routes and stop to take in the sights along the way. What is in your everyday experience that you haven’t noticed lately?  Or ever?  How does your day, your energy, your perspective change when you pay attention more?

Feel and express gratitude. I used to think if someone was doing their job, why should I thank him or her? Isn’t paid compensation enough?  But now I thank people all the time – the bus driver, the coffee barista, the mailman – for the little ways they make my life easier.  During employee appreciation week, Bill Marriott, the chairman of the board of Fortune 100 company Marriott International, stands at the front door of the Marriott headquarters office, shakes employees’ hands as they enter, and says, “Thank you.” Take a minute to look at the other people you interact with every day – your family, your friends – and ask yourself, when was the last time I told them how much I appreciate them?  What would be different if I told them more often?

Stay focused on today.  I had a number of unexpected opportunities come my way in the last year.  It’s been exciting and sometimes a little overwhelming.  I’d look ahead to three months from now and wonder how on earth I was going to get everything done. I made a long-term plan for meeting my obligations, but then I focus on what I need to get done today.  And then when today is over, I give myself credit for what I accomplished, and I unplug from work for the evening. I’m far less stressed, and I acknowledge and appreciate the progress I’ve made. What would be the impact if your view was of a specific today rather than a nebulous tomorrow?

We often spend much of our day and lives in a reality other than the present moment – either a virtual world, or with our attention on the past or future.  When we do specific things to reconnect with this day and this time, we begin to shift our experience:  of ourselves, of other people, and of our environment.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me.  To learn about new blog posts, follow me on Twitter or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.

Compelling Communication

Recently, one of my clients said that he wanted to communicate better with his team. Not the kind of “every day” communication to listen and understand, or to set clear goals and objectives – but to get his team energized by his message.  He said, “It seems like other people know how to find just the right YouTube video, or thing to say so that people leave the meeting feeling excited about our work. What do they know that I don’t? How do I develop that same ability?”

Use the right format. I give a lot of presentations. I’ve had to learn the hard way (i.e., reading the reaction of glazed-over audience members) that lots of slides full of text help me remember what I want to say but are plain boring to my audience. Boring means people tune out and don’t listen to what you are saying.  Instead of text, base your communication on images, videos, or a demo. We retain 80% of what we see but only 20% of what we read. And according to the Social Science Research Network, 65% of people are visual learners.  So moving away from a presentation filled with bullets can help ensure your audience retains your message.

Boil it down. You can’t wait to share your message, and there’s so much you want to say.  I get it – my natural tendency is to explain, explain, explain, maybe never being entirely clear on the main points of my presentation. One of the most important things I’ve learned is to focus on a few select thoughts.  It’s the classic idea of the “elevator speech.” If you only had an elevator ride to make your case with a top executive, what would you say?  It’s likely that you have more than 30 seconds to speak with your team.  But it’s good practice to think through, what are my key ideas, and how do I state them concisely?

Use examples.  Dan and Chip Heath, authors of Made To Stick, say that the number one mistake they see when people present is that the message is too abstract when it needs instead to be concrete, something we can relate to.  I asked my client, who works at a large pharmaceutical company, what he appreciated most about his job. He showed me a picture on his phone of a woman standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon.  He said, “This person used to need chemo three days a week, making her too ill to do much of anything.  She now takes our drug instead. She sent me this picture to show me that she’s back to her favorite hobby, traveling.” We naturally love stories – take advantage of it.

Get out of your head.  My client wanted “tips and tricks” on powerful communication, and I gave him (and you) some of those.  But I told him that, more important than anything else, he needed to stop thinking and start feeling.  The most powerful messages connect with us, and engage us, not in our heads but in our hearts.  What are your values and your inspirations?  What makes you come to work each day?  What is it that invigorates you?  It could be providing great customer service, or building efficient software code, or the opportunity to work with your specific team members.  Figure out what makes your heart sing, and be vulnerable enough to share it openly.

Compelling communication is not just about choosing “the right words.”  It’s also about framing ideas in ways that stay with your audience, and about being willing to let your passion shine through.  Use this powerful combination to truly connect with, inspire, and energize your team.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me.  To learn about new blog posts, follow me on Twitter or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.