How Mindfulness Helps us to Lead in Challenging Times
Today’s workplace is a fast-changing environment where people at all levels of the organization are being asked to innovate and adapt in order to survive.
Whether in the private or public sector, the “New Economy” or “VUCA” (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world in which we live and work, creates challenges which have never been experienced before. And this is the new and constantly evolving reality for the senior leaders and organizations that we collaborate with here at iOpener.
In the modern world of business, it is becoming harder to anticipate what will happen over the next year, let alone over the next 5-10 years. New technologies, new products, and a changing social and political scene – all these things work together to create enormous pressures on leaders and strategic decision-makers.
The truth of the matter is that people at work are being asked to deliver more, better, and faster, and yet the demands and expectations from shareholders and other stakeholders are on the up and up. As a result, it’s all too easy to see a barely-concealed sense of helplessness as leadership teams struggle to keep-up with the fast-pace of change. The irony is that senior leaders and their teams have to not only survive in this environment, but they have to flourish and excel.
At iOpener, we work closely with our clients to co-create workplace cultures in which people feel positive about giving each other ‘feedforward’. We encourage a learning mind-set and embed practices that enhance relationships based on trust, where people can work more strategically and creatively both at the individual, as well as the team level. All of this is crucial to organizational success, of course it is. However, there is an important and un-addressed question here: What happens at the psychological level, at the brain level, when our clients are engaging with a VUCA environment, and what are the associated risks?
The Impact of Stress on the Human Brain
VUCA conditions will, and do, create stress. And when we humans are stressed our cognitive and social-functioning decreases. In other words, as the demands go up, our ability to respond effectively goes down.
The reason for this is, at one level, very simple. Our brains are designed to keep us alive. In evolutionary terms this means our brains have been sculpted and crafted over millennia to avoid anything that has even the slightest whiff of danger. The brain does not like threat, stress, or uncertainty. At all, in any way, shape, or form. We react to uncertainty by releasing powerful hormones which flood our body, and trigger physiological reactions. In the short-term this can save us from danger, over the longer-term it can cause a lot of damage.
Little wonder then that since 2007 in the UK alone, absence from work due to stress, depression or anxiety has risen by 24%, and absence due to “mental illness” has risen by a whopping 100% (Davies Report, 2016). This accounts for 70 million working days lost, which is over half of all the sick-leave documented. Even if you meet “that one person” who seems to thrive on adrenaline, it is certainly not the norm for the rest of us. We are just not designed to deal with VUCA over the long-haul.
Over time, stress reduces cognitive performance (how well you focus and complete tasks), it inhibits creativity, and it seems to reduce our capacity for “big picture” thinking. It also damages relationships and therefore cooperation and teamwork. In fact, stress has a negative impact on the very resources we need in bucket-loads if we are to thrive in the ‘New Economy’.
How can Mindfulness help?
Here at iOpener we know the importance of happiness at work, of human flourishing. When people are happy, a very different brain response to the one described above kicks in.
In a relaxed and happy state, people are more likely to be focused, more creative and more innovative. They are more likely to get on with their colleagues and to work collaboratively with each other, and they are more likely to respond strategically to the challenges around them.
Mindfulness is one of the best-researched interventions that increases happiness. Over the last few years there has been a surge in research into Mindfulness in the workplace with many significant and encouraging results. For example, Reitz and Chaskalson (HBR 2016) describe how they trained 57 senior business leaders in Mindfulness over a period of eight weeks, including daily meditation practice and related exercises. The leaders became significantly more emotionally resilient, collaboration increased, as did their ability to lead more effectively in complex conditions. These leaders also found they could more readily think “big picture”, taking a broader, more strategic perspective. It’s likely, too, if we take into account findings from other research that they became more innovative and creative too (see Williams and Penman, Frantic World). All of these characteristics are, as we have already seen, much needed in modern leaders and their teams.
The Reitz and Chaskalson study is relatively small-scale, although it replicates the results of other gold-standard research on the general population, which means it’s worth taking seriously.
We become what we practice, and practitioners of Mindfulness are sensitive and attuned to events as they unfold, effectively ‘surfing the moment’. This is important, because it means that they tend to have more mental agility and clarity when confronted by dynamic, fast-changing environments. Mindfulness practitioners are more able to stay in a relaxed and open state of mind that facilitates creative thinking, collaboration and strategic flexibility. To put it simply, practising mindfulness opens us up to moment-to-moment experience and allows us to use our innate capabilities to respond wisely to dynamic situations. Mindfulness meets VUCA with equanimity. This is just what our leaders need in the challenging world within which they operate.
If you want to find out more about mindfulness, see Jill’s previous blog or please feel free to contact us…