Casey*, a very bright woman who was passionate about her work and doing a great job, was increasing dissatisfied with her team. She complained to me that no one took her seriously and she felt very disrespected, especially during team meetings. She said that when she offered up an idea or offered insight, she was often disregarded or spoken over. She had also been recently passed over for a leadership role she was excited about.
I had the opportunity to observe the team meetings on several occasions and noticed that this was indeed true. However, I also noticed that Casey was shooting herself in the foot. Her non-verbal behaviour throughout the meetings spoke loud and clear. What Casey wasn't realizing was that the people in the room likely felt that she was the disrespectful one. She would slump down in her chair, not look at people, fiddle with her pen when people spoke and often she let out audible sighs right after someone finished speaking.
Her presence was off-putting and it disengaged her team members from her. It was no surprise to me that they would then disregard her input....which was usually offered in a slightly huffy tone of voice. The antidote to this situation was a big dose of self-awareness building and mindfulness practice which is what we systematically worked on during our coaching engagement.
*Name changed to protect confidentiality.
The Mindful Leader
A mindful leader is someone who embodies leadership presence by cultivating focus, clarity, creativity and compassion in the service of others, says Janice Marturano, Executive Director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership.
Why is Mindfulness Important for your Leadership?
1. Avoid misinterpretation and interpersonal mush
Being present is the foundation of exceptional leadership and I honestly do not know of any other way to develop this ability than through mindfulness practice.
Most people are locked in their heads either worrying about the past or the future and are not actively engaged in what is happening right now, in the present. The benefit of being present is that you hear better, you listen better and you communicate better. Your interactions become more based in the reality of a situation than on your perception of a situation.
When you are not being present, people can mistakenly make up all sorts of stories about what you are thinking and this can lead to misunderstandings and disengagement. Think of Casey. Given her non-verbal behaviours, what stories might her team members have been making up about her during meetings? She was sighing and acting distractedly because she was feeling disregarded, but her behaviour would actually have the team members feel disrespected by her! And yet, it wasn't the truth of the situation, only what each was reading into it. When you are not being present, you are likely sending several non-verbal signals that could create the interpersonal mush that bogs down most teams.
2: Engagement begets engagement
People look to a leader for engagement and nothing says “I’m engaged” more than simply being present. In her book, Mindful Leadership: The 9 Ways to Self-Awareness, Transforming Yourself, and Inspiring Others, Maria Gonzales describes being present and engaged as truly listening – when someone else is speaking or making a presentation:
- You are not looking at your smartphone,
- You are not interrupting,
- You are not suddenly changing the subject, and
- You are not reviewing what you are going to say as soon as the person takes a breath.
You are actually listening closely to all that is being said.
On the flip side, Gonzales describes the importance of being actively present to how what you are saying is landing. Being present means:
- You are noticing when something you say may need clarification.
- You are aware of the cues that the listener is providing.
- You are checking in to ensure that your intention behind your words is being understood.
- You are being mindful to take the extra 30 seconds to actually speak your underlying intention out loud, rather than making an assumption that the receiver magically knows your intention or the rationale behind what you are saying.
- You choose your words and your tone to ensure that the person you are speaking with knows you heard them and knows you respect their thoughts, ideas, etcetera, and is not left feeling belittled or shamed or uncertain.
Mindful speech has people feel heard, empowered, and clear which is the foundation of engagement.
“Mindful listening and mindful speech are among the most valuable skills to develop and cultivate as a leader.” ~Maria Gonzalez, MBA
Being mindful in your leadership boosts efficiency and effectiveness.
When you are being mindful and present you are better able to see where probing questions might serve to avoid misunderstanding and rather than being locked in worry or distracted by jumping to conclusions you are better able to avoid the communication missteps and actually move an interaction to a positive outcome.
What results can you expect when you practice mindfulness?
A study conducted by the Institute for Mindful Leadership on the effectiveness of Mindful Leadership Training of 123 General Mills directors and managers found these increases following the training:
- 48% increase in ability to focus
- 40% Increase in personal productivity
- 34% increase in ability to prioritize
- 31% increase in employee satisfaction
- 34% increase in ability to perform under pressure
Now that is impressive!
Put it into Action
To systematically build your capacity for being present you can try something Gonzalez calls ‘External Awareness’ which I’ve modified with my clients as follows:
Begin with a practice of body awareness:
- Bring your awareness to specific areas of your body.
- Just notice your feet and how they feel pressed to the floor.
- Bring a sense of relaxation to your feet – stretch out your toes and then relax your feet and notice the difference.
- As your thoughts drift off, bring your attention back to the sensation of your feet.
- Then shift your awareness to your shins and notice them and experiment with relaxing them and then move slowly up your body, systematically being present to each area.
- When you notice you are drifting away into worry or other thoughts, just gently return to sensing your body.
Now add a practice of breath awareness:
- Bring your awareness to your breathing.
- Just notice how your breath feels as you inhale and then notice the feeling of exhalation.
- Notice the feeling of your body expanding, notice where you expand and where you do not (i.e. chest versus your abdomen).
- Try bringing the breath to different areas of your body (expand your chest, expand your abdomen) and notice how that feels.
- When you notice other thoughts or a sense of impatience invading, just come back to your breathing and count the exhalations.
- Try to get to 20 exhalations (about 2 minutes of your time).
Just be mindful and present to the moment without really any thought or judgment or jumping into planning mode. Just notice.
When to do this practice:
- Try it at the beginning of your day, or use when you need a quick refresher to boost your resiliency during the day.
- Try it for 2 minutes or try it for ten minutes.
- Research shows that just 10 minutes per day for eight weeks has long lasting positive impacts at the neurological level and at the behavioural level.
Here is the Really Cool Thing About Mindfulness Practice
You are changing your brain for the better!
It is fascinating to see what happens neurologically when engaged in this practice. Neuroscience researchers, using brain imaging, have found that mindfulness practice increases both the activity and size of the prefrontal cortex which is the area of the brain that regulates**:
- facilitation of socially appropriate behaviour
These are fundamental capacities supporting strong leadership performance and resilience.
Researchers have also found that the amygdala, the ‘fight or flight’ centre of the brain, shrinks.** The amygdala regulates:
- initiates the body’s response to stress
Why this is important:
When we are constantly under stress from our daily routines (getting kids off to school, commuting, the myriad media messages that are bombarding us, deadlines, other people, our own propensity to worry…) we are putting ourselves in a constant fight or flight mode. Our amygdala becomes hyper-engaged and we lose access to the finesse of our frontal lobe operations.
This works so well for us in true danger situations in which we need to fight or take flight…and fast. However, this is not good when it is our constant modus operandi. The good news is that our primal responses to stress can become increasingly superseded by more thoughtful responses when we practice mindfulness meditation daily**.
Gonzales, M., Mindful Leadership: The 9 Ways to Self-Awareness, Transforming Yourself, and Inspiring Others, J. Wiley & Sons; 2012.
Marturano, J., Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership; Bloomsbury Press; 2014
**Taren, A., et al., Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial; Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2015, 1758–1768.
**Lazar, S., Eight Weeks to a Better Brain, Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Jan 20, 2011