Leading Mindfully: Latest Fad or Essential Skill?

Leading Mindfully: Latest Fad or Essential Skill?

Published 3rd February 2017
Professor Jochen Reb

Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources and Director of the Mindfulness Initiative at Singapore Management University

Published 3rd February 2017

Stop. Take a breath. Just observe the natural flow of your breath, letting go of anything that’s on your mind for a few minutes. Now, read on to hear more about the long-term benefits of mindfulness from Professor Jochen Reb, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources and Director of the Mindfulness Initiative at Singapore Management University.

It may seem paradoxical to invite leaders to stop, when they are faced with seemingly ever-increasing demands to do things; to focus internally on their breath, when they should be focusing externally on their employees and strategies; to observe passively the flow of breathing, when they are normally encouraged to be proactive and get in control; to let go, when striving and achieving goals are considered the hallmarks of good leadership. However, as surprising as it may sound, according to emergent research, leaders might indeed benefit from engaging in simple mindfulness practices such as the breath awareness meditation described above.

Mind Over Matter

Mindfulness, broadly defined as open, present-centred awareness and attention, has long been a cornerstone of contemplative traditions, such as Buddhism. However, over the past three decades or so, secular research has uncovered a range of benefits of being mindful, including reduced stress and anxiety and improved immune system functioning and mood. Whereas most of the research has focused on such health and well-being related variables, recent research conducted by our team at the Mindfulness Initiative at Singapore Management University and others also suggests that mindfulness brings benefits at the workplace. For example, we found that more mindful employees show greater task performance (as evaluated by their supervisors).

This research lends empirical credence to statements in the popular press such as in a recent Forbes article saying,

“Mindfulness is hot right now—Hollywood hot, Davos hot, Main Street hot… For business leaders, encouraging mindfulness is more than just being tuned in; it’s a strategy to improve person and company-wide performance and productivity….” (Bruce, 2014).

Going beyond the benefits at the employee level, emerging research also points to a role of mindfulness in leadership. As we have argued in a recent conceptual paper, “mindfulness and mindfulness practice have tremendous potential for not only understanding processes of leadership and leadership development, but also improving leadership in practice”. We propose that mindfulness achieves this potential through several different pathways.

Leading in the Moment

First, when leaders are more mindful, they are more fully in the present moment. All too commonly, our minds are distracted and we are missing the importance of the “here and now”. For example, while engaging in a conversation with an employee, we may only pay half-hearted attention, simultaneously thinking about an important meeting coming up. In contrast, we argue that when a leader is fully engaged in the present, employees will notice and appreciate this “gift of attention”, leading to better relations, engagement, and a willingness to reciprocate through greater effort. Think of an example of how you reacted to someone who gave you his or her full attention — it makes a real difference.

Second, as paradoxical as it may sound, taking a witnessing stance of just observing, of simply being aware, may be a crucial leadership ability. Western approaches to leadership emphasise action and “doing”, whereas Eastern cultures value “being”. As we argue, effective leaders are capable of finding a balance between doing and being; and mindfulness can help us achieve that balance. Mindfulness can create the “space to lead”, as Janice Maturano, founder of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, beautifully puts it. It does so by disengaging temporarily our usual ego-driven striving, giving us the space to take in our environment “as is”, without our preconceived notions and ego-driven judgments of instrumentality (“what’s in it for me?”). When we take such a stance of awareness, our employees may be willing to open up to us more, sensing our acceptance, and we may learn new things we would otherwise fail to notice.

Let it Go!

Third, by stopping, letting go, and focusing on one thing exclusively, we can also centre ourselves on what is truly important. This ability is becoming increasingly relevant in a modern world of information and attention overload, where our to-do lists have been growing longer and longer. Mindfulness can support a sense of clarity and focus on what is important, helping us to reduce the ineffective practice of multi-tasking and instead taking care of the most important matters, one thing at a time, efficiently and effectively. Finally, a leader’s modern environment is increasingly characterised as a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.

This means that leaders need to be comfortable to act under conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity. The sense of limited control, of not being able to predict with a sense of certitude, can induce the stress of trying to control the essentially uncontrollable as well as paralysing anxiety in the face of uncertainty. Mindfulness can help leaders by allowing them to accept the world as it is rather than as they would like it to be (i.e. predictable and controllable). This acceptance can form the basis of developing realistic and effective plans, rather than spending futile resources at making the environment less unpredictable or managing our own anxiety.

Research has indeed found that mindfulness is associated with better emotion regulation, reduced stress and anxiety, and greater positive affect, all important emotional resources for being a future-ready leader.

Recent research that we and others have been conducting supports the case for mindful leadership. For example, in a recently published paper, we found that the employees of more mindful leaders felt less emotionally exhausted, were more satisfied with their jobs, and performed better. They also were more likely to help their co-workers and were less likely to engage in unwanted behaviours at work. In current work we further found evidence that such benefits are at least partly due to mindfulness’s impact on the relationship between leader and employee: the more mindful a leader, the better employees rate the quality of their relationship with their leader.

Mindful Masses

While research still needs to be conducted on the benefits of mindfulness in leadership (as well as its possible downsides), emerging research suggests that organisations would be wise to explore the potential of mindfulness training for leadership development. In this context, as mindfulness is “hot” right now, the demand for training may surpass the supply of truly qualified trainers. Given that mindfulness is inherently a subtle construct, it is particularly important to ensure that both internal and external trainers have both a sound understanding of the relevant theory and research, as well as a deep experiential understanding based on personal mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness Initiative @ SMU collaborates with organisations on mindfulness-based training and research. We offer both training-only and integrated training/research programmes. Please visit our website at https://business.smu.edu.sg/mindfulness or contact us via email at mindfulness@smu.edu.sg to learn more and explore how mindfulness can help your organisation.

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