Strategies for becoming a more mindful manager

There’s lots of talk of mindfulness these days, as Western neuroscience collides with Eastern philosophy – in fact, you can almost hear the inhalation as they meet in the middle. And if inhaling is what you’re doing, then you’re halfway there.

Mindfulness and meditation have a long history, with their roots in Buddhism and other world religions, but mindfulness is increasingly appearing in reputable management journals and being offered by universities across the world as a subject worthy of both study and practice.

Four years ago, Counties Manukau Health took the brave step of including mindfulness in its professional development offerings. The health benefits for patients had already been identified, with faster recovery rates and an increased ability to deal with stress and anxiety, so it was not surprising when a psychologist teamed up with a yoga practitioner to offer meditation classes to hospital staff. Like others in that first year, I benefited from “guided meditation” with a greater sense of well-being and control.

So what does the literature tell us about mindfulness? Meta-research published in Newsweek in 2011 highlighted the three most effective ways to build a better brain, in an article which spread like wildfire across social media. Hard on the heels of physical exercise in first place (healthy body, healthy mind), was meditation.  Author Sharon Begley explains the ability to focus is “the elixir” of neuroplasticity, and regular meditation is shown to increase this focus by strengthening neural pathways. (If you’re interested, third place goes to Space Fortress – a computer video game – which has been shown to help older adults develop general mental agility, including strategizing, short- and long-term memory, visual-spatial skills and decision-making).

Research is also emerging about that killer of focus: multi-tasking. The common myth that women are better at this than men has been exploded as neuroscientists observe a decrease in performance as people of both sexes switch between tasks.  Constantly moving between emails or texts, a report, phone-calls or the latest updates on LinkedIn means our energy is split, and no one task gets the attention it deserves – literally. To prove how inept we are at multi-tasking with activities that require concentration, try singing the National Anthem, while attempting a simple Sudoku quiz. (Note: Don’t confuse multi-tasking with consecutive tasking – stacking activities so that time is well used, the kind of behaviour you might see in a Master Chef kitchen on finals night!)

Mindfulness enhances focus

Meditation in its purest form requires dedicated time and space, something very few managers have – at least in the workplace. Mindfulness, on the other hand, needs concentration and focus, but can easily be woven into your daily routines. And the benefits you accrue can be just as powerful: reduction in stress, better productivity, an improvement in the nature and quality of relationships, and – ultimately – more engaged employees.

Here are four practical ways to increase mindfulness at work:

#1 Less is More

Decluttering is a useful place to start your mindful practice. A disorganised desk or office absorbs energy as you seek to find things amongst the mess, and it’s likely you’ll be distracted by the latest Management magazine, the invitation to the birthday shout at the pub on Friday, or to a report requiring your response.  Your laptop or computer may look similar, with multiple files on the desktop or several unrelated tabs open at once.  Close down what you don’t need, and focus on those that take priority. Find the mute button on your smartphone too, and learn to use it. Better still, have phone-free time for an hour every day.

#2 The Mindful Minute

Ask a friend or colleague with a stopwatch to help you with this one.  While you sit up straight but comfortably in an office chair, shut your eyes or focus gently on an object a couple of metres away. Breathing at your natural rate, time the number of breaths you take in one minute. For most people, this is somewhere between 12 – 18 breaths, (nurses often estimate respiration as 16 bpm). Record this number. Next time you are feeling stressed, pressured, or simply needing a break, sit down, close your eyes, and inhale through your “mindful minute,” counting each breath as you go. Other great spots for taking a mindful minute are at the traffic lights (best not to close your eyes here!); at the photocopier while you’re waiting for that print job to collate; at the airport or in the taxi; or by the coffee machine.

#3 Mindful Listening

A key skill of any manager or leader is the ability to listen, from the boardroom to one-to-one coaching sessions with reports or peers.  Mindful listening takes this to a new level, building on the active listening skills many people are familiar with. Mindful listening requires an ability to focus purely on the task at hand, resisting the temptation to interrupt, stop or side-track a discussion. Start by removing distractions: park the mobile, minimise the pages on the laptop (or better still, lock your computer), and clear your desk. Add in the liberal use of eye contact, and last – but not least – keep quiet. People are more likely to speak when there’s a silence to fill, so once you’ve asked that open question to get the conversation started, button it. And don’t be tempted to take those important conversations off-site to the local café or mall – not only do you risk people overhearing, but there are multiple distractions in a public place which impact on the efficacy of the interaction, and ultimately the message you want to share.

#4 Mindful Exercise

As I mentioned earlier, exercise is a great way to build a better brain, and even regular, low-impact walking has a positive impact on physical and psychological well-being. If you want to go to the next level, try yoga. Yoga has a multitude of benefits: building strength, balance and flexibility; reducing stress and anxiety; improving sleep; increasing focus and enhancing self-esteem. Gentle on joints, it is an age-old practice that requires little equipment or outlay. Although New Zealand’s industry is currently unregulated, you’ll find a range of classes available, or try YouTube for a class that suits your life-style. With an internet connection or downloaded clips, even a motel room can be transformed into a mindful space after a hard day’s work.  A growing number of teachers are offering mindfulness and yoga classes at work, and savvy managers are recognising the benefits to both the individuals and the wider organisation.

Sandy Millar, January 2016

Sandy Millar is a coach, blogger and photographer, who also manages the Learning & Organisational Development team at St John.

Further Resources

Can You Build a Better Brain? Sharon Begley, Newsweek 2011. http://www.newsweek.com/can-you-build-better-brain-66769 Posted

The Myth of Multitasking, Nancy K Napier, Psychology Today, Posted May 12, 2014

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