Using the full potential of mindfulness at work
"There is no greater waste of resources in ordinary organizations than the energy expended every day to hide our weaknesses and manage others' favorable impressions of us." (Robert Kegan, Harvard Business Review, 2014)
More and more organizations offer mindfulness courses these days: Google, Aetna, Intel, SAP, to name but a few. These courses have been shown to bring many benefits: They provide employees with tools that help them regulate their attention, their emotions and their self. They help them regain a sense of agency and clarity.
There is no doubt that in times where we are constantly being interrupted and distracted attention can be nourishing and precious. Research has shown that mindfulness training helps us recover faster from multi-tasking. Other studies show that corporate mindfulness programs reduce stress and stress related absenteeism and even enhance work engagement–at least short term. However, many other stress reduction or leadership programs have the same effects. And might even be more accessible!
At the same time the true potential of mindfulness–what distinguishes mindfulness from many other approaches–often remains unused. Why is that?
In order to sell and get buy-in, workplace mindfulness programs often use the language of 'focus and productivity' rather than 'health and stress'. Instead of meditation they talk about 'brain workout' and 'mental fitness'. Top talent programs are targeted to 'fast streamers'. While this all sounds sexy and seducing it completely misses the point: Isn't the very logic of higher, faster, better exactly why we are depleted in the first place? Or in other words: Can't we begin to think growth and excellence differently?
Mindfulness means being present – with our body and our hart, open, curious, and with compassion. As easy as this may sound the difficult it can be! The reason is because we spend most of our time and energy NOT being present.
Studies have shown that less than 50% of our daily distractions are caused by others. Most of the time we distract ourselves. We all know this: While we are at work we think of vacation and while on vacation we think of work. We fill our days planning and worrying, chatting, fixing, scratching, adjusting, texting, posting, snacking, shopping … Most incoming emails or SMS get answered immediately or within a very short period of time.
So, when we sit down, close our eyes and focus on our breath–hoping that the mind will finally be peaceful and calm we often only realize how distracted we are! And once the mind settles we notice the boredom, worries, and sleepiness that might be around. Now what happens is that instead of looking at this frenzy, that frenzy that is our life, we continue running away: We drift into day dreams, we fall asleep, we drop out. This happens particularly in workplace mindfulness programs, where we spend so much time and energy on only showing the Instagram version of ourselves. Attrition rates are high in workplace mindfulness courses and this is only partially due to competing demands.
Yet those who stay, those who get in touch with themselves–and be it even for one brief moment–open the space for transformation. For that brief moment, they let go of the perfect image of themselves–that image where stress, exhaustion, weakness, and vulnerability have no place. This is when we begin to see our colleagues as human beings–because we see ourselves as human beings. We begin to trust–because we trust that we are OK, too. We stop wasting our time and energy fixing and micro-managing ourselves and others.
We all know by now–supported by a large body of research–that creativity, insight, and innovation do not grow from perfection but from the cracks and from the incomplete.
Teams and organizations want to become agile – and while we need the know-how, the experience, the culture, and the practice we also need the mindset to actually be agile. A mindset that is capable of letting be, a mindset that is open to not knowing and to growing from mistakes. This mindset is not given to us by nature (or maybe we have unlearned it). Through evolution and our own growing up we have perfected our critical and analytical skills. Our minds constantly monitor where we are and where we want to be. We unremittingly try to fill the gap between 'what is' and 'what should be'. And there is nothing wrong with that! This 'problem-solving mind' is the motor that keeps us going, the motor that secures our survival. We will never let go of it nor should we. One of the many misunderstandings about mindfulness is that once we begin to simply 'be' we will lose our edge and striving!
The question is rather, are we capable of taping into that mind that is fully present, that 'touch and go' mind? That mind that opens to true creativity, insight, and compassion? One way to cultivate this open presence is to begin being present with ourselves.