How mindlessness is sabotaging your leadership

Woman's head with illustration overlayed of confusion and thought

In my role at Bupa, I get to spend a great deal of time thinking about how we create workplaces where our people can thrive. I spent the first 20 years of my career in various ‘customer experience and change’ roles in large organisations, both in Australia and overseas, I am lucky now to be in a role that allows me to focus all I have learnt through my career to date on the creation of exceptional people experiences.

After spending so much time trying to design and deliver exceptional customer experiences I now understand that unless your employees are deeply engaged, it is impossible to achieve deep and sustainable customer engagement.

Happy, engaged people make better decisions because they care more, they are more productive, they are more willing to go “above and beyond”, they look harder for solutions to problems and they provide better service because they genuinely want their organisation to grow.

Put simply, if you take care of your people, they will take care of your customers and business will take care of itself.

For me personally, the lowest points of my career were moments when I did not feel trusted, empowered or inspired by the “system” in which I was operating. Often it’s accepted that the corporate world is a harsh place, but it doesn’t need to be this way. I really believe that with the right leaders and culture, organisations both big and small can be a place where people thrive, and where tremendous growth occurs, both professionally and personally. I believe that organisations can become a major source of wellbeing for the world’s population.

So how can we create this utopia where people are happy and engaged, when  the majority of the world’s workforce today are disengaged, mental illness is increasing and so many people often feel like a very small cog in a very large machine?

I believe that human connection plays a critical role. As humans, are hard-wired for connection. The extent to which we feel a sense of connectedness to our colleagues, our manager and our organisation plays a crucial role in our engagement and our emotional wellbeing. Positive and nurturing connections create better performance and boost wellbeing. This week at a breakfast event I met a psychologist who has been working with ambulance drivers on their mental wellbeing. He shared that despite all the horror and trauma ambulance drivers are exposed to, their number one source of stress in their jobs is not feeling supported by their managers or team members.

So, how might we create an organisation where a deep sense of connectedness is the norm and not the exception? I feel the answers lie within the practice of mindfulness.

According to the ABS, nearly half of the population will experience mental disorders at some stage of their lives. This means that we regularly come into contact with people who may be struggling in some way. I believe that unless we are mindful, we are far less likely to notice the subtle signs that a colleague may be struggling. I believe that mindfulness is a powerful way to nurture the levels of personal connection and trust required for people to believe that “it’s OK to not be OK” and to further reduce the stigma around mental illness.

Mindlessness is a key risk factor impacting our ability to fulfil our duty of care to create emotionally safe workplaces. When we are mindless as leaders, we are not tuned-in to how our behaviours are making other people feel. When we are mindless, we are chronically distracted and our ego is in the driver’s seat (and we do not even realise it). When we are mindless, we ask “how are you today?” without any genuine interest in the answer.

So what is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is focusing on what’s happening right now. In other words, it’s stopping to smell the roses. Mindfulness is not being mentally preoccupied about the deadlines this week, your inbox or the mistakes you made yesterday. James Baraz described mindfulness as “simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it was different”. I was lucky enough to meet Ellen Langer at a SunSuper Game Changers breakfast event a few weeks ago in Melbourne, where she  described mindfulness as the “new competitive advantage”. Ellen put forward a very compelling argument that mindlessness is one of the main sources of ill health in the world today.

How does mindfulness help me and the people that I work with?

There is a large and growing body of evidence that supports the benefits of practising mindfulness. These studies highlight the potential to reduce anxiety and depression , improve innovative and creative thinking,  and develop resilience,  all of which helps boost mental wellbeing and happiness.

What is mindful leadership?

I will be attending the Mindful Leadership Forum in Sydney later this month, which is shaping up to be a fantastic event. The forum organisers Wake Up Project describe three pillars of mindful leadership. These pillars are the mindful qualities that create greater performance, compassion and discernment to help individuals and organisations flourish. They are:

  1. Self-Awareness Mindful leaders understand how to respond wisely to stress and learn the skills to allow more intelligent and creative choices in challenging situations.
  2. Compassion Mindful leaders value high quality relationships. They learn skills to create a culture of kindness and creativity rather than a culture of stress.
  3. Authenticity Mindful leaders bring their whole selves to work. They don’t have to act like someone else. They “walk the talk” and people experience them as honest and real.

How I am practicing mindfulness?

Like anything, mindfulness became easier the more I practice it. It doesn’t have to be an hour-long meditation session. Some of the ways I am trying to be more mindful include:

  • Punctuating my day with short meditations I like to use apps like Insight Timer and Buddhify to punctuate my day with short guided meditations to “clear out” the mental clutter that gets in the way of being fully present in the moment.
  • Being in the moment This includes everything from setting the intention to enjoy every mouthful of my lunch (instead of inhaling my lunch while doing emails) to practicing being present during everyday activities like showering or brushing my teeth. I find the phrase “coming to my senses” helps take me “out of my head” and “into my body” by gently directing my attention to noticing what I can see, feel, touch, taste or smell. I also remind myself just to breath and to ask myself “what sensations am I feeling in my body right now?”
  • Turning off devices (every now and then) This way I am completely present and can give people my full attention.
  • Focusing on my strengths and being authentic When we focus on eliminating weaknesses the best we can hope for is competence. When we focus on realising the full potential of our natural strengths we have the opportunity to create excellence. Getting really clear on my signature strengths helps me to notice the ways I am making a difference and helps me to feel good about what I do and why I do it. You always feel better when you are working from your strengths. I personally love the free VIA strengths finder. My signature strengths are: zest, creativity, humour, fairness, honesty and kindness. Discovering and nurturing my signature strengths helped me see the value in my natural abilities. I have stopped supressing them in order to force myself into an ill-fitting mould of “how a global director should behave”. Turns out that “faking” characteristics at work that don’t feel good is a “thing” – it’s called “surface acting”. When you “surface act” there is a high level of incongruity between what you feel and what you are showing to the world. According to the recent HBR article “Managing the Hidden Stress of Emotional Labor“, people who habitually “surface act” are more prone to stress, anxiety, depression, decreased job performance and burnout. So being authentic is really good for you!
  • Being clear on my personal purpose By getting clear on my signature strengths I was able to create my “personal purpose”. Now that I am clear on why I do what I do, my work has become so much more meaningful and fulfilling. Having a personal purpose leads to greater levels of commitment, innovation, energy and performance. Tal Ben-Shahar goes so far as to say “without a higher purpose, or a calling, or an ideal, we cannot attain our full potential for happiness or success.” I recently had coffee with the lovely Stacey Copas. In her book “How to be Resilient” Stacey calls her purpose her “big why”. Stacey says “now that I have a purpose and a very clear vision of if I can keep moving when things go wrong”. Take Stacey’s advice and make sure you are clear on your “why” so you can use it to recharge your inspiration too.
  • Setting goals & scheduling time for “flow” Flow is what you get from an activity when you completely lose yourself in the activity. When you are in a state of “flow” 45 minutes feels like 15 minutes. Think of activities such as writing, painting or solving a tough problem. Wikipedia defines flow as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity“. I set medium-term goals aligned to my purpose and schedule time in my diary each week to work in an uninterrupted state of “flow” towards these goals. When it comes to mindfulness (and the cultivation of lasting happiness), it’s important to remember that it’s actually not the achieving of goals that is important, what’s most important is having goals and using these goals to make good decisions around how you spend your time. Setting aside a 90 minute block in my calendar this week to write this post in a quiet café with my devices switched off and a good soy latte in hand was bliss.
  • Practising gratitude As humans, we tend look to the things we don’t have instead of appreciating what we do have. This week I bought a “Gratitude Tree” wall decal from Wallitude for my family to start a daily ritual around the people and things that we are most grateful for. The more you practice gratitude, the more you start to notice the blessings in your day. If you need more convincing, have a read of this great post from happier.com “Yes, I used to think that gratitude was cheesy. Then this happened.”

There are very few moments in your life when you get a glimpse of what actually might be a silver bullet, but mindfulness feels like the closest thing I have seen to one. It holds the potential to unlock the secrets to creating organisations where people can thrive.

So, next time you find yourself about to ask a colleague “how are you?” or “how was your weekend?” perhaps you could consider listening to their answer, really listening.

Perhaps you might even consider asking a different question all together.

The views expressed here are Cassandra Goodman’s own.

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