Thursday, February 16, 2017

On Becoming a Mindful Leader

Image courtesy of jackbonner
Today I'm pleased to share a guest post by Paul Laughlin.

Two books I enjoyed over the Christmas period have prompted me to reflect on being a Mindful Leader. By that slightly odd term I mean a leader making use of mindfulness principles to improve their effectiveness.

The two books I referenced are: Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality by Tim Stead and Contact and Context: New Directions in Gestalt Coaching by Ty Francis & Malcolm Parlett. The first was a present and the second I have been asked to review for a Psychology journal. Both have been enjoyable reads and helpful to my personal development. In this post, I will focus more on the former, as I’ll be producing a fuller book review on the latter in coming weeks.

This post is too short and too high-level to provide even an introduction to Mindfulness. However, I would like to share four themes that have struck me from reading both books and that I feel offer insights into how to be a more mindful (and thus effective) leader.

Defining Mindfulness
By way of definition, Tim Stead offers the following:

Being more fully aware of your own experience, in the present moment, in a non-judgemental way.

For those of my readers who know more about mindfulness or have experienced its benefits, I hope that will pass as workable.

Tim goes on to define four "vital strands" to practising mindfulness:
  1. Awareness
  2. Experience
  3. Present Moment
  4. Non-Judgemental
It is those elements, or perspectives, through which I have been reflecting on how to be a more effective Customer Insight Leader in 2017. I hope the thoughts that follow are helpful.

1. Being a More-Aware Leader
My own experience with starting to practice mindfulness is that it’s not easy. Your thoughts wander. The first awareness I experienced was of how difficult I find it to stay focused (like herding cats in my head).

Apparently, the emphasis on awareness (of your own thoughts, body, and environment) is intended to offer an antidote to the way we so often go about on "autopilot." As we’ve shared before regarding  Behavioural Economics, much research in the field of Behavioural Psychology has shown the high proportion of "decisions" that are made using unconscious biases and other heuristics that help us avoid needing conscious thought. It takes a lot of oxygen and effort in the brain to consciously think about the right answers/responses to the plethora of decisions needed everyday.

That makes sense from an evolutionary perspective and when dealing with routines where habits can serve us well. However, for leaders there is a danger that this way of being also extends into our working lives, i.e., like the experience of "waking up" while driving and wondering how you got so far without apparently conscious thought. Have you experienced much the same in meetings or familiar work routines?

Before getting back into the familiar rituals of working life (with emails, meetings, and cycles of reporting), could it help to pause a while? Have you ever spent just a few moments at work to become really aware of what you are thinking, feeling in your body, or sensing around you? Try it. With a few minutes spent silently, calmly breathing, you may be surprised what strikes you.

How can you avoid just being a "cog in the machine" or a leader on autopilot this year?

2. Noticing What You Experience as a Mindful Leader
Do you sometimes suffer from analysis paralysis? Could it be that you are sometimes over-analysing problems or opportunities? In conversations with your team, peers, or boss, do you find yourself spending more time thinking up a smart reply than listening to what they have actually said? We have been taught for so long that the brain is king and rationale argument should win that we can miss the more nuanced reality of real life.

Given all the emphasis in recent years on Neuroscience (normally limited to the study of the brain), it’s interesting to now see important developments in a field called Neurogastroenterology. This has identified "intelligence" in the signals sent from our gut, heart, and other parts of the body, to inform or guide the brain. So, it seems there is some truth to the old analogies of "what your gut tells you" or "your heart not being in it." We are realising we are more embodied than we sometimes give credit to, in this age of focus on algorithms and technology.

So, back to being a more effective leader. I know from my own experience in both team leadership and exec meetings that there can be a lot of wisdom to noticing what you are experiencing. It’s not objective "truth," but if you experience a raised heart rate, a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, or a chill running down your spine — notice that. It may well be worth exploring what your body has noticed. Could you ask open questions, or explore more on a topic before committing?

Beyond a more introverted focus, being more aware of what you experience can also help you notice more of how others are feeling. Do you pay enough attention to the non-verbal signals being shown by your team? How could you improve as a leader if you focus not only on what those you work with say but also on how they act and appear to feel?

3. You Can Only be a Mindful Leader in the Present Moment
Although learning from past experiences is very valuable, it can also leave you fearful of repeating past mistakes or over-confident about somewhat similar opportunities. Likewise, too much focus on the future can paralyse your decision-making or action now. Too many of us spend too much time regretting the past or fearing the future. In reality, all you have is now. Whatever is going on inside your head, your ability to do something different is limited to the present moment.

Too much focus on the past or future is also associated with a build-up of stress. So, mindfulness also focuses on helping you bring your thinking back to the present moment. What are you aware of now? What is being experienced now?

I’m sure the applicability to Customer Insight Leaders is obvious. With so much analysis of past data (including success or failure of past actions) and research into customers’ future intentions (including fears and hopes), straying away from "now" is an ever-present risk. But the real value add of both insight teams and their leaders is to take all this information and use it wisely to inform what to do now.

For 2017, how could you focus more on action in the present? Are you aware of past experiences which may be making you unduly cautious? Can you notice what is different this time? Are you aware of repeated fears about the future that may even be disturbing your sleep? What would you do differently if you weren’t running that "film reel in your head?"

Take some time to just focus on now. What is the most helpful thing for you to do right now?

4. Could a Non-Judgemental Leader be More Effective?
This may seem the most counter-intuitive of all four strands. Surely the job of leaders is to judge, to make decisions, and to only keep doing what works? With much of corporate life requiring judgements from managers and leaders (from performance management systems to who gets budget), how could a non-judgemental mindset help?

Let’s step back to you as a whole person first. Like most of us human beings, you undoubtedly have elements of your personality, behaviour, thoughts, or desires that you dislike or find unacceptable. Both the route to depression and addiction can lie in simply trying to suppress these parts of ourselves. Much study in the field of PsychoSynthesis (amongst others) has been to encourage us to listen to more of the multiple voices or personas that we all experience within ourselves. If that sounds a little unhinged, think of the way you might describe yourself as a different person in different circumstances.

There is growing evidence from the use of mindfulness to help addicts and those suffering from depression that a key element is to be able to suspend judgement. Can you just be aware of some of the thoughts and feelings you are having, without having to immediately rush to judgement? That doesn’t mean giving yourself carte blanche to do anything, rather increasing your awareness of everything you are feeling and experiencing. Like a good conversation, quite often if you stay quiet for longer than is comfortable, something else comes to light.

Are there challenges in your team or problems in your business that you could do with understanding better? Could you just gather information or listen to colleagues for longer before rushing to a judgement? Giving yourself more time as a leader, to experience more about the situation, may help you make a better decision in the end.

Do You Want to be a Mindful Leader in 2017?
I hope those musings were useful. I’m certainly becoming convinced that there is something in this.

If you’d like to give it a go, why not start by sitting quietly and reflecting on what you have read. See what thoughts and feelings arise. After sufficient time to hear all your internal "witnesses" (including your body), what do you want to do differently as a leader this year?

Want to explore Mindfulness yourself? You can find some helpful resources and books on the Frantic World website.

Have a great 2017 and I look forward to learning from your responses.

Paul Laughlin has over 20 years experience of leading teams to generate profit from analysing  data. Over the last 12 years he’s created, lead and improved customer insight teams across Lloyds, TSB, Halifax and Scottish Widows. He’s delivered incremental profit of over £10m pa and improved customers’ experiences.

 

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