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Research: How Mindfulness Increases Mental Performance at Work

During my study of the relationship between mindfulness and leader effectiveness, 100% of the leaders I interviewed (all having months or years of prior mindfulness training and practice) linked mindfulness to improvement in their personal and professional lives. The majority described this as being significant, often using terms such as “profound,” or “life-changing.” My previous articles on EI draw from this research, exploring the way mindfulness influences each of the 12 Emotional Intelligence competencies, based on interviews with organizational leaders from around the world.

My findings ultimately reveal the following:

Mindfulness influences changes to awareness and behavior that, in turn, play key roles in producing favorable workplace outcomes.

Improved Mental Performance and More Effective Behavior

One of these changes, improved mental performance, was described by participants as having a positive, overarching effect on functions such as decision-making, susceptibility to distractions, and attention. This is not surprising since mindfulness is sometimes defined as meta-awareness, including our ability to non-judgmentally observe where our attention is and is not focused.

This capability can become a “real-time” skill set, taking the form of simultaneous observation of our interaction with others, and our internal reactions to that activity. The leaders I interviewed described this level of awareness, reporting that it provided them with a degree of “mental clarity.” Below are the specific benefits described, and the percentage of participants who reported experiencing them:

  • Ability to identify signs of potential conflict (in time to take corrective action) – 90%
  • Capacity to more effectively navigate organizational relationships – 88%
  • Improved ability to recognize emotional reactions in themselves and others – 86%
  • Increased attentiveness and patience with others – 74%
  • More productive responses to the emotional states of others – 100%
  • Recognition of the negative influence of stress and anxiety – 88%
  • Openness to new ideas and input from others – 90%

Descriptions of these benefits were provided in the context of how mindfulness helped leaders gain new information about themselves, others, and their workplace culture. This information was then incorporated into their efforts to improve the effectiveness of their interactions with others. As the graphic below illustrates, leaders described an upward spiral of improvement. New insight about self and others fed back into additional, positive changes to beliefs and awareness, which paved the way for more effective behavior.

Real World Examples of Applying Mindfulness at Work

Many of the leaders reported that improved mental performance made them better able to identify and filter out distractions such as emotional reactivity and bias. A senior manager with one of the largest research and publishing firms in the world described this experience in the following way: ” you’re able to calm yourself down and put yourself in a better position to listen to someone… it helps me to be calm and think clearly and to focus…I find I’m able to be composed and organized and clear in my communications.”

Leaders specifically mentioned that mindfulness training helped them be more present when interacting with others. This included a greater ability to monitor what their attention was focused on or being distracted by. They also mentioned becoming better at observing whether or not they were listening carefully, asking relevant questions, and picking up on interpersonal cues and organizational context.

This type of observation, and the value it provides, was well articulated by an executive specializing in global communication and strategy: “(mindfulness) enables you to read other people better and be more sensitive to what’s driving their commentary, their presentation, their behavior…their body language. That makes the connection between the two of you much more on an equal footing basis. So you’re no longer either selling to a position of power, or talking to a position of power. You are in fact exchanging information and dealing with each other on footing that is, at least emotionally, much more equal.”

A new appreciation for the importance of empathy in the workplace was also identified by leaders as a benefit arising from improved mental performance. This resulted from developing a stronger ability to identify and manage the role their own emotional reactions played in their perceptions of others.

A leader who has held executives roles at one of the largest organizations in the world elaborated on this point in the following statement: “It definitely increases your empathy by helping you put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You slow down your responses, and when you sort of look at why that person is reacting in that manner it helps you be more compassionate because the moment you have empathy you start thinking from a very human perspective about the situation and trying to understand what the problem is. And the moment I take that approach I realize that I have solved the problem more effectively.”

What You Can Do to Cultivate Better Mental Performance

Look for opportunities to practice in the workplace, since this will help you develop exactly the type of capabilities needed for improved performance. The following suggestions come from details shared by leaders on this topic during interviews:

  • When interacting with others in-person or remotely, put your phone away, turn off your email, web browser, or even your monitor
  • Try and continuously monitor where your eyes are focused during interactions with others, as well as your facial expression and what it may be conveying
  • Take notes on what you are observing during interactions with others, specifically what they may be expressing through tone, body language, and choice of words
  • Regularly ask questions aimed at surfacing misinterpretations
  • Take time each day to identify emotional reactions that may have a negative influence on your mental performance

Improved mental performance can be developed through regular practice, not unlike athletic training. There are a variety of software tools and meditation practices available that help strengthen intensity and duration of attention, however, they may not improve your ability to actively observe and more fully understand your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. For this type of development, consider formal mindfulness training, but be sure that the instructor is thoroughly qualified, and plan to make a consistent time commitment if you want results.

Recommended Reading:

Emotional Self-Awareness: A Primer – The first in our series of primers on the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, with author voices including Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Richard J. Davidson, and the author of this article, Matthew Lippincott. The complete collection is also available. 

Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body (audio)  New York Times-bestselling authors Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson unveil new research showing how meditation affects the brain.

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence – Daniel Goleman illuminates the state of the art on the relationship between the brain and emotional intelligence, and highlights EI’s practical applications in leadership roles, education, and creativity.

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Why Focus is a Foundational Skill for Emotional & Social Intelligence

“Directing attention toward where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership.”  – Dan Goleman

Our ability to focus is under siege now, more than at any time in recorded history. The level of distraction through technology and social communication is unprecedented – and not just for millennials. It is imperative for leaders to grasp the fundamental importance of directing focus where it needs to go.

Focus paves the way for the development of Emotional Intelligence.

Focus is a foundational skill for emotional and social intelligence. Without it we are distracted, directionless, and disconnected from the world around us. This has deep implications for leadership. Indeed, the ability to listen, and pay attention meaningfully is critical to nearly every metric that matters in the workplace.

Cumulatively, in the U.S., we check our smartphones more than 9 billion times per day (Deloitte 2017). We reach for our phones, or look at our smart devices in meetings, while waiting in line and even in the middle of a conversation with a colleague.  Much of this behavior is automatic. Everyone understands the pull of attention with the intermittent gratification of a text or tweet – and though we may not fully realize or admit it, we struggle with this at work, and at home.  At times, it can feel hopeless, but it need not.

We can grow the muscle of attention regulation with small daily practices.

Developmental psychologists tell us that our ability to witness our own minds—our thoughts and feelings—resides in networks mainly located in the brain’s executive centers in the prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead. Strong, disruptive emotions, like anger or anxiety, flow from circuitry lower in the brain, the limbic system (the primary structures within the limbic system include the amygdala and hippocampus). The brain’s capacity for “just saying no” to these emotional impulses takes a leap in growth during ages five to seven and increases steadily from there (though it tends to lag a bit in the emotional centers during the teen years).

The ability to be mindful of impulse—to stay focused and ignore distractions—can be enhanced by the right guidance, and by consistent practice. Mindfulness meditation practices are an excellent, always accessible, and free, method to strengthen our focus.

One way to begin to hone your attention is with “micro-practices” of mindfulness, such as by taking a 3-minute breathing space. This short, yet powerful practice offers a quick way to bring our minds purposefully online and strengthen the attention muscle-sort of like doing a mental push up.  Set your timer for 3 minutes if that helps.

 

 

Mindfulness helps cultivate focus, which creates emotional ease and deeper relationships.

The ability to notice where our attention is going, for example, that to recognize we are getting anxious, and to take steps to renew our focus rests on self-awareness. Self-awareness is a key domain of emotional intelligence. Such meta-cognition lets us keep our mind in the state best suited for the task at hand.  Of the many ways of paying attention, two are especially important for self-awareness:

  1. Selective attention lets us focus on one target and ignore everything else.
  2. Open attention lets us take in information widely – in the world around us and the world within us – and pick up subtle cues we otherwise miss.

Why is this important? It matters because being aware of ourselves, others, and the wider world goes offline when we are distracted. With the onslaught of stimulation from devices we need to learn to notice when we are distracted and intentionally remind ourselves to show up and focus. Here. Now.

The full extent of the emotional and financial toll distraction is taking is still not fully understood, but we are seeing early signs that it is devastatingly high. In fact, this month, two big Apple investors came out publicly stating that iPhones and children are a toxic combination. They are asking the company to be more socially responsible by helping parents limit cell phone use with technology settings they can easily activate, to turn phones off, or limit use.

The implication for leaders is clear. It is important to create a working environment that promotes the cultivation of focus.

Leaders can actively support their employees by creating structures and processes within the workplace that encourage mindful use of devices and mindful listening. For example, having people agree to not look at cell phones during meetings, leading a brief breathing space meditation at the beginning of a huddle, or setting guidelines on work emails afterhours and on weekends.

There is clearly great value for organizations who take the lead in helping their people cultivate these skills. Research found that among leaders with multiple strengths in Emotional Self-Awareness, 92% had teams with high energy and high performance.  In sharp contrast, leaders low in Emotional Self-Awareness created negative climates 78% of the time. Great leaders create a positive emotional climate that encourages motivation and extra effort, and they’re the ones with good Emotional Self-Awareness.

References
Deloitte. 2017. 2017 Global Mobile Consumer Survey: U.S. edition. Survey, Deloitte.

Goleman, Daniel. 2013. Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. NY: Harper.

Goleman, Daniel, and Richard Davidson. 2017. Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. New York: Penguin: Avery.

Goleman, Daniel, Richard Davidson , Vanessa Druskat, Richard Boyatzis, and George Kohlrieser. 2017. Emotional Self-Awareness: A Primer. Northampton: Key Step Media.

 

Recommended Reading:

Daniel Goleman’s CD Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence offers a series of guided exercises to help listeners hone their concentration, stay calm and better manage emotions.

The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education provides educators with a solid rationale for incorporating focus-related skill sets in the classroom to help students navigate a fast-paced world of increasing distraction, and to better understand the interconnections between people, ideas, and the planet.

Our new series of primers focuses on the 12 Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, including Emotional Self-Awareness, Adaptability, Influence, Teamwork, and Inspirational Leadership.

The primers are written by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, co-creators of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model, along with a range of colleagues, thought-leaders, researchers, and leaders with expertise in the various competencies – including the author of this article, Ann Flanagan Petry. See the full list of primers by topic, or get the complete collection!

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Empathy in Leadership: Coaching Leaders to Manage Their Stories

empathy in leadership

 

When leaders struggle with staff morale or direct reports failing to thrive, a lack of empathy is the lead domino.   These leaders forget that, as humans, we tend to make decisions based on our stories about other people.  These stories impact our every interaction with others because we can’t hide the emotions behind them.  Our stories also determine our broader management tactics, which can be as wildly off the mark as our stories themselves.

Negative stories about others that we hold as leaders come from what Heath and Heath call the “Fundamental Attribution Error” (Switch, 2010).   The simple idea:  it is “our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than the situation they are in” (180). The error, of course, is that situations are far more likely to impact behavior than character traits, and this approach can lead to unnecessary conflict or losing high-potential employees.

The antidote is what I have come to call the noble story. This idea has its roots in the concept of noble purpose, which I learned in my coaching training at the Teleos Institute.  The basic premise is that we all believe we act from “noble” intention, which we can connect to our core values.   If we believe this is true for others as much as it is true for ourselves, then we must call into question stories that assume negative intent.  This offers us a path to connecting with people we struggle to believe in.

Much of my coaching involves helping school leaders connect personally with teachers and parents who have disappointed them, who are actively resisting them, or who just don’t share their race, class, gender, or philosophy.  Empathy comes into play often. A principal’s job is to create the conditions for students and teachers to learn in their buildings, and the core emotional conditions they must create are based on trust through relationships.  You can’t fake caring and trust, so it’s my job to teach principals how to build it with everyone.

The key is to help these leaders replace their negative stories with the noble story that the other person holds about him or her-self.

This line of coaching begins when I hear my leaders start to explain their report’s behavior with their negative stories.  I hear things like, “How is it that an adult who went to college doesn’t know how to ____,” or “he’s not a good fit here because he doesn’t (care/try/believe) enough. “When I hear these kinds of comments I ask the following questions to raise self-awareness:

“How does that story serve you, and how is it getting in your way?” 

 “To what extent do you think that they are aware of how you are feeling?”

“What impact do you think that assumption has on your staff member?”

Leaders usually get to the unpleasant answers themselves, but if they don’t, I remind them of Daniel Goleman’s concept of the emotional loop:  you can’t fake or hide your true emotions.  People know how you feel about them.  And the impact of not being “believed in” on one’s ability to learn””especially when learning includes an adaptive challenge””is debilitating.

From here, we start our work on self-managing stories.  This is where we build the “muscle” to manage negative stories and create noble ones.  The following are steps that any of us can use to develop this muscle.

Showing Up To Connect: A Self-Management Exercise to get to Empathy

  1. List 3-5 things about the other person that is part of your negative story. What are your emotional triggers behind this story?   How can you manage them?
  2. Make a list of the real challenges this person is facing at work and/or in life. Connect each one to an emotion they are likely experiencing that may be contributing to the challenge at hand. What can you genuinely empathize with?
  3. Write a list of at least five aspects of the other’s noble story that you also value. These may include:
  • core values or character traits that you can respect about them
  • current strengths
  • past growth and success
  • the intentions that drive their actions that you can respect
  1. List the things that you want for the other as a person (i.e. as another human being in this world that is trying to do this work and life a happy life).

After taking these steps I ask my leaders to write them as a narrative.   I ask them to share it with me, and then I ask them what emotions they are feeling toward their staff member.   Leaders notice a significant change of emotion from our past conversations, and even from right before doing this exercise. This is a sign of developing empathy, and it comes with a new approach in how the leader interacts with their team.  With this motivation, I charge them with:

  1. Revisiting their “Noble Story” narrative before their next meeting with their report.
  2. During the meeting, asking questions about their report’s own noble story.  Leaders should listen for what they missed or don’t understand, holding the intention of building their noble story.
  3. Affirming what they hear and adding pieces of their own narrative.

Leaders usually report an instant shift in the energy of their relationships.  This is just a beginning of course.  Over time I work with leaders on developing the muscle to hold their story even when people struggle or disappoint them in some way.

Feeling empathy for the people we lead is not the silver bullet to accelerating growth or building team morale, but I have found it to be the foundation for both.  People need to feel that their leaders believe in them and trust them enough to take learning risks.  They also take the cues from leaders about how to treat others.

Recommended reading:

Our new primer series is written by Daniel Goleman and fellow thought leaders in the field of Emotional Intelligence and research. See our latest release: Empathy: A Primer for more insights on how this applies in leadership.

For personal interviews, see the Crucial Competence video series!

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The Five Stages of Intentional Change Theory

intentional change theory boyatzis

The Five Stages of Intentional Change Theory

by Richard Boyatzis

How do people make changes in their behavior?

What does it take to make lasting change?

These are questions my colleagues and I have studied for the last fifty years. Since 1967 we’ve used Intentional Change Theory (ICT) to understand what leads to lasting change. ICT is a multi-level theory that helps predict sustained desired change for dyads, teams, organizations, communities and countries.

The “change” one makes may not just be in behavior, it also may be in a person’s habits, competencies, dreams, or aspirations. It may be a change in perspective, how someone looks at events in their life or how they feel in certain situations. When I say “desired,” I mean that the change is something that the person would like to occur. By “sustained,” I mean that the change lasts for a relatively long time.

The basis of Intentional Change Theory is what we call “the five discoveries.” These are:

  1. The ideal self and a personal vision
  2. The real self and its comparison to the ideal self resulting in an assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses, in a sense a personal balance sheet
  3. A learning agenda and plan
  4. Experimentation and practice with the new behavior, thoughts, feelings, or perceptions
  5. Trusting, or resonant, relationships that enable a person to experience and process each discovery in the process

People pass through these discoveries in a cycle that repeats as the person changes.

Let’s look at each of these discoveries.

1) Imagining Your Ideal Self and Creating a Personal Vision

Before making an intentional change, we need to discover who we want to be. What we call our “ideal self” is an image of the person we want to be. There are three components to developing the image of our ideal self:

  • An image of a desired future
  • Hope that one can attain it
  • Aspects of one’s core identity, which includes enduring strengths, on which to build for this desired future

Just like champion athletes develop and use an image of themselves performing at their peak in preparation for competition, there is power in focusing on a desired end. Our research shows that people develop a deep emotional commitment to making a change if they have created an image of their ideal self and use it in their change process. Hence, the output of the first discovery is a personal vision.

2) Comparing Your Ideal Self with Your Real Self

Once you have a sense of your ideal self, it’s time to look at how that ideal compares with your current “real” self. By “real,” I mean the person that other people see and with whom they interact. For many of us, our self-image is some mixture of awareness of our own internal state and the feedback we receive from others about who we are. It can be challenging to get a solid grasp of our actual strengths and weaknesses, either because we don’t want to look too closely or other people are reluctant to let us know what they see. To really consider changing a part of yourself, you must have a sense of both what you value about yourself and want to keep, and what aspects of yourself you want to change. Where your ideal self and real self are not consistent can be thought of as gaps or weaknesses. The output of this second discovery is a personal balance sheet.

3) Developing a Learning Agenda and Plan

Once you have a vision for the future and an accurate sense of your current self, it’s time to develop a plan for how to move toward your vision. In this stage, the output is on creating that learning plan. Such a plan would focus on development, and is most effective if it is coupled with a positive belief in one’s capability and hope of improvement. A learning plan would also include standards of performance set by the person who is pursuing change. Once the plan is in place, the next step is to try it out.

4) Practicing Desired Changes

The fourth discovery is to act on your learning plan and practice with desired changes. Depending on your goals, this often means experimenting with new behavior. After such practice, you have the opportunity to reflect on what happened, and experiment further. Sometimes practicing new behavior can happen in a course or a controlled learning environment, but often it happens in real world settings such as at work or at home. Whatever the situation, experimentation will be most effective in conditions where you feel safe. Such psychological safety means that you can try out your new behavior with less risk of embarrassment or serious consequences of failure.

5) Relationships That Help Us Learn

Our relationships with other people are an important part of our everyday environment. Crucial to our ability to change are the relationships and groups that are particularly important to us. They provide the context in which we can see our progress on our desired changes. Often, our relationships and groups can be sources of support for our change as well as for feedback. They also can help us from slipping back into our former ways of behaving.

Putting It All Together

There is a mechanism that allows movement from one discovery to another. Inside of us are two states, a Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) and Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA). Arousing the PEA allows a psycho-physiological state of being open to new ideas – this allows movement to the next discovery. In contrast, the NEA is a feeling of obligation. This stops the sustainability of any change attempted because you’re simply not motivated intrinsically.
In the Real Self, there should be an emphasis on your strengths, not on the development needs. This stimulates the PEA because it’s about building upon what you’re already good at and filling in the gaps, rather than dwelling on weaknesses.

You can handle only a few developmental or change goals at a time, so remember to make your learning plan something you are excited about trying. Approach it with openness and curiosity, then build upon what you learn gradually.

Recommended Reading/Learning:

Our new Primers provide a concise overview of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies of Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control, both valuable in creating intentional change.

The Primers are created by Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman, with several fellow thought leaders in the field of EI, leadership development, and research, including Richard Boyatzis, Vanessa Druskat, Richard J. Davidson, and George Kohlrieser.

 

 

 

For even more in-depth information from Richard Boyatzis and Daniel Goleman, see our new video series, Foundations in Emotional Intelligence. This series explores the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies in theory, with examples for practice, and support from research.

 

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How Do You Explain Mindfulness?

explain mindfulness
explain mindfulness
How do you explain mindfulness?

How Do You Explain Mindfulness to Someone Unfamiliar with It?

Many definitions of mindfulness only make sense to someone who already knows about mindfulness. That’s what Juliet Adams has seen in her work as an organizational consultant. Adams is the author of Mindfulness at Work for Dummies, the founder of Mindfulnet.org, and the director of A Head for Work, a leadership and workplace productivity firm. (Juliet is also a contributor to our Thriving on Change program.)

Adams joined More Than Sound founder Hanuman Goleman for a conversation as part of More Than Sound’s “What is Mindfulness?” podcast series. She said her favorite description of mindfulness is:

“the ability to focus attention and observe impartially the interplay between thoughts, emotions, and bodily responses. At any given moment, this allows you to choose a wise response to any given situation rather than a knee-jerk autopilot response that may or may not be appropriate.”

Adams said that a popular definition of mindfulness is one used by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The essence of Kabat-Zinn’s definition is: “paying attention on purpose in the present moment and without judgment.”

Adams has found that both her description and Kabat-Zinn’s definition often leave newcomers to mindfulness looking puzzled. In the first of four segments, Episode # 136: “What is Mindfulness? Your vs. Popular Definition of Mindfulness,” Adams shares an explanation of mindfulness that always gets people nodding in understanding.

After you listen, think about how you explain mindfulness? What definition resonates most with people?

Explain Mindfulness: Is it the Same as Meditation?

One point of confusion for many is the difference (and similarities) between mindfulness and meditation. Daniel Goleman clarified some definitions in his article What Mindfulness Is – and Isn’t. He says:

“Mindfulness” refers to that move where you notice your mind wandered. With mindfulness you monitor whatever goes on within the mind. “Meditation” means the whole class of ways to train attention, mindfulness among them.

He went on to point out that some meditation methods require you to be mindful of thoughts, feelings, or fantasies without judging or reacting. This self-awareness in itself tends to quiet the mind. However, many meditation methods are concentrative – you continually bring your mind back to a single point of focus such as your breath or counting. Concentrative methods use mindfulness to notice when your mind wanders so you can bring it back to that one focus.

Explain Mindfulness Through Practice

Regular practice can fine tune how you explain mindfulness. Use everyday opportunities to deepen your practice – at work, at home, or even during your commute. Below are some resources to help you get started – or take it to the next level.

Working with Mindfulness – Mirabai Bush developed mindfulness audio exercises for the workplace to help reduce stress, increase productivity, and encourage creative problem solving.

Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence – Daniel Goleman created guided exercises to help people of all ages hone their concentration, stay calm and better manage emotions.

Relax: 6 Techniques to Lower Your Stress – Daniel Goleman developed a 45-minute audio program to help listeners effectively and naturally reduce stress.

Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving – Renowned Vipassana teacher Michele McDonald developed guided mindfulness exercises to practice during your commute.