A high-level executive can become isolated. They surround themselves with people who won’t report negative information. They’re afraid to deliver bad news for fear of repercussions. Not knowing the reality of a situation means you can get into a distorted bubble. A lack of information can lead to poor decisions. You go down a path that’s a mistake from the get-go, but nobody tells you.
When Daniel Goleman spoke with Bill George for Leadership: A Master Class, they discussed what Bill learned from a first-hand experience with the dangers of groupthink.
“Early in my life, I worked in the U.S. Department of Defense as a civilian in the year of Robert McNamara and the Vietnam War. Some of the most brilliant people I’ve met in my life were at the high levels of the Pentagon. But toward the end they were walking off the cliff together. They suffered from groupthink. McNamara was so powerful. His team simply reinforced what he was saying. They didn’t take different perspectives.
Any good leader needs to have a reliable team who will ask tough questions, or poke holes in logic.
Another time one of my co-workers asked, “Do you think everyone agreed with that decision in the meeting?” I said, “Yeah, they all said yes, and at the end. We even voted.”
His response was an eye-opener. “Well, there were three people backing their managers that were so angry, they could hardly speak to you because you blew over them, and forced them to say yes.”
After some thought I knew he was right. I had to go back, tail between my legs, and say, “I’m really sorry. I guess I didn’t hear what you were really saying.” That allowed me to be open to honest conversation.
I also learned that it’s not just looking for and appreciating feedback from that special trusted group, but bringing the attitude with you to the office. I now try to surround myself with people who have diverse viewpoints.”
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Annie came to America while she was pregnant to assure her abusive husband would never be able to reach their children, as being born on American soil would make them citizens. She has been waiting for her green card for seven years, terrified she’ll be deported and separated from her twin boys. They live in a small, two-bedroom apartment and her boys walk five miles to school through a questionable neighborhood to get to school every day while she works three jobs. She leaves before sunrise and gets home well after dark every day, and hasn’t had a day off in three years. Her only solace is their elderly neighbor, Rosa. She loves cooking dinner for the boys and helping them with their homework, as her own children are grown and gone.
Susan is a CEO at a major corporation, and can not only afford childcare, but to have live-in assistance around the house. She can stock her fridge with the best, organic food, and her children are able to take weekly horseback riding and water polo lessons. She lives in a gated community, drives an eco-friendly car, and is able to take time off at her leisure to spend with her children. She went to college for business so she could take over her father’s corporation when he retired, and her children will never have to worry about affording a higher education.
Annie and Susan are similar women who live in the same city. They’re both single working mothers. They love their two children, and work hard to provide them with the best lives possible. They are the same age, like the same music, and are both reading a Milan Kundera novel in their free time. Annie tries to order a coffee (the sole luxury she allows herself to splurge on) and is fumbling around for change at the bottom of her purse. She’s desperate to avoid the public embarrassment that comes with not being able to afford $3.92 for a drink. She apologizes profusely for holding up the line, and manages to leave a crumpled, well-intentioned dollar bill in the tip jar. Susan, behind her in line, taps her foot impatiently and audibly sighs, even though she could easily buy Annie twenty coffees without ever noticing a lack in funds. When it’s finally Susan’s turn, she doesn’t look up from her phone as she orders, and puts an X over the tip space on her credit card receipt.
Why wouldn’t Susan just help Annie, or the hard-working people at the coffee shop?
“Those with few resources and fragile circumstances – like a single mother working two jobs to pay her bills who needs a neighbor to look after her three-year-old – depend on having good relationships with those may one day turn to for help,” Goleman writes.
Wealthier individuals, in contrast, are able to afford help as needed – they don’t rely on the goodwill of the people surrounding them. Keltner suggests that because the rich can afford to tune out other people, they also learn to tune out the needs and suffering of others. In organizations and corporations, he observed that when high- and low- ranking people interact, the higher person avoids eye contact, interrupts, and steam rolls over the conversation.
John Ogbu, the late Nigerian anthropologist from UC Berkeley, noted that Berkely had a de facto caste system, much to Goleman’s surprise. Ethnic minorities and the while middle class were centralized in different, but defined, parts of town. The schools were in between them, separating the caste lines.
“The moment he pointed [the caste lines] out, I saw he was right. But until then that glaring fact had been under the social radar for me – while I was going to those very schools, I hadn’t given it a second thought,” Goleman reflects.
The Dalai Lama has a lot to say on this topic of socioeconomic divides, and added the aspect of faith to the conversation. Followers of certain religions believe social order determines their destiny. If someone is in a lower class, it is because they deserve to be there. If someone is in a higher class, it is because they have a greater destiny.
The wealthy and elite have many reasons for justifying their choice to ignore the needs and suffering of those around them. They displace the blame to the elect, saying change is out of their control or this is the way it’s always been (a feeble guise for their willful ignorance). They may profess “God made them [the worse off] that way,” or believe a divine being decided these people should be below them. The Dalai Lama dismisses this as totally wrong, and nothing but flimsy excuses for callousness. He calls upon people with the privilege and ability to make change to do so.
“You can repeat ”˜equality, equality’ a thousand times,” the Dalai Lama says, asking his followers to act, not just sympathize. “But in reality, other forces take over.” Awareness without action following means nothing.
There is little empathy in the business and political leaders of today, and little thought is given to how it will affect those without access to power when they make decisions. This callousness makes the gap between the classes, between the tops and bottom of organizations, between the castes invisible. This lack of compassion becomes the norm when it isn’t acknowledged, and isn’t just a problem in Berkeley, California. It’s prevalent everywhere, and can only be changed by action.
Like Gandhi once said, “Compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use.”
Working out your mental muscle and toning your mindfulness is a door-opener to endless beneficial skills for leaders, such a resilience, open-mindedness, self-control, patience, and regulating impulses. Being patient with yourself as you develop your mindfulness will indirectly slow down your impulse to judge situations quickly.
If you wake up one morning after doing nothing but sitting on the couch and eating chips for weeks and decide to run a marathon, chances are you will not succeed. Similarly, you cannot wake up in the morning and decide, “Today I’m going to be in complete control of my emotions,” or, “Today I’m going to take total charge of my impulses.” In order to become directly in charge of your emotions, you must work at it indirectly layer-by-layer through training in mindfulness practice.
Emotions are fickle and sometimes can never be directly controlled. Because emotions are deeply functional and have been our survival method for millennia, your boss can’t simply approach you and say, “Just be happy now!” However, you can follow this “work-out program” to begin your journey to a happier, more mindful life.
If you can begin to grasp those concepts, you are taking the first steps to creating a link between mindfulness and resilience, and becoming an effective decision maker in both your personal life and within your organization.
Dr. Jutta Tobias has been published in the Journal of Business Venturing for her work on entrepreneurial and social change in Rwanda, received several academic awards (including the President’s Award from her doctoral alma mater, Washington State University), worked with clients such as Goldman-Sachs and the United States Congress, co-facilitated non-violence workshops in United States/United Kingdom prisons, and holds counselling qualification from the University of Cambridge. Dr. Tobais is also a contributor to our Praxis You course, Thriving on Change: The Evolving Leader’s Toolkit.
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The following is an excerpt of Elad Levinson’s interview with Leadership Development News.It’s no secret that the “softer” personality traits aren’t as valued in organizations. Empathy, self-reflection, and goodwill take the backseat to efficiency, results, and profits. What would you say if I told you that fostering the former skills would actually improve the latter?
Jane Dutton, one of the founders of the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship and University of Michigan Roth School of Business, has been studying and researching compassion in the workplace. Her research shows that when you train in mindfulness, it has an immediate impact on the quality of your relationships with your colleagues.
Mindfulness and compassion in the workplace happens in three ways:
You take more responsibility for your own reactions to situations. Instead of being unaware of the impact you have on the people around you – whether it be the team you manage, the project you’re a part of, or even in your personal life outside of work – you begin to step back and observe. Once you are able to view yourself from a semi-objective standpoint, you will find that your actions, positive or negative, may have been really influencing outcomes.
Your listening skills will be immediately impacted. When you are mindful, you tend to be able to put aside your internal reactions to things and really listen to someone and what they are experiencing. As a result, you will improve in being able to include other people and their experiences with the problems you’re trying to solve, which will make not only you, but your team, happier and more efficient.
You just might become warmer. You become more interested in others. There is a sense of concern that the people around you might translate as, “I’m with you, not against you. I’m here for you and interested in your growth and development.”
What people like Jane Dutton and myself are trying to say is that there is room for compassion in the workplace. Work should not be a place you have to completely turn yourself off. Practicing mindfulness and compassion in the workplace can start with you; give it some time and you just might notice your colder co-workers warming up to you, and your workplace become a more enjoyable place.
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“When I began introducing mindfulness methods to co-workers or clients, the most noticeable shift was that people became more present with difficulty. They didn’t repress it or push it away. They were better able to say, “Okay, here’s a difficult situation. What are our options? What are the possibilities? What can we do with it?” I began to see a calmness and acceptance in difficult moments.
People also started to accept change with more ease. As you may know, when we practice mindfulness, we learn to see that everything is changing all the time. We watch our mind and our body. We notice thoughts and physical sensations rise and fall away. Sensations are changing. Ideas are changing. We become much more comfortable with change.
When I first started working with Google, I was intrigued by a real-time projection of what people were Googling. The whole wall was a projection of all these questions, phrases and fragments going up the wall, and then disappearing. I thought, “This is the global mind at work.” Just the way you watch your own mind in meditation, you’re getting to watch what the global mind is thinking and letting go of.
Back to coping with change. When I worked with a large chemical company in the mid-”˜90s, there was always a possibility they were going to be bought by somebody else. It was that period of mergers and acquisitions. The employees were always really worried about job security. I would focus our mindfulness practice retreats on dealing with change.
We discovered that the more comfortable we become with change, the more we can just be with whatever arises. Including a job loss. And that’s not to minimize that such a change could cause suffering. But we’d be able to be there with that suffering. That presence and awareness was huge in terms of developing leaders.”
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Here’s the bad news: we’re a stressed out nation. Here’s the worse news: we’re not good at managing stress.
According to research findings about stress in America, a majority of respondents surf the web or tune out in front of the TV to relieve anxiety. Too much time tethered to technology is taking a toll on our collective well being.
Another study at the University of Gothenburg found that those who constantly use a computer or their mobile phone can develop stress, sleeping disorders and depression. The results also showed a correlation between stress and always being available on the phone.
There’s a recent study that was published by colleagues of mine at Harvard that involved a technique we call “experience sampling“, where people are actually using smart phones, the very technology that we’re discussing. They’re randomly beeped at during different time in their daily life, and they’re simply asked what they’re doing right now, and whether their mind is focused on what they’re doing.
It turns out that in a very large sample of adult Americans, 47% of the time people were mind wandering. That is, during waking periods, 47% of the time, people were not actually attending to what they were supposed to be attending to. It’s quite remarkable. This is really one of several indicators that our culture is suffering from attention deficit disorder.
A number of scientists have now marshaled very compelling evidence to indicate that we can learn to focus our attention better. We can be more skillful at not being hijacked by distractions. We may notice them, but there’s a big difference between noticing that something may be occurring, being aware of it, and being hijacked by it, being pulled away from one’s central focus.
There is now quite a bit of evidence to indicate that the circuits in the brain that play a role in regulating our attention, and very rigorous behavioral measures of attention, change in response to mindfulness meditation practice. One of the central indices of that change is our capacity to not be hijacked by distracting events in our environment, particularly distracting emotional signals, which often pull us away from our task at hand.
Attention Regulates Emotion
When you’re upset, you often have no idea how to extricate yourself from that mindset. You feel trapped because it’s difficult to use emotion to change emotion.
The more we strengthen our circuitry for concentration, the easier it becomes to let go of distressing emotions. Strengthening attention helps you let go of stressful circumstances because the brain economizes our circuits. Being compelled to pay attention to your emotions is the opposite of being able to choose where you put your attention. If you’re counting your breath, you choose to focus on the breath and let go of all other distraction. The circuits that strengthen attention also allow you to let go of the hijack.
Alternatives to Tech Distractions
Here are some easy-to-follow guided exercises to use when you’re feeling stressed. Try practicing them instead of surfing the web and staring at TV to decompress.