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The Trouble With Mindfulness Training

There’s no clear, widely agreed-upon definition for what mindful leadership actually looks like in practice.

The Trouble With Mindfulness Training

“Mindfulness” is dangerously close to joining the ranks of corporate buzzword bingo. Think back to the early days of Lean Startup, Six Sigma, Solution Selling, and the Total Quality Movement. They seemed fresh, new, and promising when each of them burst onto the scene, but while they all may have helped plenty of companies and entrepreneurs move forward, many have run out of gas.

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In today’s business world, mindfulness overpromises and under-delivers for a number of reasons, top among them that the training programs based around it are too internally focused and poorly defined. Perhaps worse still, they’re often divorced from most companies’ approach to their customers.

Never Mind Definitions

I attended the Mindful Leadership Summit earlier this month, where I witnessed some 800 organizational leaders, technology providers, and business coaches trade insights on how teaching and promoting mindfulness can improve the way we do business today. (Full disclosure: The Summit team waived my registration fee.)

But for all the earnest talk, I left disappointed. One of the biggest problems bedeviling mindful leadership training–from retreats to workshops to conferences–is that there’s no clear, widely agreed-upon definition for what mindful leadership actually looks like in practice. Others, of course, will disagree and claim that the problem is mainly about education; if only we talked more, and more substantively, about mindfulness in corporate settings, it would be better understood.

That may even be true. But it wouldn’t alter the unfortunate fact that those of us who most espouse mindful leadership have overhyped it in the course of promoting it. As with many new leadership concepts, it’s often a free-for-all to see who can take the reigns of the movement and lead the conversation. By the time the top gurus emerge, the concept has become a watered-down fad. I’m worried that mindfulness as a leadership strategy may now be headed in that direction, too.

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Whether you’re leading an organization of two or 200,000, you should be cautious about introducing mindfulness programs to your teams. Here are a few ways to keep those efforts substantive, meaningful, and tied to your company’s goals and values.

1. Decide Where (And Whether) Mindfulness Fits In

First ask yourself some tough questions: Does your culture truly value long-term customer and employee relationships? Or is your mantra all about maximizing revenue and income at all costs? If it’s the latter, don’t try to downplay it or pretend otherwise; your employees will detect disingenuousness and turn away.

Can you stand in front of your teams and reassure them that their commitment to a healthy lifestyle won’t impede their careers? If you skip this step, mindfulness programs can wind up causing more confusion and frustration than benefit.

2. Explain What Mindfulness Means—And What It Doesn’t

For my own part, I define mindfulness this way:

the ability to exhibit nonjudgmental awareness, which leads to better decision-making, stronger empathy, deeper relationships, and improved focus.

If that sounds like a high promise, it should. Mindful habits and behaviors need to produce reliable outcomes–otherwise what’s the point?–but those outcomes won’t always be the same for everyone. The way people practice mindfulness is an individual choice. Too many mindfulness experts and methodologies focus just on one modality, namely, meditation. This is very limiting. In the long term, it’s also polarizing.

So consider a wide range of offerings–not just meditation, but also yoga or Tai Chi classes, including on a drop-in basis. Every person will create their own path to improving focus and mental acuity. Your evangelists will help promote those programs’ benefits, in all their variety, not a contrived, one-size-fits-all marketing program.

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3. Keep Mindfulness Far Away From HR Departments

HR departments get a bad rap. That’s because, for better or worse, they tend to excel at enforcing compliance. They’re seldom consulted for designing the future of work, even if they should be.

Until that changes, it’s probably best not to tie mindfulness programs to human resources. Think of mindfulness instead as an element of company culture that needs to be promoted and adopted at a personal level. When unyoked from other mandatory programs and policies, mindfulness training can have a wider impact. During the Mindful Leadership Summit, companies including the Royal Bank of Canada and SAP reported rising attendance numbers in their own programs.

Manish Chopra, a partner at McKinsey & Company, added, “We see two benefits from our mindfulness programs. First, attendees are consistently seeing an increase in focus time. At McKinsey, we are all paid to think. We don’t get time to think until midnight, and that’s not healthy. Second, they are doing less multitasking. This means people are getting more done.”

4. Be Mindful Of Your Customers, Too

Most mindfulness training programs are geared toward improving culture and individual and team performance. The benefits are all internally focused, which means they ignore the potential to improve customer experience. When your marketing and sales teams can prove that deep listening, self-awareness, adaptability, and agility all matter to your bottom line, it’s more likely that the C-suite will start taking mindfulness more seriously.

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Mo Edjali, cofounder of Mindful Leader Inc., concedes that mindfulness is still in its early-adoption stage in today’s organizations. “There are a very few who have experienced cultural transformation and measurable business outcomes from these programs,” he said during the recent summit. “However, an incredible number of leaders and employees have a practice and are just finding the courage to openly share their practice in the workplace.”

5. Mind The Big Picture

Bill George, former Medtronic CEO and author of Discover Your True North, is one of those courageous leaders. “I’m most worried when board members are more concerned about what people think about them, versus the impact they have on society,” he said at the conference.

In other words, mindfulness is a gateway to self-awareness, not an end in itself. In his bestselling book, George argues that “unbounded capitalism is at risk of self-destructing . . . That’s why the United States passed laws such as Sarbanes-Oxley in 2003 and Dodd-Frank in 2011 to restrain free markets. But laws alone are not the answer.” Policymakers and corporations alike “must work together to restore capitalism to its original purpose of serving society.”

That’s a noble call to action, and it’s one that most mindfulness leadership efforts–so far, anyway–don’t quite seem up to the challenge of answering. But we can change course. Start with questioning your commitment to improving the experience of your employees, customers, and even society itself, taking into consideration the wide breadth of needs and habits across those groups. It isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be. But in order for mindfulness to be more than a passing fad in the business world, we need to get it right.

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