What is mindfulness?

Having introduced thousands of business executives and senior managers to mindfulness over the last few years, I am often asked about the difference between mindfulness and meditation.

Many people cite Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn is from the University of Massachusetts’ Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine): “paying attention in the present moment non-judgmentally” – and assume that it is all about looking inside and sitting still. This is indeed an effective way to start paying attention to the present, but mindfulness need not involve meditation. Harvard University professor Ellen Langer defines mindfulness as “A flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present.” In other words, there are many other tools in the strategically-minded senior manager’s toolbox than meditation to benefit from mindfulness.

For many busy managers, meditation and sitting still at work is simply not an option. And, as my ongoing research with business leaders indicates, mindfulness is more of a multi-layered concept that can help trigger positive change at any level in an organisation. Let me explain.

In fact, more and more research suggests that, with the help of meditation or similar practices, mindfulness can help individuals who are interested in self-development reduce their stress levels and think more clearly.

Yet we know that organisations and individuals don’t operate in a vacuum. Much of what stresses us at work and prevents us from clear thinking is related to factors outside ourselves. Much of our work is interactive, and depends on our colleagues or other factors such as internal policies, working routines etc. This is why leadership development and change management is much harder to pull off than it sounds.

Nevertheless, focussing on workplace mindfulness as an individual practice is like using a teaspoon to plough a field. Close to impossible!

At Cranfield, our research and teaching around mindfulness is based on the idea that mindfulness is more than meditation. While mindfulness looks and feels different at various organisational levels, it is also a valuable and reliable catalyst to a number of key leadership traits including:

  • A more balanced  outlook;
  • Better team decision-making;
  • Less self-interest and internal competition;
  • More boundary spanning, learning and creativity across teams;
  • Refreshed mastery of lazy and habitual routines that no longer serve the individual, team or organization.

How can you practice mindfulness?

We’ve been encouraging our executive clients and students to look at how they reflect on and process team successes and shortcomings. This helps them unearth the unspoken (and often unexamined) assumptions that prevent them from seeing their challenges from a different perspective and from generating truly innovative insights.

In addition, we combine different levels of mindfulness (e.g. personal contemplation combined with team reflection and analysis) simultaneously in our client work. This approach is not only an innovative way to bring mindfulness to organisations; in fact it turbo-charges the effectiveness of these kinds of interventions because it contextualises and embeds them into our clients’ work realities. It also enables us to be adaptive to our clients’ actual needs for specific mindfulness training interventions, dependent on what the intervention brings up for specific individuals or teams. In this way, the individuals and teams involved can use mindfulness to help catch themselves before falling into old habits, which is typically why such exercises have failed in the past.

The way to crack the code of sustainable business improvement through mindfulness is to intervene at an individual, team and organisational level simultaneously. This is how mindfulness becomes a strategic asset. This is what we’re working on right now here at Cranfield.

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