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Mindfulness for Managers: Feeling Good is Good for Business

Mindfulness practice has been shown to help in the development of soft skills for smart leadership

Mindfulness practice has been around for centuries. However, it is only in recent years that it has become a subject of closer inspection by the corporate world and, by extension, business schools who train executives for future success. As benefits to mindfulness at work have been uncovered, meditation halls have sprung up in company offices, and suited-up executives have silenced their mobile notifications for ‘a moment to quiet the mind’.

Learning to take a moment to be in the moment – through practices such as breath work and meditation – has been shown to help practitioners handle stress in high-pressure situations, improve decision making, as well as improve communication among colleagues. These are all scenarios with which managers are very familiar and which - if handled poorly - can bar them from reaching their full leadership potential.

Learn mindfulness at work and in the MBA classroom?

Business education institutions have been progressively giving this not so ‘new age’ tool more credit by encompassing the teaching of self-awareness, meditation and other mindfulness techniques in their curricula. Indeed, schools such as MIT Sloan, Wharton, UNC Kenan-Flagler and NYU Stern have realized that such practices can help students develop soft skills that are highlyvaluable in the modern workplace – for managing others as well their own lives and careers.

“Many employers…have found that introducing mindfulness into their workplace not only lowers employee stress, but improves focus, clarity of thinking, decision making, emotional intelligence, and more," writes Kimberly Schaufenbuel, program director of executive development at UNC Kenan-Flagler, in a 2014 whitepaper on the benefits of mindfulness at work.

Neuroscience research supports these claims, with the benefits of mindfulness linked to good business practice and now manifested in various formats of executive training offerings. For example, NYU Stern offers a 'Leadership Development Program', which teaches mindfulness to both MBAs and executive MBAs; MIT Sloan offers two-day executive education courses, such as ‘Neuroscience for Leadership’; and Wharton has an extensive list of online resources focusing on mindfulness at work, through its ‘Nano Tools for Leaders’.

On the corporate side, one of the earliest adopters – perhaps not so surprisingly – was Google, 2016's most sought-after MBA employer in the US, based on a survey conducted by Universum. In fact, Google’s mindfulness training program for employees, 'Search Inside Yourself', is now a globally recognized training course that has been delivered to a wide range of well-known companies, including LinkedIn, Ford, American Express and SAP. Plus, business schools, such as Rotman and Haas, are now on their list of clients as well. Other companies like Intel, Target and General Mills also offer their own mindfulness at work programs in various formats to thousands of employees each year.

Mindfulness at work improves cooperation in complex workforces

“This is the first time that four generations are in the workforce,” notes Connie Kim, director of NYU Stern’s Leadership Development Program, in describing the unique state of the modern workplace. Such generational dynamics may be playing a part in a trend identified by Deloitte regarding the way in which organizational structures and strategy are evolving. As described in its Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report, for which around 7,000 executives were surveyed, the, “new organization,” (as the authors term it), “is built around highly empowered teams, driven by a new model of management, and led by a breed of younger, more globally diverse leaders.”

As Kim explains , these changes have seen a “moving away from functional practices,” and a higher focus on building project teams that better leverage people’s skills. “This starts to break down the hierarchy to some degree,” she adds. It also opens up more space for those with an MBA skillset to lead from any position in an organization.

It is for a reason such as this that senior executives and management value soft skills so highly, as they amplify one's ability to create internal partnerships and improve collaboration among employees. Employee buy-in is increasingly essential for driving employee engagement and boosts a team’s commitment to accomplishing the company's goals, according to the aforementioned Deloitte report. Call it the modern-day version of dealing with symptoms akin to those first exhibited by workers during the throes of industrialization, when they felt disconnected from the final product of their efforts. Today’s employees search for meaning in their work, want to offer input, and seek employers who value that and empower them.

Leadership styles are also shifting, says Valerie Grubb, an MBA alumna of Indiana's Kelley School of Business. In her 2016 book, Clash of Generations: Managing the New Workplace Reality, Grubb points to the recognition that, "coalition building can be more effective than rigid control.” One result of this more transparent and open management approach is an acknowledgement of the role that self-awareness plays in fostering better communication among teams  as well as across organizational layers. Indeed, as Kim explains in an HBR article last year, “increasing numbers of businesses, Fortune 500 companies, and CEOs consider mindfulness essential to successful management.” At the core of mindfulness is the practice of self-awareness which, in Kim's eyes, is a "key characteristic" of strong leadership.

Developing soft skills like self-awareness for ‘smart leadership’

Of all the soft skills MBAs are looking to develop, leadership came out on top in a study mapping students’ attitudes to the qualification since the 2009 recession. Self-awareness, however, came in last. (Critical thinking, communication, negotiation, and entrepreneurship were the other members of the study's top five). Ironically, self-awareness has been linked to success in leadership as it allows for more effective teamwork. It helps leaders to accept their own weaknesses and, in effect, to acknowledge the strengths of those whom they not only manage, but on whom their success depends. In this light, one could argue that the aforementioned study actually reveals that MBAs have a lack of awareness about the benefits of having stronger self-awareness!

Mindfulness can help professionals take, “stress more in stride and open their hearts to their colleagues,” according to the former dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Education, Jerome Murphy, who authored a book on mindfulness for higher education administrators. In it, Murphy explains that engaging in mindfulness at work breeds more compassion for others and creates better working relationships through ‘wiser’ emotional expression (talking less and listening more).

After all, “we can’t talk about leadership without talking about emotions,” says IMD leadership professor, Ben Bryant, whose research has explored the benefits of mindfulness for over a decade. Seeing emotionally driven inhibition as a detriment to ‘smart leadership’, Bryan looks at how leaders can better manage their feelings to make better decisions, which is at the crux of their role. “It helps to really dampen the ‘fight and flight’ aspect of the brain,” adds Kim, which primes you for high-pressure situations and prepares you to respond rather than react.

These claims have been substantiated many times over, with one clear example stemming from a seven-week employee mindfulness training course at General Mills: A study of the company's program found that, on its conclusion, 89% of participating senior leaders said they were better listeners and 80% of senior employees said they experienced a positive change in their ability to make better decisions. Indeed, in the spirit of the popular adage, how can one manage others if they cannot manage themselves?  

Visnja is a content specialist with a background in marketing and communications. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of British Columbia and a master's in publishing from Simon Fraser University. Her interests include media & technology, personal growth, health & wellness, and innovation, topics that stay top of mind in her writing.

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