Ancient Greek philosopher, Epictetus, once said: “It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you react that matters.” Around 2,000 years later – in this highly stressful 21st century – Epictetus’ observation is more relevant than ever.
Essentially what Epictetus is saying is that as individuals, our responses to complex situations and people will determine the influence that they have on our overall wellbeing.
As a c-level executive, how you deal with daily stress most certainly affects your ability to resolve issues and achieve lasting change inside an organisation.
And it’s your “id, ego and super-ego” - the three states of being and responding as described by psychiatrist Sigmund Freud’s structural model of the human psyche - that kicks in when you are presented with a stressful situation, or you are under threat from another individual.
“Developing a capacity for being mindful is really developing a deep psychological insight; a level of consciousness in the moment. And this is the absolute and only platform from which sustainable change can be achieved," says Barbara Jones, director at Executive Mandala, a leadership development firm.
Jones’ organisation works with c-level executives in corporate organisations – some who work in the IT industry – promoting a practice known as ‘mindfulness’ or mindful awareness.
To some people, mindfulness might sound like hippy rubbish but to others, it’s a key pillar of productivity. In fact, Salesforce CEO, Marc Benioff, has practiced mindfulness meditation every day for the past 20 years, and last month said he was providing staff with access to meditation rooms on every floor of the company’s office in San Francisco.
You can even download mindfulness apps on iTunes.
So what is mindfulness exactly? Essentially the practice is about focusing on the present moment, and becoming aware of your subjective stream of consciousness without judgement.
The practice has ancient Buddhist roots, stretching way back to 500 BC before it was hijacked by Western psychiatry in the mid-20th century, largely through the work of Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, and American Professor of Medicine, Jon Kabat-Zinn.
In 1979, Kabat-Zinn established the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He adapted Buddhist teachings to create a stress reduction and relaxation program.
Today, mindfulness is used in psychology to ease symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety, and even to treat drug addiction.
“If we are working on changing just from a behavioural level, we can change momentarily – but if you don’t get down to the ‘why’ factor, what’s really driving the over-reactionary tendencies, we will revert to our detrimental reactions. Being truly 'mindful' helps us to develop the deep insight, which enables us to be aware of what is really driving our detrimental responses," says Jones.
"Once you have an ability to be truly aware (mindful) that is the starting point – you are then able to learn how to regulate your emotions.”
In corporate setting, mindfulness is about altering an individual’s relationship to daily stress, says Jones. This is especially true for business leaders who are at risk of making bad decisions if they can’t deal with pressure.
“Studies on mindfulness have shown a number of areas where positive change can occur - one area where being mindful can help is in 'responsive flexibility' so we don’t over-react. This has proven to help with decision making and communication,” she says.
“It helps people who tend to ruminate a lot, and paralysis of thought then sets in. They can cope when events are stressful while achieving faster recovery from negative effects.”
Jones recalls working with a senior partner at a large professional services firm who dealt with very high profile people in the media industry. He was initially quite skeptical of the power of mindfulness meditation.
“He had meetings with a very high profile media executive and those meetings tended to be quite aggressive,” says Jones.
Before a meeting one day, the senior partner walked to a window outside the room and used the ‘STOP’ exercise (stop, take a breath, observe, and proceed), and reported feeling calmer about the meeting. This ultimately had positive outcomes, which typically were not the case with this particular executive.
“He had more control over his own emotions and the meeting was much easier,” says Jones.
Overloaded with information
Gillian Coutts is a director at The Potential Project, an organisation that provides customised programs, based on mindfulness, to improve organisational effectiveness. Coutts is the co-author of One Second Ahead, a new book on mindfulness in the workplace.
One of her organisation’s most recent engagements was with c-level executives at Northern European beverage manufacturer, Carlsberg.
“We found that people were living with a real sense of pressure of always being on, overloaded by information and constantly distracted,” says Coutts.
“And for knowledge workers who need to be able to make decisions, that doesn’t create a whole lot of mental effectiveness when they are constantly in that environment.”
Individuals are constantly at risk of being interrupted with instant messaging, emails and enterprise social networking tools like Yammer and LinkedIn, and employing mindfulness techniques is a good option to overcome these interruptions.
Email is now by far and away the main communication mechanism within and between companies. It’s a tool that many people are now addicted to, says Coutts.
“When you get an email, if it’s a particularly positive email or one that is going to take you further in action – your brain releases the dopamine neurotransmitter, which makes you feel good.
“So you constantly start to crave that from a cognitive base, like you want to check email but you can end up being neurologically driven to check email because you are craving that dopamine hit. It’s the same mechanism of addiction that is involved in gambling in terms of the neurotransmitters,” says Coutts.
Executives need to become aware of how reactive they really are. They need to observe the experience of being pulled away to answer their phones or emails when perhaps it’s not the best thing to do.
“If possible, kill notifications so you are accessing communications only when you have the time and space to deal with it. For instance, sitting at a traffic light in the car is a lovely piece of downtime but it’s not actually a good time to answer emails,” Coutts says.
Coutts highlights the concept of ‘switch time’ or the time it takes for an individual’s brain to come up to speed when moving from one task to another. For instance, if you check and read through an email, it takes 64 seconds to come back to what you were doing prior to that, she says.
People need to choose when they are going to switch by checking email at certain periods of the day rather than doing it on automatic pilot.
“All of this sounds like classic time management techniques … people have known this for quite a long time but still find it hard to implement. Often we are just on this automatic cycle of just reacting.”
Mindfulness interrupts that reaction cycle, says Coutts.
“Clearly these techniques are great and it helps to have some sort of practice where you train your brain to notice and focus, maybe for 10 minutes. So in the heat of the moment, you’ve actually got that mental muscle to be able to focus,” she says.
Follow Byron Connolly on Twitter:@ByronConnolly
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