The before nine take on mindfulness at work


In previous blogs, I've talked about how terms like flourishing and resilience can be viewed as buzzwords, particularly when brought into a workplace context. Here's another for the list: mindfulness. We use it a lot these days. However, in my experience, people so often misunderstand what mindfulness actually is.

You might be forgiven for thinking it had something to do with colouring books. For the majority of people, it's associated with meditation and breathing exercises. And there's no doubt that these can play a role in helping someone feel more aware of the world within and around them.

In a recent webinar we delivered to one of our airport clients, some participants shared that when they heard of the term 'mindfulness', the words that came to mind included "airy fairy", "the latest fad", "a girly thing" and "hippy". By the end of the session, one concluded by saying "I don't really think I knew what mindfulness was until now". So, I thought it was the ideal time to put electronic pen to paper, debunk myths and provide opportunities for greater understanding! 

This blog explores the impact of mindfulness and how the science of paying attention on purpose can drive Positive Working. Read on for more about:

  • What mindfulness really means (and what it doesn't!)
  • How mindfulness can be developed as a positive organisational capability
  • The role of mindfulness in helping us to embrace the duality of life and business
  • Three things you can do to address your own mindfulness

The mindset of mindfulness: internal and external perspectives

For years, we have been hurtling through an increasingly complex world. The COVID19 pandemic has upped the ante. As individuals, we've seen blurred lines between work and home, always-on technology and constant multitasking. Organisations have encountered the need to pivot in what they do and how they do it. Today’s norm has meant juggling multiple complex responsibilities, often within the same four walls (physical and electronic), often on auto-pilot because the sheer weight of the challenges have presented a massive psychological load! To understand where we are at as humans, as teams and as organisations in any given situation and to help us move forward in constructive ways, we need a way of bringing our attention to the ‘here and now’.



 There are two broad perspectives here. Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn is Professor Emeritus of Medicine at University of Massachusetts Medical School, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society and responsible for the development of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction. He defines mindfulness as: 

'....the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally.'

He draws his inspiration from the Eastern-rooted philosophy associated with Buddhism, which considers how we process our internal world. To what extent are we aware – and accepting - of our environment, thoughts and emotions? It’s the starting point of training the brain to recognise when you’re perhaps experiencing a challenging thought or emotion, to bring your attention to it and do some self-inquiry (“What’s showing up here? How am I feeling? What is causing this? What options do I have to move forward?”), without blame or reproach. An acceptance that this is your current reality, right now.

Adopting a more Western outlook, Harvard Psychologist Dr Ellen Langer treats mindfulness as:

'.... a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context.'

This lens is used to shine a light on how we control our brains so that we can meaningfully engage with the world around us. Think of all the times you’re caught up in your own thinking when you’re talking to someone else, or you’re sat in a meeting thinking about what you’ll make for dinner tonight rather than being present enough to pick up on critical pieces of information that impact your department… or you continue to scroll on your phone when your children are talking to you. We are missing out on new experiences, alternative ways of seeing a situation. We are missing what’s right in front of us.

Confused? Of course, you are…you’re human, and the human mind is never straightforward!

It helps to think of mindfulness not as any one activity, but rather as a muscle that enables a way of being, a way of deliberately directing our attention in a specific way. Training this muscle can be done in a range of ways – from mindfulness-based meditation exercises which focus on ‘observing’ either what’s taking place within or around us, to creating working practices that enable focus. Whatever enables us to master the art of conducting the orchestra of noise in our brain!



 The business case for mindfulness

 The Mindfulness Initiative acts as Secretariat to the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (yes, that’s really a thing!). In 2016, the Initiative researched the workplace benefits of mindfulness. These include fostering wellbeing and resilience, as well as enhancing relationships, leadership, innovation and decision-making. Mindfulness, the report explains, ‘is a multi-level concept, associated with benefits for individual employees as well as for the organisation as a whole’.

In other words, mindfulness is not just a ‘nice’ thing to have in the workplace. Let's look at its wider application. The BSI and Cranfield School of Management 4Sight Model of Organizational Resilience, highlights the roles of Foresight, Insight, Oversight and Hindsight in organisational resilience. How can we exercise any of these without having the collective capability across our people and teams to notice what matters? And without putting processes in place that enable us to notice in a structured, systematic and non-biased way? If we want to develop mindfulness as an organisational capability, we need to focus both on its human and the structural components. And we need to recognise when we are on auto-pilot, or engaging in 'mindlessness'.

Hang on.... mindlessness...isn't that a bit insulting?

Behold the joys of the English language! There are two definitions of ‘mindless’. The one we’re concerned with here defines mindlessness as:

'The quality of not needing much thought or mental effort.'

In many situations, mindlessness is natural. And appropriate. For example, most experienced motorists drive on semi-autopilot. There are many other daily tasks we complete automatically because the ‘how to’ scripts have become embedded into habit through knowledge and practice. Daniel Kahneman expanded on this in his seminal work ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, distinguishing System 1 thinking (effortless, intuitive, unconscious, fast) from System 2 (deliberate, effortful, slow). The key lies in understanding when each system is appropriate. With our crisis management hat on, one of the biggest challenges for leaders and teams is their reliance on the comfort and ease of System 1 thinking when the complexity of the problem often requires a greater use of System 2 mindful mode.

The Mindful Leader

More generally, what happens when an organisational leader is generally mindless rather than mindful? They are not tuned into their environment. So, they’re missing vital threats as well as potentially missing great ideas, sources of innovation, in other words, opportunities.

How many times have you had the impression that one of your leaders has been on auto-pilot during a meeting? What impact has this had on your discussions? How many leaders are mindful enough to recognise when they are making judgements about the person briefing them during a Board meeting, and immediately find a way to bring their attention back to the data in question?

It’s because of this that we include Mindfulness as one of the top five leadership capabilities for Positive Working. Using an organisational resilience lens, developing mindfulness in managers and leaders is ultimately good risk management. 

Bringing us on to ACT....

I often talk about how Positive Working recognises the duality of life and of business – the challenges and opportunities. It’s also about developing psychological resilience – harnessing your mindfulness muscle to recognise the reality of the environment, biases, emotions and motivations within and around you, finding a way to ‘unhook’ from them so that you can be the detached observer and move to action in a way that aligns with your values. If you’re interested in this, I would recommend reading the work of Dr Russ Harris, whose work on Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) is now applied in coaching and in the world of business.

Want to unlock the superpower of mindfulness? Three tactics to try:

1) Become more mindful in your interactions.

When you attend a meeting, notice when you are paying attention to the discussion, notice when your mind wanders and ‘bring yourself back’. Are there barriers to being genuinely present? If so, how can you and your colleagues work together to overcome them? How are decisions being made? Try assigning the role of ‘observer’ to one of the team and give them the permission to call out judgements, bias, assumptions that are being made on the basis of System 1 thinking.

2) Free your mindfulness muscle.

Multitasking may feel good in the short-term, but it essentially trains us to be mindless…..and robs us of the satisfaction we feel when we are absorbed in one task and ‘in the zone’. Taking stock of how you manage your time, tasks, notifications, interruptions, and the like can help make sure you’re not constantly over-working the mindfulness muscle by relying on it to  bring your attention back from a myriad of distractions

3) Accept reality.

Life isn’t perfect. Especially right now! As many organisations start to trial hybrid working as part of their future ways of working, recognise that there will be challenges and opportunities in carving out new ways of remote working (vs ‘working from home in a crisis’) and changing the work we do when we are on-site, in the office. Using mindfulness to check-in and recognise how you’re thinking, how you’re feeling, what’s working and what’s not working will be part of honing our working practices of the future. The mindful professional recognises all this as the reality we’re living in, harnesses it and uses it as a tool to create new, innovative ways of Positive Working.

Finally, back to our airport client. By the end of the webinar, frontline staff from across Air Ops, Terminals and Security recognised that they are all mindful 100s of times a day. They have to be, because 'noticing' is a core part of their work, whether for safety, customer service or security purposes. But they acknowledged that a lot goes in to helping us notice - from improving our listening skills to ditching multi-tasking and using a focus on our breathing to bring us back to the current moment.

Want to know more?

If you're interested in exploring mindfulness and other Positive Working strategies, talk to us. We'd be delighted to explore a tailored approach designed for your people, your leaders, and your organisation.