Engaging Mindfully: How a Single Moment of Presence Transforms the Way You Work

October 19, 2012 / General /

By Amy Lemley

If you enter an executive education or MBA class these days, you might find yourself surprised to see participants sitting in complete silence, eyes closed and bodies relaxed. The students are practicing mindfulness by slowing down their minds and becoming present in the moment.

Why have Harvard Business School, the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, IMD, and several other B-schools worldwide added mindfulness to their curricula? It’s all about focus. “To me, it’s fundamental to how work gets done these days,” Claremont Graduate School of Management’s Jeremy Hunter told the Wall Street Journal. “Basically, that’s what work is, attention.”

Meditation trains the brain to zero in on a particular thing—the sensation of breathing in and out, for example. Once trained, a person can bring this zeroing-in skill to all manner of tasks and interactions.

Mindfulness is not all about meditation, however. These courses explore ways to act on the clarity derived from being fully present, not only when taking in new information one on one or in a meeting, but also when communicating a concept to someone else.

Teaching to Learn

After completing a Lift workshop exercise, the CEO of an international company decided to impart a related 60-second lesson to three or four colleagues. The “experiment” netted profound results: For him, teaching the information to someone else allowed it to sink in in a deeper way. He learned by being present to others’ listening.

Again, it’s about attention. “People do not automatically learn from experience,” write Susan Ashford and Scott DeRue in the journal Organizational Dynamics (April-June 2012). But they can develop a learning habit by consciously allowing space for learning rather than merely breezing through a meeting, rushing toward a deadline, or addressing a problem. In short, by engaging mindfully.

Mindful Mirroring

The same executive found value in mindfully employing what psychologists call mirroring—in which one person restates what he or she has heard another say. In a world of too many meetings, it’s convenient to assume we all leave the room with the same messages.

But we probably don’t, as he observed numerous times. “You know, we sit in a lot of meetings and talk about vision or strategy,” he said. “I ask if it makes sense, and they say it does.” Yet outside the room, he discovered that people took away different messages. He realized he hadn’t made the space for all to learn and reflect and share it back. He shifted his communication style by presenting concepts and then asking each person to articulate what he or she was hearing. Together, they cleared up discrepancies and made links to each person’s area of the business. Corporate messaging became a unified effort, effecting lasting change in the individuals involved and the company as a whole.

Zeroing in and Reframing

Mindfulness practice takes many forms. The president of a tier-one auto parts supplier began keeping a daily gratitude journal. At first, he reported, he was distracted by all the things that bothered him. For example, one colleague annoyed him by having to reschedule meetings often. By bringing mindfulness to the situation, the executive could notice his ingratitude, and then look for a way to be grateful.  He felt grateful for how hard this employee was working and how good his intentions were; this gave him the freedom to come from a place of acknowledgment and commitment to this employee’s development. Their relationship improved, and so did their ability to get more done together.

Benefits for All

Numerous studies have identified how companies benefit from a mindfulness culture:

-Employees’ concentration and memory improve

-Employer–employee and client relationships are enhanced

-Employees experience greater job satisfaction

-Turnover decreases

-Absenteeism drops

-Productivity grows

Mindful engagement provides constant leadership development, even outside formal workshop training. This benefits both individuals and the organization as a whole. “The more individuals mindfully gauge their experiences,” write Ashford and DeRue, “the more leadership is developed. The more organizations support that engagement, the more they will enjoy the fruits of more leadership in more places.”

Why not start practicing right now?

Tip: Many online resources are available for beginning or expanding your mindfulness training. The University of Virginia Mindfulness Center, for example, offers 5- to 20-minute guided meditation recordings. More information about mindfulness and business is available from sites such as mindfulnet.org. We invite you to post recommendations for other useful resources in the comments section, along with other thoughts you have about this blog post.