image of a mindful leader

What is mindful leadership and why do we need it now?

Written by Alison Robins, Illustrated by Simon Lavallée-Fortier

June 25, 2020

Reading time : Clock9m

The nature of work is always changing. So are workplace leadership styles. Gone are the intimidating bosses tucked away in their lofty offices. We’re done with micromanaging nitpickers who cause everyone stress.

Today’s modern workforce — one in the throes of crisis and change — thrives under the guidance of mindful leadership.

Mindfulness may have come from personal practices like meditation, though its benefits at a place of business are increasingly popular and useful. What’s more, the definition of workplace is undergoing some shifts. Nowadays more companies are relying on work-from-home teams and distributed workforces.

This proves that being productive, creative and motivated is not dependent on a “professional” setting. “Just because they call them ‘workplaces’ doesn’t mean they’re the best place to do your work,” quips a recent New York Times piece.

So what does make a place “the best place to do your work”? It starts with a certain mindset, or headspace. Mindfulness opens the door to that better space. But it’s a leadership presence that embraces mindfulness that is the key.

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What is mindfulness at work?

As a mindful leader, here’s what you need to understand. Your employees want to give you their best productive and creative energies. For this, they need a stress-free environment. You can create that in how you relate to your team.

Whenever you are interacting with an employee, be as open-minded as possible as you process the experience. When an employee is showing you their work, withhold judgment until they’ve had the chance to walk you through everything. When a mistake gets made or a plan goes off track, don’t focus so much on what went wrong. Focus instead on learning from mistakes, and use these lessons to refocus your planning from that point onward.

It’s all about being and awareness in the present. This is a part of mindfulness that comes from meditation, but it speaks well to leadership built on mindfulness and compassion. “Rather than being outcome-focused, these leaders are focused on the present moment.” In other words, take every moment as a fresh starting point, and you’ll have a clearer mind to plan for the future.

And on top of all that, a mindful manager or leader who doesn’t harp on the past, nor obsess over results, creates that positive environment where employees thrive.

It’s not that results don’t matter. But having pure tunnel vision towards future results keeps you away from the present moment. And it’s in this moment where your employees are happiest and, most importantly, at their most productive. This is leadership through respect and reciprocity, not command and control.

illustration showing the concept of mindful leadership

How to harness the benefits of mindfulness at work

1. Ditch stress to boost productivity

When you become a mindful leader, that’s like a stress-reduction upgrade across your whole team. With less stress there is more focus, which results in fewer mistakes. When people make fewer mistakes, they’re more confident, which encourages them to bring out new ideas and approaches to constantly boost your workflows and improve efficiency.

2. Banish information overload and plan better

As a manager you’ve got a lot on your plate. There’s a lot of information you need to keep top of your mind. You’ve got many tasks to do, or delegate and monitor. Practicing mindfulness, even trying meditation, calms the flow of information overload. It gives you a clearer view of your priorities, and the size and scope of each task ahead. “As we become more present in our lives and in relation to others, it can help us to make better decisions.” This is how a mindful leader becomes a mindful planner.

3. Keep an open mind to boost development

Finally, a mindful workplace is a kinder, more open environment. And that’s not just great for feeling good. Closed-mindedness and intimidating hierarchy stifle innovation. When people like working with each other, they’re more eager to share what they know, or ask questions about what they don’t know. It becomes a learning environment, where people are eager to grow professionally.

Unmindful workplaces Mindful workplaces
High stress environment High confidence environment
Information overload Mindful planning
Closed-minded & hierarchical workplace Growth-mindset & learning workforce
Regular repeated mistakes Fewer mistakes & rarely repeated
Stuck in routine ways Creative & innovative
Competitive workplace relations Cooperative workplace relations
Hitting productivity ceilings Finding new productivity peaks

Check out these initiatives in mindfulness at some of the biggest companies in the world. Google created the Search Inside Yourself Learning Institute (SIYLI). Intel’s been doing it since 2012. And it’s not just tech firms. Food manufacturing giant General Mills practices and tracks mindfulness at work.

How do you create mindfulness among your team?

The key to nurturing mindful teams is to lead by example. If you want a mindful team, work on your own mindfulness first. This means paying attention to your behaviour and reactions, working habits, overall stress level and how you choose to handle it.

“Mindful leaders engage individuals effectively to achieve high-performance outcomes, connect with the individual’s sense of identity, understand their rationale for committed action, and model behaviors that drive elite performance.”

The basics of individual mindfulness come from meditation practices. There are the more obvious techniques of breathing practices and paying close attention to all your immediate senses. This is to center yourself and submit to the present. But, for some people, other things work. Try taking a walk, for example. This kind of mindfulness training is good for the whole team. When it comes to tasks, discourage multitasking. Encourage your team members to do one thing at a time, start to finish. Then, between tasks, return to the present moment with a breathing exercise or whatever technique suits you.

The main idea is to discuss the importance of taking the time to recalibrate and encourage it constantly on your team. Be intentional about promoting mindfulness, offer techniques to grow it on the team, and have open discussions about the benefits.

💡 Tip: Your phone can be a source of distraction and stress. Turning off phone notifications while engaging in your task at hand is wise. The same thing goes for emails. Don’t see to each new email as it flies into the inbox. Rather, make checking and responding to emails a designated task with a set time to do it.

Finally, know that mindfulness isn’t about a zen-like state that dissolves all stress. It’s natural for there to be some distraction and stress at any workplace. Mindfulness techniques at work can help you find the sources of these issues, and give you the patience to confront it in a more productive way.

leadership gif

How to build mindfulness as a leader

The way you express mindfulness as a leader is through communication. Open communication is key. When you’re talking with an employee or your team, really focus on listening to them completely before even beginning to think about how you are going to respond.

It’s also about having a beginner’s mindset. Whenever you get the chance, try to learn something from one of your team members. At times, even when you think you do know something, it’s good to understand how someone else might teach and explain it in their own way.

In the end it’s a matter of leadership presence that adopts humility. You might be the team leader, but you don’t have to embody a boss mindset where you know more than anyone and are better at doing everything. Know your limitations and don’t be guarded about them. Try exercising emotional intelligence, which isn’t about better or worse, but better together.

💡Actionable tips

  • When you’re holding meetings, don’t allow phones or laptops or any other gadgets. Have one person be the designated note-taker who shares the notes afterwards.
  • When you’re interacting with an employee you think you know, try to focus on learning something new about them. Maybe there’s a new skill in there you can nurture.
  • While group meditation exercises are a good idea, they shouldn’t be mandatory. Some people might not feel comfortable. Let people decide their own level of engagement.
  • Maybe some of your employees are already into mindfulness training. Ask them to be mindful reps to help others. They could even lead sessions.
  • Plan your day so that when you meet with employees, you’re sure you’ve got nothing else to do. Let them know the times that are always open to chat, so you can give them your open-minded attention.
  • Extra work-from-home tip: Have your team take turns sharing what helps them center themselves, whether it be a meditation app they use, a productive means to structure their daily tasks, or how they have been managing stress.

Tracking mindfulness in the workplace

You’ll want to monitor the levels and frequency of deliberate mindfulness techniques put into place at work. See what’s helping and what isn’t; awareness is key. While the well-being of everyone on your team is the primary goal, you do want to keep the pulse on how to best boost productivity.

Officevibe app is a trust-building platform that allows employees to give feedback on whether they’re feeling confident, stress-free, and mindful on their job. It’s a great way to gauge how effective and mindful your leadership is.

Screenshot of Officevibe's app

Officevibe is particularly good at tracking stress levels, and stress is the major enemy of wellness. Mindfulness programs combined with mindful leadership is a major wellness breakthrough.

The mindful workforce of tomorrow

In these times of increasing work-from-home arrangements and other potentially stressful social adjusting, it could be harder for a leader to forge a positive connection to the team. By being a mindful leader, you can help your team learn how to focus, to manage stress and banish distraction, thereby making any space a calm, focused productive space for working.

As for the work relationships, they will experience strain in these times. Having a mindful attitude and practicing mindful leadership will help overcome some of these spatial distances by demonstrating to your team you care about their well-being.

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