The Mindful Manager

Here is an excerpt from a Huff Post article by Adam Weinberg, President World Learning, that make a point about some fundamental business skills that are not necessarily taught in most formal curricula.

It is interesting to note that they coincide with certain principles of Buddhist practice related to overcoming mental conditioning, which is what is needed to “think outside the box,” but that also inform judgment and action and impact results. Please note that Buddhism as described herein is not properly religion, but rather a methodology for the practice of mental cultivation.

“In its essence, leadership is about putting theory into practice — figuring out what needs to be done, learning how to do it, but then finding the motivation to take meaningful action…As an educator, I think about the obligation to help rising generations acquire a few key attributes that are in short supply. Three of these are at the top of my mind these days.

  1. First, we need people with stellar cross-cultural skills. The future will not only be shaped by how well we transcend differences, but how well we synthesize differences into new ways of thinking and acting.
  2. Second, we need people who can practice insight to see through complexity and chaos to find simple and elegant solutions. Fundamentally, it is about making connections that previously eluded us between seemingly disparate thoughts, in ways that allow us to find clever, simple and practical solutions to problems that seemed intractable.
  3. Third, we need to nurture patience and perseverance. Most things that matter take time. This will become truer over time, as the organizations that shape our lives and the problems we face grow in size. Change happens when a group of people stick with an idea over a sustained period, working through early setbacks to eventually succeed.

Modern society does not foster these traits. Educational institutions can be a countervailing force when they create spaces for young people to work together over sustained periods to identify problems and engage in problem solving that encourages them to ask new questions, draw connections, and find new ways to address old problems.”

Business Skills and Buddhist Mindfulness

A Wall Street Journal article by Beth Gardiner discusses how business schools are beginning to embrace the teaching and studying of mindfulness, the Buddhist approach to increasing awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings, a practice whose popularity has been growing in the corporate world.

Some M.B.A. and executive-education courses offer techniques to help executives calm their minds and increase their focus, which, they hold, “are crucial for those hoping to succeed in an increasingly frenetic environment where distractions from an always-buzzing phone to pressure for strong quarterly profit reports constantly impinge on decisions.”

The technique is important for executives who want to become aware of reflexive, emotional reactions that can lead to bad decisions.

Surveying Institutional Mindfulness

Ms. Donde Ashmos Plowman, dean of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Business Administration has also examined the mindfulness of organizations, a concept previously introduced by Karl Weick, at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

Mindful organizations are those that pay close attention to what is happening within the organization, and are ready to correct mistakes rather than punishing workers who report them and respond quickly to changes or problems, Ms. Plowman said.
Since critics have accused business schools of culpability in the many high-profile lapses of corporate ethics in recent years, Dean Plowman felt that studying the schools’ state of institutional mindfulness might provide indications of their readiness for self-correction. She tried to quantify the mindfulness of 180 different business schools by providing questionnaires to deans and other administrators.

The researchers noticed that deans rated their schools’ mindfulness more highly than did those working for them. Ms. Plowman concludes:

It’s easy for people at the head of an organization to end up in a bubble. That really alerted me to say, ‘What do I need to do as a dean to improve the way we communicate?’

Mindfulness for Culture Change

Lausanne, Switzerland’s IMD business school leadership professor Ben Bryant introduces executive education students to techniques for concentrating on their breathing and becoming aware of sounds to help them center themselves at the office or in a business meeting.

Mr. Bryant feels it is worthwhile to help decision makers better direct their attention. He states that, for CEOs in particular:

It’s the smallest things that they do that have huge ripple effects. Because their lives are so busy and so loaded up with things, they miss too many opportunities to make either themselves or their organizations different.

In instituting “the mindful approach to changing culture,” Professor Bryant notes that the engineering approach to corporate change that CEOs and managers tend to be comfortable with, while a good start, it is also extremely limited.

The Engineering Approach to Changing Culture

Of six levels of innovation culture that can be identified, 3 of these – slogans, incubation and compliance – form an “engineering approach” to shaping culture. They represent clear, relatively easy-to-implement actions that can be taken to “fix” the company so that its culture encourages innovation:

Slogan level:  A slogan should reflect company culture, and many are also created to shape culture, but the reality rarely lives up to the rhetoric. A disconnect often exists between what an organization says it values through the slogan (innovation) and the message being sent out by top management to employees (make the numbers with no surprises).

Incubation level: This level appoints a chief innovation manager or creates different groups, such as corporate venture units, “skunkworks” and new product development teams to be  responsible for innovation. According to Professor Bryant, research shows that 80-90% of company corporate venture units fail, however, and are also not sufficient to shape an innovative culture.

Compliance level: This refers to systems and processes put in place to direct innovative behaviors and activities, including: suggestion schemes to encourage creativity; NPD processes and stage-gating to help with decision making and coordination of innovative ideas; and reward and recognition programs. These processes are designed to “drag” people into an innovative way of thinking, but even these are still not enough to make the transition to a truly innovative culture.

3 Levels of Innovation Culture

The last three levels of innovation culture – attention, disruption, and interaction – that form the base of the pyramid. Forming the “mindful approach,” these take into account the fact that people watch and take their cue from top-level leaders – and every word and action of such leaders is important. Because achieving these levels requires managers to change often unconscious behaviors and overturn rituals, routines, and processes that reinforce deeply routed traditional values rather than inspire innovation, the practice of mindfulness should inform their thoughts, words and actions.

Attention level: Even if a company has implemented an engineering approach to changing culture, it will do little if the top-level leaders are not paying attention to actions and people that promote innovation. If managers are focused on processes and outputs that never deviate from a defined standard, there will be no innovation. Also, giving attention to people based on their place in the organization’s hierarchy instead of their expertise also impedes innovation. Leaders who truly want an innovative culture need to “switch their attention to variance over the mean, context over content, risk over creativity, and knowledge over status.

Disruption level: Senior managers need to manage the tension between conformity and disruption to allow innovation to occur. The way in which people who do not conform are treated sends a message to other employees, and an army of “good soldiers” will never become innovative.  One way to achieve this is for managers themselves to act disruptively, but with skill – pushing the company out of its comfort zone and showing direction, much like some of the iconoclastic stories associated with Zen masters. Small, symbolic actions that take people by surprise can lead to real culture change.

Interaction level: What happens “in the moment” when a leader interacts with employees is critical to a company’s culture. Whether a leader inspires fear or challenge, and shows ambiguity, or focus, defensiveness or a willingness to learn, pessimism or optimism, such information is communicated in a split second, and often unconsciously. This level is the hardest to achieve, requiring leaders to be constantly self-aware in every interaction with their people.

Mindfulness for Self Management

Jeremy Hunter, who teaches at the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University outside Los Angeles, believes mindfulness should be at the center of business schools’ teaching because it is about improving the quality of attention, which is key to productivity in the modern workplace.

In a series of four seven-week executive-education classes, and a separate course for M.B.A. students, Professor Hunter teaches what he calls self-management, “managing your insides so you can deal with your outsides better.” He often starts class with a brief meditation, and covers topics like managing emotional reactions and dealing with change:

To me, it’s fundamental to how work gets done these days. Basically, that’s what work is, attention.

Best Practice: One of Professor Hunter’s student became frustrated with weekly work meetings where staff were more focused on their cellphones than the discussion.  After taking the course, he became convinced that the answer was  to insist that everyone depoist their phones into a box before starting. The weekly gathering soon became so much more efficient that it was cut from from 90 minutes to an hour.

Mindfulness for Leadership Effectiveness

At Harvard Business School, leadership professor William George focuses on helping businesspeople to better understand their emotions. He ran a two-day conference in 2010 on mindful leadership with a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, and has meditated regularly since 1975.

In his executive-education class on leadership development, he instructs students who include CEOs to open up to others about their toughest experiences.

Such conversations can increase self-awareness, which Professor George sees as central to good leadership. It isn’t a lack of intelligence that causes executives to make poor decisions, but a lack of awareness of the feelings that drive their reactions, he said.

It’s the inability to admit your own mistakes, or your fear of failure, your fear of rejection, your desire to be seen as Mr. Perfect, or Ms. Perfect in front of groups, that’s what leads to failure. It’s amazing to me how executives in their 40s or 50s who are running giant enterprises can get really into this.

The comments spurred by The Wall Street Journal article shows the increasing acceptance of mindfulness as an organizational tool.  Dr. Gaby Cora of Executive Health and Wealth Institute writes: “This is exactly the core of my work assisting C-level executives and entrepreneurs who are leading under pressure. I help them maximize their performance and productivity while being well, healthy, and experiencing peace of mind.”