Who's holding the reins?


This morning I consciously decided to take a different running route than usual. When I run on the weekends, I try to stick to a route that doesn’t have me criss-crossing heavily trafficked streets, but at 5 a.m. there are so few people out and about that I felt I could shake things up without inadvertently playing a game of Frogger. So it was disappointing to find myself a mile later: on my usual route. I made a conscious decision, sure, but then let my brain slip right back into autopilot. It reminded me of riding my horse in an indoor arena. Every time we would pass the center gate, she’d slow down, because that was where we stopped when we were finished. She had a mental groove for it. And every time you’d have to nudge her to keep going. If you weren’t paying attention, you’d find yourself exiting the building.

Unfortunately, we’re all like a bunch of headless horsemen. There’s no one actively managing the reins half the time. Do you know how much of our behavior is unconscious? I’ll give you a hint: so much. Which is probably fine if you want to zone out in the shower, but when it comes to successfully managing your work and relationships, running on autopilot is going to get you into trouble. Our very faculties of perception are unconscious to a large degree, which has enormous implications for self-awareness and interpersonal effectiveness. Are you hiring the right person for the job, or have you cut the perfect candidate because at some level they reminded you of that mean girl who sat beside you on the bus in the seventh grade? Are you responding to conflict effectively, or are you letting latent fears edge you into hysteria?

So what is the antidote? I’m sure by now you’ve heard of a little thing called mindfulness. Mindfulness is the process of bringing conscious, non-judgmental attention to both internal and external phenomena occurring in the present moment. It means paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, reactions, as well as what is really happening “out there.” In other words, it’s the opposite of our usual MO – daydreaming, ego fantasies, re-writing past events, etc. There are several established mindfulness training programs, and they are not just becoming mainstream, they are increasingly being employed in organizations. Why? A recent review of research on mindfulness to date suggests a few benefits:

Physiological benefits

  • Improved energy levels
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Greater density of neural gray matter in the prefrontal cortex
  • Increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (responsible for self-regulation of attention)
  • Enhanced immune systems
  • Decreased C-reactive protein levels (associated with reduced inflammation)
  • Decreased chronic pain and reduction of symptoms

Psychological benefits

  • Stress reduction
  • Decreased psychological distress
  • Decreased anxiety and depressive symptoms
  • Lower reactivity to emotional stimuli
  • Improved mood and affect
  • More positive outlook and attitude
  • Improved personal relationships as a result of reduced reactivity
  • Enhanced self compassion

Performance benefits

  • Increased attention and awareness
  • Improved spatial orientation and spatial navigation abilities
  • Improved working memory capacity and sustained attention
  • Improved overall executive functioning and executive processing efficiency
  • Better decision making
  • Greater mental flexibility
  • Ability to resist cognitive bias
  • Increased task endurance and dedication
  • Decreased multitasking
  • Decreased burnout and emotional exhaustion on the job
  • Increased job satisfaction

Not too shabby, eh? Greater awareness of the present, coupled with less impulse to reject or resist what we don’t like can lead to a host of benefits. We will be less impulsive and more objective and considerate when making decisions. We will be more aware of our unconscious biases and keep them in check. We can work harder for longer, but also be aware enough to know when we need a break. We will be more open to critical feedback. Decreased emotional reactivity will lead to reduced interpersonal conflict and improved relationships. Paradoxically, being more attentive in the present helps us better situate ourselves for the future because we are seeing reality more clearly.

For all of these reasons, mindfulness training is looking like one of the next “it” things for organizations seeking to maximize their human capital. The ROI of a mindfulness-based stress reduction program is pretty clear. A growing body of research also suggests that they can reduce health costs, help employees avoid burnout and cope with change, and may increase engagement and commitment as a result. But such programs also have value as a leadership development tool. As we’ve discussed before, lack of self-awareness is a serious derailment risk factor. Insight and improvement require awareness as a starting point, and mindfulness training is a great way to hone that focus.

So what’s it going to be?

mind full

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