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Business and Policy Areas
Business and Policy Areas

Present and Engaged

October 20, 2015

By Karla Hignite

"Organizations face increasing pressure to be responsive and agile. Rather than simply pushing harder," notes Joshua Ehrlich, "they can practice mindfulness as a means to creating a high-performance environment where everyone can thrive." Ehrlich, an organizational consultant and executive coach, is founder of the Global Leadership Council (, whose clients include more than 50 of the Fortune 100 companies across diverse industries. He is also author of Mindshifting: Focus for Performance, aimed at helping individuals shift their attention as they transition from managing themselves to leading an organization. In this interview, Ehrlich discusses the benefits of mindfulness and how it can be applied to improve the performance of individuals, teams, and organizations. E-mail:

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is being focused, open, and engaged. When we learn to sit with our experience instead of reacting, our mind settles, and we become clearer in our decisions. This clarity creates greater self-awareness, which enables individuals and teams to be less distracted, more creative, and more aligned in pursuing long-term goals. When we can listen with a quiet mind, we can also communicate more effectively and build stronger relationships. We do a better job of assessing our impact because we are able to scan the environment and pick up on the nonverbal cues around us.

When we don't make time to think and reflect, we tend to become reactive and to focus on transacting instead of creating and connecting. In a transactional mindset we start to think that by moving faster we can get more done. Productivity is not simply about working faster. It is about being clear about where we are going and why. It doesn't help that there are so many distractions today that keep us from being present. Technology helps drive the increasing pace of society, and can contribute to our feeling impatient and restless.

Where did this concept of mindfulness originate?

Mindfulness has roots in Buddhism as well as Western spiritual traditions. As a modern movement in the United States it began with a focus on physical health. Research indicates that when we are more mindful of our bodies, our immune response becomes stronger and we even live longer. We then started to see that applying mindfulness to our emotional wellbeing was powerful as well. When we listen to our feelings we can use the information they contain rather than being driven by them. And, we can build a positive emotional mindset. We are hard-wired as a species to be negative and risk-averse. This helped us survive early on, but now it is a liability. We need to load up on our positive emotional experiences to give us balance. Successful marriages have five times more positive exchanges than negative ones, and effective leaders give five times more positive than negative feedback.

Once we can concentrate and get hold of our attention, we are able to stop the action and meaningfully reflect. We can turn our attention back on ourselves and learn more effectively. Reflecting also enables us to clarify our core values and purpose. When we pay attention to where we are going and why, we become more inspiring as leaders and better able to connect with what really motivates our teams and organizations. This enables us to be more effective professionally and more fulfilled personally.

There is much more to learn about the positive impacts of mindfulness, but within the past 10 years some very interesting findings have emerged. For example, studies at Harvard have shown changes in the physical structure of the brain from mindfulness practice. Practicing mindfulness can thicken the pre-frontal cortex, which we use to plan, make decisions, and prioritize. Conversely, multitasking thins the pre-frontal cortex. Multitasking also hurts our performance and doubles our mistakes. Mindfulness literally makes us smarter; it increases our IQ and problem-solving ability, while multitasking makes us dumber.

In addition to the growing body of science behind mindfulness, many public figures are now adding their voices to the movement. Arianna Huffington has written in Huffington Post about how mindfulness can impact the bottom line. Actress Goldie Hawn launched a foundation (MindUp) to provide mindfulness-based social and emotional training, reduce stress, and improve academic performance for children. And Congressman Tim Ryan, who wrote a book about how mindfulness can benefit society (see "Mindfulness Resources" sidebar), is trying to bring mindfulness to Washington, D.C.

How do you practice mindfulness, and what does this allow?

Meditation is the most well-known approach to cultivating mindfulness, but there are many opportunities to practice being present. Yoga is a very effective and increasingly popular approach to centering yourself. As you pay attention to your breathing and stretch into your body, you are essentially practicing a form of moving meditation. I try to practice mindful driving and to be mindful when I am washing the dishes. So often we get lost in our thoughts and fantasies. Any time you can remember to bring your attention back to the present is helpful.

Mindfulness offers an inside-out approach to building self-awareness, which is the heart of effective leadership. You first pay attention to what you are feeling and the sensations in your body, and then look at the nonverbal cues coming from others. How well are you connecting and being heard? The more you pay attention, the more empathic and impactful you can be.

Mindfulness paves the way for the transformation of individuals, teams, and organizations. We need to change how we work and think as we go from being individual contributors to leaders of large organizations. Too often, when we promote people into leadership roles, we don't help facilitate their transition from being effective doers to effective leaders. We can make a mind shift by carefully defining our roles, and then changing where we focus, what we value, and how we measure success. We need to change the questions we ask. For example, we need to switch from asking "How can we do this job better?" to "Which jobs should we be doing?" And, we need to go from transacting with a small group to communicating with a wide network of constituents. We must also shift our attention from how to grow ourselves to how to coach other people.

Can you provide a concrete example of applying mindfulness in the workplace?

We can start with how we lead meetings. Good preparation is essential. We need to stop and get clear about our intentions. Have you provided an agenda and asked team members to think about specific issues in advance? This fundamental is so often missed, but it is critical in helping your team know how you want them to focus. When you are intentional and clear about your expectations you get a better response than when you simply try to wing it. When we are rushed and harried, we typically end up trying to fly by the seat of our pants. This is when we run into problems.

When you start a meeting, before jumping into tactics, it can be very helpful to take a minute to clear the decks. This helps everyone to let go of whatever other conversation they just came from and refocus on what is needed for this conversation. We can also practice "time-boxing." Step one is being clear about what you hope to accomplish and how. Are we here to make a decision or explore options? Step two is a process check midway through the meeting to make sure the team is on track and working well. What nonverbal cues are your team members sending? Are they engaged and focused, or confused and distracted? And finally, we need to save enough time at the end to reflect on how we did and validate commitments. Is everyone clear on who will do what and by when?

Rather than continually running back to back, I have coached executives in a number of organizations to establish 45-minute instead of 60-minute meetings as the norm. The same work gets done in less time in those organizations, and people actually have time to think and take a break between meetings.

To get others to focus and bring their best, we need to provide an environment conducive to thinking, listening, and sharing ideas. This points to the need to create mindful cultures and organizations.

And how do you do that?

We can start by paying attention to process (how we work) instead of focusing singularly on outcomes (what we accomplish). Consider a typical approach to performance evaluation. First, we build a competency model that reflects the practices and behaviors we want employees to adopt, and then we evaluate them based on their achievement of those proficiencies. Fair enough, but all this is outside-in learning. This doesn't help employees learn by paying attention to how they work, to their process. Then, we rate employees on a 1-to-5 scale, with their entire year summed up by one number. We tie their bonus to that one number and wonder why they couldn't hear any other feedback in their review.

We need to hold people accountable, but we also have to support them in learning how to be more effective. This is why more organizations, like Deloitte and Microsoft, are abandoning the 1-to-5 evaluation and are moving to a system that provides ongoing narrative feedback. This feedback is more meaningful and focuses on process, on how employees are doing and not only what they are doing. It is no coincidence that the best athletes are those who excel at focusing on the how, on their technique and process of playing the game, rather than on the what, the score. When you keep your eye on the ball and focus on the play at hand, you win. When you over-focus on the score you psych yourself out, you often get nervous and choke. Modern organizations are obsessed with scorekeeping and measurement. It is time to rebalance.

The same balance of process and outcomes is important at the team level. In addition to evaluating outputs, we need to examine our team dynamics as well as our values and purpose. How are we working together and what do we want to accomplish together over the long term? If everyone is clear about the organization's values and purpose, and how they personally connect with those values, this paves the way for true organizational alignment. A leader's most important job is to align everyone on the team's way of working (its process) and on shared personal, team, and organizational goals.

How do leaders teach others to be mindful?

Leaders can set the tone and model what it means to listen and not jump to conclusions. Leaders must also continually reassess how they set priorities so that team members have realistic workloads and are not constantly racing.

Nurturing a culture of mindfulness means setting realistic expectations and boundaries. Do team members expect e-mails to be responded to instantly, or can you establish a 24-hour rule? When is it OK not to respond to e-mail? Do you need a response on weekends? Can employees take vacations where they are not constantly wired in? It is hard to trust this sometimes, but taking our foot off the gas actually helps us move toward our destination more efficiently and effectively.

We all need mental and physical recovery periods where we are not simply reacting. We also need to build in time for people to talk to one other face-to-face, when they are not responding to calls or e-mails. Consider instituting an interruption-free zone in your office when individuals can reflect, innovate, and plan. You have to be very intentional about building this time into your calendar. I have coached a number of leaders who have moved from back-to-back meetings to having meetings consume no more than 30 to 40 percent of their calendar. This enabled them to have time to think and respond to things that weren't prescheduled.

A culture of mindfulness requires a commitment. When leaders nurture this attitude in their teams, they get more productive and empowered employees. Organizations get better decision making and engagement from a shared sense of purpose. We can transform our workplaces. The invitation and the imperative is to do it now.

Karla Hignite, editorial consultant to NACUBO, is editor of NACUBO's HR Horizons; e-mail:

Mindfulness Resources

Resources by Joshua Ehrlich:

Other resources: