A More Mindful Workforce
Today's executives operate in an atmosphere of distraction more intense than ever. HR can help keep these workers focused, but in order to see solutions, they need to first analyze the problems.
By Daniel Goleman
"Whenever I notice my mind has been wandering in a meeting," a C-level executive tells me, "I wonder what business opportunity I've just missed."
The highest-performing leaders are the most focused. Yet today's executives operate in an atmosphere of distraction more intense than ever. HR can help. But to see solutions, we need to first analyze the problem.
We all know the signs: hundreds of emails to answer, back-to-back meetings and the flood of incoming texts and calls. The results of chronic distraction include missed deadlines, declining work quality, an unstoppable urge to check your cell phone no matter how important what you're doing might be.
Executives today are particularly besieged, as the norms for digital intrusions have shifted immensely. What was unthinkable, or non-existent a decade ago has become the new normal -- e.g., those distracting pop-ups, emails, texts, and reminders on the devices we use to get focused work done (I include my own computer).
The art of leadership is largely interpersonal, but a distracted executive fails to be fully present -- attentive, responsive, and understanding -- leaving the other person feeling emotionally bereft and devalued. Additionally, we see organizational weakness in this failure to extract the highest quality emotional and informational exchange between key players.
We know that certain abilities to focus will boost any executive's performance. The first type of focus is internal, an awareness of our thoughts and feelings in the moment, and "meta-awareness" of where we are deploying our attention -- in other words, an awareness of awareness itself.
But distraction is the enemy of focus, and all of us are distracted an alarming amount of time. One metric for distraction is mind wandering. Harvard researchers gave people a phone app that rang them at random moments through the day, and asked them two questions: What are you doing now? What are you thinking about? A mismatch between their two answers indicated a mind wandering and distracted. People, on average, have wandering minds about 50 percent of the time. The highest rates of mind wandering take place when people are commuting, sitting at a computer terminal, and -- bad news for HR -- while working.
Yet we all know a focused workforce gets best results. The ability of athletes to concentrate, research finds, predicts their next season's performance. Same with executives.
An intense focus on achieving goals allows a leader to inspire her team to hone in on those goals. One of the primal tasks of a leader is to direct everyone's attention, focusing them on what's important. Then each group can focus on those goals in its own way. To the degree people are distracted, their performance declines. This is especially harmful when that person is in a leadership position, because of the far greater contribution leaders make to business performance.
This graph (at left) of the performance curve can help us think about mental states and business outcomes. People work at their best when there is optimal balance between the demands of their job, and their skills. If those demands are great, and their skills are up to the challenge, they may get in "flow" -- a brain state of total focus, where only the circuitry needed for the task at hand is active, and people perform at their absolute best. They are at the top of the performance curve.
This steady concentration on accomplishing goals is what places leaders toward the top of this curve. As business economists tell us, such high-performing leaders make a maximal contribution to a company's bottom line.
Distractions, in contrast, activate irrelevant brain circuits, weakening focus. As the curve shows, there are two kinds of poor focus that torpedo performance. One is chronic mind wandering, which you see in those disengaged from their work. The other is "frazzle" where people are so overwhelmed by stress all they can think about is what's upsetting them -- not the task at hand.
Empathy, a keen focus on others, marks the second kind of focus every leader needs. Leadership, in one sense, requires getting the best efforts out of other people. But that requires powerful communication, and a sense of how to influence and motivate. And none of that will work if a leader is clueless about how others think and feel.
Empathy takes three forms, each grounded in a different set of brain circuitry. The first, cognitive empathy, allows us to understand how a person thinks. Knowing this guides a leader to effective communication, because she can use the language and mental models that make sense to her team.
Emotional empathy means the ability to experience the feelings of others. With emotional empathy, a leader can phrase things in ways that will move others, have good chemistry with peers, and attract interest. Without emotional empathy, a leader's words will seem hollow.
The last form of empathy, empathic concern, means a leader cares about those she leads, and will create an atmosphere of trust and support that allows her team to give their best and take smart risks.
All these kinds of empathy encourage "human moments," when times a leader powerfully connects, and leads at her best. But the ingredients of that moment begin with full attention on the person in front of you. If a leader gets distracted or gives only partial attention, that moment fizzles. Leaders need to bring their full awareness to their interactions, just as they do to any other work at hand.
So here's where HR can help: Offer executives workouts in the "mental gym."
The circuitry of the brain, like a muscle, grows stronger or flabby with use. The more distracted we let ourselves be, the weaker our circuits for sustained focus become.
The training that strengthens the brain's focus circuitry has many names, but the most popular these days is mindfulness training. From the perspective of cognitive science, mindfulness means training attention -- a mental fitness workout.
Research at Emory University using brain scans finds that the basic moves in this mental workout are simple:
1) Focus on any chosen target, like your breath.
2) When your mind wanders (remember, 50 percent of the time, on average) notice that you are thinking of something else instead of just being carried away.
3) Bring your attention back to your breath.
4) Keep it there -- and when it wanders off, repeat the cycle.
The moment of noticing your breath has wandered is being mindful. Bringing your attention back to the chosen focus strengthens your brain's circuitry for concentration -- just as when you work out with free weights, each time you lift the weight, you strengthen that muscle just a bit more.
The documented benefits of mindfulness are numerous. They include: better attention, focus, and resistance to distractions, improved management of upsetting emotions, staying calm under acute stress -- and even heightened immune function. Every leader would benefit from such a mental tune-up.
One study had volunteers from HR go through a simulation of the frenzy of planning a big conference. Those who had undergone mindfulness training were more effective, and stayed calm and efficient despite the pressure.
Many companies now offer mindfulness courses to executives. One of the first was Google, and the founder of that course, Chade-Meng Tan, now heads an organization to help other companies offer the training. Chade sees mindfulness as strengthening an executive's basic emotional intelligence -- and I agree.
Consider the advantages of a more mindful workforce, and share these with your organization's employees. For instance, an executive went to an offsite mindfulness training and had an epiphany. When she came back she told her staff that whenever they were about to ask her to attend a meeting they should take a mindful pause and ask themselves if she was really needed, or if they could get along without her sitting through that agenda.
What had been days of back-to-back meetings suddenly opened up into hours a day of time she had to focus on what really mattered to her.
Daniel Goleman is an author, psychologist and science journalist. His latest book is titled What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters.