The beginning of my journey
If it was easy for me to record why or who or when I was first drawn to mindfulness I would have a good place to start. But, as I sit here I realize that mindfulness rather trickled in to my life, seeped in slowly and may be rather ironically without me even noticing.
The past few months have been spent musing over the question of what difference has a mindful approach to work made to me? And is it is with all of these things now days, I find myself chuckling over some message that has come to me through reading a book or an article where the words jump out at me as if to answer my question. This time it was the words of the Czech poet Rainer Maria Rilke leaping at me from the book I was reading. “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” From Letters to a Young Poet (1903)
The connection to organisational life
How shoes came to be invented.
“Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a princess, who while walking one day, stubbed her toe on a root sticking out of a path. Vexed, she went to the prime minister and insisted that he draw up an edict declaring that the entire kingdom should be paved in leather so that no one would ever have to suffer from stubbing a toe again.
Now the prime minister knew that the King always wanted to please his daughter in any and every way, and so he might be appealed to actually cover over the kingdom in leather, which while it might solve that problem and make the princess happy and save somebody the indignity of stubbed toes, would have been sorely problematic in many ways, to say nothing of the expense. Thinking quickly, the prime minister came up with another idea. Instead of covering the whole kingdom in leather, he approached the King to say “why don’t we craft pieces of leather shaped to your feet and attach them in some suitable way? Then wherever you go, your feet will be protected at the point of contact with the ground, and we will not have to incur such a large expense and forego to sweetness of the earth.” The princess was well pleased with this idea and so shoes came into the world and much folly was averted. (Taken from Coming to our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn, 2005)
I have read this story many times and what has struck me is just how many times I have seen organisations lining their systems with leather rather than giving their people shoes. In their hurry and speed to achieve more, grow quicker, diversify, acquire, stay ahead, down size, implement, change, transition, to name but a few, they react by ‘covering the kingdom in leather’ only to find that the sweetness of the business is lost and the commitment and health of its people diminished.
The HSE (Health and Safety executive) reports the total number of cases of stress in 2010/11 was 400,000 out of a total of 1,152,000 for all work-related illnesses (35%). The latest information from the Labour Force Survey for 2010/11 shows:
Around 26.4 million working days were lost in total, 22.1 million due to work-related illness and 4.4 million due to workplace injuries.
On average, each person suffering took around 15 days off work, 19 days for ill health and 7.2 days for injuries on average.
Stress, depression or anxiety and musculoskeletal disorders accounted for the majority of days lost due to work-related ill health, 10.8 and 7.6 million days respectively.
The average days lost per case for stress, depression or anxiety (27 days) was higher than for musculoskeletal disorders (15 days).
In our haste for more have we lost our sense of when enough is enough?
In his book Toxic Success (2002) Paul Pearsall, tells us of a sign in Michigan, USA which states, “Our milk comes from contented cows.” Travel some miles on and you come to a bigger, brighter billboard that tells you “Our cows are not content. They are eager to do better.” It has a picture of a cow flexing its muscles and holding a bottle of milk with a blue ribbon saying “Number One”. And so I sit here reflecting on the words of Richard Boyatzis in that a new kind of leadership is required as our institutions struggle to keep up with the political, economic, technological and social that is driving change. (2005)
The questions flood in; how can we slow down? How do we keep up? Where is the space and the time to think? Where is the space and time to feel, sense, be? What are we not seeing?
A Mindfulness approach to work
In a world of fast paced, target focused, bottom line profit driven where do leaders find the time to reflect, regroup, reassess and connect not just with themselves but with their people?
Mindfulness is an approach which Jon Kabat Zin refers to as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.”
Sylvia Boorstein refers to it as “the balanced, ongoing attention to what is happening (physically and mentally), including the minds perceptions and reactions to what is happening.”
Having coached a number of senior people / leaders I have been struck by the how much value they place on taking time out to reflect whilst also being aware that when they go back into the workspace it is business as usual and they enter straight back into the world of busyness.
This was something I too am guilty of, not allowing myself the space to pay attention, on purpose and in the present moment.
It was only when I did the MBSR programme that I encountered something that allowed me to understand and accept myself more fully. I became more integrated with my whole self – noticing perhaps for the first time bodily sensations, internal reactions. Listening and noticing rather than obeying the commands that came from my head.
How I experience mindfulness is it is a way of being ‘of it’ but not ‘in it’, whether that be a problem / issue / organisation / team. It is a way of switching perspectives, de-centring, re perceiving, an awareness of observing consciousness that is both a part of and apart from my experience. It is a de-automisation from habitual patterns. The old adage comes to mind here of “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got, and you’ll always feel what you always felt.”
Mindfulness practice helps us to choose to do something different by raising awareness, connecting to all of our self and not just our thoughts – as thoughts are not facts, they are just thoughts. It alerts us to recognise when we are working with our automatic pilot and the reactive cycles we get ourselves in to.
How is this in service of my work as a consultant with my clients?
As I start to muse over this question that I have posed to myself I am again struck by a quote this time by Mark Twain, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
It leads me to reflect on a series of assumptions that even I as a coach can find myself making about other people’s views on mindfulness and mindfulness practice:
- Meditation is not an acceptable business practice, considered to be ‘hippy’ and on a par with tree hugging.
- Leaders value strategy and mindfulness is not considered strategic .
- Organisations are driven by profit and therefore it is output that really matters.
And yet we are seeing governments and organisations in the City starting to talk about the benefits of mindfulness. Even the press are starting to raise the awareness of Mindful approaches in business and so I am seeing a real wind change. Therefore I sense that mindful approaches in business are not just a nice to have but a necessary aid to help leaders and organisations flourish and perform in the ‘new world’ post the 2008 recession.
Raising leadership and organisational consciousness to help and encourage leaders in the art of reflection, being present in the moment and raise awareness in noticing and observing – all of these building up a capacity in mindfulness approaches in leadership and developing a conscious business / organisation.
Recommend reading :
Goleman, D., (2002) The New Leaders; Transforming the art of leadership into the science of results, Little, Brown, London, UK
Greenleaf, RK and Spears, LC., (2002) Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, Paulist Press, New Jersey USA
Hamill, P., (2013) Embodied Leadership; the somatic approach to developing your leadership, Kogan Page Limited, London, UK
Kabat-Zinn., (1990) Full Catastrophe Living, Bantam Dell , New York, USA
Kabat –Zinn., (2005) Coming to our senses; healing ourselves and the world through MindfulnessLittle, Brown, London UK
Kent, K., (2008) The case for servant leadership, Westfield, IN: Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership
Rock, D and Page LJ, (2009) Coaching with the brain in mind; Foundations for practice, John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey
About the Author
Judith Underhill is an experienced facilitator and executive coach with particular expertise in leadership development, collaborative change leadership and teambuilding. She works in both the private and public sector and has designed and developed a women in business programme for the construction industry to support females in an under represented sector.