Adapting Mindfulness for Fast- Paced Companies

By Wendy Palmer

Most of the literature around mindfulness in the workplace suggests that the practitioner should take ten, fifteen, or even thirty minutes to practice mindfulness each day. Generally, the suggestion is to sit in a quiet place with eyes closed and follow the breath letting go of any thoughts that may arise by returning attention to the breath. The intention is to shift to a more calmer, and more compassionate and relaxed state of being. It is true that if a person can focus on a calming element, like the breath or a pleasant visualization for that amount of time, generally they will experience less tension in their body and mind. One problem with this approach is that the sense of calm or relaxation doesn't last. Another problem is that the person has to create the time for such a practice in an already very full schedule.

For the last twenty plus years, I have worked primarily in tech and biotech organizations. Most of my clients work long hours; they have back-to-back meetings and working lunches. They respond to emails on the weekends and in the middle of the night. If they are driving, they are often having a meeting on the phone. From their perspective, the idea of taking time, even a few minutes, away from their work and precious sleep is not an option.

As a result, I have met very few who will take on a more traditional kind of practice. I would go so far as to say that such an approach could actually be detrimental to some of these people. I say this because they may try to do such a practice, use an app or a tape or just sit on their own – and most of them will not be able to sustain it. They then feel that they have failed; and it activates their inner critic, which in turn, creates more stress or they decide that it is a waste of time and dismiss mindfulness as airy-fairy thus losing the opportunity to engage in a process that could be of tremendous value.  

My suggestion to clients is to do a short practice, take five seconds – to uplift their posture, open up and then settle, relaxing their shoulders. Instead of noticing the breath the way it is, I suggest they inhale as they lengthen their spine and as they exhale, they soften their chest and think of something that makes them smile. Thinking of something that makes you smile releases oxytocin, the connector chemical. You can try it now – inhale and lengthen your spine, as you exhale, think of something that makes you smile. Notice the feeling in your chest – you are activating a feeling of warmth.

Clients can build up from five seconds to ten and then to twenty seconds. The idea is that they can do this in a meeting, on a conference call or before sending an email. They don't have to close their eyes or find a quiet place.

I have developed a model called Leadership Embodiment based on principles from mindfulness and martial arts. I have been practicing mindfulness and aikido – a Japanese non-violent martial art – for forty-seven years.

In order to meet the needs and adapt to the environment that many people in tech and innovative companies find themselves – a fast-paced, non-stop highly competitive world – I have developed short practices that can be repeated many times through out the day and even during meetings.

The two most important principles for leaders who want to be influential are warmth and size – it is not the size of the biceps, but the size of the spirit that matters. Size represents strength, in the animal kingdom and in the world of organizations if a person has a big energy they will have a voice. I have worked with clients that are the smartest people in the room and yet they don't have a voice because they make themselves small. Crossing their arms and legs, looking down and focusing on the data. If a leader can be expansive and warm they will be more likely to influence others to consider their point of view.  

An article from Harvard Business Review called “Connect Then Lead,” suggests that in order for leaders to be influential, they need to exhibit qualities of strength and warmth, with an emphasis on warmth. The authors wrote,  “Princeton social psychologist Alex Todorov and colleagues study the cognitive neural mechanisms that drive our “spontaneous trait inferences’” – the snap judgments we make when briefly looking at faces. Their research shows that when making those judgments, people consistently pick up on warmth faster than on competence…. Behavior economists, for their part, have shown that judgments of trustworthiness generally lead to significantly higher economic gains.”

I continue to be impressed by how quickly clients take on the five to twenty-second practices. They report that they go from our coaching session to the next meeting and are able to apply the practice on the spot. They notice that the change is immediate and affects the quality of the conversation in the meeting in a positive way. I am also delighted when they report that they are using it at home and they will often say something like, “ My wife/husband says thank you.”

Once a client experiences how this simple five to twenty-second practice can shift to a way of being that is expansive and warm, they begin to see the implication that continued practice can lead to a more resilient and relaxed way of working. When they experience the benefit they are more willing to invest a bit more time in the practice.  I suggest to my clients that they take on the challenge of sitting for one whole minute. They can use the process I described above or they can simply count out sixty seconds. I suggest they commit to two weeks of this practice. Sometimes they will report with great satisfaction that they sat for two minutes – or more. They are proud and encouraged that they can actually do the discipline, that they have taken charge of their time.

Like all of us, our clients still react to stressors; there is a tendency to tighten muscles, which tightens the mind. The gift of this short practice is that by opening muscle groups, the mind opens. Taking a few seconds to open up and think of something that makes us smile, we can recover quickly and return to our more creative, resourceful capacities.

Over time this practice can begin to shift the baseline of reactivity. The baseline might move from sixty or seventy percent of time spent in reactivity to forty or fifty percent of time spent in reaction. This shift in percentages can make a big difference in a person’s state of health and well- being and, their attitude toward their work and their relationships. A more resourceful state of being provides an opportunity for people to find inspiration and communicate a message of inclusion to their managers, team members, and clients, offering them a more positive way to thrive in a fast-paced company.

Wendy Palmer is the founder of LEADERSHIP EMBODIMENT, a process that uses principles from the non-violent Japanese martial art of Aikido and mindfulness to offer simple tools and practices to increase leadership capacity and respond to stress and pressure with greater confidence and integrity. Wendy holds a sixth-degree black belt in Aikido and has practiced mindfulness for over 45 years. She has worked with executive teams and individuals for Twitter, Genentech, Jazz Pharmaceuticals, The Gap, NASA, Gates Foundation, Salesforce.com, McKinsey &Co, Oracle, Google, Unilever, The BBC, Accenture, Blackrock, The George Washington University, Eileen Fisher and The Daimler Chrysler Group. She is also an author of three books, Leadership Embodiment, The Intuitive Body and The Practice of Freedom, and a supporting CD and DVD. Her coaching organization, LEADERSHIP EMBODIMENT offers Coach Training to experienced coaches and facilitators who wish to learn to coach leaders in Leadership Presence. For more information go to: www.leadershipembodiment.com

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