How Can Mindfulness Help You Become a More Agile Learner?
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By Andy Lee, Mindful Leader CWMF and MBSR Instructor
There’s an old adage that in ten years on the job, some people amass ten years of learning while others gain one year of learning ten times over. The difference between these two types of people can be described as a difference in learning agility.
Learning agility, a term coined by Lombardo and Eichinger (2000), is the capacity of a person to learn and develop as a result of their on-the-job challenges and experiences. It is rooted in over a decade of research at the Center for Creative Leadership by Michael Lombardo, Morgan McCall, and others on how leaders grow and develop. These authors found that despite the large amounts of money companies were spending on leadership development programs, leaders were actually learning far more–in fact about seven times as much–from the experiences they were having on the job.
Since then, numerous assessments have been developed to identify people high in learning agility (for example, see DeMeuse, et. al., 2019). However, little has been done to understand how people might actually strengthen their own learning agility. This is unfortunate, since such an intervention could have a significant impact on leadership effectiveness both for individuals and across an organization. That said, research suggests that mindfulness and mindfulness-based practices can be a highly effective way to develop this critical capacity for ongoing learning and growth.
Here are five ways mindfulness can help us become better on-the-job learners:
1. Building your belief in your ability to grow
A growth mindset (Dweck, 2016) is the belief that we have the capacity to grow and develop, while a fixed mindset is the belief that your skills and talents are what they are, and won’t change much over time. A growth mindset is a foundational attitude needed for learning agility. Mindfulness contributes to developing a growth mindset by keeping leaders focused on their present moment experience, and by helping them to respond flexibly to whatever may arise.
2. Focusing on learning before moving to execution
Setting performance goals for ourselves can help us to do familiar things more effectively. But research shows that when we are working on something new, a better strategy is to simply understand the situation first, before rushing into execution mode (Seijts & Latham, 2005), Mindfulness helps us to develop a sense of openness and curiosity that emphasizes the importance of learning and discovery.
3. Seeking feedback for self-development
Feedback seeking has long been regarded as a key part of effective leadership (Ashford & Tsui, 1991), but it can feel threatening to one’s ego (Mitchinson & Morris, 2014). Mindfulness helps to calm the ego (Bergeron & Dandenau, 2016) which may make it more likely that we would seek out feedback on our performance.
4. Reflecting on your experience
A key part of learning is having the time to reflect on what we’ve done, so that important lessons can be identified and encoded for future use. Regular mindfulness practice provides an opportunity to reflect on your experience in a non-judgmental way, which provides an ideal mindset for constructive reflection. This can be further enhanced with a regular journaling practice.
5. Applying learnings to new situations
Of course, learning things is only half the battle. Applying these learnings in new situations is the other part. Mindfulness makes it more likely that we will try something new, because it reduces resistance to change (Dunican & Keaster, 2015) and enhances change readiness (Gärtner, 2013). Mindfulness also encourages us to pay close attention to what we’re doing, and to pause and reflect – even if just momentarily–before responding to a situation. It is in these moments that we can remember a better way to respond, and connect with the courage and the curiosity to give it a try.
Taken together, this research suggests that practicing mindfulness could greatly enhance learning agility. So the next time you’re weighing whether to carve out the time to practice mindfulness, remember that this practice can help you to change your job from just delivering results, to an opportunity to learn and grow each day.
Andy Lee is a former Chief Mindfulness Officer at Aetna and has been practicing mindfulness for over 20 years, and has been teaching mindfulness both in organizations and in the community since 2011. He is a certified MBSR teacher by the Center for Mindfulness at the Brown University Center for Public Health, and has an MA in organizational psychology from Columbia University and a certificate in executive coaching from CUNY Baruch. Andy spent the first half of his career as a human resources executive in Fortune 500 companies, and in 1999 he came to mindfulness in order to manage his own challenges with stress. Besides teaching MBSR, Andy is also the founder of Mindful Ethos LLC, and a Senior Consultant with Potential Project, the global leader in workplace mindfulness programs.
Andy is an instructor for our MBSR course. Click here to learn more and view upcoming classes.
- Ashford, S. J., & Tsui, A. S. (1991). Self-regulation for managerial effectiveness: The role of active feedback seeking. Academy of Management Journal, 34(2), 251-280.
- De Meuse, K. P., Lim, J., & Rao, R. (2019). The development and validation of the TALENTx7® Assessment: A psychological measure of learning agility (3rd edition). Shanghai, China: Leader’s GeneConsulting.
- Dweck, C. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
- Gärtner, C. (2013). Enhancing readiness for change by enhancing mindfulness. Journal of Change Management, 13(1), 52-68.