Using mindfulness and values in the workplace to improve performance and wellbeing
Author: Rachel Collis
Rachel gained 15 years experience as a psychiatrist before moving into leadership development in 2001. She now lectures at the Graduate School of Business, QUT and provides leadership, executive and career coaching to senior and high potential leaders.
To learn more, visit - http://rachelcollis.com.au/
There’s a question I hear a lot during my workshops and coaching.
‘How can I be more confident?’
I ask people what they would do if they were really confident?
Well, they proclaim, if I was more confident, then I’d:
apply for more ambitious roles
begin new relationships that nourish
leave relationships that drain
ask for what I really want at work and need in love
say yes to more opportunities in life
say no to crossed boundaries
live a bigger, bolder life on my terms
I get why they think more confidence would help. But for most, it’s a misguided strategy. For many people, the problem isn’t a lack of confidence at all. It’s too much confidence.
Often people are too confident that if they take courageous action then they’ll:
look particularly stupid
be humiliatingly rejected
learn nothing whatsoever
suffer intolerably and never recover.
No wonder they hold back! Paradoxically, the solution isn’t more confidence. It’s being less certain. It’s being positively skeptical.
The next time you hear an inner voice whisper ‘better not, it won’t turn out well’, remember you have a choice. You can believe these cautious little lies and live small and safe, or you can be positively skeptical.
Actually, you don’t know:
how well this might turn out
what you’ll discover about yourself or others
who might respond positively
how others will be inspired by your courageous proactivity
how much confidence you may earn over time through experience.
The truth is, you don’t know for sure where positive skepticism and courageous proactivity will take you.
The VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment that we find ourselves in is unsettling, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but some nights I find myself waking in the early hours with a vague sense of unease, my shoulders slightly hunched against threat.
It isn’t just the pandemic, it is all the existential threats we are facing. The complexity of our highly interconnected world makes it hard to predict what will happen next. And when we can’t easily predict what will happen next, our mind tends to predict threat. Which is, of course, not unreasonable when we read the news.
So what is to be done?
Practice Self Compassion
Be very, very kind to yourself. This is a tough time. It can be hard to concentrate. Hard to focus on anything but the tasks that have an immediate deadline. It is hard to do complex cognitive tasks. If you are like me, it is also hard not to have self-critical thoughts –“I am such a wimp, compared to so many people in the world I am so safe and privileged. Why can’t I just get shit done?”. This isn’t particularly helpful but it is what many of us do in tough moments.
These hard moments are actually times when it is important to treat yourself gently. See if you can talk to yourself with kindness and firmness. Don’t let yourself off the hook but don’t berate yourself either. ‘You do need to sit down and make a start on that report. I know it feels tough but just set a timer for 20 minutes and make a start’.
When harsh and self-critical thoughts come up, respond to them compassionately – they are just trying to help.
Kristin Neff’s website has many resources to help build self-compassion. I find her self-compassion journal exercise particularly helpful. And if you can’t even manage to do that, be kind to yourself about your inability to practice self-compassion.
Be compassionate and firm with others
Most of us are a bit under-resourced at the moment, which can make us snappy and irritable and sometimes badly behaved. It is a good idea to be compassionate to each other about these failings rather than harsh and judgmental whilst also gently and firmly setting boundaries. ‘I don’t like the way my boss just spoke to me in front of a client. It hurts. And, I suspect that, just like me, they are stressed. However, it is important that we treat each other respectfully. What would a wise person do right now? Perhaps ask ‘Are you okay? Is something bothering you’
Prepare for the worst case scenario – but don’t over-do it
The answer to this conundrum is to do things that are low cost and wise even if the worst case doesn’t happen e.g. put some money on one side for a rainy day fund; have some food in the pantry for if you get sick and need to self-isolate; learn how to grow vegetables; build good relationships with your neighbours; get strong and fit.
In VUCA environments you need to think differently. You need to use different strategies to both make sense of the world and choose what actions to take.
Complicated problems have solutions that can be found. You just need to think carefully and logically and draw on the right expertise. For example, when your car breaks down, you have a complicated problem. You work out how to get the car to the mechanic (the expert at fixing cars) and then the mechanic will, hopefully, fix it for you.
If, like me, you have spent a lot of time building expertise in solving complicated problems, it is easy to assume that you can use that expertise to solve the problems you are now facing. But this assumes that the problem is complicated rather than complex. And the situation we now find ourselves in, is complex.
In a complex system, things evolve all the time in unpredictable ways. A good example of how a complex system evolves is to watch a susurration of starlings.
You can’t predict where the starlings will go next. Sometimes they follow the path you were expecting and then, quite suddenly, there is a shift in direction. In a complex system you can’t predict how the system will change and what will emerge. This uncertainty is hard for humans. Particularly when the uncertainty is about things that are genuinely threatening:
Will I or someone I care about become ill? If they do become ill, will good health care be available for them?
Will I lose my job?
Will my business fold?
Is it safe to hug my parents/brother/sister/best friend?
What will bush fire season be like this year? Will the air be smokey for weeks?
So how do we manage this unpredictable and complex world?
Firstly, take a deep breath and go back to the points I started with –
Be very, very kind to yourself and the people around you
Be gently firm with yourself and the people around you
Do what you can to plan for the worst case scenario without going overboard
Then, use some strategies that are designed for making sense of complexity:
Ask questions in ways that help people think together and come up with new thinking for example:
What has surprised you? And what can we learn from that?
Where did things not turn out as we expected and what did you learn from that?
Look for patterns and exceptions – but be careful not to impose patterns where none exist. Sometimes things are just random.
Look for what is not being talked about or perspective that haven’t been considered.
Design and run safe-to fail experiments
VUCA isn’t easy for humans. Most of us have minds that prefer safety and predictability. Paradoxically, recognising that you are in a VUCA environment and then thinking in different ways about the challenges you are facing, can help you to navigate the ever-changing situation more successfully.
Do you want to be successful? If you are like me, then your response to that question is, ‘Hmm...It depends‘. It depends on what ‘being successful’ means.
We are surrounded by the message that success is about ‘having it all’. Over and over again, the world implies that if you are to truly consider yourself a success you need: love, money, a prestigious job, a wonderful family, happy kids, lots of friends, health, a beautiful body, a lovely home with a shiny kitchen, a fancy car…. Only when you have all of these things can you count yourself as successful.
Even worse, we are sold the myth that it is actually possible to have it all. A multitude of articles; books and courses promise, ‘if you just do x, then you will … lose weight, earn lots of money, get that promotion’ etc. We are encouraged to believe that if you keep following all of this advice, then, one day, you will have it all. You will know that you are successful. And, all will be well.
However for people like me (and perhaps you) this belief – that you can/should have it all – is exhausting and unhelpful.
I am not a university professor and I haven’t written a best-selling book
I don’t earn a six figure income.
When I buy the ‘having it all’ myth, I run around trying to get everything right. I feel anxious about all the things I am not achieving. I feel exhausted and overwhelmed and my life passes me by as I pursue the ‘infinite more’.
When I buy the myth that I can have it all, I see myself and my life as problems to be solved. I fail to notice moments of joy and connection. I notice myself thinking, if I just try a little harder; If I read the right book; if I do all the right things; if I just become better or different in some ill-defined way; then, everything will fall into place. Then, I will have it all and then…I can relax and enjoy this moment.
But what if you and I were to accept that we can’t actually do it all or have it all? What would that be like?
Instead of focusing on getting everything right, perhaps we could give our attention to being here now. To embracing this messy life with all of its imperfection. Whilst at the very same time, with courage and lots of self-compassion, we face up to the ways we need to change. Not in order to get the perfect life, with the fancy car and the posh job, but so that we give ourselves a fighting chance to achieve the things that really do matter, which probably include:
In the end, I do need to eat less biscuits and more kale. But not so I can tick ‘perfect body’ off my ‘having it all’ list. (I am a middle-aged lady – I think that ship has sailed!) Instead, I choose to eat more kale because it is one way of caring for my precious body.
Working in a twenty-first century organisation can feel pretty bleak. Many employees describe feeling increasingly discouraged, disconnected and disengaged. They struggle to feel a sense of meaning or joy in their work.
in this approach, the organisation is considered to be a complex adaptive system, like a city or a forest. This is in contrast to the current dominant metaphor of the organisation as a machine. This change in metaphor is important. If an organisation is a machine, then people are seen as replaceable cogs. Whereas, in a complex adaptive system, all of the parts are important. Different parts interact in surprising ways and a small action by one element can create large, system wide changes.
In Teal organisations:
The usual hierarchies are dropped.
Individuals are given much more autonomy.
People often work in small, semi-autonomous groups that are nested together to create a larger system.
Everyone is seen as able to take on a leadership role whenever needed.
All employees are provided with training in the skills they need in order to navigate the complexity of this sometimes challenging environment.
Individual workers can make important decisions – as long as they seek advice from those who will be affected by the decision.
The CEO doesn’t decide on strategy or tell people what to do. The group agree a broad purpose, and then ‘the role of the leader is to listen for where this organisation naturally wants to go’ (Laloux).
What I particularly like about Laloux’s perspective is that he doesn’t pretend this is easy. It is clearly challenging to implement this approach. If a Teal organisation is to flourish, appropriate processes and systems need to be put in place. For example, successful organisations adopting this new approach all have clear processes for dealing with conflict.
This model does give hope for the future. It suggests that grim and soulless workplaces may be replaced by something much better. Within a Teal organisation, it is highly likely that employees will experience a sense of meaningful success.
You probably don’t work in a Teal organisation at the moment, but it may be possible to start to shift the centre of gravity. In a complex adaptive system, small changes can lead to dramatic shifts. Just adopting some of the Teal daily organisation practices in your team could help build autonomy, meaning and a sense of community. Try picking one small change suggested on the Reinventing Organizations Wiki, implement it and see what happens.
Fostering these changes will require a degree of psychological flexibility. You will need to be present, open and flexible. You will need a capacity to observe what is happening; take thoughtful action; notice the outcome and then take more action.
You can watch Laloux explaining his research in more detail in this talk:
Many leaders are feeling ‘in over their heads’. The organisational landscape has become volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) and it can often feel so challenging and overwhelming that we feel out of our depth and swamped.
The skills that led to success in the past, no longer seem to work.
There is so much change happening that we can’t keep up. Everything is interconnected and, as a result, less easy to predict or control. Your outputs are increasingly dependent on other teams. Their mistakes or delays are disastrous for you but no-one seems to think that is a reasonable explanation when, as a result, your deadlines blow out. The future is highly unpredictable, it is unclear what the next right action is.
In their excellent book, Simple Habits for Complex Times, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston explain that many of the problems we are now grappling with are complex rather than complicatedand that means they need to be handled differently.
In complicated situations, you create the outcome you want by working through things logically, defining the problem, breaking it down into it’s component parts, perhaps doing a root cause analysis and then making a step by step plan. It is hard, but manageable.
In a complex environment this isn’t the case. In complex situations, causality isn’t linear or predictable. So a root cause analysis quickly becomes messy and unhelpful. In complexity, you can’t predict the future from what happened in the past. You can’t work out logically what actions will create the outcomes you want to achieve, as things are interconnected – a small change in one place has an unpredictable impact in another place. So your attempts to create and act on a plan don’t seem to work. It is easy to feel swamped, powerless and uncertain.
What are better strategies for complex situations? Garvey Berger and Johnston suggest the following:
Have a broad sense of the direction you want the system to head in but avoid rigid plans and goals that can’t adapt and take advantage of changes in the system. (e.g. ‘Better customer service’ is a broad direction whereas ‘answering customer calls within 2 minutes and resolving all questions within a further 2 minutes’ is a rigid goal).
Become very curious about the present
Listen very deeply to what others are saying – recognize that others may be making sense of things differently to you
Be interested in multiple perspectives on the situation – including the perspectives that people (including you!) may have in a year or 5 years.
Take a wider, more systemic view. Rather than looking for root causes – look for combinations of factors that interact to push the system in a particular direction.
Notice what is tending to happen already in the system and then try to amplify any current tendencies that are aligned with the desired direction.
Take actions designed to nudge the system in a positive direction.
Instead of making and executing a plan, use ‘safe to fail’ experiments to try to shift the system – learn from the outcome of each experiment and feed that learning into the next safe to fail experiment. NB For this to work, you need a culture where is okay to take risks and fail (with boundaries given for what are acceptable and unacceptable risks).
My hunch is that psychological flexibility is a key skill that leaders will need in order to enact these new and challenging skills.
Psychological flexibility is: “contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values” – Steve Hayes
It is composed of a number of processes that are highly relevant when leading in complexity:
Acceptance helps leaders to cope with ambiguity, uncertainty and the associated anxiety that comes with that.
Present moment awareness (or mindfulness) helps leaders to be better at observing what is really happening.
Values clarity helps leaders to behave more consistently in volatile contexts, so that followers can trust them, even though the direction is unclear and the leader can’t give them any sense of certainty about the future.
Defusion helps leaders to look at the world as it is in this moment, rather than how the mind is saying it is. This is a particularly important skill in an ambiguous environment, in ambiguity, we tend to have thoughts that tell us, ‘This is certain to turn out badly’. We need to be able to hold those thoughts lightly and see the situation as it is in this moment.
Perspectivetaking skills enable leaders to be mindful of and listen to the needs and views of many different stakeholder and also to see the broader system.
These skills seem to be key for leaders to thrive in the new industrial age.
And, often you wont feel like you are thriving, if you are like me then you will feel overwhelmed and swamped. At those times, please be very, very kind to yourself. This is genuinely hard. Some self-compassion is vital.
If you want to build your psychological flexibility, then these blog posts might be helpful:
I use the ACT matrix a lot in my workshops and with my coaching clients… and on myself! It is a tool that helps to build mindfulness, self-awareness and valued living. It is based on contextual behavioural science and is very easy to use.
I have made a video explaining how I use it:
You can download a pdf handout of the ACT Matrix here.
Kevin Polk (who is one of the people who developed the ACT matrix) has lots of free resources relating to the ACT matrix at his website.
In his wonderful book, The Nurture Effect, Tony Biglan, states that ’the most important stressor we humans typically face comes in the form of coercive interactions with other humans.’
Coercion is where people use unpleasant behaviour to influence you. If you do what they want, then the aversive behaviour will stop…at least for a while. Coercive behaviour in the workplace includes overt bullying and intimidation but it also can be more subtle – put downs, teasing, social exclusion etc. It can even involve using expressions of disappointment as a form of control.
Pause for a moment. What workplace situations have you found most stressful?
How much of your stress was because other humans were being coercive towards you?
My hunch is that coercion is an almost universal quality of deeply unhappy workplaces.
Sadly, some organisations have a culture which encourages coercive behaviour. These organisations are unpleasant places to work.
‘We need to replace all of this coercive behaviour with behaviour that calms, supports and teaches – the kind of behaviour that helps others thrive.’
What would that be like? Imagine a workplace where people ask directly for what they want in a calm way. Where they support each other to do well, to learn and to thrive.
Biglan suggests many empirically supported strategies for creating these nurturing environments. The one that has resonated most strongly with me is to make a personal commitment to this sort of calm, supportive and nurturing behaviour.
This is, of course, easier said than done. It is particularly hard to be calm, supportive and nurturing when others are being harsh and coercive towards you. Our impulse in these situations is to either respond with our own harsh, coercive behaviour or to just give in. The nature of coercion is that we want it to stop and we want it to stop quickly, so we tend to react to it in unhelpful ways.
If we want to create change, Biglan suggests that we need to learn forbearance. We need to step over our initial impulse to punish and coerce others and instead focus on responding with firm kindness. We need to be able to shift gear and respond in ways that build connection and foster growth.
Biglan quotes reams of research to support his suggestion that what the world needs now is for millions of us to just decide – ‘I want to step away from harsh and coercive treatment towards others, Instead I will nurture connection and growth. I will focus on creating environments where humans flourish.’
These strategies include the behavioural analysis that Rob described in the previous post. Looking with openness and curiosity at what antecedents and consequences may be encouraging the damaging behaviour and also at what antecedents and consequences would encourage the desired behaviour.
Biglan also explores how ACT skills can be important in achieving this change to a more nurturing culture. As people become more mindful, practice acceptance of their emotions and are more connected to their values, they find it easier to change their behaviour.
I highly recommend The Nurture Effect to you. It is an important book. A book that explores how the science of human behaviour can improve human lives.
I want to live in a world where the majority of people are behaving in ways that nurture learning and growth. How about you? Shall we get started?
What if your greatest successes are more a reflection of your small, everyday choices than of the big decisions you make?
In his book, ‘How to Choose’, David Freemantle suggests that it is our micro-behaviours that make the difference between success and disappointment. By micro-behaviours, he means the ‘nuances and minutiae of our observed behaviours’. We tend to remember big choices we have made and think they have determined the course of our life. Whilst it is true that these larger choices are important. Freemantle suggests that it is actually our micro-behaviours that ultimately determine our success in these larger events.
For example, a ‘macro-behaviour’ might be to apply for a secondment to a project that interests you. Making this choice and taking this action certainly matters, but all sorts of micro-behaviours impact on how successful your application will be. When you apply for the secondment, do you go and see the person in charge of the project and engage with them in a way that makes them feel confident that you would be a pleasant and conscientious team member? Do you take the time to write a well thought out application? Have your tiny, repeated behaviours over the last 2 years, built you a reputation as someone who is helpful and effective? All of these frequent, small choices will impact on the outcome of your application.
Our natural tendency is to consciously choose the big things but to let our habitual style determine our micro-behaviours. For example, if my family and cultural background encouraged a blunt and straightforward style of communication, I will tend to do that. If my background has trained me to be compliant and avoid conflict. I will tend to do that.
In order to succeed in ways that are meaningful, we need to do something different. Instead of letting our history determine our micro-behaviours, we need to choose these behaviours consciously based on three key factors:
What is happening in this moment?
Which of my values are most important to express in this situation?
What do I want to achieve both in the short and in the long term?
This assessment of what each moment calls for involves the capacity to be really present. To really see what is going on.
It requires that we have a clear sense of who we want to be (our values) and a broad sense of what we want our life to stand for (our purpose).
And, finally, it requires the capacity to unhook from impulses to act in reactive or unskilful ways.
My father was a doctor. When he finished medical school, he planned to pursue a career with some prestige attached to it. He was going to become a surgeon or physician in some teaching hospital. He would work his way up the hierarchy until he was like Sir Lancelot Spratt, with a host of nurses, doctors, medical students and sundry allied health professionals traipsing after him, writing down his pronouncements and doing his bidding.
My mother had a different view of what sort of life would suit them and she persuaded my dad to instead become a country GP in a relatively poor part of Derbyshire. He spent much of his working life visiting patients in their cramped terraced houses or sitting in his surgery looking into the ears of snotty nosed children. He was not followed around by an entourage. His work was not with the rich or the famous and he didn’t become rich or famous himself. On the surface, he might seem like a relatively insignificant figure.
But if you walk into the local newsagent with my father, who has been retired for 14 years now, it is very likely that someone will rush up to him and say something like, ‘Oh Dr Collis, It is my lovely, lovely Dr Collis’.
In his small way, in this small village in the middle of England, my dad is famous. He is famous to these people because he was very, very kind and caring to them at a point in their life when they needed this more than anything. Because he listened to his patients with great interest, even if they were telling him about problems with endless green snotty noses. He started with the assumption that his patients mattered and their worries were important and that meant everything to them.
My mother is also ‘famous’ in this small village in Derbyshire. She is famous for her stalwart support of people through the tough times of life, for her capacity to be with people through the periods of grief, loneliness and overwhelmingly bad odds that visit us all. People often say to me, ‘I don’t know what we would have done without your Mum when…happened.’
The river is famous to the fish
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
There is so much written about how to become successful. But the success these articles describe is about fame and fortune rather than the gratitude of a middle aged lady in the local newsagent. And that is a problem.
It is a problem because chasing prestige leads you to focus energy on things that aren’t really important to you:
“What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world…..Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like but what you’d like to like…Prestige is just fossilised inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious…
Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule to simply avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.’ Paul Graham
When you are in your late 70’s, as my father is. What will touch you most:
That you rose through the corporate ranks?
That you earned lots of money and drove a fancy car?
That you were, in your own world, a Lancelot Spratt?
That somewhere there is a person; someone who, like you, is insignificant in the scheme of things; and they remember how you treated them?
That somewhere there is a piece of work, something that was done really well…by you.