Mindfulness meditation is one way we can train the mind and body to notice and retain attention onto thoughts, feelings and sensations in the present moment. Our research at Ashridge is the world’s first ever robust study exploring how mindfulness training and practice might affect key leadership capacities. Our findings suggest that this awareness and attention to present experience might result in improvements to a plethora of skills.
This is exciting news for those in HR and leadership development as it could offer a more efficient and impactful way to train leadership – perhaps providing a ‘red thread’ to the multitude of separate and sometimes disjointed courses offered to employees each focusing on different skills. So how does mindfulness meditation work and how much is enough to provide this red thread?
When academics ask people at the beginning of their training programme how mindful they think they are, they often rate themselves quite highly. After they have attended a mindfulness programme and undertaken various mindfulness practices such as meditation over a sustained period of time they are asked to rate themselves again. Interestingly, they sometimes rate themselves lower.
This is because they have far more awareness of just how much they are making decisions and relating with others on automatic pilot. They realise they are often unaware of what is going on in their own mind and body and how that inner state is inevitably affecting the system surrounding them.
Repeated meditation practice can develop capability in three vital areas. Firstly in metacognition, which is the capacity to step out of automatic pilot and notice current experience. Secondly in igniting curiosity – a lively interest in that experience. Thirdly in developing an attitude of allowing – lessening our stressful fight against current reality and diminishing our futile wishes that it should be other than it is.
We believe these three are ‘meta-capacities’. In other words if you can get them right a lot of other beneficial skills follow. This is because being interested in and open-minded about our current experience opens up a small space allowing us to respond rather than react to situations. If you can do that then you are more likely to empathise with others, see their perspective, control your emotions productively, and choose to focus on and adapt to the situation. If you find a leader who can do these things they are more likely also to be resilient, to collaborate well with others, and to make more informed decisions in complex situations: all undeniably critical capacities for the 21st century.
Louise Lennon, head of people development at British Sugar and a participant on our research programme, would concur: “You can put people through lots of different learning solutions, but if we have people who are not self-aware and not managing themselves well and thinking well then their learning will be limited”. An analogy here is that there is little point planting seeds in unfertile ground. If, however, you nurture the ground, the seeds stand a chance of growing.
Before I leave you with the impression that we have at last found the ‘silver bullet’ to leadership development, there is of course a ‘but’. Our research shows that to reap the rewards you have to practise. Those in our study who practised more than 10 minutes a day on average were more likely to show improvements in the capacities and skills discussed above. In summary, if you are going to embark on mindfulness initiatives don’t take them lightly. A two-hour workshop isn’t enough. You have to be prepared to give employees the resources and encouragement to practise habitually. Then you can expect your employees to know their minds better. And then there is the opportunity to stimulate improvements in so many other fundamental areas.
Megan Reitz is associate professor of leadership and dialogue at Ashridge