Why Mindfulness Is an Underrated Management Attribute

My wife spent a good amount of time recently listening to Jon Kabat-Zinn on videos giving lectures on mindfulness, so I listened to some of them too. I liked them. I hadn’t heard of Dr. Kabat-Zinn (a professor and leading teacher of mindfulness and stress reduction), though I had heard of mindfulness.

Truth be told I didn’t know too much about mindfulness. But I’d often intuitively thought about the term related to management without being fully aware of its precise meanings and origins.

My general impression was that, whatever exactly it meant, we needed more of it in management. A lot more.

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Patience and empathy are valuable management qualities.
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For what it’s worth, I don’t believe I heard the word mentioned once in my 24 years in Fortune 500 management. Nor did I ever hear it while I was getting an MBA.

For what its worth, we tend to have a certain skepticism in management to anything that’s hard to show pretty darn quick ROI on.

Though I did notice there seems to be some growing use of mindfulness in business, as I came across an enlightening "future of work" article on how companies including Aetna, Intel and Google, among others, were starting to integrate mindfulness into their leadership practices.

Positive implications for management 

This seems to me a really good thing. Anything that makes managers more carefully and thoughtfully attuned to those around them, including the employees they manage, should have positive implications for their management. It only stands to reason: The more you understand, the better you can motivate and manage.

With national employee engagement levels consistently mired around the 30% level, this suggests 70% of employees aren’t emotionally committed to their companies. In short, not a ringing endorsement, in the aggregate, of management effectiveness.

I’ve long been intuitively sympathetic to what may be called introspective approaches to people-management. I wrote a whole book on this general concept called The Type B Manager, advocating a quieter, calmer, more reflective managerial approach… without fully realizing my thinking was sort of a second cousin to mindfulness.

This is a big subject that deserves (and I hope to provide) additional treatment in the future, but for now for this blog here are three qualities I’d consider foundational attributes of mindful management.

Self-awareness. I’ve said it before at different times and in different ways, and I’ll say it again: Without a reasonable degree of self-awareness, you can’t be a truly effective manager.  Without some awareness of how you’re coming across to others and how they perceive you, it’s hard to thoughtfully exercise authority over the long term. Without an accurate idea of how your employees are responding to you, you’ll always be (avid fly fisherman speaking here) a trout swimming upstream. Meaning against the current.

Empathy. Studies have shown that empathy is a critical driver of successful management — and that only 40% of "frontline leaders" are "proficient or strong in empathy." This stat doesn’t surprise me — if anything, maybe sounds a little high. People are usually selected for management more for reasons of authority than empathy. Though as noted earlier, the ability to understand employees (what their issues are, what motivates them and what doesn’t) is critical to managerial success.

Patience.  Amid the chronic deadlines and stress of the working world, employees appreciate working for managers who are patient, as opposed to say, those who are short-tempered. Why wouldn’t they? This I can say with confidence: A management coaching style that patiently supports an employee when he or she needs help will 9 times out of 10 (at least) be better received than a traditional command-and-control style focused more on authority than assistance.

None of this should be hugely surprising.

Management is after all the practice of accomplishing work through others. How we treat those others is always a key element in this workplace equation.

This article first appeared on Forbes.com. 

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