Mindfulness – For or Against?

“What did people get before stress was invented?”

This was a joke I first heard some years ago, but always thought it certainly had a ring of truth about it. I find myself picturing a group of Neanderthal hunters who have spent a day and a half stalking a woolly mammoth. They begin to surround the animal. It’s jittery and restless as it senses danger. They have no body armour, little or no defence and only the most basic and rudimentary weapons. The hunters are starting to sweat, their heartbeats are raised. As they close in for the kill, suddenly the leader of the tribe calls all together, gets them to sit down in a circle and informs them to, “focus on your breathing, and be fully here, right now.” In the meantime, the woolly mammoth wanders away to safety.

In today’s equivalent ‘hunting’ environment, all employers would like their employees to be less stressed, to be able to focus well on their work, to not let conflicts derail their efforts and to work together in the most efficient ways as effective teams. In pursuit of these goals it’s inevitable that managers and leaders will search around for the next ‘silver bullet’. There is an all round sense that so much more could be achieved (so much more profit made), if we could just make the imperfect human beings somewhat less imperfect!

There is no doubt at all that when it comes to attempts by organisations to improve their people, the current flavour of the day is Mindfulness. You would be hard pushed to go through any magazine or leaderrship/ personal development shelf in a bookshop without seeing plenty of publications on the subject. It can sometimes seem like everyone’s talking about it. Now, you can call me an old cynic, but that alone is reason enough for me to feel the need for at least a bit of doubt and questioning. Is it all that it’s claimed to be? Is it really a panacea for workplace stress? Is it going to give us happier workers, more capable of tackling the pressures of their work to high standards? Some cynics would say, instead of advocating Mindfulness for employees to handle stress better, we should create less reasons for them to feel stressed in the first place (conflicting instructions, changes in deadlines, unfulfilled commitments and promises etc.)

At times when I read and hear about mindfulness I am reminded of the work of Mihalyi ‎Csikszentmihalyi on ‘Flow’, that I first read over 15 years ago. This is the idea that things become effortless when you’re working in the moment, engrossed in a task for which you have the requisite skills. It strikes me that flow and workplaces today are a challenge. Whilst an individual may reach flow states when working on a task alone, how many of us work alone for any length of time. Once you bring in all the ambiguities associated with interruptions, other people’s agendas and conflicting priorities it may become impossible to achieve any kind of flow state. Maybe this is really the root source of all that we call workplace stress. In which case, Mindfulness won’t make it go away, reduce it or solve the problems it contributes to inefficiency and under achievement. The best it can do is enable to stop and smell the flowers, maybe putting others’ actions, communication etc. in to a little better perspective.

I do buy some benefits, but not in some sort of cookey ‘flavour of the day’ kind of way. Maybe that’s just me. When the trendy set moved on from NLP, I’ve continued to explore it, to test and experiment with the many ideas encompassed within (that’s for another blog post on another day!). For example, I downloaded a mindfulness bell reminder to my mobile phone and tablet. It chimes at random times through the working day. When I hear it, it causes me to stop for a second, check what I am doing at the moment and ask myself the question whether I’m doing the right/ best thing at that time. If I’m not comfortable i shift to a new task. In that sense, i see it as a useful time management tool.

In the school group where I was in Delhi, a gong would sound over the tannoy system twice during the school day. It was a wonderful, soothing sound. The standard practice was that wherever you were, whatever you were doing, you stopped, focused on your breathing for a couple of seconds and then proceeded with your normal activities after it finished. We saw definite calming of the children, improvement of focus in lessons and less aggressive behaviour.

By my reckoning, those are benefits worth having.

So, I was interested to come across this article recently that shares some scientific discoveries about what is going on chemically when people practice mindfulness and conjectures about why those could be beneficial:

Harvard Business Review – Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain

There’s an interesting debate that goes on in most countries when it comes to workplace training and professional development. There are many who believe that whilst the organisation/ employer can legitimately ‘enforce’ training related to the technical skills of the job a person does, they draw the line when the training is about changing or influencing them as a person. The alternative argument is that work today is so entwined with the rest of our lives that it is necessary for us to strive to be the best we can be in all the roles in our lives – not just the workplace, because we cannot isolate one role or domain from the others. If we are unfulfilled and frustrated in aspects of our health, personal relationships or some other part of life we’re not going to be able to perform at our best in our workplace.

As I suggested earlier, not everyone is ready to jump on the Mindfulness bandwagon or to welcome it as a panacea for all workplace ills.

Here are two recent articles that focus on the doubts, on the potential negatives;

Huffington Post – Is Mindfulness Harmful?

Fast Company – The Downside to Mindfulness Practices at Work

Ultimately, the personal development ‘industry’ is there to make money. Telling the world that what you taught last year is still the best thing to be doing today doesn’t pay. So, we need to be discerning about ‘flavour of the month’ solutions. When we find things that work for us, individually or collectively to be “my best me”, I believe what’s more important is to build the practice in to our habits and keep it there for the longer term – not to pick it up, do it, benefit, but then drop the habit because something new and shiny comes across the radar. In that, I believe Mindfulness practices can be a useful part of our long term habits.

The Orb – Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld

It's the weekend, so i just couldn't resist sharing a really cool, creative and imaginative album that I recently listened to again for the first time in a few years.

Enjoy!!

Welcome to Project Jacquard

Something to get your imagination going.

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From McKinsey: Heidrick & Struggles on the changing nature of leadership

Heidrick & Struggles on the changing nature of leadership – http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/leading_in_the_21st_century/heidrick_and_struggles_on_the_changing_nature_of_leadership

Tracy Wolstencroft, CEO of the global executive-search firm, explains the importance of authentic leadership, listening, and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Sent from the McKinsey Insights App
Available in the App Store (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/id674902075?mt=8) and Play Store (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.mckinsey.mckinseyinsights)

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Thinking Systemically

I’ve become a big fan of these little, short videos from 12 Manage that deal with various issues of leadership and management. This one is particularly good:

12 Manage – Video – Systems Thinking

It provides an excellent, intelligent explanation of what systems thinking is and why it matters. I first came across systems thinking in the writings of Peter Senge of the MIT Sloan School of Management, especially his books: The Fifth Discipline, The dance of Change and Schools That Learn (compulsory reading for all educators in my view).

Watching the video I was provoked to think about the question – “why don’t more people think systemically, naturally?” My conclusion was that, as in too many other things, those of us in education have to take a big chunk of the blame. And, the clue lies in that word “chunk”. Schools deliver knowledge in sealed boxes called ‘subjects’. They test, assess and evaluate each one separately, as if there is no inter-relationship of knowledge across the boundaries of the subjects. In such circumstances and after so many years, should we really be that surprised if people grow in to adults who find massive discomfort if asked to deal with facts, issues, problems or challenges without defining a neat box that it belongs in, then simply applying formulaic solutions in accordance with the standard thinking practiced within that box.

We saw a classic and extreme example some years ago in the Indian education system. The Supreme Court in that country passed a ruling that every citizen growing up should be taught about the environment. Not a bad idea to believe that reduced ignorance of the citizens would lead to more responsible approaches to preserving the environment.

So, the Indian examination Boards rolled out curriculum for Environmental Studies and it was made a compulsory subject. However, the catch was that over the next few years students found high marks very easy to come by in this subject. As a result, universities and colleges refused to take account of results from this subject when considering children for admissions. So, masses of students, parents and teachers labelled the subject a ‘waste of time’. Then, one of the exam Boards proudly announced that they were terribly clever people because they’d discovered a loophole in the Supreme Court judgement that meant that it didn’t need to be taught as a separate subject. it was enough if environmental matters were dealt with, within subjects such as Biology.

So, this new subject was scrapped – and everyone rejoiced.

Now, should we wonder why we read headlines about 80 deaths a day in Delhi due to pollution? Should we wonder why everyone’s scratching their heads and saying the issues of environment are too complex to solve? Here was a classic lack of systems thinking and here is the price to be paid.

Incidentally, it was the most systemically oriented subject possible. It had the scope to blend science, humanities, the arts, sociology, psychology and many other areas in order to understand the interrelationship between aspects that contribute to environmental degradation.

When I wrote to the Board in question and pleaded with them to rethink their decision they told me I was the only person to have raised an issue, everyone else was happy – now students could focus on the subjects that would get the scores to get university places.

Because, after all – that’s what education’s for – isn’t it?

Nobody needs systems thinking more than educators!

Potential Cure for Asthma

This is a big story, so a little startling to me that we haven’t seen more of it in the mainstream media – a potential solution to a nasty illness that blights the lives of millions, especially because of all the related problems that come with it as sufferers are prevented from living a fully active lifestyle.

Good News Network – Asthma Could Be Cured in 5 Years

With the way things are going with air quality, especially in major cities and developing countries, this is critical as the numbers of people with asthma, chronic bronchitis and COPD are growing all the time.

The Importance of ‘Involved Fathers’

When you decide to come out and advocate for fathers having a more active role in child-rearing, you do have to be careful that you don’t get some angry reactions. I’ve known plenty of fathers who got themselves torn between the fact that they wanted to be more active in their child’s life, conflicting and confusing messages from their own parents and even sometimes the spouse and then the challenge of workplace obligations.

I’ve certainly seen instances where mothers have suggested in no uncertain terms that their husband should ‘stick to his job’, as they want to keep the parenting simple with one set of messages and rules for the child (theirs!).

Perhaps research like that highlighted in this article will start to bring some changes, as it highlights the benefits to both the father and the child:

Huffington Post UK Article – Involved Fathers Global Study

Reading this, I was reminded of an article I wrote around 6 years ago for the magazine of my earlier school, which was reproduced here in the blog:

Dads Matter Too