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How Mindful Leaders Keep Calm Under Pressure, Inspire Better Team Performance

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Judging from your team’s expression of outrage when you made your latest impossible request, you realize you’ve just crossed a red line. While you feel badly, especially since you’ve given team members a barrage of pretty ridiculous demands lately, you really had no choice. Your manager has made it clear (again!) that failure is not an option, and that you must find a way to produce results, or the consequences may be dire. So if you have no choice, your team members have no choice.

This time, though, your mumbled apologies and promises that “this is the last time, I swear,” fall flat. You sense that your team is about to implode. If you were able to sit back for even a few moments to think critically about what you’re asking them to do and to understand the implications, you would realize that you in fact do have a choice. But thinking through your options requires a certain degree of mindfulness, which you struggle to access under this much pressure.

Joining me once again is my friend and colleague Paula Webster, founder of NowPoint, an organization providing mindfulness coaching and leadership training in a variety of settings, including schools, hospitals and businesses. After writing a previous Communique together (How Mindfulness Keeps You Present and Why it Matters), I invited Paula to collaborate on a follow-up article focusing on mindfulness for leaders.  For our purposes here, we define leaders as those who are in a position to guide and influence others, whether as a manager, business owner, project lead, educator, or peer.

How can we tell that a leader needs a little mindfulness practice?

First, when leaders are in a highly-charged emotional state, they tend to react quickly to frustration and anger by issuing directives or barking orders. They seem to have a hard time listening, and can be dismissive of others’ feelings. Compounding this problem, they lack the empathic skills in the moment to assess the effect their behavior has on others. Our reptilian brain (or amygdala, which takes charge in times of stress) operates with a negativity bias, which means that when we’re under stress, we often focus on others’ shortcomings instead of their strengths. Since leaders are responsible for inspiring, motivating, encouraging and supporting others, the inability to be calm in the face of pressure can have deleterious and lasting consequences.

So how does the leader’s dysfunctional behavior affect team members?

When a leader exhibits this kind of behavior, team members often respond in kind. After all, once the amygdala fires, as it does when our primitive brain takes over, we can’t easily access the power of reason. In other words, the leader’s behavior becomes contagious. Team members respond from a place of fear. Their perspective narrows, they can’t see other solutions, and their ability to be creative all but shuts down. They tend to feel fearful, frustrated and not especially valued. Keep in mind that some leaders may occasionally exude charisma under pressure. What’s especially unsettling for team members is that they don’t know what – or who – is coming next.

What does a mindful leader look like, from the viewpoint of team members and colleagues?

From a team member’s viewpoint, a mindful leader is someone I like to see walk into a room (or jump onto a call). No matter how stressful the situation, I feel a positive connection, even when I know s/he is about to ask me to do something difficult. This is someone who respects me, trusts me to do my best, and someone I trust implicitly, even during crazy times. This person sees me as person and pays attention to what I think, do and – most important – how I feel. This leader acknowledges when s/he’s asking a lot of me, gives me the context for the request, and works with me to find ways to get it done, without imposing an undue burden. And when I’m asked how things are going, I know this person is truly interested in me as a whole person, beyond our work together. A mindful leader remains calm under pressure, thinks clearly, and creates an environment where it’s safe to disagree, debate, offer another solution, or ask for help.

What habits or behaviors are associated with mindful leaders?

They listen intently, fully focusing on each person, tuning into their thoughts, feelings and needs, minimizing the impact of distractions, often playing back what they think they heard to make sure they got it right. They focus time and energy on fostering relationships across the team, and between themselves and each team member, ensuring that everyone on the team feels unconditionally supported and valued. They are comfortable delegating, because they have worked to cultivate mutual trust and they take real pleasure in encouraging team members’ professional growth. Mindful leaders encourage people to try new ideas, no matter how “out there” they may be, because they know that the best lesson can come from failure. They know how to ask for help and understand that acknowledging one’s own vulnerability can make it safe for others to follow suit. Bottom line:  A mindful leader tends to not be judgmental of themselves and others, and work at creating a whole system of caring within a safe, welcoming environment where collaboration and communication can thrive.

Take us into the inner thoughts of a mindful leader. What’s actually going on inside?

Let’s take Susan as an example. As global project team leader, she’s facing increasing pressure from her client to meet a ridiculously impossible deadline. Just as she’s about to IM team members with a harried and apologetic request to work late, she pauses a few moments to clear her mind: “Wait. What’s going on? I am feeling anxious and fearful that if I don’t push my team to get this done, we can’t meet this deadline. And in reality, I know we can’t. So we need to figure out what we can get done, by when. My client is usually a pretty reasonable person, so I’ll call him to discuss all viable options.”

A common mindfulness technique is “name it to tame it.” This process is like stepping out of a fast-moving parade and watching it intently from the sidelines to observe what you couldn’t see in the thick of it. By observing and acknowledging our feelings, we can get a clearer perspective about what we’re feeling and why, which creates the space to allow us to question our assumptions, let go of the negative thoughts, understand our options, and devise a plan to address the source of stress. Mindful leaders know when to pull back and pause long enough to make a rational, calm decision based on the best information we have at the time.

How should you approach a leader whose lack of mindfulness is having a detrimental effect on the team?

Obviously, this will be easier if you have a reasonably good relationship with this leader. The first step is to take care of yourself by pausing to practice your own mindfulness. Reflect on what points you want to get across and how best to convey them. Find a time when you’re both calm and can find some quiet time alone together. Starting with empathy is always a good idea: “I appreciate that you’re trying to guide us to getting from point A to point B, but something doesn’t seem to be working.” Be specific as to your observations about the behavior you’re observing, using neutral terms, and describe the effect this has had on the team. Then go on to offer a specific step that the leader can take, such as deep breathing exercises the moment pressure strikes.

Of course, you could completely skirt the issue of the leader’s behavior and jump right into suggesting some mindfulness activities for the team, but it may be a much harder sell if the leader remains unaware about how his/her lack of mindful behavior is affecting the work of the team.

So why is mindfulness so important for leaders to strive for? The focus of your attention in critical moments of choice can build your capacity to be an effective leader, according to the authors of “The Neuroscience of Strategic Leadership.” Research shows that cultivating a mindfulness practice can, over time, increase the grey matter of the pre-frontal cortical area of the brain, which is responsible for many key relational functions, including emotional reactivity and attunement to others.  In the heat of the moment, using mindfulness can help focus your attention like nothing else, help you to block out noise, tune out stress, and calmly assess your options to help you, and your team, make the best choice.

Links

Mindfulness Leadership Training and other offerings by Paula Webster at Nowpoint

How Mindfulness Keeps Your Present and Why It Matters – Communique by Nancy Settle-Murphy and Paula Webster

Mindfulness Micro-Practices tip sheet by Paula– downloadable PDF

How 60 minutes Per Week Can Yield Tremendous Returns – blog post by Mike Sturm

Future of Work: Mindfulness as a Leadership Practice by Jeanne Meister, Forbes

Manage Your Stress by Monitoring Your Body’s Reaction to It – HBR blog by Erica Ariel Fox

The Neuroscience of Strategic Leadership, Strategy + Business, Summer 2017

How to Bring Mindfulness to Your Company’s Leadership, Harvard Business Review, December 2016