Lead for a Mindful Organization



Lead for a Mindful Organization

Nathan Boaz, senior managing director of leadership development and talent strategy at Accenture, and his team have a vision of eliminating what is known as “attention deficit trait” in the firm. They want to create a focused culture. He says, “We know that the single biggest impact on our people’s well-being and performance is how their direct manager is operating. And if I see my supervisor take a break and go practice mindfulness for ten minutes, and I see her putting her phone down and giving me her full attention and deeply listening and really engaged with me, that’s so powerful. And that’s going to leave an impression on me that says, ‘Wow! That’s what is expected here!’”

The starting point for creating a people-centered organization is presence. When we are fully present with other human beings, we have the greatest potential to work more effectively together, to respectfully challenge one another, to learn from one another, and to leverage greater collective potential. Presence is the foundation of a mindful organization. When people are collectively calm, focused, and clear minded, then the organization is more effective, connected, and higher performing.

For Nate, this logic is compelling: “Every time I look at what’s blocking people from doing what they love to do, focusing on the most important things in their lives—spending more time with their family, loved ones, friends, or doing energizing work—it’s usually something in the mind. It’s counterintuitive, but when we get people to calm down, slow down, and declutter, they become more innovative, productive, and fulfilled. And it all starts with being focused—individually and collectively.”

Leading for a mindful organization can be challenging. We have worked with many leaders who have found such benefit for themselves in practicing mindfulness that they would like to introduce it into their organization. But just introducing a mindfulness program does not create a mindful organization. Creating a truly mindful organization requires not only rewiring individual minds but also reprograming how people collectively think, work, and behave. This takes time and conscious effort.

A mindful organization is one where mindfulness is embedded in the culture, where it becomes part of the DNA. In a mindful culture, work is organized in a way that is conducive to being present with one another, being focused on the task at hand, and having awareness of self and others. Presence, focus, and awareness are generally seen as skills for individuals, but they are just as relevant for a culture. And developing a culture with these qualities embedded in it enhances connectedness, commitment, and performance. The mindfulness matrix introduced in chapter 1 can be used to describe the mindfulness level of an organizational culture. Reflecting back on the matrix, where would you say your organization is in terms of collective focus and awareness?

This chapter specifically looks at mindfulness in an organizational context and how organizational mindfulness can be enabled. But first let’s explore some examples of organizations that have integrated mindfulness into their culture to achieve strategic objectives.

Performance, Creativity, Change

We would love to be able to point at one specific organization and say that it’s a truly mindful organization. But that would be wishful thinking. In our work with hundreds of organizations, many have been mindful in some ways, but in other ways, not so much. Just as mindfulness is a practice for individuals, so too is it for organizations. It’s an ongoing practice that takes training, time, and a level of commitment. In addition, mindfulness does not make all problems and challenges go away; instead it changes how we approach those problems and challenges. Some organizations do stand out by having developed mindfulness in distinct aspects of their culture. Three good examples are Accenture’s mindful performance culture, Ogilvy’s mindful creativity culture, and Citrix’s mindful change culture.

Accenture is a hyperkinetic, hypercompetitive organization of more than 425,000 people serving clients 24/7. It’s an always-on, high-pressure, high-impact consultancy environment where attention is constantly under siege. Attention to detail, attention to the client, and attention on the task determines the success of consultants and staff. But with people’s overall attention skills decreasing, leaders at Accenture realized that their performance culture was under threat. As a result, they started offering mindfulness training programs to teams and individuals to create a more mindful performance culture. How well did these programs work? Accenture evaluated results from their offices across twenty countries in Europe and the Americas and found a 30 percent increase in focus, a 25 percent increase in prioritization skills, a 34 percent increase in mental clarity, and a 23 percent decrease in multitasking behaviors. All in all, these results indicate a significant increase in the mindful qualities and mental effectiveness necessary to deal with distractions and serve clients with increased focus.

Ogilvy, the global advertising agency, faces the eternal catch-22 of creative industries: needing to be creative on demand. To succeed, people must learn to be creative not just when inspiration strikes but on a regimented schedule marked by deadlines. They’re also required to be creative in the midst of a constant stream of distractions and competing priorities. One national Ogilvy CEO wondered how his division could maintain its edge, bolster its creative culture, and continue to offer out-of-the-box solutions to clients. He had already implemented all the technological tools that he could find to reduce distractions and enhance creativity. To find a more impactful, long-term solution, the CEO and his leadership team decided they needed to look inward instead of outward. The entire division took part in a four-month mindfulness training program to revamp their working habits, create new collaboration guidelines, and establish daily group practices of mindfulness. With mindfulness, they were able to reduce mental clutter and distractions. The training also helped them achieve collective alignment on how to support everyone’s creative processes. This meant respecting others’ need for solitude, understanding how to give feedback, and knowing when it’s appropriate to interrupt someone. This helped them significantly enhance creativity throughout their day.

To enhance its service offerings to customers, Citrix, a multinational software company, acquired a very successful startup with a culture of entrepreneurship and risk taking. As soon as the deal was done and the honeymoon period was over, the usual problems with acquisitions kicked in. The formerly autonomous startup suddenly belonged to a large multinational business with its own policies and distinct culture. It was a culture clash. Many people resisted, revolted, and, in some cases, secretly worked against the interests of Citrix. Chris Prince, the head of learning and development for Citrix, understood the underlying problem: it stemmed less from resistance to Citrix than from basic human resistance to change. He understood that it was natural for people to resist being forced to do things in new ways. As a solution, Chris introduced mindfulness training across the entire organization, which helped people acknowledge and face their resistance. They were then able to deal with it where it resided: in their minds. As a result, a strong culture of mindful change was developed throughout the organization. This enabled Citrix to successfully manage through the acquisition with greater efficiency, less angst, and less resistance.

As these three examples demonstrate, mindfulness is not just a quality in itself. It can be a strategic vehicle to enable a targeted creation of desired cultural attributes. Whether the goal is to improve performance, increase creativity, enable change, or any other organization-wide enhancement, mindfulness offers a foundation for change and a conduit for sustainable improvement. At its root, an organizational culture is made up of the minds that create it, embrace it, and implement it. Mindfulness is a type of training that allows us to reshape and rewire our minds. When we collectively rewire our minds to change how we work, we transform our culture. It’s that simple.

In our experience, in addition to offering mindfulness training programs, three keys to creating a more mindful culture are enabling greater organizational focus, managing organizational distractions, and embedding mindfulness in daily work activities.

Enable Organizational Focus

Through working with organizations in various industries all over the world, we’ve found four consistent challenges to maintaining focus for both leaders and employees. Leaders and employees are under pressure, always on, information overloaded, and working in distracted environments. We call it the “PAID” reality. The problem with the PAID reality is that it’s a multipronged attack on our attention. It makes us multitask and turns us into action addicts. Multitasking and action addiction, as explained in chapter 3, destroy our focus and ruin our prioritization skills. Instead of focusing on the big issues, the high-value actions that drive performance, we keep ourselves occupied and become overwhelmed with busywork—small, easily accomplished tasks.

When this is a widespread characteristic of an organization, the organization as a whole lacks focus. Many distracted minds equals a distracted culture. Having a clearly defined mission statement or an explicit strategy is not enough to counter this problem. It can only be accomplished by training and rewiring the brains of individuals in the organization in a way that increases attention and reduces the appeal of distractions.

Some years ago, the Carlsberg Group undertook a series of significant reorganizations and layoffs. Leaders and employees alike were left with new responsibilities, ongoing changes, and a strong feeling of uncertainty. Understandably, this generated significant levels of distraction within the organization. Then CIO Kenneth Egelund Schmidt observed how individuals, teams, and the organization failed to focus on the long-term plan. “Groups of people were working in different directions and reacting to every bit of news that came their way,” he lamented. “Entire teams would get caught up in low-priority projects for days before realizing that they were on the wrong path.” As a result of this turmoil, people at Carlsberg became severely stressed, which only made them more reactive. Collaboration faltered. Distraction became more widespread. Performance suffered—all part of a downward cultural spiral.

Kenneth decided it was time to act. He believed that he needed to reinstate a collective focus and enhance well-being. For a year we worked with him and his teams to first develop their individual skills in mindfulness and then to create more focused and mindful collective work habits. Assisting Carlsberg for a year helped us gain greater insight into the anatomy of organizational focus and prioritization. Individual focus and prioritization is about doing the right things rather than trying to do everything. Similarly, organizational focus is a collective focus on doing the right things rather than doing lots of things. In this sense, it’s a high degree of shared focus and awareness toward realizing well-defined goals and objectives. In a mindful organization, leaders and employees have greater clarity on collective priorities and, therefore, greater organizational focus.

Organizational focus allows individuals and teams to make better decisions about what to do—and often more important, what not to do. It facilitates constructive conversations among colleagues when priorities conflict, providing clarity and reaching consensus based on the overarching goals and objectives of the organization.

As a leader, your role in securing organizational focus is to continually help your people have clarity. What are the right tasks to do at the right time? Do these tasks serve the larger objectives of the organization? Depending on employees’ level in the organization, their function, and job requirements, this clarification may need to happen once a month, once a week, or even daily. It must be done not only at the individual level but also for all teams across all functions.

Based on our years of experience helping organizations develop stronger organizational focus, here are a few practical tips that you as a leader can implement in your organization.

Cultivate Mindful Meetings

Meetings are low-hanging fruit in a journey toward creating a more mindful culture. According to a survey reported in Industry Week, two thousand managers claimed that at least 30 percent of their time spent in meetings was wasted. And similarly, according to a 3M Meeting Network survey of executives, 25 to an alarming 50 percent of meeting time was viewed as wasteful.

Meetings in most organizations tend to be unfocused for a number of reasons. First, with back-to-back meeting schedules, the beginning minutes are generally wasted, because people are late or mentally lingering on the meeting they just left. Second, many meetings lack collective focus because it is culturally accepted to bring and use phones and laptops in meetings, creating distractions. Third, if people have too much going on and are overwhelmed by busyness, they will have a difficult time being fully present, especially if the meeting objectives and agenda are not crystal clear.

After we worked with Carlsberg’s people to bring more organizational focus to their culture, they were able to decrease their average meeting time by 30 percent. What was most interesting about this result is that reducing meeting time was not a core objective of the initiative. The reduction in meeting time happened naturally as people became more focused and less distracted. They were simply able to get more done in a shorter amount of time. Here are some simple guidelines for creating more mindful meetings.

At the beginning of each meeting, invite everyone to join in one minute of silence before getting started. Although for some people a moment of silence can seem strange, in our experience, it can become quickly adopted as people appreciate the benefits of having a moment to settle in. This simple one minute can be key to helping everyone mentally arrive—versus just being there physically—in the meeting with a little more focus and presence.

During the meeting, have a collective agreement that phones and laptops are off or put away unless specifically required. If even one person is busy writing emails, texting, or reading the news during a meeting, it has a negative impact on the collective focus. It is also important that meeting objectives are clear and that someone is leading the meeting and ensuring everyone sticks to the agenda. This helps everyone stay more on task and engaged.

Toward the end of the meeting, establish a collective discipline of ending five minutes before the scheduled end time—often at the top or the bottom of the hour. These five minutes enable everyone to have time to transition mindfully to their next meeting.

Promote Physical Movement

Although a well-trained mind can maintain focus for extensive periods of time without moving, most of us benefit from some form of physical activity during the day. Movement brings better blood circulation and thereby more oxygen and energy to the brain. Getting up, getting out, or getting moving can also provide a new perspective on work, enabling enhanced creativity.

Many organizations we work with have invested in resources to support people in being active at work. Perhaps not surprisingly, Nike is a leader in this area. The company has world-class sports facilities integrated into its major campuses. Meetings at Nike can take place on a basketball court, running track, or in the gym. And although many companies have fitness facilities, the difference at Nike is that it’s a job requirement. Everyone is expected to take at least half an hour a day for exercise.

Although Nike is an outlier in its commitment, some organizations we work with are investing in other creative ways to support physical movement. A global pharmaceutical company we work with has meeting rooms where tables and chairs are replaced by treadmills, so people can walk while meeting. And for long days at the desk, employees can pick a chair with pedals, so they can cycle while working. The company has also developed extensive walking paths around the campus and encourages people to have walking meetings. In our experience, encouraging more physical activity is a simple and easy way to bring more energy and focus to an organizational culture.

Offer Healthy Food and Drinks

Most modern offices today offer snacks and drinks as comfort food for employees during the day. This is great, but many of the snacks and drinks served are not conducive to enhancing mental performance.

Take sugar. While it may instill an immediate energy boost when first consumed, research has found that after the initial boost, it causes a dive in energy and focus. And even worse, that dive leads to a craving for more sugar. The result, for many people, is an ongoing abuse of sugar throughout the day.

Coffee is another good example of a misunderstood performance substance. As described in chapter 3, coffee may be experienced as a focus-enhancing drink, but what it really does is scatter our focus. However, we don’t notice, because the caffeine suppresses our tiredness and makes us feel more focused and energized. Offering snacks and drinks is great to enhance a more welcoming and collaborative office culture, but surrounding people with items that detract from focus may not be the best approach.

Forward-thinking organizations are now employing nutritionists as part of their employee wellness initiatives. In addition to offering courses on healthy eating, these experts are often engaged in influencing what food should be offered in the corporate cafeteria, which snacks are the healthy choices for effective working, and how food and beverages should be managed in corporate training programs. This can be as simple as ensuring there are more fruits, vegetables, and nuts freely available to employees and encouraging people to reduce their consumption of sugar, caffeine, and alcohol.

Encourage Boundary Setting

Organizational focus and prioritization is an art in today’s PAID reality. There’s always more to do, an email to answer, a meeting to attend, a report to prepare, or client to contact. Having the ability and mandate to hit the pause button and say no to an incoming task—being able to separate the critical tasks from the busywork—has become a precious skill.

Creating a culture where setting boundaries and saying no is not seen as a weakness but as a strength, and where leadership publicly praises employees for pushing back, is becoming increasingly important. Without it, focus, prioritization, and well-being will suffer.

Making this shift is not as hard as it may seem. We have seen teams and organizations shift from being hopelessly distracted to being collectively focused within months through the creation of a more mindful culture. An important part of this transformation is managing organizational distractions by minimizing digital and environmental disruptions.

Manage Organizational Distractions

To create a more mindful organizational culture, it is critical to minimize unnecessary distractions. In our experience, there are some relatively simple things that can be done to reduce organizational “noise” and create a more mindful culture. The easiest places to start are technology and office layout.

Minimize Digital Distractions

The first quick wins can be found in simple changes in technology. We live and work in environments that are filled with digital distractions. Even when we have clear goals and priorities, it can be difficult to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the onslaught of emails, text messages, and updates that beep, buzz, ding, or otherwise call out for our attention. In chapter 3, we explored how important it is for leaders to create personal time to focus and manage their own digital distractions. For the same reasons examined in chapter 3, it’s equally important for leaders to help set digital boundaries in their organizations.

France has recently introduced a “Right to Disconnect” law that forces employers to create systems that disable email during days off, weekends, and vacations. Although this may sound extreme, it is an acknowledgment of how the boundaries between work and home have become tenuous. Too many people spend too much time tethered to work. Although for some organizations this may sound good, it’s not. Research has shown that expectations of being available to answer emails after work hours—regardless of actual time spent on emails—increases emotional exhaustion and negatively impacts well-being and job performance.3 In other words, even when we aren’t using our technology, the fact that we might need to at any moment creates stress. A continuous level of stress, even low levels, over time can negatively impact our health.

But organizations shouldn’t create more mental space in a digital age just for health reasons—it’s also good for business. In 2011, Atos Origin, an international IT services company with more than seventy thousand employees, made it an organizational goal to decrease email. CEO Thierry Breton surveyed employees and found that too many people were spending too much time sending and receiving email—so much so, that they were feeling overwhelmed by this one technological tool. Breton noted, “We’re producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives.” Atos Origin, of course, is not alone in this problem. A 2012 report by McKinsey Global Institute found that on average, employees spend 28 percent of their time on email—and that number is increasing every year.

For Breton, the answer was a more sophisticated use of collaboration tools that allowed employees to choose when to participate in discussions and when to have uninterrupted time. This was the same solution offered in the 2012 report by McKinsey Global Institute. The authors of the report estimated that by using collaboration and social interaction technologies—such as Google Docs, Basecamp, Teamwork Projects, and Trello—companies could raise the productivity of knowledge workers by 20 to 25 percent. As a case in point, an independent assessment of Atos Origin in 2013 showed that overall email use had been cut by 60 percent, reducing average email messages per week from one hundred per employee to fewer than forty per employee. In the same year, the company’s operating margin increased from 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent, earnings per share rose by more than 50 percent, and administrative costs declined from 13 percent to 10 percent. As David Burkus, author of Under New Management, pointed out, although not all these improvements are directly correlated to reducing email, these are still pretty compelling results.

Leveraging collaborative tools and reducing email are only a couple of options for increasing focus in our world of numerous digital distractions. To cultivate a more mindful culture, we believe it’s important to consider all major sources of “mental pollution.” A strategy doesn’t need to be as radical as eliminating email. There are many simple first steps, such as ensuring people “turn off” when they “take off.” This type of policy allows employees to enjoy evenings, weekends, and vacations without being tethered to the office. In addition, organizations can consider other simple policies, like turning off all email notifications, so that people aren’t distracted by incoming messages. And many companies we work with have policies for turning off devices—or at least putting them on silent—during meetings so that people can make better use of their time.

Take a moment to consider the digital communication culture in your organization. Are there boundaries or policies in place so employees can “unplug”? Are email and other forms of digital communication polluting your work environment? If so, take a moment to consider steps you can take to help your organization create more mental space in this digital age.

Revise Office Layouts

Our environment shapes our minds and thereby our cultures. And let’s be clear. Today’s open office layouts are not great for focus. Open offices reduce office costs and can be beneficial for enabling communication and creativity, but the level of distractions they bring can be detrimental to people’s ability to focus and be effective.

Open office spaces will not go away. And they don’t have to. If you help shape a culture that respects and enables focus in the open offices, you can get much benefit from it.

The main challenge of open offices is that there is nowhere to go for doing deep focus work. That can be remedied by creating small rooms and areas that support such focused work. Google does a great job in this respect. Among their vast areas of open offices, you’ll find countless small, soundproof rooms for having focused conversations or for just sitting and working in quiet. Some rooms have built in white-noise machines, others music systems, so people can tailor their environment to support their focus. Some rooms are built for movement, others for sitting at a desk, and yet others for brainstorming on large whiteboard walls.

In the same way that noise distracts our focus, so can physical clutter. Our mind is like a sponge, absorbing everything it encounters. Clutter in our environment becomes clutter in our mind. Incorporate this fact into how you decorate your offices and how you instill a culture of clean, uncluttered, minimal distraction work spaces.

In today’s work realities, thinking about the mental effectiveness of work environments is not just about the office but the home as well. Ina 2017 Gallup poll, 43 percent of employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely. Working from home has and will likely continue to be a growing workplace trend, as it can have many benefits. Not only can organizations save costs on office space and offer more flexible work conditions, but the practice can help people be more focused so long as they are properly set up.

Without a good home work environment, working from home has its perils. When you work from home, your home life can interfere with your focus, because your private-life sphere surrounds you when you are at work. In our experience, organizations that invest in helping employees create good home work environments realize the most benefit. Cisco stands out as a company that provides consultation to all employees in how to set up their home office optimally.

Make Work Activities Mindful

In developing a mindful organizational culture, it’s useful to examine policies and collective work rules. As part of the training programs we deliver to our clients, we support the development of new guidelines around email, meetings, and many other work activities.

These simple guidelines are powerful in getting everyone centered and focused on working toward shared objectives. In our book One Second Ahead: Enhance Your Performance at Work with Mindfulness, we provide strategies for introducing more mindful behaviors to a broad range of daily work life, including email, meetings, scheduling, and even commuting.8 Here are a few examples of strategies that have been implemented successfully by hundreds of organizations.

Three-by-Two Morning Prioritization

Action addiction is a very real thing for most of us, and having many action-addicted people creates an action-addicted culture, where everybody may run fast but in fact produce very little. A simple exercise in the morning, and repeated throughout the day, can enable strong prioritization and focus.

As you get to your work space in the morning, dedicate six minutes to set yourself up for a focused day. Take two minutes to practice mindfulness and simply sit and let your mind settle into focus, calm, and clarity. Then for two minutes, consider and write down the most important priorities for your day. Finally, take two minutes to plot those priority activities into your calendar.

These three short steps enable you to schedule your priorities rather than prioritize your schedule, and they can be repeated during the day as needed. If you as a leader do this and train your people to do the same, you will tackle collective action addiction and enable stronger team focus.

No Emails First Thing in the Morning

Action addiction also shows up in our way of managing emails. Most of us check email first thing in the morning. But if we have had a good night’s sleep, the morning is when we have the most creative and expansive mind. When we check our emails first thing, our creative and expansive mind is replaced by all the details and issues from yesterday’s unread messages. This just adds a lot of clutter to our mind, limiting our potential for bigger thoughts.

Rather than checking emails in the morning, spend the first hour or two on more important work, like strategic planning, important conversations, or reflection. And as a leader, work on instilling a culture where being on top of morning emails is not a badge of honor but a creative liability.

Be Curious

Your curiosity is important in support of a more mindful culture. Many work processes and tools become habitual; we fail to see when they become outdated and need replacement. We see what is there rather than questioning what could be. Be curious about the underlying causes of distraction in your organization. Question why things are done the way they are. Could they be done better or more efficiently? Question your meeting and email guidelines. Question your inter-organization communication. Question the way town halls are conducted. These are all areas in most organizations that could be improved, as well as being initial pathways for creating a more mindful organization.

Creating an organizational culture where people are more focused, less distracted, and work more mindfully will bring an organization well on the path of higher engagement, satisfaction, and performance. Also, it is the foundation for developing a more selfless culture, which will be described in chapter 12.

Quick Tips and Reflections

  1.  Reflect on the potential benefits of a more mindful organizational culture; what business challenges or opportunities could it help address?
  2.  Write down three things that would be visible and valuable indicators of more mindfulness in your organizational culture.
  3.  Commit to one thing you will do to move your culture toward becoming more mindful and enhancing organizational focus and awareness.
  4.  Consider policies and procedures you could introduce to integrate mindfulness into how work is performed.
  5.  Reflect on what mindfulness means for you and your leadership; create your “mindfulness story,” and use your own experience to inspire and influence others.





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