How Mentally Healthy Workplaces Start with Mindful Leaders

Mindful leaders positively impact workplace culture. Here’s how you can build buy-in and roll out mindful leadership training at your organisation.

Megan Reitz, Professor of Leadership & Dialogue at Hult International Business School, UK

“Megan, how you show up affects my voice.”

I was told this by Iain Wilke, founder of 50 Million Voices, a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to transform the world of work for people who stutter—and for employers and society too. 

What a fantastic summary of leadership practice! 

How you show up as a leader affects how others around you show up. It affects how they think, feel, care, speak, and listen. That’s why mentally healthy workplaces start with mindful leaders. I recently hosted a webinar with Calm about mindful leadership and how to implement mindful manager training in organizations. Keep reading to get actionable tips you can use right away! 

 

The concept of mindful leaders

Let's start with what mindful leaders mean and how HR leaders and managers can develop this capacity. 

I’ve been engaged with these questions for many years. I use a definition widely used in academic research: mindfulness is the awareness that arises when we pay attention on purpose, in this present moment, with an attitude of care and compassion. 

When we consciously pay attention in the moment to the contents of our minds (e.g., thoughts, feelings, judgments, assumptions) and information from our environment (e.g., others’ words, expressions, and habits; the dynamics of the workplace; and the wider societal context), we understand things differently and are likely to make different, hopefully, wiser, choices than if we were on autopilot, acting out of habit, or distracted.

 

How meditation develops mindful leaders

Meditation practices develop this ability to wake up and pay attention in the moment because they train our minds to do three things, which I refer to as AIM:

  1. Allowing – the ability to accept that what is the case, is the case, with compassion. There is little point in wishing things were different or blaming ourselves or others. 
  2. Inquiry – the ability to be curious, to ask questions with genuine interest about what is happening in ourselves and our environment.
  3. Meta-awareness – the ability to observe what is happening as it is happening. For example, spotting a thought or emotion as it arises—and, rather than getting caught up in it, seeing it as a thought or emotion rather than “truth.”

When you as a mindful leader use AIM, you give yourself the ability to self-regulate your leadership practice and its impact on others. In other words, you open up a space where you are able to choose a response to the situation rather than react out of habit.

Essentially, this space helps leaders regulate emotions, empathise with others, consciously choose to pay attention to what’s important, adapt behaviours, and see alternative perspectives. According to my research, this results in a type of leader who is more likely to be more resilient, collaborative, and focused in complex, uncertain contexts—three skills fundamental to good leadership right now.

 

Ask leaders to dedicate just 10 minutes a day to mental well-being

When I work with leaders to develop their mindfulness skills, one of the first questions they ask me is “This all sounds great, Megan, but I’m extremely busy, so what’s the least amount of practice I have to do?”

The irony is not lost on me, but I have studied this question! In my research, I found that leaders who, on average, practiced daily for ten minutes or more experience statistically significant improvements in their resilience and overall levels of mindfulness. 

That is less than 1% of waking hours.

A few decades ago, we realised that sending our bodies to the gym regularly was a very sensible thing to do for our physical fitness. We now seriously need to realise that our minds need training for the sake of our mental well-being—and that just a little goes a long way.

However, even though ten minutes is a mere fraction of our day, bringing mindfulness training to leaders can be tricky. They are busy and focused on more tangible issues that they will be measured on imminently, and they often associate mindfulness with something that belongs more in the yoga studio than the workplace.

 

3 tips to get started on developing mindful managers at your organisation

Getting your leaders on board with this new approach can be daunting at first. Here are three ways to start the conversation and sell what’s in it for them.

  1. Use the language of strategic goals. When I work with leaders, I rarely start talking about mindfulness until we’ve spoken about what they care about and what good leadership looks like. Typically, leaders will want to be more resilient, collaborative, and focused—once that is identified, I can link to mindfulness—and they will listen.
  2. Use evidence and acknowledge what we do know and what we don’t. There are no silver bullets in leadership training. Suggesting mindfulness practice as a silver bullet is not only naïve but also switches leaders off immediately.
  3. Use credible trainers. Rather than bolstering leaders’ stereotypes of mindfulness, give them access to trainers who speak their language and know the reality of the workplace and whose credentials they recognise.

 

Culture eats mindfulness for breakfast

Mentally healthy workplaces rely on mindful leaders. To borrow and then alter Peter Drucker’s famous phrase relating to strategy, “culture eats mindfulness for breakfast.” In other words, a toxic culture undermines employees’ well-being attempts. Given that leaders are instrumental in setting the rules of the game in an organisation, the more they can make thoughtful, wise, and compassionate choices, the more our workplaces can be places where we can flourish. 


Find out how our Calm Workshops offering can help you establish custom mindful manager training programs for your organization, connect with our specialists today

 

Megan Reitz is professor of leadership and dialogue at Hult International Business School in the UK, where she speaks, researches, and consults on the intersection of leadership, change, dialogue, and mindfulness. She led the world’s first control trial of the eight-week Mindful Leader program at Ashridge Hult. She has presented her research to audiences throughout the world and is the author of Dialogue in Organisations, Mind Time and Speak Up. Her passion centres on how we meet, see, hear, speak, learn with, and encounter one another in organisational systems. Her research and publications, featured in Harvard Business Review and Forbes magazine and on the BBC and Deutsche Welle, explore the links between mindfulness and leadership capacities for the 21st century.

 

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