I teach mindfulness from time to time to groups of senior executives at one of the UK's leading financial services organisations. These are ambitious people with big jobs. They have only a few steps left on their career paths and the organisation wants to help them make those. That's where programmes like my Art of Mindful Leadership training come in.
Usually, I'm preceded in my teaching by another trainer, a philosopher who specialises in business ethics. As part of his session, the executives each fill-in a detailed questionnaire that assesses their individual leadership style. What shocks many of these leaders is the extent to which their profiles show that at work they exhibit low levels of care. "But I'm a caring person," you hear people say. "I care for my family, for my community and friends. It's not that I don't care."
It shouldn't surprise us at all that those results show up, in fact, we should expect them. Any executive in financial services since 2007 has, until only very recently, been living through an unprecedented crisis. The hours they put in are brutal, the stakes are vertiginously high. For some, it can feel like climbing a rock face without a rope - day after day after day.
This particular organisation has pulled through the crisis and they're in good shape now, but it was never easy and their leaders have often felt forced to just get their heads down and grind through, putting in the hours, churning through their tasks.
When you work like that, you generally don't feel you have time for the people who work for you. You're getting it done, they need to get it done. That's all there is to it.
This is where mindfulness training enters the picture. We know from studies like the famous Good Samaritan Experiment that when people feel stressed and needing to rush, their inclination to care for others dramatically declines. It's just how we're wired and there's nothing to be gained from berating people about that. That just makes things worse for everyone. Instead, wise organisations help their people to deal with that sense of stress and rush. In the words of a great CEO I've worked with, they provide their people with the tools to "lead effortlessly".
That's easily said. How do you do it?
Here's one piece of the jigsaw -
A consortium of business schools and executive training organisations, including INSEAD - the prestigious Paris-based business school, was tasked by the European Commission to discover, amongst other things, the most effective ways of enabling business managers to make socially responsible decisions. The study involved a collaborative investigation of the attitudes of 300 managers across 20 multinational companies. They trialled a number of interventions with these managers and the results were astonishing.
To quote from their RESPONSE report:
The standard executive education approach based on engaged discussions and case analyses fails to facilitate managers to shift towards higher probabilities to make socially responsible decisions.
On the other hand, coaching programs based on introspection and meditation techniques, without any discussion about CSR topics, exhibit a significant impact on both the probability to act in a socially responsible way and on the factors that influence the probability to behave that way.
What the research consortium found when they drilled into the data was quite simple. When you teach people to meditate their levels of care and concern naturally go up. They taught a cohort of managers to meditate and, compared to managers in similar circumstances who were simply 'taught' that they ought to care more, the meditators levels of care and concern rose significantly. That naturally increased their inclination to make more socially responsible decisions.
When people turn their attention to their own experiencing from moment to moment for a short time each day they become more familiar with themselves. In a sense, they come home to themselves. As a result, they become kinder to themselves. More deeply sensing their own humanity, they more easily see the humanity of others and that sense of common humanity raises their levels of care and concern.
It's not rocket science. It's really simple. Leaders who train in mindfulness care more. And that's better for all of us.