Tag Archives: mindfulness

Leader Empathy: The Key to Effective Relationships

 

In my article on Positive Outlook, I quoted a senior manager at a large US hospital network who described how mindfulness helped her minimize negative reactions to workplace experiences. This included an ability to remind herself that she was often not fully aware of the needs and motivations of others, and therefore should not rush to judge their intentions. Like the other 41 leaders I interviewed, her in-depth discussion of this topic showed an improved capacity for the Emotional and Social Intelligence (ESI) Competency of Empathy.

Empathy is one of the Social Awareness competencies in the twelve-competency Leadership Competency Model developed by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis. Empirically linked to leadership performance, Empathy is present in leaders with an understanding of the motivations of others, and the ability to relate to differing perspectives.

Strength in this competency is also demonstrated by leaders who:

  • Listen attentively
  • Are able to understand unspoken or confused attempts at communication
  • Engage in actions indicating a sincere interest in others
  • Have an increased capacity to respect diversity

There are three types of empathy, each playing a role in building stronger relationships with others. The first is cognitive empathy, which refers to an intellectual awareness of the feelings, opinions and thoughts of others. Emotional empathy is the second, described as an ability to share the same emotional experience as another person. The third type is compassionate empathy, exemplified when we make efforts to help based on our understanding of the needs and feelings of others. The way we apply the three types of empathy also requires balance.

Specifically, being able to help those we empathize with sometimes requires emotional detachment. However, if this becomes a habit, it puts us at risk of becoming indifferent.

How Empathy Integrates with Workplace Activity

The leaders I interviewed described a strong relationship between their development of greater empathy, and significant improvements in the quality of their relationships. These improvements contributed to a variety of successes, largely due to the importance of having support in the workplace. The leaders credited Mindfulness with assisting in these improvements, specifically for the role it plays in directing attention to self-awareness. It was through this awareness that participants began to free themselves from unfounded beliefs about others, and improve their ability to relate to coworkers.

A senior leader at a family-owned global Industrial Manufacturing firm elaborated on the positive effect that being more empathic had on his leadership effectiveness. He reported becoming better able to recognize both the triggers and early signs of stress, anxiety, and conflict in his employees. This empathic awareness helped him to minimize these issues, and identify opportunities to help others calm themselves and focus. He said, “If you have a mindset where you really honestly care about other people, what they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, you will be much more attuned to that… feel the tension that somebody has maybe a little bit more. Just being a little bit more perceptive.”

Another leader, who has held senior and executive roles at one of the largest organizations in the world, emphasized the importance of having a better understanding of the needs of others. That leader said, “You can understand through empathy what is the other person’s concern and you can influence by helping. You know, in business you are supposed to create win-win scenarios… If you are able to focus your mind, and you are able to understand the needs and business requirements of the other person, you can create opportunities for them.”

Leaders also credited empathy with helping them engage in more collaborative behaviors. For example, they were more able to minimize the interference of judgment and bias, thereby improving the quality of their interactions. This openness was also linked to an improved ability to understand the true intentions behind the communication efforts of others.

How Can You Develop Greater Empathy?

Improving your ability to empathize with others helps you become aware of the mental and emotional resources that are wasted by thoughts, beliefs, and feelings that have no factual basis. Such awareness can be the starting point for reducing unproductive reactions in the future that lead to conflict or missed opportunities for collaboration. It can also prompt you to obtain accurate information directly from people, and invest in developing better interpersonal relationships.

You can strengthen your capacity for all three types of empathy by asking yourself a simple set of questions:

  1. How do you think a certain person feels about a specific event or topic?
  2. How would you feel if you were in their position?
  3. What facts do you have upon which to base your answers to 1 and 2?
  4. What is your plan to obtain accurate information from that person?
  5. How can you avoid coming to such conclusions in the future?

Regularly asking questions about the thoughts, feelings, and needs of others is a great way to build strong relationships and demonstrate empathy. The leaders I interviewed commented on the value that arises from engaging in this simple activity, for example: “My experience is the first thing that people really want is to be heard.” When developing empathy, keep in mind that insincerity will have a harmful effect on relationships. A number of leaders told me that they failed at half-hearted attempts to display empathy, and others stated that their coworkers could sense their level of sincerity. For these reasons, consistent empathic behavior is important, as is following up on commitments that arise from related conversations.

Recommended reading:

Our new primer series is written by Daniel Goleman and fellow thought leaders in the field of Emotional Intelligence and research. See our latest release: Empathy: A Primer for more insights on how this applies in leadership.

Additional primers so far include:

For personal interviews, see the Crucial Competence video series!

positive outlook emotional intelligence

How a Positive Outlook Helps Mindful Leaders Thrive

 

In my previous article on Achievement Orientation I touched on the way mindfulness training helps to cultivate positive emotions, and increase the ability to focus. The 42 leaders that participated in my study provided many examples of this process helping them reach significant goals, as well as repeatedly overcoming extremely challenging situations during their careers. One critical element of these successes is the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency of Positive Outlook, which I explore in greater detail in this article.

Based on my research, there is a relationship between mindfulness and positivity, which influences leadership effectiveness via development of specific emotional intelligence competencies.

How Does Positive Outlook fit into Emotional Intelligence?

Positive Outlook is one of the competencies included in the Leadership Competency Model developed by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis. It falls under the domain of Emotional Self-Management, and is present in leaders with a stronger tendency to see the positive aspects of situations and people. A leader is identified as possessing the Positive Outlook Competency if they have:

  • A dominant belief that the future holds better potential outcomes
  • A tendency to focus on positive aspects of difficult circumstances
  • An inclination towards positive perceptions of others

Positive outlook, along with each of the other eleven competencies, has been empirically linked to increased leadership performance through more than 62,000 assessments conducted at a variety of global organizations.

Positive Outlook in the Workplace

The leaders I interviewed made a point of emphasizing the overarching value that a positive outlook provided for their career success. These observations occurred during in-depth descriptions of how mindfulness helped them recognize the influence their reactions and beliefs have on the way they approach situations and view others. These realizations were also reported as having a profound effect on leaders by bringing their attention to how much control they actually had over the quality of their daily experiences.

How Does Positive Outlook Contribute to Leader Effectiveness?

The development of positive outlook contributes to a number of critical leadership capabilities. Examples include a solution-oriented approach to interpersonal conflict, and consciously choosing to focus on strategies for success during periods of great adversity. This development was attributed by leaders to the way mindfulness enables honest analysis of how they could have handled past challenges more effectively. Leaders described incorporating this knowledge into real-time emotional self-management activity, which helped them stop behaviors that detracted from others’ willingness to support their objectives.

Many leaders described life-altering realizations about the power of positive outlook influencing dramatic changes early in their careers. This is exemplified by a CIO, who led departments for a major US city and University, when describing how he chose to view a potentially catastrophic situation earlier in his career: “The company actually went bankrupt, but it was a great way to get out of a situation, which actually propelled my career in a big way.”

Leaders also provided many examples of mindfulness contributing to an awareness of how they could develop a more positive outlook concerning their feelings about, and interactions with, others in the workplace. This realization is summarized by a senior manager at a large US hospital network, who stated: “I understand that the people there are often making the best decisions they know how to make, doing the best they can.”

How Can You Begin to Develop Positive Outlook?

As discussed in my article on Emotional Self-Awareness, mindfulness contributes to a heightened level of both emotional self-awareness and meta awareness (conscious awareness of what you are aware of). This helps you identify the relationship between events and your mood or attitude about them, and gain a better understanding of how you tend to view experiences. With this knowledge you can begin to identify whether or not your approach to situations or interpersonal relationships is more negative – and therefore less productive – than it could be.

Incorporating this personal insight, you can begin to increase your capacity for positive outlook by investing time in the following activities:

  • Reflect on your attitude and expectations relating to past events and interactions
  • Observe your emotional and physiological reactions to anticipated events
  • Refine your ability to observe your emotional states and reactions in real-time
  • Learn to identify the way your beliefs subconsciously influence experiences

These are some of the skills developed or enhanced by mindfulness training.

The information you obtain from these activities will play a crucial role in helping you identify opportunities for improving positive outlook. These results can materialize in a number of ways, including through greater Emotional Self-Control, and/or understanding the value of activities that leverage your new level of self-awareness.

For example, leaders reported setting aside time to focus on planning when they are in a positive mental state. They also described reserving time before important meetings to think through the best way to communicate critical details, and strategies to proactively resolve potential conflicts. Finally, leaders also described assuming a success-oriented approach to engaging in difficult conversations and activities once they began to view them as challenges instead of obstacles.

Give it a try, keep track of your results, and then continue to build upon them over time.

Recommended Reading:

Our new primer series is written by Daniel Goleman and fellow thought leaders in the field of Emotional Intelligence and research. The following are available now:

Emotional Self-Awareness, Emotional Self-Control, Adaptability,  Achievement Orientation, and Positive Outlook.

For more in-depth insights, see the Crucial Competence video series.

The Relationship Between Leader Mindfulness, Focus, and Results

 

In last month’s article on Adaptability I quoted an executive leader who credited mindfulness for contributing to her ability to respond to a significant and unanticipated problem when assuming a leadership role with a new company. She also shared details about mindfulness helping her time and again to excel when she was leading large-scale global manufacturing and supply chain operations. The other 41 leaders I interviewed also provided similar examples of how mindfulness was an invaluable tool on their path to professional success.

One particular result of mindfulness training that emerged from my research is the Emotional and Social Intelligence Competency of Achievement Orientation.

What is Achievement Orientation?

Achievement Orientation is one of the competencies included in the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency model developed by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis. It falls under the domain of Emotional Self-Management and refers to an individual being able to set measurable self-improvement goals. A leader with strong Achievement Orientation will be:

  • Open to new challenges
  • Have a greater ability to anticipate obstacles
  • Willing to be held accountable for their actions

This competency, as is the case with the other 11 competencies, has been empirically linked to increased overall leadership performance.

What Does Achievement Orientation Look Like in the Workplace?

The manifestation of this competency is well illustrated by the following quote from a leader who has held general counsel positions for two well-known corporations: “I did all of my undergraduate work at night, while I was working full-time… I also got my law degree at night.” In other words, the results of Achievement Orientation look a lot like what most people also attribute to determination and focus. Other leaders shared similar examples, revealing the development of a strong ability to focus on completion of complex and large-scale goals.

Understanding the relationship between mindfulness and the development of Achievement Orientation was significant to my research, since I specifically investigated examples of positive workplace leadership outcomes. All of the leaders I interviewed provided in-depth descriptions illustrating this relationship, and reported the influence of mindfulness as having been significant. In these conversations, leaders described a process where mindfulness-enhanced development of the competencies of Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control, which in turn contributed to Adaptability and Achievement Orientation.

In some cases these positive developments occurred in response to successful careers that plateaued, or periods of declining effectiveness that leaders struggled to understand. In many examples, however, leaders described these developments occurring as a part of years of personal activity aimed at finding ways to specifically improve goal-oriented performance.

How Does Achievement Orientation Impact Leadership Effectiveness?

Examples of this activity included developing the ability to monitor in real-time whether or not thoughts and actions were directly contributing to goals. Leaders also described setting aside time to reflect on how their beliefs and biases may interfere with reaching their goals, as well as an honest assessment of their past behaviors in the same context.

Leader reports indicating the presence of Achievement Orientation often accompanied detailed descriptions of career advancement, development of new leadership capabilities, and workplace success. These examples also revealed a pattern of personally-driven, professional development activity spanning their career: “it’s been on an upward track for me…I grew every single year…won some awards,” and “I am constantly challenging myself to find new ways to culturally have a very positive impact.” In many cases, leaders also mentioned that they had invested more personal resources into this level of development than their employers did on their behalf.

In the context of ongoing development, Achievement Orientation helps leaders:

  • Focus on identifying ways to do things better
  • Learn how to initiate actions to improve personal performance
  • Cultivate new strategies for obtaining information
  • Become more successful in taking advantage of opportunities

How Can You Begin to Develop Achievement Orientation?

It may be helpful to view the concept of Achievement Orientation as it relates to the research of Dr. Angela Duckworth on Grit or Daniel Goleman’s writing on Focus. This work references the influence of positive emotions on your capacity to successfully pursue a dominant goal. Success is related to how many of your mental and emotional resources are directed towards activity contributing to goal attainment, including thoughts, emotional states and decisions. These resources can be intensely focused if you are not distracted by, for example, considering alternative goals or questioning your ability to succeed. Focus and Grit, like Achievement Orientation, also relate to planning and preparation activity, and your tendency towards solution-oriented responses to problems.

In the context of Achievement Orientation even your reaction to stress can impact quality and timeliness of success. For example, a stressor may be viewed positively as a challenge to be met by some people, while others react to it as a threat and focus on coping options instead. Therefore, a good way to start developing Achievement Orientation is to regularly monitor the degree to which your mental and emotional resources are aligning with – and contributing to -the attainment of your goals.

Recommended Reading:

Achievement Orientation

Our new primer series is written by Daniel Goleman and fellow thought leaders in the field of Emotional Intelligence and research. The following are available now: Emotional Self-Awareness, Emotional Self-Control, Adaptability, and Achievement Orientation, with new releases monthly throughout 2017.

For more in-depth insights, see the Crucial Competence video series!

adaptability mindfulness leadership

Adaptability: Where Mindfulness Training Impacts Leadership

In my previous article, I mentioned a senior leader with a global accounting firm who credited mindfulness for helping improve her capacity for emotional self-control.

During our discussion, she also explained in detail how this change contributed to greater adaptability. These are both competencies of Emotional and Social Intelligence, and mindfulness training can help with their development.

In this case, emotional self-control increased the capacity for managing unexpected events, which relied in part on an enhanced awareness of how her personal bias, interpretations of past experiences, and subconscious reactions were interfering with the effectiveness of her responses.

The other 41 leaders I interviewed as part of my study also linked mindfulness to the development of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Competency of Adaptability. Adaptability falls under the domain of Emotional Self-Management and is exemplified by a leader being able to work effectively in rapidly changing environments and with diverse groups or individuals. I found additional evidence of this competency during my transcript analysis using the Emotional and Social Competency Indicator (ESCI) model developed by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis. Adaptability has been empirically linked to increased leadership performance and is typically present in leaders who can manage shifting priorities and are capable of adjusting their perceptions and beliefs.

Why Adaptability is important to leadership

In addition to being emphasized by a number of Emotional Intelligence researchers, Adaptability is linked to a variety of key leadership abilities including:

  • Improved ability to lead in challenging environments.
  • More effective and rapid responses to unexpected changes.
  • Effectiveness in multiple roles, functions, and/or different organizations.

Here’s an example of what this looks like. A senior video game producer shared with me how mindfulness contributed to her ability to successfully adapt to disruptive experiences during her career, “…there’s a calmness about it that allows for new innovation…You can still achieve the goal… you just have to be able to change your plans and your actions.”

During our conversation, she shared examples including needing to meet a major deadline following a significant reduction in budget, and managing employee disengagement and attrition following a merger. In these and other examples, she explained how adaptability increased her ability to successfully navigate unpleasant workplace events and interact more effectively with disruptive coworkers. She added that truly being adaptable required her to stay focused on key objectives in the face of unpredictable and sometimes highly volatile situations.

She also echoed what other leaders shared about adaptability; that it is a vital component of both planned and improvisational leadership behaviors.

For example, another participant noted the importance of being adaptable when she developed a plan to address a gap in employee development after assuming a C-level position, “…there was no talent program in place…so I worked with my counterpart in HR and we put something together that the team responded very favorably to.” Adaptability in the form of improvisational leadership behaviors was also described frequently. One leader shared how adaptability played a key role in resolving a significant crisis that threatened project success at a critical moment; “we had a run-in and she had a breakdown…I was able to work through that….and get her back on track…we ended up getting great results.”

Similarly, adaptability can be important in letting go of past accomplishments in order to address the challenges that come with new roles, or shifts in leadership identity.

How Developing Mindfulness can lead to increased Adaptability

Neuroimaging research, like what is summarized in the 2014 HBR article Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain, indicates that mindfulness alters regions of the brain and changes the manner in which neural networks connect with each other. These types of changes may also improve cognitive flexibility, which contributes to improved adaptability.

Similar to the process of athletic training, neuroplasticity is what accounts for the circuitry of our brains being shaped by our experience. In this context developing leadership behaviors such as adaptability is like mental conditioning. It is a conscious approach that allows us to:

  • Identify areas where we need improvement and implement a daily plan of action to address gaps.
  • Regularly assess the alignment of our beliefs and actions.
  • Deliberately refine our ability to identify and develop the best strategies for effectively engaging with different types of individuals in the workplace. As one participant described it, “…I need to flex my style just to be able to adapt to different characters.”

In addition to cultivating adaptability, mindfulness is also linked to the development of Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Management. Adaptability is enhanced by these two competencies, since greater emotional awareness enables you to more effectively manage your reactions to situational demands.

In my next article I will discuss the relationship between mindful leadership and the fourth competency in the Emotional Self-Management domain, Achievement Orientation.

Recommended Reading:

AdaptabilityOur new series of primers was created by bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman, along with fellow thought leaders in EI, research, and leadership development.

The primers focus on the competencies of Emotional and Social Intelligence in leadership. You can find the first 3 in the series available now: Emotional Self-Awareness, Emotional Self-Control, and Adaptability.

Leader Mindfulness

The Role of Leader Mindfulness in Emotional Self-Control

Leader Mindfulness

The Role of Leader Mindfulness in Emotional Self-Control

by Matthew Lippincott

In my last article, I shared how the head of strategy and business development for one of the largest organizations in the world used mindfulness to help develop greater Emotional Self-Awareness. In my conversation with her, she also explained how this improvement provided her with insight that she used to more effectively manage her feelings and behaviors. This was just one example from my research with 42 senior and executive leaders on the influence of mindfulness on their leadership careers at a total of 83 global organizations.

In my study, I collected extensive descriptions of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Competency of Emotional Self-Control. I also found evidence of this Competency in the  participants through transcript analysis utilizing the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI) model developed by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis.

What is Emotional Self-Control?

Emotional Self-Control relates to your ability to control impulsive behavior and not give in to negative emotions or be overly reactive in stressful situations. It is also identified by examples of appropriate action and your ability to remain positive in workplace interactions. As is the case with the other eleven ESCI Competencies, Emotional Self-Control has also been empirically linked to increased leadership performance.

How Improved Emotional Self-Control Impacts Leadership

The leaders I interviewed all provided in-depth examples of mindfulness contributing to the development of Emotional Self-Control. For example, “…before [mindfulness] I would have jumped on a pretty extreme emotional personal roller coaster with her, and viewed everything very, very personally,” and “I’ve learned to rely on my mindfulness to…back off on things…in Corporate America, there are plenty of instances where you just need to let things go.”

Mindfulness is especially helpful with the development of Emotional Self-Control because of the heightened self-observation capability it enables.

This cultivates awareness of the sequence of internal events that occur as you process sensory input (sometimes referred to as stream of consciousness) such as reactions, associations, and judgments that ultimately make up your experiences.

More importantly, developing awareness of this process leads to a more functional understanding of the way your feelings influence the quality of your interactions with others.

In this same context, leaders described improved Emotional Self-Control as having a profoundly positive effect on leadership results, such as:

  • Significant improvement in team engagement
  • Reduction of emotionally influenced bias
  • Less interpersonal conflict
  • More effective management of problems and crises

Emotional Self-Control Improves Communication

The previous types of results begin to occur as you assume more responsibility for the outcome of your communications efforts. A behavioral health solution manager supporting over 60,000 employees for a major hospital network gave an example of this, saying: “Instead of just becoming reactive, maybe being judgmental, I’m more inclined to say to myself, well, are you really sure if you understand what her motive is? What do you think might be going on with this person?… And being more aware of that enables me to respond in a way that’s more effective.”

The interrelationship between mindful, Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control enables the development of an accurate and honest understanding of the way your behaviors are received by others. This is especially powerful in the context of how you would apply various leadership strategies, since many strategies link leader success to follower engagement. This includes whether others fully understand what you are trying to communicate, and their willingness to contribute to your success. From that standpoint, you will realize great value from continuously refining your ability to honestly assess if others align with your intentions, and making sure that your emotions are not interfering with this activity.

During our discussions, leaders shared the importance of being able to understand how their habits of thought, biases, and reactions influenced feelings that were potentially detrimental to their leadership effectiveness. More importantly, they described their transformation into more effective leaders by using this personal insight as a catalyst for change. For instance: “…those situations would arouse rage in me…but now I can see it coming up…and ignore it,” and “…you don’t want to cling to your values forever, if it’s not gonna help the situation… If you want to move forward you have to let go to do that”

Improving Critical Leadership Skills

Leaders described Emotional Self-Control as a real-time capability to observe and manage the way they react to what is happening in their environment. They credited this as contributing to improving their personal leadership capabilities, including:

  • Faster cognitive recovery from stressful experiences
  • Greater ability to accept unsatisfactory circumstances and move forward
  • Improved management of depression and anxiety
  • Increased workplace productivity

A story told by a senior leader at a well-known global accounting firm helps illustrate this process of development. Her initial mindfulness practice helped her recognize something she had been unaware of for years—the negative way in which others reacted to her in meetings. Once she had made the connection between these reactions and unsatisfactory outcomes, she began to actively observe her interaction with others.

Through careful reflection on these experiences she began to see the relationship between her emotional states and the efficacy of her communication. This realization helped her understand the importance of focusing on Emotional Self-Control in the context of cultivating stronger and more effective relationships in the workplace. Through dutiful practice she succeeded in changing her interpersonal behaviors and reported improvement in the quality of her interaction with others: “…people started remarking about it…said, ‘You know what, how come you don’t get angry at all?’”

The Takeaway

In this and many other similar examples, the leaders I interviewed reported that Emotional Self-Control minimized the interference of negative emotional reactions with leadership activities. This improvement then created the opportunity for leaders to engage with others in a more meaningful and effective way. Obtaining these results required ongoing refinement of Emotional Self-Control, which helped leaders with intentional cultivation of other Competencies as well.

In my next article, I will discuss the relationship between mindful leadership and another Competency, Adaptability.

Recommended Reading:

Interested in learning more about how to apply these concepts at work? Our newly released Primers provide a concise overview of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies of Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control, as well as an overview of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model itself.

The Primers are created by Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman, with several fellow thought leaders in the field of emotional intelligence, leadership development, and research, including Richard Boyatzis, Vanessa Druskat, Richard J. Davidson, and George Kohlrieser.

Emotiona Intelligence Leadership podcast

Podcast – What is Mindful Leadership?

Emotiona Intelligence Leadership podcastWhat is mindful leadership, and what are the qualities that define it? These are some of the questions explored in today’s episode with Hanuman Goleman and Dawa Tarchin Phillips.

In this episode.

You’ll hear about:

  • How mindful leadership can address some fundamental realities of life
  • How inspiration and guidance don’t necessarily depend on age or experience
  • What unique skills and capabilities are essential for mindful leadership
  • The timeless principles that can benefit individuals, groups, and organizations
  • What it takes to step outside your comfort zone to lead for contribution
  • The state of open awareness that leads to effective decision-making

Dawa Tarchin Phillips is the President & CEO of Empowerment Holdings, LLC, an international leadership training and consulting firm that trains business leaders and organizations in Mindfulness Based Leadership and Conscious Business approaches. He is the founder and board member of The Institute of Compassionate Awareness (TICA), a 501c3 registered public benefit initiative that provides secular mindfulness training to school children and youth. He is also a research specialist in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California Santa Barbara, where his research focuses on the cognitive, affective and academic benefits of secular mindfulness training in school children, young adults and educational leaders, and he is the acting resident teacher of the Bodhi Path Buddhist Center of Santa Barbara.

Dawa is also the co-founder and co-host of the Mindful Leadership Conference.

what is mindful leadership?

The Mindful Leadership Conference begins Wednesday, March 1st!

The Mindful Leadership Conference is a free online event featuring 40 of the world’s most respected mindful leaders, entrepreneurs, and teachers, including Daniel Goleman, Dr. Daniel Siegel, Tara Brach, Ph.D., and many others. This event will happen live from March 1st-10th, and each session includes a guided meditation or exercise, and practical tools you can apply in your own work and life immediately.

Sign up here

attention-span-self-awareness

Improve Your Attention Span Through Self-Awareness

attention-span-self-awareness

Improve Your Attention Span Through Self-Awareness

By Ann Flanagan Petry

“You think because you understand ‘one’ you must also understand ‘two’, because one and one make two. But you must also understand ‘and’.” – Rumi

In the workplace, we often fall into just the trap that Rumi describes. We think that because we understand how to be busy accomplishing tasks (one) we also understand how to be effective in our work (two). So, we focus on agendas, “to do” lists, and clearing out our in-box. But when we do that, we are missing out on the quiet yet critical, “and” in the equation: the powerful force of mindful self-awareness.

Attention span is the length of time you’re able to concentrate on a single activity before becoming distracted. The longer you’re able to sustain attention, the more likely you are to gain depth and quality in things like learning or creating. This impacts work and life in a myriad of ways, from increasing productivity to being able to express the best of what we have to offer. But how can we improve our attention span effectively?

Self-Awareness is a Verb

Self-awareness is often referred to as a static state within leadership competencies: “he has self-awareness.” In other words, he has met this competency and we can check “goal met.” However, it is important to recognize self-awareness is really more of a verb and refers to an ongoing process. To understand this more fully, take a moment and tune-in to your own mind and body right now… What do you notice? Indeed, recognizing what is happening in any given moment – from the inside out – can be a bit of a shock. Someone once described it as hearing one insult after another. Others have said it was like an endless barrage of complaints… what isn’t working… what isn’t good enough. Beyond being aware of the internal narrator, we might notice other things, like the tension we are holding in our bodies or the incessant urge to stay busy – to be productive.  This is self-awareness. Remarkably, our inner experience is ever changing and shifting. Awareness of this reality is at the heart of the self-awareness competency.

The Challenge of Continuous Partial Attention

In fact, the cultivation of the competency of self-awareness is becoming more critical for 21st century leaders. To understand just how important, consider the increasing regularity of lack of self-awareness occurring in daily life. Linda Stone coined the term Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). Stone, a former Silicon Valley executive, honed her leadership skills at both Apple and Microsoft. She discovered this from observing leaders all around her. Continuous Partial Attention coupled with fear of missing out (FOMO) is the new normal. We take our smart phones out at the slightest hint of a wait, whether it’s at the grocery store or the stoplight. Both terms describe a recent human phenomenon: a constant state of anxiety and hyper-vigilance to attend to texts, social media, and email… all at the same time!

To demonstrate this further, a survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found.  Attention span was defined as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.”  Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft believes human attention is “the true scarce commodity” of the near future.  Daniel Goleman describes the impact of “the impoverishment of attention” in his book, Focus, The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

Self-Awareness as an  Inner-Rudder

Notably, according to Goleman, “self-awareness, particularly accuracy in decoding the internal cues of our body’s murmurs, holds the key” and is an inner-rudder that can bring us back to deepening attention. As a result, numerous organizations are explicitly coaching and training employees in awareness skill-building. The organizations range from multinational corporations to city governments.

Inspired by the work of neuroscience researcher, Richard J. Davidson and his vision to “imagine a world where we could improve our capacity to pay attention by even 5%,” Sara Flitner, former Mayor of Jackson, Wyoming, together with the support and funding of the Wellness Department at St. John’s Medical Center (SJMC)  partnered with the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Center for Healthy Minds to offer research-based practices in well-being and leadership development. Together, they undertook a community-wide initiative to bring this content and learning to elected officials, school administrators, as well as hospital and town leaders.

Also of note, a large professional services firm engaged the Center for Healthy Minds to train hundreds among its leadership ranks. Michele Nevarez, a positive organizational development consultant and adjunct faculty with the Wisconsin School of Business helped facilitate the neuroscience-based leadership training for Jackson’s leaders and the firm. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Nevarez believes the sessions met a critical need of bringing key stakeholders together to apply practices that strengthen attentional focus and promote renewal. This can help to combat the daily information overload and allow for better coping with the stresses of everyday life, which if left unmanaged can undermine well-being.

The challenge of Continuous Partial Attention and information overload is a common and tremendously difficult problem that is growing with each new wave of technological capabilities. Yet, we are discovering people are adaptive and have agency to choose how and what to pay attention to.

Try this:

Choose a time of day, or trigger activity (such as for 10 minutes before or after eating lunch) and check in with yourself. You can even schedule this on your calendar for reminders and to insure you’re not interrupted. What do you feel in your mind and body? A sense of hurry to get back to work? Unease from lack of sleep or lingering emotion from disagreement with your spouse? The simple act of tuning in and noticing what comes up is, in essence, the practice of tapping into one’s emotional self-awareness and attention. With regular practice, this can help deepen and lengthen attention span by rewiring the brain to be more at ease with less reactivity to external impulses. It will also help to combat the daily information overload, allowing for better coping of the stresses of everyday life.

Ann Flanagan Petry is a Positive Organizational Development Consultant, Coach and Contributing Author of the forthcoming book, Advancing Relationship-Based Cultures. She has over 20 years of experience driving performance improvement in organizations. She partners with leaders to cultivate resilient, mindful, emotionally intelligent teams who improve clients, their own and their organization’s performance and wellbeing. 

Recommended Reading:

Interested in learning more about Emotional Self-Awareness? Our newly released Primer provides a concise overview of this Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency. It is co-written by several thought leaders in the field of emotional intelligence, leadership development, and research: Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Vanessa Druskat, Richard Davidson, and George Kohlrieser. See the Primer here.