Mindfulness at Work: How Mindfulness Can Make You a Better Manager

Are you mindful as a leader? Do you know what it means to practice mindfulness?

“I think of mindfulness as the ability not to be yanked around by your own emotions,” says Dan Harris, ABC Nightline anchor and author of 10 Percent Happier. “That can have a big impact on how you are in the workplace.”

Sounds like an understatement. With all the curve balls and challenges life and work throw at us, being more in control of your mindset could help any leader.

Got Mindfulness?

There are a lot of important skills that leaders should seek to have: self-awareness, empathy, and optimism being just a few. Mindfulness helps you develop all three of those qualities as well as boost your emotional intelligence (EQ).

Just how important are these skills? A study by Christine Porath and her research team at Georgetown University discovered that the damage of a low EQ leader is significant:

  • 63% of employees surveyed said they wasted time avoiding the low EQ leader
  • 75% of employees said that their commitment to their job had waned
  • 12% of employees said they quit their job because of that bad leadership

How can one simple skill have such a big impact on your ability to lead and manage others? Let’s dive in.

How mindfulness can make you a better manager

Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment, usually involving a point of focus (like your breathing or a feeling) while maintaining relaxation. There are a lot of fancy definitions out there, but that’s what it comes down to.

More than anything, mindfulness practice develops your self-control. With it, you can think more clearly, identify issues, make improvements, and generally stay on track both mentally and emotionally.

As Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence describes it:

“Star leaders are stars at leading themselves, first… If you can’t fine-tune your own actions– keeping yourself from blowing up or falling to pieces– you’ll be poor at handling the people you deal with.”

Ultimately, mindfulness gives you the ability to manage yourself more effectively, which then allows you to manage your team to the best of your ability. Remember: Your team follows your example, so you must start with yourself to lead others well.

Mindfulness improves our ability in all 4 quadrants of emotional intelligence

As we’ve written before, emotional intelligence is an essential skill as a leader to be successful. The Red Sox even used it to win a World Series.

The good news is that developing and improving your mindfulness improves all 4 key areas of emotional intelligence:

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A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review found that mindfulness helps develop several key leadership qualities connected to emotional intelligence including:

  1. Meta-cognition: The ability to monitor your thoughts and feelings, a key part of both self-awareness and emotional balance.
  2. Curiosity: Mindfulness makes you more interested in the people around you, helping you develop better relationships with your team members.
  3. Empathy: This gives you better understanding of others, helping improve the quality of your communication and developing stronger bonds with your team.

Developing quality communication, obtaining regular feedback, and building strong relationships with team members are all essential to being a great manager. And, it just so happens, mindfulness helps you do all of that and more.

Knowing now all the ways mindfulness makes you a better leader, let’s dig into how you can become more mindful.

mindfulness at work start of your day

1. Start each day with meditation to improve self-awareness

In his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, and related blog post, Scott Adams writes:

“Humans rarely (if ever) do anything because of logic and reason. The part of us we consider rational is in reality a rationalizer. Your mind is creating little movies in which you are the star.”

We’re great at rationalizing our behavior under any and every circumstance. This is especially damaging when it comes to managing a team. That lack of self-awareness can keep you from noticing problems (until it’s too late) and cause you to become defensive when feedback is shared with you.

Unfortunately, we’re so good at rationalizing everything, we rarely notice that we’re doing it. Mindfulness is the perfect counter to this because it helps cut through that illusion and gives you clarity. With enough practice, you’ll realize when you’re lying to yourself and put a stop to it.

The only problem is, it can take time to develop this kind of self-awareness.

Getting started: Sitting meditation is a great beginner practice

Mindfulness is a habit that has to be developed over time, but it’s completely opposite our typical disposition. We’re used to rushing through our day, heads down and always pushing forward to the next meeting or one on one. Those habits make shifting to a more self-aware state pretty difficult.

That’s why traditional meditation is the most useful practice for developing awareness. It’s a dedicated slot of time used for nothing else– usually, a simple mindful breathing practice, focusing on the breath and acknowledging when a thought, feeling, or sensation distracts you.

When you sit down to meditate, it’s to meditate and do nothing else. You’re not in a meeting, you’re not responding to your team on Slack, you’re just here being fully with your own thoughts.

And the cool part is even a few minutes is enough to have a positive effect. In fact, just 15 minutes of meditation has been shown to have the same effect as a full day of vacation for mood and relaxation, according to one study in the Journal of Positive Psychology.

How to practice mindfulness meditation

To meditate, all you need to do is sit and think carefully. While sitting, focus on your each breath in and then each breath out. When distractions (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations) come to mind, acknowledge them and then return to a focus on your breathing. That’s it.

With this kind of focused practice, none of your typical habits– to jump on your smartphone or rush around– can get in the way. In fact, noticing when those behaviors come to mind while you’re sitting– cycling through your worries or stressors, the impulse to dart to the next thing– become the very focus of your practice.

With this practice, you will see more clearly the habits that drive your conscious behavior. You see the bias, the errors in judgment, the impulsiveness, uncertainty, worry, and defensiveness. All those things that hold you back from becoming the best leader you can be rise to the surface and become more clearly visible.

As for when and where, you can meditate whenever (and wherever) you find the time. However, it’s best if you can get it in shortly after you wake up. By doing so, you can start your day from that state of focused awareness.

*Read more about how to meditate in this post from 10% Happier. 

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2. Use mindful listening to improve communication (Especially during one on ones)

Learning to listen better can lead to all kinds of positive outcomes:

The problem is, most people are so accustomed to waiting for their next chance to speak that they’ve forgotten how to listen. Or, if it’s not that, it’s the habit of allowing for distractions like checking your smartphones during a conversation.

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When was the last time you really made the effort to listen to one of your team members fully? Without passing judgment on what they were saying as they were saying it?

Each of your team members has something valuable to say. It could be a variety of things including:

  • Frustration with someone else on the team
  • Feeling stuck or bored in their work
  • A great idea to help improve the team, a project, or your product
  • Coaching or support on a task they’re assigned

However, if you’re not truly listening, not only may you not hear it, they may never say it to begin with. (Because let’s face it, we all know when someone isn’t listening to us.)

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How to practice mindful listening

Mindful listening is a simple mindfulness practice that’s an adaptation on the basic meditation practice.

Instead of focusing on your breath, focus on the other person’s words and what they mean. You’ll still want to allow yourself to notice any thoughts, feelings, and sensations that come up. However, just like with the meditation, keep bringing yourself back to their voice each time you acknowledge a distraction.

This kind of listening practice is powerful because you’re not just intently listening, you’re actively withholding judgment.

Unfortunately, even if we do manage to listen to someone, it’s easy to have a bad habit of passing judgment as they’re speaking to us. Instead, you want to hear what they’re saying and fully understand them before you think about any judgments by you.

To take this practice a step further, apply Active Listening Skills: 

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After listening closely to what they say, and before moving on to the next question or subject, take a moment to share what they said back in your own words. Ask if they agree with your reflection on what they said or follow up with clarifying questions. That way you can make sure you took what they intended from the conversation, as opposed to what you thought they meant.

Oftentimes, even when we are listening, we interpret what others are saying wrong. That’s because we’re filtering it through our own perception, which is rarely how they see things (remember we all have different “little movies in which you are the star.”)

By listening mindfully to your team members, and being fully present in the conversations with them, you can be sure they’ll feel heard and you fully understand what they’re trying to tell you.

mindfulness at work growth mindset

3. Use mindfulness to develop a growth mindset

Mindfulness is about opening yourself up to what’s going on in each moment. When you do that, you learn that things change constantly and see your challenges and progress more clearly.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize, mindfulness is also about refraining from judgment. No matter what is going on within you, you learn to notice and accept it without criticizing yourself.

That’s why mindfulness helps you develop a growth mindset. According to Standford psychologist Carol Dweck, whether you have a fixed or growth mindset is also about how you interpret challenges, criticism, and your personal effort. Since you’re developing others, and setting an example for your team, this is an especially important concept for managers.

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If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that you can’t improve; everything is natural skill or a weakness you’re stuck with. This is a generally very negative outlook. Meanwhile, if you have a growth mindset, you believe that you can change and improve and thus leads to a more positive outlook, because you can see that any setbacks are temporary.

Criticism, challenges, and obstacles are all opportunities for growth and they’re a part of being a leader. And facing these things is also what mindfulness is all about.

Mindfulness conditions you to face your challenges

It’s a pretty big misconception that the purpose of meditation is to “bliss out” and forget your problems. The irony is the definition of mindfulness is the polar opposite of that misconception.

Mindfulness is about noticing what’s going on within and around you and acknowledging those things. You don’t ignore:

  • The stress that’s pounding at your head
  • The restless anxiety you’re feeling over your team’s performance
  • Or the worries you’re cycling through your mind about the future of your team or company.

Instead, practicing mindfulness is about facing these things and recognizing that they’re there. Mindfulness conditions you to face your problems, not avoid them.

Using mindfulness to notice difficult thoughts and feelings

We’re all human. Even great managers have negative feelings. The difference is how we respond to them.

If you once were proud of your coding skills, but now see some of your team exceeding you, you may feel envious or jealous.

This is natural. As a manager you’ve likely learned you need to step away from IC work and focus on making your team more productive. That means you might not have the sharpest coding skills on the team anymore.

Fortunately, mindfulness allows you to notice those thoughts and realize how irrational they are. You’re a manager now and you want your team to be better than you at the things you need them to do daily.

By noticing the jealousy and friction that’s caused by it, you’re able to move past it, which helps you build a better relationship with your team members.

Use S.T.O.P. to bring awareness to a fixed mindset

You can practice mindfulness anywhere and with as little as a minute to stop and break. When you notice yourself clinging to a limiting belief connected with a fixed mindset, you can use a simple exercise referred to as STOP to recognize those thoughts when they come up.

To practice STOP, use these steps:

  • Stop what you’re doing and take a moment to pause, no matter what you’re doing.
  • Take a deep breath and focus on the breath going in and out momentarily. This helps root you back in the present instead of being locked in your own mind.
  • Observe what’s going on. What thoughts, feelings, and sensations are you feeling?
  • Proceed with what you were doing after having recognized how you’re feeling.

You can do this in your office, the restroom, your car, or during a short walk outside. Where doesn’t matter, nor does how long, only that you take the time to go through the 4 steps.

For example, let’s say you received some feedback during a one on one. How did it make you feel? What kind of thoughts arose in connection with that feedback? Did you feel (or worse, react) defensive or accepting?

You might think you have a growth mindset vs. a fixed one, but they’re not either-or states. You could still have a little apprehension or defensiveness in you with a mostly growth-oriented mindset.

However, by investing the time to notice these little inclinations when they come up you can continue to improve over time. You’ll also stop any negativity or bad habits in their tracks by being more aware when they occur.

Practicing mindfulness helps you be a better manager

Mindfulness helps develop many skills and qualities that are critical to being a great manager. However, it takes practice to develop this kind of self-awareness and clarity of mind.

Use the simple practices we covered today to start implementing a regular mindfulness practice or even to just start being a little more self-aware throughout your day.

However you decide to do it, the important thing is you start somewhere and make being more mindful continuous effort.

And for further reading about the skills and qualities associated with mindfulness, from emotional intelligence to a positive outlook, check out these posts for further reading: