presence in the present

March 16, 2018

As per your research, only 13% of the global workforce is engaged. This could also be interpreted as high levels of non-productivity. How can a ‘mindful’ leader help change this scenario? What is the relationship between mindfulness and reduction of workplace stress?

In our research, we found that mindfulness is one of the key components of leadership nowadays, the reason being the workforce is changing a lot. The younger generations especially, but also older generations, want to have leaders they can actually relate to, leaders that are more human, and leaders that are present. However, nowadays, many leaders are preoccupied with their cell phones even when they are having a conversation with their colleagues. They are constantly getting distracted and are really not paying attention—they are not being present, they are not being mindful with the people they are leading. This will result in a bad experience for their co-workers who are not going to be engaged, committed, or loyal to their leader.

So, leaders need to be actually present and pay attention to those they are leading. This lays the key foundation for leadership. I will share an example with you. Dominic Barton, CEO, McKinsey, has a tight schedule and travels regularly—right from 6am to 8pm, every single day. He says, “Without mindfulness, I cannot be present and without presence I am wasting my own time and I am wasting the time of the people that I am with.” If you are not present, you are basically missing out on information, you are not remembering things, you are not giving what you need to bring to a meeting—so mindfulness is really important for leaders to engage more people.

You have also observed that most leaders perceive themselves as being mindful and are engaging their employees whereas the reality is different. How can leaders bridge the gap between perception and reality?

That gap is really big. What our research found was that for leaders to bridge that gap, they have to be more human, they have to let go of being a manager, they have to unlearn management. This means unlearning how to do a performance review, unlearning to be status, to be high recruit, to be a ‘role’, and relearning to just be a human being. We all are human beings and we like to engage with fellow humans. I like to have a conversation with you because you are really engaged. Leaders that learn to be more human are leaders that are creating better engagement, motivation, and loyalty, and are making that gap smaller and smaller. There will always be a gap because if I have power over you, there will always be some topics we do not talk about—there will be a gap, there will always have to be a gap. Making that gap small is about relearning to be a human and unlearning management.

The power of presence—what does this translate to, for a leader?

We work with hotel chain Mariott, and its CEO Arne M Sorenson manages 750,000 people. It is a massive organization and he travels for around 150 days a year, visiting most of their hotels, big and small, in each trip. He does this to understand what it is like to be in the hotels. Usually, what a CEO will only do is come to office, and sit and talk to the management in his cabin. But what Arne does is he goes down to the other floors, to the kitchen, and to all corners in the hotel with one purpose—he wants to understand what is life like across all levels of the organization and not just in the C-suite, not just for the managers but for the cleaning staff, the cooks, and everyone else. He says if he is not present, he is not learning anything; he will not remember or understand what people are saying; most importantly, people will know that he does not care. He says, “If I am not present, I am losing on all counts of being a leader.” He calls it the power of presence. He says the power of presence is a feeling you have when there are valuable conversations, valuable interactions with everybody you meet, and that not only applies to the people you lead but also to your clients. The power of presence is to have the skill to listen so that you understand and learn, and that people know you have real interest. It is the power of being fully in the now so that you do not miss out on anything and that you are dedicated to the people you are with.

Why does the power of presence not come naturally to leaders?

One thing that is universal is that the more senior you get, the more people you are responsible for, the more information you have to deal with, and more the complexity. The mind naturally gets more scattered. But I think the other reason, which is more global and more universal, is phones and technology in general. Researchers have been looking at people who are working for organizations and their ability to pay attention or of being present. What they have seen over the last two decades is that our ability to pay attention has dropped radically so we are simply not as mindful, as focused, as attentive, as present as we used to be, and the reason is technology. Technology, open-plan offices, and more pressure are other reasons, but technology is by far the main. Researchers from Harvard University have found that 47% of our time, we are not paying attention to what we are doing. Our mind is involuntarily wandering away, thinking about other things, thinking about a birthday party in the night, or thinking about the vacation last week. So it is getting difficult to pay attention nowadays, especially for leaders. And it is a global phenomenon in all organizations, for all leaders.

You have said, “Presence is foundational for mindfulness.” Can you elaborate with an example?

Mindfulness is a loose translation of the Sanskrit term sati. Mindfulness means paying attention in the moment whereas sati means the ability to not only be present but also to remember what is important right now, what one’s values are, what kind of a person one wants to be—so, presence is the foundation of mindfulness. Presence and mindfulness are interlinked; without presence, we cannot be mindful. Both these words are fairly poor compared to the original term they are derived from.

‘Mindfulness training’ can be defined as ‘learning to manage the monkey mind’. Can this be initiated even before one enters the corporate world?

Absolutely yes. Many business schools and universities are starting to bring in mindfulness as part of the co-curriculum of MBA programs because it is harder to inculcate mindfulness at a later stage. I think that the backdrop of this is that phones have entered everybody’s lives and it is difficult for people to pay attention as much as it was 10 to 15 years ago. We have to learn to pay attention, we have to learn to be mindful. What was easier before is rather difficult now and I think yes, it can be learned before you enter the corporate world and can be learned as part of education. Also, many organizations are starting to bring in mindfulness training at an entry level. Say, you are starting to work at Accenture. The first thing they want you to do is attend a two-day programme on how you become more mindful—in dealing with your phone, in how you deal with your emails, how you conduct meetings, and so on. Preparing leaders before they become leaders is a good idea. A mindful leader is the one who manages the monkey mind and really creates high engagement by being present with her people.

In the context of ‘mindfulness training’, could you tell us about the ABCD Model and how it helps?

The ABCD model is a very simple, practical, and very evidence-based way of practicing mindfulness. Again in Sanskrit, we call samatha—practicing of the focused mind. The ABCD model is something we have developed over the past fifteen years. It condenses the rich Buddhist and Hindu principles into a simple method, which our research has found that when people practice mindfulness this way, within just eight weeks of doing it for ten minutes every day, they enhance their focus and sleep by 35%, achieve 25% better work-life balance, and reduce stress by 27%. So, it is a way of practicing mindfulness, which is a very effective method for corporates.

One aspect of mindfulness is ‘to pay attention to someone or something in a non-judgmental way’. However, in today’s age of social media, an employer knows a lot about the applicant even before an interview. How can mindfulness play a role in avoiding such biases?

We worked with neurologists on understanding the brain so that what we teach corporate leaders is based on neuroscience. One of the fascinating and fantastic things about the human brain is that it is good at compartmentalizing. We see something for the first time and we create an understanding of it and store it in our mind so that when we see it next time, we do not have to think about it from scratch. For example, the first time you drive to a certain place—from home to work—it takes a lot of navigating and trying to understand the route. The second time, it is easier, and after a week you can drive without thinking about the route. This is called judging. We start to judge, we start to box things in, compartmentalize it, which is great.

However, the downside is that we do not have a beginner’s mind. In terms of driving to work, the first time we experience a lot of things, the world/ route is new, we have a lot of impressions and we learned a lot of things, we reflected a lot and after a week we drive mindlessly. We are stuck in our own rumination and in our own wandering thoughts. When it comes to a workplace, having the ability not to box people in and create an impression of what they are, what they do, and the next time you see them and judge them because you own that definition of them is not a good quality in a leader. As a leader, having the ability to break those boxes up, to break the perception of people so that when you meet them, you actually see them for what they are and not for what you think they are because that is just your limited understanding. Seeing a person for what they are is the only ability that helps leaders develop their best potential, to be at their very best as a human being and as an employee. Leaders need to maintain an open mind to the people they lead, also to themselves because they box themselves in too. Maintaining the sense of a beginner’s mind is important.

In addition to this, a beginner’s mind is needed in a business environment today that is moving faster than ever before and it would keep speeding up because of technology. Technology, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, all of that is making it difficult to look at the past to understand the future and the present. I would like to share the story of how the iPhone took over Nokia back then. A week after Steve Jobs announced the launch of the iPhone, Nokia CEO addressed the company’s employees around the world and held up the iPhone and said that it is not going to be anything than a niche product; nobody will really want it. That they had the best phone in the market because they were selling a lot of them, which according to him, was proof that they were the best. Half a year later, Nokia’s share in the global market dropped from 87% to a mere 15%, and the iPhone just skyrocketed. So, having a beginner’s mind is essential—waking up every morning and asking yourself the question what the world is like today; when you meet people, you should ask yourself, “I know I met her yesterday but what she is like today, what happened to her since yesterday that I can learn from.” When hiring people, you should not look at a job application and box the recruit. You have your understanding and if you already build preconceptions before you see them, it is not necessarily the best thing for hiring the right people.

In one of your articles titled ‘Are you addicted to doing?’ you have said that busyness is actually modern laziness. How can one get more done by slowing down?

From a neurological perspective, there is a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is basically a hormone released in the brain every time we do something. Every time we send an email, even if it is not an important one, we respond to it immediately just like how we check newsfeed on Facebook or scroll through tweets. Any small activity you do at work and at home releases dopamine in the brain, and dopamine is called a reward drug—it makes you feel good. So when you send an email by pressing that send button or when you like something on Facebook, dopamine is released in the brain and it is heavily addictive. We get addicted to it after a while. Being surrounded by phones and a computer, we get addicted to sending emails and checking updates. Though it looks like that we accomplish a lot throughout the day, it is not very productive and does not necessarily yield results. Therefore, slowing down to speed up to get more done is about learning how to manage your dopamine craving, how to manage your devices, and how to manage your emails, so that you do not end up in that treadmill of doing a lot and just spinning the wheels. You should actually start to stop doing that and focus on what is really important like writing an important article or having an important conversation rather than just typing away all day on emails and social media. Overcoming action addiction, slowing down to speed up—a lot of research done in this field shows that if we let go of details and focus on high priorities, we will be much more productive.

How do you prioritize?

Mornings are the most important—we should not occupy our minds by checking emails first thing in the morning. From a neurological point of view, our mind is the most focused when we wake up, it has a strong sense of what is important, it is more creative, and more spacious, so we have the best minds in the morning. When we open our inbox, which is flooded with emails, it does two things to our mind—first of all, it makes us reactive and we begin responding to what happened yesterday rather than look at what is going to happen today. Secondly, it makes us incredibly detail-oriented. If the first thing we do is to check our emails, we are basically killing our minds as it is heavily unproductive and makes us ‘unprioritized’. We just follow the routine instead of prioritizing.

What we recommend and what we train people in—we train more than 150,000 corporate people—is to sit for a few minutes first thing in the morning, just focusing on their breath, following the ABCD model, just allowing the mind to calm down for a few minutes, and be clear and focused. After this, you should ask yourself what the most important tasks are that need to be done today. Narrow it down to a couple of tasks because we cannot do more than that in a day. Write it down and plan your calendar according to that rather than letting our calendar plan what we do. Because if we do that we are going to be action addicts, we are just going to blindly follow routines than doing what is really important.

Mindfulness in action is a great alternative to the illusory practice of multitasking. Could you elaborate on this thought?

There has been a lot of research on multitasking and we have found that multitasking is not healthy. We all multitask. The question is why. We multitask because years ago when we came to work, we would have a hammer or we would have a dictaphone or a typewriter, we would have something that we would pay attention to. We would have conversations with people, that is how we worked back then. And you would make notes and it was all focused on one thing but today with technology, we are constantly bombarded with a ton of details, which makes us multitask. We try to do a lot of things, and that is the way the brain works because when the brain is confronted with two tasks at the same time, by default it wants to solve both at the same time. The brain is prone to multitasking. Researchers have found that when we multitask, we get much slower. It takes twice as long to do things when we multitask. We get more stressed, we make more mistakes, we get less prioritized because we lose the sense of what is important. We lose out on all accounts of well-being, of creativity, and performance. In fact, there is nothing good to say about multitasking. And mindfulness is the direct opposite of it. It is the ability to manage our mind to be present with a task and then do that effectively and quickly, and then move on to the next one and so on. And while we do all of that, we get distracted but we need to constantly bring our mind back to what we need to focus on. Mindfulness is, as I see it, one of the most important skills for the modern world because of technology. It is the fastest growing trend and training in management thinking.

(As told to Ashutosh Gotad and Melissa Fernandes)