Mul­ti­ply Pro­duc­tiv­ity Through Un­di­vided At­ten­tion

Rotman Management Magazine - - FROM THE EDITOR - By Al­berto Rib­era and J.L. Guil­lén

Mind­ful­ness can em­power you to re­place knee-jerk re­ac­tions with

more con­scious — and ul­ti­mately more ef­fi­cient — be­hav­iour.

food cor­po­raGENERAL MILLS IS NOT JUST A LARGE NORTH AMER­I­CAN tion with more than 41,000 em­ploy­ees, $17 bil­lion in net sales and over 100 brands un­der its um­brella. It is also a pi­o­neer in ex­ec­u­tive ed­u­ca­tion and lead­er­ship train­ing, thanks in part to its 2006 adop­tion of a ground-break­ing pro­gram aimed at cul­ti­vat­ing ‘mind­ful­ness’ — a state of height­ened aware­ness and at­ten­tion — in its work­force.

Af­ter par­tic­i­pat­ing in the com­pany’s mind­ful­ness train­ing pro­grams, em­ploy­ees tes­tify to en­hanced lis­ten­ing ca­pac­ity, clearer de­ci­sion mak­ing and higher pro­duc­tiv­ity. Other lead­ing com­pa­nies have since launched sim­i­lar pro­grams, in­clud­ing Google, Proc­ter & Gam­ble, Ap­ple, Ya­hoo! and Unilever. Mean­while, the latest re­search in the fields of Psy­chol­ogy, Neu­ro­science and Man­age­ment has be­gun to lend sci­en­tific cre­dence to the no­tion of mind­ful­ness, which un­til re­cently was de­rided by many as pseudo-re­li­gious mumbo jumbo.

In this ar­ti­cle, we will ex­plain how mind­ful­ness can strengthen a broad set of ex­ec­u­tive func­tions to boost pro­duc­tiv­ity, im­prove de­ci­sion-mak­ing and en­hance well-be­ing, based on re­search and coach­ing ex­pe­ri­ences we have un­der­taken in de­sign­ing and de­liv­er­ing pro­grams for multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions.

The An­ti­dote to At­ten­tion Deficit

In this age of mul­ti­task­ing, in­stant mes­sag­ing and con­stant con­nec­tiv­ity, the fact that peo­ple are find­ing it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to fo­cus their at­ten­tion on one thing at a time hardly comes as a sur­prise. Ev­ery day we are bom­barded with stim­uli, dis­trac­tions,

in­ter­rup­tions and grow­ing pres­sure to do more with less, with neg­a­tive reper­cus­sions on our pro­duc­tiv­ity and well-be­ing. The re­sult: dis­or­dered minds, re­ac­tive be­hav­iour and un­duly high lev­els of stress and anx­i­ety.

We re­cently sur­veyed 1,000 ex­ec­u­tives to mea­sure the im­pact of this at­ten­tion deficit on work­place per­for­mance. We used two rec­og­nized tem­per­a­ment scales — ‘ex­ploratory ex­citabil­ity’ and ‘im­pul­sive­ness’ — both of which are re­lated to hy­per­ac­tiv­ity, dis­or­der­li­ness, a propen­sity to seek out novel ex­pe­ri­ences and an in­tol­er­ance for monotony and rou­tine. In the first test, 72 per cent of par­tic­i­pants ex­hib­ited high or very high lev­els of ‘ex­ploratory ex­cite­ment’, sug­gest­ing height­ened lev­els of nov­elty-seek­ing be­hav­iour. In the sec­ond test, 45 per cent showed high or very high lev­els of ‘im­pul­sive­ness’, im­ply­ing a lack of con­trol of au­to­matic re­sponses and an un­will­ing­ness to fo­cus in-depth on is­sues at hand.

Given such find­ings, any tool or prac­tice that serves to re­lieve men­tal over­load and helps peo­ple de­vote their full con­cen­tra­tion to the task be­fore them seems war­ranted. This is ex­actly what mind­ful­ness aims to do: it helps you stop func­tion­ing on au­topi­lot and en­gage more con­sciously and proac­tively in your work. In ad­di­tion to giv­ing your full at­ten­tion to the present mo­ment, act­ing de­lib­er­ately or mind­fully also helps you de­tach your­self, mak­ing you less prone to emo­tional prej­u­dices and whims.

Our abil­ity to man­age ex­ter­nal stim­uli and our re­sponse to them de­pends on the de­gree to which we al­lot our at­ten­tion. Mind­ful­ness al­lows us to de­velop a broad set of cog­ni­tive and ex­ec­u­tive func­tions, raises self-aware­ness lev­els and fa­cil­i­tates emo­tional reg­u­la­tion, em­pow­er­ing in­di­vid­u­als to sub­sti­tute knee-jerk re­ac­tions with more con­scious—and ul­ti­mately more ef­fi­cient be­hav­iour. It is worth un­der­scor­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween mind­ful­ness as a tech­nique and mind­ful­ness as a state of mind: the for­mer is just a means, but it is im­por­tant to keep the lat­ter — the true end — in sight.

‘Cul­ti­vat­ing our at­ten­tion’ is one of the key as­pects of prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness. The good news is, we can train our minds to do this, just as we firm our mus­cles when we do phys­i­cal ex­er­cise. As psy­chol­o­gist Daniel Gole­man ex­plains, “At­ten­tion is a men­tal mus­cle, and can be strength­ened with the right prac­tice. The ba­sic move to en­hance con­cen­tra­tion in the men­tal gym: put your fo­cus on a cho­sen tar­get, like your breath. When it wan­ders away (and it will), no­tice that your mind has wan­dered. This re­quires mind­ful­ness—the abil­ity to ob­serve our thoughts with­out get­ting caught up in them. Then bring your at­ten­tion back to your breath. That’s the men­tal equiv­a­lent of a weightlift­ing rep.”

The ef­fort we make to re­fo­cus our at­ten­tion on what is most rel­e­vant has a re­ward: in sharp­en­ing our mind, we are ef­fec­tively help­ing it to rest. There are a va­ri­ety of tech­niques to achieve this state of sharp­ened at­ten­tion and full aware­ness, but all have one thing in com­mon: the es­tab­lish­ment of an ‘an­chor­ing point’ to re­turn to when your at­ten­tion be­gins to wan­der.

An ideal start­ing point is the most in­ter­na­tion­ally-renowned mind­ful­ness pro­gram, Mind­ful­ness-based Stress Re­duc­tion (MBSR). First de­vel­oped in the 1970s by Dr. Jon Ka­bat-zinn of the Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts, MBSR was ini­tially tested in a clin­i­cal set­ting and later ap­plied to the real world of busi­ness. Its pos­i­tive ef­fects on the brain — the gen­eral feel­ing of well-be­ing and ef­fec­tive man­age­ment of emo­tions and im­pulses — have been rig­or­ously eval­u­ated in mul­ti­ple stud­ies and are ex­ten­sively doc­u­mented. To achieve the de­sired re­sults, the prac­tice of mind­ful­ness must con­form to the fol­low­ing re­quire­ments: • Non-judg­men­tal ob­ser­va­tion: be­ing able to step back from

your emo­tions in or­der to be free from dis­torted judg­ments; • Re­newed at­ten­tion: de­ac­ti­vat­ing the au­topi­lot re­sponse so

as not to be dulled by rou­tine; • An­chored to the present: liv­ing and em­brac­ing each mo

ment in a fully con­scious way; and • Equa­nim­ity and com­po­sure: ex­pe­ri­enc­ing emo­tions, but

with­out get­ting car­ried away by them.

Reap­ing the Per­sonal Ben­e­fits

A broad body of re­search shows that mindCOGNITIVE EF­FECTS. ful­ness en­hances at­ten­tion, mem­ory and a num­ber of ex­ec­u­tive func­tions. Some mod­els hold that at­ten­tion in­volves three neu­ral net­works with dis­tinct func­tions: alert­ness, ori­en­ta­tion and

The ha­bit­ual and sus­tained prac­tice of mind­ful­ness has a no­table im­pact at the neu­ral level. The plas­tic­ity of the brain makes it pos­si­ble to al­ter its struc­ture and func­tions. Men­tal train­ing can al­ter the pat­terns of ac­tiv­ity, mod­i­fy­ing or de­ac­ti­vat­ing es­tab­lished neu­ral con­nec­tions and al­low­ing for the cre­ation of new ones. Re­search points to a host of pos­i­tive ef­fects this can have in three ar­eas.

con­flict man­age­ment. Mind­ful­ness helps to de­velop all three by forc­ing us to fo­cus our at­ten­tion on just one el­e­ment. It does this by mak­ing us avoid an­a­lyz­ing or judg­ing our thoughts, sen­sa­tions or feel­ings, and re­turn­ing our at­ten­tion to our breath­ing each time an un­wanted stim­u­lus in­trudes on our thought process, mak­ing our minds wan­der. It also sig­nif­i­cantly im­proves ‘work­ing mem­ory’, which is nec­es­sary to keep valu­able in­for­ma­tion in mind as we per­form com­plex func­tions such as un­der­stand­ing, learn­ing and de­lib­er­at­ing. As for ex­ec­u­tive func­tions — by which we must reg­u­late thoughts in or­der to con­front prob­lems, strate­gize, form con­cepts and make de­ci­sions—mind­ful­ness no­tably im­proves cog­ni­tive flex­i­bil­ity, al­low­ing us to bet­ter nav­i­gate un­charted wa­ters.

Mind­ful­ness has a pos­i­tive in­flu­ence on PSY­CHO­SO­MATIC EF­FECTS. both phys­i­cal and men­tal well-be­ing. Of par­tic­u­lar note is its im­pact on one’s ca­pac­ity to man­age stress. Stress not only un­der­mines our abil­ity to work, it can also be ex­tremely costly for or­ga­ni­za­tions in terms of health care, sick leave, ab­sen­teeism and staff turnover. Most stress man­age­ment and preven­tion meth­ods fo­cus on ex­ter­nal fac­tors, lead­ing com­pa­nies to try to re­design their work­place en­vi­ron­ment and dy­nam­ics. Mind­ful­ness, by con­trast, seeks to change not the re­al­ity it­self, but the way in which the in­di­vid­ual per­ceives and ex­pe­ri­ences it. It also re­duces the brain’s lev­els of cor­ti­sol, a hor­mone re­lated to stress and makes it eas­ier to con­cen­trate, and sev­eral stud­ies have shown that it can re­lieve in­som­nia and boost the im­mune sys­tem.

The ca­pac­ity to de­velop and fo­cus your at­tenEMOTIONAL EF­FECTS. tion sub­stan­tially im­proves your emo­tional bal­ance, so that you can avoid im­pul­sive re­sponses. Richard David­son, a pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­ogy and Psy­chi­a­try at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sinMadi­son and a lead­ing ex­pert in the field of mind­ful­ness, has found that cul­ti­vat­ing full at­ten­tion and a con­scious re­sponse has a di­rect, pos­i­tive im­pact on six key emo­tional di­men­sions:

• Re­silience: rapid re­cov­ery in the face of neg­a­tive life events; • Out­look: com­mit­ment, op­ti­mism and sus­tained energy

lev­els, even in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances; • So­cial in­tu­ition: em­pa­thy, com­pas­sion and emo­tional in­tel

ligence in so­cial sit­u­a­tions; • Self-aware­ness: knowl­edge of your own feel­ings and emo

tions; • Con­text sen­si­tiv­ity: know­ing how to in­ter­pret the ex­ter­nal

en­vi­ron­ment and act­ing ac­cord­ingly; and • At­ten­tion: main­tain­ing fo­cus, aware­ness and feel­ings of

con­trol, even in ad­verse sit­u­a­tions.

Pos­i­tive Ef­fects in the Work­place

The above ef­fects tran­scend the in­di­vid­ual and can ben­e­fit the en­tire or­ga­ni­za­tion by rais­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity, en­hanc­ing de­ci­sion­mak­ing, boost­ing cre­ativ­ity and im­prov­ing so­cial re­la­tions and the work­place at­mos­phere. Let’s ex­am­ine each in turn.

Mind­ful­ness raises pro­duc­tiv­ity in a num­ber of PRO­DUC­TIV­ITY. ways. Full at­ten­tion in the present mo­ment leads to a state of im­proved con­cen­tra­tion, al­lows prac­ti­tion­ers to re­duce the ex­tent and fre­quency of their mind wan­der­ing, and en­ables them to main­tain fo­cus for longer pe­ri­ods of time. These ef­fects are es­pe­cially no­table in work­places where mul­ti­task­ing is the norm. Con­stantly shift­ing your at­ten­tion be­tween mul­ti­ple tasks has been shown to slow down per­for­mance and con­trib­utes to mak­ing more mis­takes.

A re­cent ar­ti­cle in the Fi­nan­cial Times quoted sev­eral high­pro­file ex­ec­u­tives from the world of fi­nance ex­tolling the ben­e­fits of mind­ful­ness prac­tices, in­clud­ing Philipp Hilde­brand, vice chair of Black­rock and a for­mer head of the Swiss Na­tional Bank, who said, “In a world of screens, texts, cell phones — in­for­ma­tion all over you — spend­ing 20 min­utes pur­pose­fully not think­ing about any­thing is a pause that re­freshes. In some ways in the fi­nan­cial world, it is a must.”

Not let­ting your­self be ruled by ev­ery sen­sa­tion, emo­tion or feel­ing that wells up in the course of a day saves valu­able time and energy. Why? Be­cause it avoids un­healthy ru­mi­na­tion — chew­ing on things that per­turb you over and over. By not dwelling on things, you re­duce your lev­els of emo­tional fa­tigue, which means you can de­vote more of your energy to­wards per­for­mance, rather than sweat­ing the small stuff.

Col­lec­tively, adopt­ing a pos­i­tive out­look, re­fus­ing to re­act au­to­mat­i­cally, and con­sciously choos­ing to ac­cept sit­u­a­tions strengthen re­silience, which trans­lates into a greater ca­pac­ity to adapt to chal­lenges as well as re­cover more swiftly when things don’t go as planned. Fur­ther­more, em­ploy­ees who are able to im­merse them­selves com­pletely in their work ac­tiv­i­ties dis­play more com­mit­ment and will­ing­ness to con­trib­ute to the pro­duc­tiv­ity of the or­ga­ni­za­tion. As such, mind­ful­ness pos­i­tively

in­flu­ences three as­pects of pro­duc­tiv­ity: vigour, ded­i­ca­tion and loy­alty.

The pro­duc­tiv­ity ben­e­fits of run­ning a work­place mind­ful­ness pro­gram have been demon­strated by a num­ber of or­ga­ni­za­tions. In the case of Gen­eral Mills, 83 per cent of those who par­tic­i­pated in its Mind­ful Lead­er­ship at Work course said they sub­se­quently took time each day to op­ti­mize their per­sonal pro­duc­tiv­ity, com­pared with 23 per cent who said they did so be­fore the course. In ad­di­tion, the num­ber of peo­ple who made a con­scious ef­fort to elim­i­nate tasks or meet­ings with lit­tle pro­duc­tive value in­creased from 32 to 82 per cent.

While we like to think that or­ga­ni­za­tional deDECISION MAK­ING. ci­sion-mak­ing is a ra­tio­nal process, in re­al­ity we know that our think­ing and rea­son­ing are un­avoid­ably shaped by un­con­scious, au­to­matic im­pulses and bi­ases. This is not al­ways a bad thing: when time is of the essence, such im­pulses al­low us to act quickly, with­out tax­ing our cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties and re­sources. How­ever, if cog­ni­tive short­cuts be­come the norm, this can lead us to act im­pul­sively, ne­glect im­por­tant de­tails and ig­nore al­ter­na­tive ways of ap­proach­ing a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion.

With a mind­ful at­ti­tude, we broaden our field of vi­sion and are able to iden­tify and adopt al­ter­na­tive ways of do­ing things. With our au­topi­lot de­ac­ti­vated, our de­ci­sion-mak­ing pro­cesses gain in terms of per­spec­tive and scope. This is par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant to dy­namic, fast-chang­ing en­vi­ron­ments, where un­cer­tainty rules. Some sug­gest that mind­ful­ness can also boost eth­i­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing. This is not to say that de­vot­ing your

full at­ten­tion nec­es­sar­ily makes you more eth­i­cal; how­ever, it does free up the men­tal space needed to en­sure that de­ci­sions are ap­proached from all an­gles — in­clud­ing an eth­i­cal one.

Re­turn­ing to the Gen­eral Mills sur­vey, 80 per cent of the par­tic­i­pants in the com­pany’s course on Cul­ti­vat­ing Lead­er­ship Pres­ence re­ported a pos­i­tive change in their abil­ity to make bet­ter de­ci­sions with more clar­ity, and another 89 per cent no­ticed an im­prove­ment in their lis­ten­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties. This is fur­ther ev­i­dence of a pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship be­tween mind­ful­ness and de­ci­sion-mak­ing that is more con­scious and strate­gic.

To the best of our knowl­edge, no stud­ies have yet es­CREATIVITY. tab­lished a di­rect re­la­tion­ship be­tween mind­ful­ness and work­place cre­ativ­ity, but there are in­di­ca­tions that such a link ex­ists. Har­vard re­searchers, for ex­am­ple, have demon­strated that mind­ful­ness can be a use­ful tool for pro­mot­ing greater cre­ativ­ity, flex­i­bil­ity and use of in­for­ma­tion in an ed­u­ca­tional set­ting. Given that at a neu­ro­log­i­cal level, the cul­ti­va­tion of at­ten­tion pro­motes new con­nec­tions and the de­vel­op­ment of lat­eral think­ing, it stands to rea­son that or­ga­ni­za­tions with mind­ful lead­ers would be more in­clined to­wards cre­ativ­ity and in­no­va­tion.

One of the world’s most cut­ting-edge com­pa­nies, Google, ob­vi­ously be­lieves that pro­mot­ing mind­ful­ness among its work­force could reap such ben­e­fits. It has been run­ning its pop­u­lar Search In­side Your­self pro­gram for sev­eral years, di­vided into three stages: at­ten­tion train­ing; self-aware­ness and self-mas­tery; and the de­vel­op­ment of use­ful men­tal habits. Those who have gone through the pro­gram give it high marks, and it is al­ways over­sub­scribed. Many claim it has changed their lives. Google’s Richard Fernán­dez told The New York Times how the class trans­formed his own work be­hav­iour: “I’m def­i­nitely much more re­silient as a leader. I lis­ten more care­fully and with less re­ac­tiv­ity in high-stakes meet­ings. I work with a lot of se­nior ex­ec­u­tives who can be very de­mand­ing, but that doesn’t faze me any­more. It’s al­most [like hav­ing] an emo­tional and men­tal ‘bank ac­count’. I’ve now got much more of a buf­fer there.”

As in­di­cated, by SO­CIAL RE­LA­TIONS AND WORK­PLACE AT­MOS­PHERE. im­prov­ing an in­di­vid­ual’s sense of well-be­ing, mind­ful­ness pro­motes pos­i­tive emo­tions, re­duces stress and in­creases em­pa­thy. Not sur­pris­ingly, this has a di­rect and pos­i­tive im­pact on so­cial re­la­tion­ships, which in turn has a con­ta­gious ef­fect on the wider work­place at­mos­phere. Ac­tive lis­ten­ing also en­hances commu- nica­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion, and re­duces in­ter­per­sonal con­flict. Mind­ful­ness seems to be par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive at pro­mot­ing pos­i­tive emo­tions when an in­di­vid­ual’s psy­cho­log­i­cal cap­i­tal — their hope, op­ti­mism and re­silience — is low. In other words, it ap­pears to help those who need it the most.

In clos­ing

The dis­course on what needs to be done to­day to de­velop ef­fec­tive lead­ers has changed markedly. Glob­al­iza­tion and con­stant tech­no­log­i­cal change have cre­ated volatil­ity, un­cer­tainty, chaos and am­bi­gu­ity, which in turn have gen­er­ated un­prece­dented lev­els of stress among ex­ec­u­tives and the or­ga­ni­za­tions they lead. Mus­ter­ing re­silience in this con­text re­quires tap­ping new re­serves of phys­i­cal and men­tal energy. For this rea­son, more and more com­pa­nies are de­cid­ing to launch their own mind­ful­ness pro­grams to bol­ster their em­ploy­ees’ re­silience.

In the words of mind­ful­ness prac­ti­tioner and for­mer Medtronic CEO Bill Ge­orge, now a Har­vard pro­fes­sor: “Mind­ful peo­ple make much bet­ter lead­ers than fre­netic, ag­gres­sive ones. They un­der­stand their re­ac­tions to stress and crises, and their im­pact on oth­ers. They are far bet­ter at in­spir­ing peo­ple to take on greater re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and at align­ing them around com­mon mis­sions and val­ues. As a re­sult, peo­ple fol­low their mind­ful ap­proach, and their or­ga­ni­za­tions out­per­form oth­ers over the long run.”

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