Maintaining focus can be difficult at the best of times, so how can you ensure you and your team remain on point when juggling multiple demands and challenges? Wendy Montague explains that the key is awareness.
24 hour connectivity, changing demands from customers, instant feedback and criticism through Twitter- all these can overwhelm our desire to spend time doing what is important. Things like having an effective coaching session with an employee, understanding the underlying needs of our customers or having great relationships with those we love.
Research shows that the mind wanders off on its own 47% of the time1! This means even without the distractions of the Internet, mobile phones and tablet devices, focussing on what is important is already hard to do. Psychologists have studied the negative impact of multitasking and identified that it can decrease productivity by up to 40%2. Maintaining busier lives can lead us to work on auto pilot, agreeing to things we don’t remember and saying things that don’t make sense.
For leaders in Australia, where over 50% of employees3 are working in a de-energising environment, reacting on auto pilot can cause even more harm. For leaders, evidence of mindlessness can be as innocent as over-relying on favourite people in the team, overlooking people with critical skills who happen to be geographically dispersed, and at its worst, making statements about the team or its members that degrade and humiliate them.
The challenge then becomes how do you keep your employees focussed and performing at their best without burning them out? Or worse, having them vote with their feet and leave. Developing mindfulness (and emotional intelligence more generally) is part of the solution.
Developing mindfulness for leaders and employees
How do we become more mindful? Why should we? Mindfulness is defined as the ‘ability to non-judgementally observe sensations, thoughts, emotions and the environment while, at the same time, encouraging openness, curiosity and acceptance.’ Statistical research on the effectiveness of mindfulness found significant benefits on improving health, quality of life and social functioning Lowered levels of stress, anxiety and even blood pressure were demonstrated in these studies4.
As the great teachers of Buddhism have taught, mindfulness, staying calm and focusing on what is important can help to combat the multiple pressures and distractions our brains can create for us. It’s important to realise that being busy is not the same as being effective. We see many leaders that suffer from task-saturation and never get to focus on the activities that make the difference for performance. Mindful leaders know how to prioritise and mindful employees deliver better work as a result of that. Taking ourselves away from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives to concentrate on those important things can increase productivity, improve our relationships and create better customer experiences. And lastly, having focus helps us to become resilient in the face of challenges and disruption.
So what can leaders and organisations do to facilitate a more mindful experience?
For leaders, the first step is to become more self-aware.
Be more self-aware
Dr. Richard Boyatzis, a professor and author on leadership, motivation and organisational behaviour, encourages us to become resonant leaders who embrace mindfulness, hope and compassion. Mindfulness begins with self-awareness. Knowing yourself and what is important enables you to make choices about how you respond to people and situations. It allows you to notice the subtle clues that tell you to attend carefully to yourself, to others or to your surroundings. Being mindful helps you see through the clutter and focus on the overall purpose. When you understand why you are doing something, you are more likely to deliver on it.
Dr. Boyatzis believes that once leaders are more self-aware they are able to inspire others by having consistent and positive relationships with their employees. It is about being mindful of other people and having genuine relationships where you feel in tune with the other person.
It’s not enough for a leader to overcome stress yourself – you also have to help your employees juggle varying priorities. This means helping your employees increase their self-efficacy, their belief in their ability to exert control over their environment. There have been studies that found increased self-efficacy in individuals reduces the risk of depression and mental illness, two of the most increasing occupational health risks of today.
As leaders, you can help increase self-efficacy in your employees by providing clarity around the purpose of the organisation and the role the employee plays in it. Leaders also need to make a clear link between the organisation’s values and employee’s personal values. This will help calm the noise of external distractions while providing the energy and drive to innovate and deliver high performance over the longer term.
Improve clarity and focus for your team
Here are a few things you as a leader can do to provide a more mindful environment for your people and reduce the risk of stress related mental illness:
- Reflect on the agenda you set for your meetings and the pace at which you have to operate to cover all items. Only keep those agenda items that require a meeting and ensure time and head space on the agenda to think laterally rather than just tick the boxes or follow the tried and tested ways
- Regularly review the priorities your employees are working on – are they overwhelmed with activities that are not important?
- Challenge your own assumptions about people in your team, treat the next encounter as if it was the first time you were meeting them
- Consider further development in emotional intelligence and resilience for yourself and your team members to help them to cope with the ongoing stresses of today’s work environment.
In summary, maintaining focus is and will continue to be a challenge for individuals and leaders. As leaders becoming more self-aware of how this environment is impacting you, empowering your people and focusing on the key priorities for your business are a few strategies you can employ to reduce stress and improve productivity of your team.
1Killingsworth, Matthew A. and Gilbert. Daniel T. (2010). A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind, Science, vol. 330, no 6006, p932.
2Rubenstein, Joshua; Meyer, David and Evans, Jeffrey (2001). Executive control of Cognitive Processes in Executive Switching, Journal of Experimental Psychology Human Perception and Performance 27(4) pp 763-797.
3Hay Group analysis of over 3000 leaders on leadership styles and organisational climate, 2014
4De Vibe, Michael; Bjørndal, Arild; Tipton, Elizabeth; Hammerstrøm, Karianne Thune and Kowalski, Krystyna (2012). Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for Improving Health, Quality of Life, and Social Functioning in Adults, The Campbell Collaboration.