Mindfulness has become the corporate fad du jour, a practice widely touted as a fast-track to better leadership. But we suspect that not all the benefits laid at its feet actually belong there. Our research and analysis has revealed a complicated relationship between mindfulness and executive performance—one that is important for leaders to understand as they seek to develop in their careers.
Mindfulness is a method of shifting your attention inward to observe your thoughts, feelings, and actions without interpretation or judgment. A mindfulness practice often begins simply by focusing on your breath, noticing when your mind wanders, and then bringing it back to your breath. As you strengthen your ability to concentrate, you can then shift to simply noting your inner experience without getting lost in it at any point in your day. The benefits attributed to this kind of practice range from stronger relationships with others to higher levels of leadership performance.
Take, for example, Sean, a senior leader at a Fortune 100 corporation. He will tell you that mindfulness played a critical role in transforming his career. He had been experiencing a serious performance plateau that was, he learned, an effect of his micromanaging and intimidating his direct reports. Obsessed with hitting his quarterly targets, he had pushed his people as much as they could stand and his team’s output was at a standstill. He feared being fired, or having to quit because of burnout from anxiety overload.
And mindfulness, Sean says, saved him. After an intensive training in the practice, he was better able to stop himself when his impulse was to jump in and control, and instead adopt a more supportive style, letting subordinates take on more responsibility. As he got better at managing his own anxious impulses, the resulting atmosphere dropped the gauge on stress for everyone. His direct reports trusted him more and did better quality work. Instead of quitting or being fired, he was promoted.
Sean was one of 42 senior leaders from organizations throughout the world who practice mindfulness and whom one of us (Matt Lippincott) studied at the University of Pennsylvania. They too attributed a wide array of benefits to their practice, including:
Stronger relationships with superiors, peers, and subordinates
Better project outcomes
Improved crisis management
Increased budgets and team headcount
Being trusted with sensitive organizational information
Positive performance reviews
One executive even reported that as a result of his mindfulness practice his co-workers stopped turning around and walking in the other direction when they saw him coming!
But mindfulness isn’t magic; what was the mechanism at work in these executives’ transformations? One tipoff: several executives in the study reported getting feedback from colleagues that described improvements in areas like empathy, conflict management, and persuasive communication. These, it turns out, are what one of us (Dan) has described as core emotional intelligence competencies.
This connection with emotional intelligence was underscored in the interviews Matt conducted with the study participants themselves. Rather than describing a direct correlation between their mindfulness practice and increased performance, the leaders talked about increased self-awareness that led them to change certain behaviors. Those behaviors tracked with those Dan describes in the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI), an established rubric for gauging emotional intelligence. It is through improvement in competencies related to emotional intelligence, in fact, that mindfulness makes executives more effective leaders.
In Sean’s case, his mindfulness practice made him more aware of his own high levels of anxiety, and how that tended to impair his thinking. He realized that he had harshly high standards for himself at work, and held everyone else to these same rigid, perfectionistic expectations — for instance, that people, including himself, should be able to endure extreme workplace demands. By becoming aware of these tendencies, he also saw that while his workaholic ethic had gotten him his position, as a leadership strategy it no longer worked for him. Because it was well-nigh impossible for anyone to meet his unrealistic performance expectations — and he would berate them when they didn’t — there was a quiet rebellion brewing on his team and progress was at a standstill. With this understanding, he was able to identify two competencies where he could improve: self-awareness and self-management.
As a result, he adjusted his expectations to be more realistic, and sought his team’s input in setting their goals. These shifts led him to improve in other emotional competence areas as well. Sean began to listen attentively to his team members rather than just dictating what to do — ratcheting up his empathy. He adopted a more positive view of his direct reports and their abilities to reach targets, seeing them as allies rather than problems, an upgrade of the positivity in his outlook. He built trust by speaking of his own fears and vulnerabilities more openly, and spoke from his heart more, which inspired his team. We’ve seen in past research that improvement in these competency areas — achievement, conflict management, empathy, positive outlook, and inspiration — improve a leader’s effectiveness, and Sean’s case bore that out.
The exercise of mindfulness started Sean down the path of improvement as a leader; it allowed him to see where he needed to improve and allowed him to become self-aware enough to modify his actions. But the improvements themselves were in the realm of emotional intelligence.
We believe that by focusing on mindfulness-as-corporate-fad, leaders run the risk of missing other opportunities to develop their critical emotional skills. Instead, executives would be better served by deliberately assessing and improving their full range of emotional intelligence capabilities. Some of that work may well involve mindfulness training and practice, but it can also include formal EQ assessment and coaching. Other tools and approaches include role-playing, modeling other leaders you admire, and rehearsing in your mind how you might handle emotional situations differently. By understanding that the mechanism behind mindfulness is the improvement of broader emotional intelligence competencies, leaders can more intentionally work on all of the areas that will have the strongest impact on their leadership.