In early 2018, Larry Fink, president of BlackRock Investments, with $6.8 trillion assets under management, mentioned in his annual newsletter to CEOs, “We are seeing a paradox of high returns and high anxiety. . . . To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.”
As a 30-year practitioner of corporate strategy, transformation and leadership development, I have long hoped companies would head in this direction. And as a co-owner and managing partner of Mindspace Well-being Center, which is dedicated to this vision, I remain optimistic. And yet I’ve also felt the heavy crosswinds in recent years. Business leaders are increasingly giving in to economic and workplace stress with a growing sense of urgency, resorting too often to short-sighted decision making rather than long-term stakeholder management.
Leaders and employees alike are feeling overwhelmed with information and the pace of change and societal demands. Until recently, they didn’t feel they had to remain attached at the hip to their mobile phones, checking email and texts, posting on social media, and staying on top of the overabundance of news and information⎯just to stay in the game.
Although people seem to be working harder than ever, research suggests otherwise. People just feel busier. Work just didn’t follow them home as easily.
It is not surprising that we are increasingly finding workplace disengagement, beyond 80% by most polls. The American Psychiatric Association identified a 35% rise in anxiety between 2016 and 2017 alone, translating into rising mental health costs, absenteeism and presenteeism.
As the stress and pace of work life increase, people tend to naturally shift into survival mode rather than into the strategic and innovative mindsets needed to nurture and sustain performance. While business leaders are ideally strategic, responsible and conscious of their impact on society, a threatened mind is often cognitively challenged, defensive, short-sighted and self-protective. These are not the qualities people hope to see in the leaders shaping our world.
As a management consultant, I’ve been witnessing this gradual shift by busy executives, who used to find time for strategic reflection, leadership development and management by walking around and other forms of space and perspective taking. Today, though, they are facing a world in which business leaders are often on call 24/7, overtaken by never-ending to-do lists, incoming messages, management systems that are constantly churning out performance objectives, and action plans that are increasingly focused on short-term imperatives/ The result? These executives are left with little time for real human-to-human interactions and space to refresh their brain.
Years of research in productivity have shaped organizations and society for making significant gains in efficiency, effectiveness and the accumulation of goods, services and wealth. Unfortunately, these gains are too often to the detriment of well-being, purpose and happiness.
Fears and insecurities linked to an overstimulated environment are now management’s worse enemy because such conditions shape an employee’s decision-making processes, the quality of his interpersonal connection and his own self-preservation. The brain simply has not evolved to keep pace with this constant level of activation. Sure, people can handle it all for a while, but eventually they need a break, and, for many, such breaks are increasingly difficult to take. When you think about it, it’s the first time in human history that the brain is so solicited, with very little time and space to recover. No wonder most people are so tired and overwhelmed at times.
I believe an inflexion point is at hand as a new generation of workers starts to resist this trend. They rightfully expect to be listened to, to collaborate, to be engaged in a higher purpose, to be aligned with their values and to find balance in their lives.
Fortunately, new business models such as Conscious Capitalism and B Corps are gaining in popularity in response to decades Economic Value doctrines. Increasingly, analysts, investors and leaders are realizing that their business models need fixing as they reach unsustainable growth with its related social impacts. The good news is that research is showing that these new business models happen to generate higher returns in the longer term, up to 10 times by some accounts.
But to sustain high levels of consciousness and mindfulness, a leader must avoid being handicapped by a cluttered, threatened mind. Conscious, mindful leaders need to develop mindful qualities such as being fully present, nonjudgmental and open to revisiting existing paradigms. Leaders with great responsibilities need to maintain focus and clarity when making their most important decisions, access creativity when transforming their organizations, show care for their customers, create psychologically safe environments for employees and act with courage to maintain their alignment with values and purpose.
Those leaders who develop these qualities are beginning to see a competitive edge. Of course, a brilliant strategy and flawless execution will continue to serve as a strong foundation for organizations.
So beyond KNOWING and DOING, I believe the next competitive edge will be around self-awareness or BEING, which means business leaders will:
Supported by research, mindfulness is rapidly gaining in popularity in corporations as a form of mind training to help deal with the pace and complexity of modern life. This training develops the notion of BEING and responding wisely rather than reacting from a place of perceived threat or fear.
So what is mindfulness exactly? It is often described as being in the present moment by choice to overcome automatic responses or reactivity. It helps to reduce mind wandering, which has a negative bias in perceiving the world and thus increases stress and reduces happiness. Mindfulness includes contemplative practices such as meditation, but it can be integrated as well into daily activities such as mindful walking, eating and listening to cultivate focus, attention and other forms of emotional regulation.
Increasingly, executive teams, lawyers, health care providers, armed forces and sports teams have embraced mindfulness practices, thereby unleashing untapped potential and increasing their well-being. Meanwhile, many organizations are now implementing strategies to develop mindfulness, targeting critical mindsets and skills such as focus, self-awareness, resilience, and well-being. And yet these mind management concepts remain innovative and foreign to many. It’s best then that organizations take small steps to first socialize the concept and get the necessary buy-in to help shape a new organizational culture.
Mindfulness and stress management are not rocket science, but they can seem counterintuitive at first as the mind is taught to slow down, increasingly remain in the present, refrain from judgment and explore rather than reject challenging emotions or situations.
Training the mind thus takes time and investment because mindsets, habits and behaviors are challenging to modify. There is fortunately both a need and an appetite to revisit how the mind works and can be best managed to first serve oneself, organizations and societies. This requires commitment, patience and curiosity. The benefits are well worth the investment. I wish you a wonderful discovery moving forward!
Carl Lemieux is a registered Workplace Psychologist and holds an Executive MBA. He is a qualified mindfulness instructor and managing partner for Workplace Well-being at the Mindspace Well-being Center in Montreal.