Many of today’s organizations are chaotic if not outright toxic for employees and leaders alike. There are multiple reasons why chaotic workplaces are proliferating. With mega-mergers and globalization, some corporations are becoming vaster and impersonal, while simultaneously recurring waves of job cuts have left companies lean and left individuals with workloads greater than is reasonably feasible over the long haul. Instead of rewarding long-term planning, expediency is demanded.

Add in a leader who ignores the human toll, and the result is often a chaotic workplace. Creative and innovative ideas—the factors that drive the best corporations—are, ironically, stifled; employees are alienated; people get sick.

Mindfulness practices can restore some balance and calm to these chaotic workplaces if embraced by leaders.

Toxic and Chaotic Workplaces

According to Jeffrey Pfeffer, American business theorist and the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, when it comes to the link between people and profits, companies get exactly what they deserve. Companies that treat their people right get enormous dividends—high rates of productivity, and low rates of turnover. Companies that treat their people poorly experience the opposite— and end up complaining about the death of loyalty and the dearth of talent. These are "toxic workplaces," according to Pfeffer, the author of The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First.

Ray Williams
Source: Ray Williams

Signs of A Toxic and Chaotic Workplace:

  1. All sticks and no carrots. Management focuses solely on what employees are doing wrong or correcting problems, and rarely give positive feedback for what is going right.
  2. The creeping bureaucracy. There are too many levels of approval and management to get things done.
  3. The gigantic bottom line. A singular focus on profits, beating the competition and cost cutting without consideration of other bottom lines.
  4. When bullies rule the roost. Bullying of employees by management, or tolerated by management when it occurs among employees.
  5. Losing the human touch. People are considered to be objects, with little concern for their happiness and/or well-being.
  6. High levels of employee disengagement, stress, turnover, absenteeism, burnout, and mental health issues.
  7. Rampant multitasking by employees and managers.
  8. A focus on “fixing” employees instead of structuring healthy workplaces.

The Leader’s Emotional Brain

Effective leadership involves the regulation of one’s own emotions. Furthermore, it involves an understanding of and an ability to influence the positive emotions of others despite the ambiguity, setbacks, or fears that they might otherwise face.

Using the terminology of emotional intelligence, balance is achieved by promoting the positive emotions associated with optimism and excitement, while keeping more disruptive negative emotions such as anxiety, selfishness, fear, and anger, in check.

We've long known that stress affects performance. Studies by Matt Lieberman show that the brain has just one main "braking system," sitting behind the left and right temple, which is used for all types of braking—mental, physical and emotional.

These studies show that the braking system is activated when one labels an emotion in simple words. Yet, in our culture, people prefer not to talk about emotions, and tend to suppress them instead. But suppressing an emotional expression backfires, making the emotion more intense, affecting memory and creating a threat response in others. In short, our intuitive strategies for regulating emotions (not talking about them) do exactly the opposite of what we intend, leaving us less capable of dealing with the world adaptively. Leaders, who deal with intense emotions all day, could do well to develop emotional regulation techniques that truly keep them cool under pressure.

Leadership researchers have suggested that leaders' emotions may influence followers in ways that impact leadership effectiveness. Specifically, research on leader positive emotion and affect suggests that leader emotional displays may influence followers either by motivating them because they convey positivity, or because they are contagious and engender positive emotions in followers that guide their behavior.

This research also shows that displays of a leader’s positive emotions were associated with high ratings of charismatic leadership and more positive affect in followers. Similarly, expressions of positivity by leaders led to higher ratings of transformational leadership. A yet unanswered question in this arena is whether such leaders are predisposed to the aforementioned emotional behavior and whether such capacities can be developed. Preliminary evidence suggests that the brains of optimistic leaders may indeed be different.

Other research has suggested that negative emotions are stronger than positive emotions. Rick Hanson sees it as two metaphors. Negative emotions pass through our brains and stick like “Velcro” and positive emotions pass through our brains and pass through like “Teflon.”

The most likely implication of these results is that leaders bear the primary responsibility for knowing what they are feeling and therefore, managing the contagion that they infect in others. It requires a heightened emotional self-awareness. This means having techniques to notice the feelings; label or understand what they are; and then signal yourself that you should do something to change your mood and state. Merely saying to yourself that you will “put on a happy face” or “keep your chin up,” does not hide the fact they you are unconsciously transmitting your real feelings to others around you.

Leaders are infecting others around them with specific feelings. Some of those feelings help them to perform better and innovate and some are debilitating and inhibit adaptive thinking. Remember, negative feelings, even the unconscious ones, will easily overwhelm positive ones. Leaders, because of their position of power, have a greater affect on others in a social or work environment. Being able to change their internal state might be one of the most powerful techniques they can learn in becoming an effective leader—one who inspires others to learn adapt and perform at their best.

In addition to empathizing with the emotions of followers, effective leaders also need to regulate and control their own emotions for a variety of reasons. For example, leaders may need to suppress negative emotions in certain situations such as anger toward a follower in order to avoid unhealthy conflict or confrontation. On the other hand, a leader may need to suppress positive emotions, such as liking or attraction toward specific followers, to avoid claims of favoritism. Other examples include the leader needing to offer or praise to motivate followers, or to be particularly calm during times of crisis. Although emotion regulation can carry some negative consequences due to emotional labor, it is generally considered to be an adaptive behavior to leader–follower communication.

How Mindfulness Can Help Transform Workplace Culture

Regular practices of mindfulness give leaders a different perspective on their world, opening them up to ways of being which are both more focused on what matters and more observant and appreciative of what is there. Paradoxically, becoming more present enables leaders to see reality more clearly and act more purposefully and with less of their own stuff getting in the way. This is one of a number of paradoxes which we often see operating in mindful leadership: to open up for change, it is necessary to sometimes stop striving to change things; to empower others, stop talking and listen from a different place; to go forward effectively, notice the present; to achieve things, stop doing and start being.

The ratio of investing in Mindfulness training has been found to be 1 to 2.5-5.0 according to a study by Tage Sondergaard Kristensen of Corporate Based Mindfulness Training IF Insurance, based in the Netherlands.  He observed a 19 percent decrease in stress, 37 percent increase in productivity, 40 percent increase in focus, 34 percent increase in emotional control and 37 percent decrease in overwhelm.  Stephanie Tate’s study with a Fortune 500 knowledge workforce found participants in six-to-nine-week mindfulness course experience a 42 percent stress reduction, improvement in productivity, time management and job satisfaction.

Studies have documented that regular mindfulness practice elicits better attentional capabilities and more positive emotional states, mediated through neuroplastic changes in key parts of the brain involved in cognitive and emotional functioning. Mindfulness changes our intentions (making us better at self-regulation and more compassionate toward self and others); changes our attentional capacities enabling us to sustain attention for longer; switches attention more deftly when needed and inhibits unnecessary secondary processing; and finally mindfulness enhances positive emotions.

A substantial group of researchers have focused on the attentional benefits of mindfulness practices. Many of us find it hard to focus our attention on one thing. For example, in a typical meeting, our minds are thinking about lunch and the weekend and whether that remark 10 minutes ago by the CEO should be taken personally, despite our efforts to focus on an issue being discussed.

A range of other studies focus on the emotional benefits of regular mindfulness practice. For example, mindfulness changed habits of stress attribution, improving coping and emotional well-being. Other researchers have been particularly interested in the quality of cognitive processing such as capacities to take perspective, embrace unexpected data and make ethical decisions. For some of these psychological researchers, mindfulness is seen as a metacognitive skill involving thinking about one’s habits of thinking. In two separate but related studies, these researchers found that low mindfulness was associated with the presence of self-serving cognitive justifications, self-deception and unconscious biases, in turn supporting unethical conduct such as cheating. In contrast were those who rated high on mindfulness and were more likely to uphold ethical standards and adopt a principled approach to decision-making.

Finally, a group of researchers, many of whom are part of the positive psychology movement, have documented the ways in which mindfulness mediates feelings of happiness, gratitude, joy and compassion for others. These studies generally show a correlation between mindful practices and feelings of personal well-being, the capacity to manage stress and to have a positive, appreciative outlook on life which is less subject to the ups and downs of events.

Pressures on Leaders

Leaders are facing what seem to be increased pressures to do more with fewer resources. They have heavy workloads and are sometimes charged with letting go of good people or making other difficult decisions. Many feel they are on the edge, close to breaking. They can’t see another way forward though they may fantasize about escape. Sometimes their personal relationships are under intense strain. Relations with family and friends, as well as health, are often the casualties of the cult of workaholism.

Leaders lose sight of the pleasure and satisfaction they may have gained from work, instead feeling ground down. When we explore some of the pressures they are under, and some of these effects, their first response can be “But that’s just leadership isn’t it? That’s the job?”

Among the reasons why many of these leaders seem to find mindfulness useful is that they can, very directly in a workshop setting or even better, over a couple of days, get an experience of being quieter and stiller, despite the chaos. Even briefly, this experience of observing their thoughts about the situation rather than being captured in them, opens up an option that wasn’t there before: that they can choose their reaction. Seemingly simple but also profound, in the short term there may be no change to what’s happening to us or around us. Mindfulness simply allows us to be with those happenings in a less reactive way.

Associated with mindfulness and its reduced reactivity, is the possibility of letting go of some things. Many leaders carry around in their heads ideas like “I can’t let them down” or “it’s my job to do those difficult things”. Frequently these are punitive ideas or beliefs, which are actually not functional or useful any more. In letting go of them, leaders often find they are of more use to the people around them because their interactions are not overshadowed by these “shoulds.”

A beautiful quality that sometimes unfolds with groups of leaders experimenting with mindfulness is appreciativeness. Whether it’s in newly formed groups of strangers or intact leadership teams, the processes of slowing down and listening more fully and deeply means that people hear things from others that they would ordinarily miss. As the research has shown, mindfulness helps people notice and step back from default responses such as biases and stereotypes. I’ve seen management teams “see” one of their members as if meeting a new person with a whole range of previously overlooked contributions. I’ve also seen people share profound things about themselves with others who are strangers, a process which often ushers in for both parties a deep appreciation of the common humanity, and common experiences.

In tough economic times, there's often a knee-jerk reactive argument for panic, pessimism and "getting tough" most of which generate a culture of fear. Mindfulness, practiced extensively in organizations, can be a powerful antidote to the fear and aggression tendencies. Buddhist-trained HR executive Michael Carroll, author of The Mindful Leader: Awakening Your Natural Management Skills through Mindfulness Meditation, applies the key principles of mindfulness and how they could apply to leaders of organizations. He argues that mindfulness in leaders and their organizations can:

  •  Heal toxic workplace cultures where anxiety and stress impede creativity;
  • Cultivate courage and confidence in spite of workplace difficulties in economic downturns;
  • Pursue organizational goals without neglecting the here and now;
  • Lead with wisdom and gentleness, not only with ambition, relentless drive and power;
  • Develop innate leadership talents.

For leaders to become self-aware, they need to understand their life stories, and reflect on how their life stories and crucibles contribute to their motivations and their behaviors. Leaders who do not take time for introspection and reflection on their life stories and experiences are more vulnerable to being overly influenced by external rewards such as power, money, and recognition. These leaders also may feel a need to appear so perfect to others that they cannot admit vulnerabilities and acknowledge their mistakes.

Leaders learn to accept their weaknesses, failures, and vulnerabilities, just as they appreciate their strengths and successes. In so doing, they gain compassion for themselves and the ability to relate to the world around them in authentic ways. This frees them from the need to adopt pretenses to impress other people.

Leaders with low EQ often lack self-compassion. Without self-compassion, it is difficult to feel compassion and empathy for others. These leaders have a tendency to use or manipulate other people, particularly those with less perceived power. As a result, they are unable to establish authentic relationships that can be sustained over time. Leaders who develop self-awareness and self-compassion are better able to cope with high levels of stress and pressure. They maintain the capacity to empower people to perform at a very high level even under very difficult circumstances.

If we’ve reached a tipping point in workplace leadership, it’s because a new generation of workers has arrived on the scene that simply won’t tolerate a work environment that fails to support them and their needs. Said another way, organizations will be unable to attract and retain this young talent if they don’t adopt far more authentically supportive management practices. 

What can leaders do, who a are prepared embrace mindfulness practices, that can help transform a chaotic workplace into one that is more productive and enhances the wellbeing of employees? Here are the common elements of mindfulness, with suggested leadership behaviors that can make a substantial difference.

How Mindful Leaders Incorporate the Elements of Mindfulness

Being Present

  • At meetings restrict use of mobile phones so people can focus on the present;
  • Prior to meetings and discussions, meditate quietly on the leader’s intentions;
  • Restrain the impulse to rush through discussions to get on with the next meeting or event;
  • Avoid over-scheduling meetings;
  • Engage in the practice of having the leader and other participants in meetings/discussions “check in” with how they are feeling;
  • Encourage others and engage in active and empathetic listening;
  • Structure reflection, quiet and “do nothing” times for self and employees;
  • Create “quiet time” spaces for employees to meditate, have downtime, and nap during working hours.

Paying Attention

  • Restrict practices of multitasking;
  •  In meetings, practice seeking clarification and understanding different perspectives before responding;
  • Encourage informal practices that reinforce one’s and others’ ability to focus attention.

Openness

  • Structure meetings and discussions that encourage a healthy receptivity to different perspectives;
  • Practice “beginners’ mind” and curiosity;
  • Approach people with an open heart as well as an open mind.

Acceptance

  • Accept one’s feelings and emotions without judgment without trying to block or evade them;
  • Accept others’ feelings and emotions without judgment or automatic reactivity;
  • Separate the reality of how emotions can drive behaviour;
  • Separate behavior from judgment of character.

Non-reactivity

  • Understand how unconscious emotional reactions can control behavior of self and others;
  •  Learn and master emotional regulation so that the cognitive brain can balance emotional reactivity;
  • Learn how to intentionally respond rather than unconsciously react;
  • Understand and recognize one’s emotional triggers.

Compassion

  •  Demonstrate and practice empathy and compassion for employees and colleagues, rather than criticism and judgment, particularly when mistakes or failures occur;
  •  Practice self-compassion when mistakes or failures occur rather than engaging in mistakes or failures;
  •  Embrace social responsibility as an equal obligation to financial success for the organization;
  • Practice one’s and encourage others to practice gratitude for success and small positive gains.

Non-attachment

  • Resist the temptation to be rigidly attached to outcomes based upon past experiences;
  • Have positive expectations without needing things to look and be a certain way;
  • Be open to a variety of possible outcomes.

To read more about how leaders can use mindfulness practices to transform chaotic workplaces, read my book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces.

Copyright, 2016 by Ray Williams. This article may not be reproduced or published without permission from the author. If you share it, please give author credit and do not remove embedded links.

To read more of my posts on this blog, click here
 Join me on Twitter@raybwilliams. 
I also write at The Financial Post, and Fulfillment Daily and Business.com

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