Mindlessness: The invisible line item in your budget

Thought Leadership on The Neuroscience Of Leadership presented by Zero Point Leadership.

Have you ever driven somewhere and not remembered how you got there, or zoned out while walking to the coffee shop on your mid-morning break? Times like these demonstrate what a good job our autopilot does of taking care of us. However, when you need to engage in higher-order thinking to solve complex problems and make effective decisions, your autopilot is not who you want in the cockpit.

Critical thinking involves the evaluation of information without bias from previous experiences. It is a non-automatic response. Automatic responses come from regions of our brain that are below conscious awareness — where hard-wired habits are stored. When you engage these areas of the brain, you decrease openness to new information and your awareness of more than one perspective. This tendency to operate on autopilot and not pay attention to context and new things in your environment is mindlessness. And you are paying a big price for it.

Mindlessness and absolutes

Like attaching clothes on a clothesline, we fasten words and ideas to everything. It is these associations that dictate how you experience the world around you, because they cause you to label what is good or bad, based on a perception you learned earlier in life. Unfortunately, these labels become absolutes. We are all mindlessly driven by these absolutes about how people, places and things are. This provides us with a feeling of certainty. Your memories serve as stereotypes so that you are able to make sense of the world, allowing you to take a few pieces of data and lump them into a category you created in the past. What was true before becomes true today and directs our decisions. No one has ever experienced the same moment more than once. However, it often doesn’t occur to us that what we learned about what worked at a previous moment in time may not be applicable to the present moment.

Most people are not aware of how frequently they operate from a mindless state. Ellen Langer, a social psychologist from Harvard University, and the mother of mindfulness, states “all of our suffering — personal, interpersonal, professional and societal — either directly or indirectly stem from mindlessness.” One challenge is that mindlessness is the path of least resistance, making it an incredibly seductive state of mind. Our brains have evolved to reserve energy by transferring behaviors as quickly as possible to non-conscious habit regions so that they can be executed without having to think about it. Advertisers do an excellent job of taking advantage of this phenomenon. Retailers thrive off of mindless and impulsive shoppers, for example. Neuroscientists estimate that most of our thoughts, feeling, behaviors and decisions are generated outside of conscious awareness approximately 95% of the time.

Cultivating mindfulness: a leader’s most important job

The opposite of mindlessness is mindfulness. Langer describes mindfulness as actively noticing new things and being sensitive to context. She states that it involves novelty and questioning assumptions. Research tells us that when we are mindful, people find us more charismatic, more attractive and more appealing. People trust us more when we are present and actively paying attention in the moment.

Trust is the foundation of engagement in the workplace. Gallup reports 70% of American employees are disengaged, which they estimate costs between $450 billion to $550 billion each year in lost productivity. Findings in mindfulness research also inform us that people prefer products that are developed mindfully, rather than mindlessly, even though the differences may be very subtle.

Social psychologist Kirk Brown discovered that people who scored higher on a mindfulness scale have more self-control and decreased stress levels than people who scored lower on mindfulness. Not only is stress the #1 proxy killer, it costs U.S. companies $200 billion to $300 billion per year in lost productivity. There appears to be a strong business case for addressing mindlessness in organizations.

Neuroscientific studies show that you activate regions of your brain that cause you to see, hear, feel and sense more information when you are mindful. Food even tastes better. In many ways, the most important role you have as a leader is to cultivate mindfulness, both within yourself and your workforce. When employees aren’t present, they aren’t able to know they have checked out. This is a big challenge to creating a high-performing, innovative company that is flexible and adaptive in the face of ongoing disruptive change.

Mindful workplaces foster mindful thinking. To solve problems in a different way than they were solved — or created — in the past, you have to focus attention on changing how people think, rather than changing the environment. It is not the environment that is usually the barrier to change; it is rigid mindsets about the environment.

“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose,
in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Having your employees slow down on purpose and learn to focus their attention may seem at odds with the high-speed, results-driven nature of many corporate cultures. However, when something is shown to increase productivity, decrease stress levels, decrease absenteeism, improve memory and concentration, enhance communication skills and cooperative teamwork, increase innovative thinking and creativity, and improve the ability to keep cool under pressure, it may be time to stop and mindfully smell the roses.

This is exactly what companies like Google, General Mills, Aetna and Target have done. Leaders at these companies recognized the importance of mindfulness to their bottom line and have successfully implemented mindfulness programs within their workplaces. The U.S. Army and U.S. Marines have embraced mindfulness as well, as a tool for decreasing stress and optimizing performance.

Getting started

There are many ways to cultivate mindfulness in your workplace. You can start by encouraging self-check-ins at the beginning of meetings, noticing three new things each day, or beginning your morning by pausing to pay attention to five deep breaths. You can practice mindfulness while eating or do a walking meditation. Another easy mindfulness practice is to direct and maintain your attention on the sensations of your foot making contact with the floor for a period of time.

There are many ways to increase mindfulness without feeling like you have to take 45 minutes out of your day to focus on your breath. However, research does show that a regular daily mindfulness practice between 10 and 30 minutes is powerful attention and resilience training, leading to significant increases in productivity in the workplace. Engaging in this kind of practice not only leads to an increase in dispositional mindfulness throughout the day, it rewires the brain for better performance and healthier levels of physical and mental well-being.

To learn more about integrating mindfulness into your workplace, contact Zero Point Leadership today.

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