Not long ago, a CEO who openly practised meditation in the office might be considered weird, and a manager who urged employees to train their minds to be more self-aware on the job would be suspect.
But that’s changed. A slew of books published this year promote meditation for self-awareness as an aid to decision-making and leadership.
Managers are promoting mental-awareness techniques to help employees cut stress and improve communication. And executives are finding meditation helps them stay cool under fire.
Last fall, Kira Leskew found herself screaming on the phone to a supplier who’d failed to deliver a needed custom part.
“I got off the phone, so upset I didn’t want to talk to anybody,” the owner of Amberwood Doors Inc. in Toronto recalls.
She retreated to her car and tried a meditation technique she’d been studying. “Using breathing to calm down, I went into feel space,” she explains.
“Essentially I paid attention to how I felt, and named my emotions: I felt hurt, upset, let down and embarrassed. Within a few minutes, I had a realization of what was really bothering me: I was breaking my word to my customer.”
Within 30 minutes, she was back at the office “with a lightness in feeling. I was ready to call my customer, from a calm place, and deal with whatever their reaction was with compassion and grace.”
When she offered to teach the mindful meditation approach to her employees, eight of 10 agreed. After just four one-hour sessions spread two weeks apart, she says she saw a notable increase in teamwork, respect and support.
Interest in meditation at work is growing as part of employers’ focus on workplace well-being, and it’s led to the creation of employee meditation rooms and classes at companies such as Apple, Google and AOL Time Warner.
“Beyond the trite fluff in self-help books about self-affirmation or optimism as a route for success, there’s solid research that proves meditation can be effective at making leaders better and employees more effective,” says Jamie Gruman, associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ont.
He’s chairman of the board of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association, founded in Toronto last year, that offers monthly Web seminars on leadership topics such as defeating pessimism.
He cites studies that conclude meditation can improve memory, intelligence, creativity, concentration and attention. “Other research shows people who meditate suffer from less stress, are less rigid in their thinking and are less likely to have overly emotional reactions to difficulties,” he says. “All of these things are qualities of effective working and management decision making.”
“Taking a timeout to meditate will clarify options and help set a course when you’re not clear on the best direction to go next,” says Frances Kampouris, executive coach and leadership consultant at Redville, Strategies for Transitions in Toronto.
For clients, she does a guided meditation urging executives to envisage taking a walk in a park or along a country path. “I leave them at a fork in the road and let them decide in the next few minutes which way to go. It sounds very West Coast, but people find it helps clarify options and choose between them,” she says.
What’s also made meditation more mainstream is stripping out the religious context, explains Maria Gonzalez, president of Argonauta Strategic Alliances Consulting in Toronto and author of Mindful Leadership.
Like yoga, meditation can be done as an exercise or as a spiritual practice. As an awareness exercise, a broader base of people will accept it, she explains.
Another advantage of what’s commonly termed mindful meditation is that it doesn’t require a rigid schedule. With regular practice it becomes part of people’s daily work routine, adds Ms. Gonzalez, who does one-day and half-day seminars in meditation for businesses.
“The majority of people think of meditation as an effort to create an empty mind or push away thoughts that are bothering you. But the goal of mindful meditation is to become aware of what’s going on in your mind and accepting it,” she explains.
“With training you can allow thoughts to just flow through you. If you have a negative thought, that’s okay, you learn to continue to listen to the other person rather than focusing on your own irritation.”
The average business meeting is a good example of why sharpening your awareness is a growing need in business, she notes. “In many conversations. neither side is fully there for the discussion. It’s become a constant that people are trying to multitask and holding their BlackBerrys under the table at meetings and never focusing on the issue at hand.”
Learning the mindful meditation technique has helped Kerry Harman deal much more calmly with multiple demands from clients and supervisory responsibilities with other advisers in her role as portfolio manager for Burgeonvest Bick Securities Ltd. in Toronto.
“If I’m going into a difficult meeting or run into a snag on a project, I’ll close my eyes and become fully aware of my body. I do a check on whether my mind is racing, what thoughts are going on in my head and what emotions I feel rising,” she says.
One effective technique is called “calming the noise,” she says. “I focus on one item and let all the other impulses and sensations fade into background noise. It allows me to keep my brain in focus and avoid getting distracted,” Ms. Harman says.
You can still have negative feelings but the goal is not to allow them to derail the conversation. “Sometimes you get annoyed, and you have to let people know that. But there’s a difference between letting people know you don’t like something and acting out like a child.”
“It comes down to being okay with how things are right now, in the flow of the moment with a clear mind and being distracted by the past and things that aren’t immediately important,” Ms. Harman says.
“What I’ve discovered by meditating is that even when you feel most anxious, the feeling isn’t permanent. Bad emotions will go away if you don’t focus on them.”