What does mindfulness have to do with leading change? More than you might expect.

It’s all in your head: Why change leaders need to be mindful


Change management isn’t just about transforming the systems and structures of your organisation – you have to transform the people within them. Going through a period of change requires a huge mental shift from both leaders and their staff. The difference is that leaders not only need to cope with this reinvention themselves, they also need to guide others through it.

To help your staff and yourself navigate the trials of an organisational change, consider mindfulness. A simple change of attitude can have powerful effects on how everyone copes with a transition. But how?

What does mindfulness mean in a business setting?

Mindfulness is, in its most basic terms, a non-judgemental awareness of your surroundings in the present moment. It’s a way to avoid the clutter and distraction of modern office life. By taking a step back and assessing a situation, in the moment, you can understand it without getting caught up in anxiety or emotion. You’re also less likely to fall into lazy mental habits.

Mindfulness is a way to avoid the clutter and distraction of modern office life.

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, authors Shawn Achor & Michelle Gielan define business mindfulness as “the awareness of events and potentialities within an environment,” and warn that “a lack of mindfulness robs everyone of the opportunity to see potential paths to success.”

Harvard professor of psychology Ellen Langer agrees, warning against the trap of falling into unaware habits in an interview with the New York Times. When you’re constantly making new assessments of a situation, rather than relying on habitual assumptions, you’re better placed to make sound business decisions.

Manish Chopra of McKinsey & Company writes that mindfulness and meditation have helped him to balance his time and energy better, cope more calmly with disappointments or difficulties, and redirect his focus from himself to others – all of which contribute to a better professional style.

“Post-meditation, I have experienced a real shift in how I focus my energies,” he says. “Despite the same, if not greater, pressures at work, I am enjoying more control and a greater sense of purpose in my daily and weekly activities.”

So what good is all this to you? Leaders who are managing an organisation through change can take advantage of mindfulness in two ways: for others, and for themselves.

Mindfulness can be as helpful to you as a leader as it is to the staff you lead.Mindfulness can be as helpful to you as a leader as it is to the staff you lead.

Mindfully leading others through change

Encouraging mindfulness in your staff helps them cope better with transition. It makes them more flexible and able to approach stressful or difficult situations with a calmer, more open-minded attitude. A good example of how mindfulness can be used to help steer a company through change is the work of Wendy Quan.

Quan is a change manager at Pacific Blue Cross, a health insurance company in British Columbia. In 2015 she released a report on her experiences overseeing a huge shift in the way the company worked. To make the transition easier on staff, she set up a program of weekly classes teaching meditation and mindfulness techniques for beginners.

It doesn’t take much to get your staff thinking mindfully about change. And when they do, it makes the process smoother.

The change project at Pacific Blue Cross took seven years to fully implement, and over that time the company’s staff struggled with the anxiety and uncertainty of the situation. Quan began a weekly meditation group in 2011 to help her colleagues become more resilient and deal with the stress of change.

She found that the participants reacted positively to the classes, saying they felt calmer and better able to put things in perspective. They told her they were better equipped to deal with the transition and approach the system change with a fresher perspective. By the end of 2014 the mindfulness classes, which had begun with just 12 participants, grew to 190 people – 26 per cent of the organisation.

Quan’s report shows how it doesn’t take much to get your staff thinking mindfully about organisational shifts, and that when they do, it makes the process smoother and the people involved happier.

You can lead your staff through change more easily when they're less stressed and more focused.You can lead your staff through change more easily when they’re less stressed and more focused.

Mindfully leading yourself through change

Mindfulness isn’t just a tool you can use to help guide your staff through change; it can also help you with your own journey. Going into a change period with a mindful way of thinking means you can avoid some of the difficulties that go along with it. According to the Association for Talent Development (ATD), professionals tend to fall into patterns of behaviour that they find effective in their particular situation. When the situation changes, however, these patterns are no longer helpful and need to be rearranged or scrapped entirely. This can be a scary and uncertain place to be in, which is why mindfulness becomes so valuable.

The ATD suggests the six following ways to deal with change in a mindful way:

Accept that change is real: You can’t really deal with change until you’ve acknowledged that it’s happening. Denying it or trying to cling on to the status quo will only make the transition more difficult and drawn out.

Be present: By fully engaging in the moment, you can accept the reality of change without giving in to the anxiety or resistance that can come with it. This puts you in a better position to deal with it effectively.

Change your perspective: The transition is going to happen, whatever you think about it. So why not view it as an opportunity, rather than an imposition?

Don’t take it personally: Change affects everyone. Even if you’re bearing the brunt of it in your organisation, it’s not an attack on you. Take a step back and look at what’s happening objectively.

Be resilient: Take things as they come, and move on once they’ve happened. Even if something is difficult, it’s not forever – and that’s even more true during a period of change.

Trust yourself: Have confidence in your ability to see this through. You’re a leader for a reason, and you’re leading this change because you have the skills to make it happen.

Successfully dealing with change in your organisation is more than just a case of having the right attitude. To really lead change, you need to understand it. ICML offers a Leading Change skills training course here in Melbourne that will take you through the different models that organisational change can follow, the reasons behind change and the best ways to lead your team through the disruption. We’ll give you the knowledge and skills you need to make leading change as easy and anxiety-free as it can be.

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