Mindfulness – an unhelpful cliché that misses the point

Mindfulness and the broader topic of employee well-being has swept onto the development agenda over the last couple of years.  In its wake are thousands of managers frantically trying to jump on the bandwagon.

Happier employees work harder, stay longer and deliver better results.  A study in December concluded that “Happiness seems to motivate greater effort, increasing output without affecting its quality and thus boosting productivity”.

Mindfulness, strictly speaking, is a form of meditation.  If that makes you happy then great, but recognise that the things that make others happy are many and varied.  A run in a city in the morning when the sun is coming up makes me happy.  Variety in my work and certainty about the future also makes me happy.  For an employer who gives me all three I’ll work harder and stay longer!

The issue with the ‘mindfulness’ cliché is that it risks turning employee happiness and well-being into a fad.  The most successful organisations have been investing in employee well-being for years, and they’ll continue to do so once ‘mindfulness’ disappears from the front pages of the newspapers.

The majority of organisations however will jump on the ‘mindfulness’ bandwagon, throw a bit of money at someone who will demonstrate meditation techniques, be disappointed at the results, declare it a failure and contribute to the decline of employee well-being as an area of focus.

If you really want to make the people in your team happy, try understanding what motivates them and then working with them to make practical changes to the work environment.

That’s not ‘mindfulness’, it’s good leadership.

Leadership development in action: Nyomi’s story

Just under a year ago we completed a 2 year high potential (HIPO) development programme with Shred-it, the the world’s leading secure information destruction company and part of Stericycle Inc.

We welcomed participants from across Shred-it’s EMEAA operations, from the UK, Ireland, Germany and South Africa to a programme that would equip them to be leaders of the future, by focusing on enhancing their understanding of business and what it takes to lead and inspire others.

Nyomi Loftus joined the programme as an Internal Sales Representative.  Throughout the programme she proved herself to be inquisitive, bold and humble.  We were delighted to hear from Nyomi recently with an update on her progress.

Firstly I wanted to get in touch to say a massive thank you for the work you did with me during the HIPO program.

Since the program finished I applied and got a position as an Internal Sales Team Leader.  I have now been in the role for 6 months. During that time I have been consistently looking back over the material that we covered.

I have grown my team from 5 people to 8 and managed to drive their performance to now being consistently over 120% to target.

Yesterday I passed my probation and it got me thinking about the true value achieved from taking part in your training.

I am sure you will pleased to hear that I am now the proud owner of a reflections diary.

Overall, I believe that the program came at the perfect time for me, it really helped me cement some focus when the rest of my life was very difficult.

When I think back to Nyomi that did the interviews for that programme, I see a totally different person both personally and professionally.

Hope you are doing well and imparting your wisdom on other professionals.

I thank you and everyone else involved in the program for helping me to understand my true potential.

Nyomi Loftus  |  Internal Sales Team Leader

Stericycle, Inc.

Thanks Nyomi for letting us share your story, congratulations on your success, and the very best of luck for the future!

“Cream will rise” – how not to manage a merger

The old adage that ‘Cream rises to the top’ is absolutely correct but some organisations stretch this too far and expect this natural biological process to work as a metaphor within their business whilst providing no catalyst or enabling framework.

We were asked recently to engage with a fairly large City organisation that had recognised the changing world and sought to establish competitive advantage through the acquisition of an aligned but very different business.  The parent business was typified as “solid, dependable, mature, and risk averse” and was operating within the tail-end of its growth curve, leveraging long-held relationships to seek to extend what had been an extended period of profitability.  The acquisition was a maverick new entrant with a high focus on challenge, change and service.  It could be typified as “dynamic, aggressive, competitive, risk-taking.”

As a pairing they had a fantastic opportunity to maintain and capture market share through a diversified service offering and segmented approach and that indeed was the case for a few years until the leadership team decided that the commercial opportunities could be leveraged more effectively through a comprehensive merger.

Everything about the two businesses was different – their culture, their working practices, their strategies, their people, even their offices; so we were asked to help create an alignment strategy that would build on the best of each and propel the combined entity into a commercial and reputational position that neither could achieve independently.

Part way through this the CEO decided that managing the alignment was too complex and proposed an ‘organic merger strategy’ which in essence meant – “put the two together and the cream will rise”.  By this he meant that the best leaders would emerge and take control of the situation, driving performance and thereby saving the need for a complex change strategy.

He went ahead with this plan and lo and behold it failed magnificently with the commercial value of the combined enterprise failing to get even close to the previous individual positions and indeed significant loss of talent and revenue.

This was not the first time we had heard the tactic of “let’s just do it and I’m sure it will work out” and indeed, it was not the first time that we had seen a subsequent failure.  But why does it not work?

There are a number of reasons why the “cream rises” metaphor is unhelpful and unproductive:

  1. Organisations are not biological systems with easily definable processes and outputs – they are dynamic systems that require close attention, clear focus and catalytic leadership.
  2. People are creatures of habit and left to their own devices will do as they have done before – performance needs to be strategically aligned and operationally managed by effective leaders otherwise behaviours do not change
  3. Change needs to be carefully designed and managed otherwise people reject the change proposition and perpetuate the status quo for therein lie their comfort zones
  4. Change is difficult and leaders need to grasp this nettle and make tough decisions that provide direction, focus and opportunity for people
  5. Cultures either emerge or are created – if we allow cultures to emerge then we have to hope they are aligned to the strategy whereas if we purposefully create the culture we want the alignment is embedded and performance will flow.
  6. People need to hear from their leaders – you are there for very sound reasons and people need to hear your voice and see that your behaviours are aligned – leaving it to chance is an abrogation of your leadership responsibilities

In summary, taking a simplistic metaphor and using this to drive a complex process like organisational change is lacking in thought, in leadership and in focus.  Your people deserve better so take the time to decide what you want the future to be and then work with them to co-create it in a purposeful manner.

Be insistent about what you want, be consistent in your behaviours and be persistent until you achieve your goal.

The dance of change

I was reflecting on the nature of organisational change recently and thinking about the relatively short half-life of behaviour change stimulated from development programmes.  Participants return from the programme with great enthusiasm to put their learning into practice in the workplace and are met with resistance and, indeed looks of incredulity from their colleagues.  If we listen carefully we can hear work colleagues asking, “What’s happened to John?” and hearing various forms of the typical reply, namely, “Oh he’s been on a course – he’ll be back to normal in a couple of days.”

Of course, what typically happens is that the norms and conventions of the team and the business, both explicit and tacit, exert conscious and subconscious pressure on our programme participants and they, inevitably, return to their pre-existing patterns of behaviour and the hajourneylf-life of knowledge and efficacy of change is once again reduced.

The reality is that we are each of us engaged in habitually conditioned patterns of behaviour with others and any unilateral change is likely to be met with resistance as we are, in effect, changing the pattern.  This is akin to a dance. There are specific steps and patterns which each partner knows and understands and, from that level of understanding, flows an expectation of behaviours from themselves and their dance partner.  If, in a dance, I suddenly start to change the steps then any partner is highly likely to be confused and try even harder to pull me back into the established dance.  In essence, they will seek to exert pressure on me to help me to conform to the dance.  In this way, my new and innovative dance steps are likely to be a short-lived change and I will quickly revert to ‘being back to normal’.

If I truly want to change the dance, I need to be clear and explicit about my intentions.  I need to ensure that my dance partner understands my intentions, sees a clear value to themselves in changing with me, and works with me to establish a new pattern, a new dance.  If, during the period of changing the dance, I revert back the previous dance steps then we will probably both feel comfortable and dance the old dance.  Establishing the new dance takes perseverance, fortitude and commitment from both parties.

Changing a dance involving people is relatively straightforward and the process to achieve the change is clear.  I would suggest that the same process of change applies in our organisational lives where we also engage in a series of dances.  When we join a team or organisation we quickly understand the dance and learn to follow the rules and thereby lies the route to the status-quo that change agents always want to change.  The status-quo is, very often, a comfortable and comforting dance within the organisation and one which leaders need to recognise and value if they are to change it in any meaningful and sustainable way.  Similar to changing the dance, leaders need to make their intentions clear and we suggest they always do the following:

  • Expressly recognise the value of the current dance – people are accustomed to this and to bluntly seek to change it without understanding and valuing it is, in effect, showing a lack of value and respect for their work in the past.  Not the best foundation for taking a team with you.
  • Expressly recognise the changing business context and the fact that the old dance is not as effective in the new context as it was in the old, and therefore create a compelling case for change
  • Clearly state the new dance – the purpose, the principles and the behaviours that you want and, be equally clear in the outcome that you wish to achieve.
  • Ensure that this positive outcome focus addresses the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) factors at all levels so that you have the leverage to engage people in the changes
  • Engage people in the change – don’t impose it upon them.  Set the direction and outcomes and then work with people to create the journey.
  • Recognise and value contributions as and when they arise, from all parties
  • Be insistent, persistent and consistent in driving the new dance steps.