By Hilary McLellan – Organisational Behaviourist and MD of Indigo Talent Development
It used to be a popular belief that ‘past experience serves as the best predictor for future behaviour’ insomuch that how we handled situations on previous occasions could easily help identify and forge our future performance. Yet, the world is in ‘uncharted territory’ with the biggest disruptor we may ever experience in our lifetime sweeping across the world with no clear end in sight.
According to a global study by Qualtrics and SAP, since the outbreak of the pandemic, 75 per cent of people say they feel more socially isolated, 67 per cent report higher stress, 57 per cent are feeling greater anxiety and 53 per cent say they feel more emotionally exhausted.
Positive action to reduce these statistics can only develop from a deeper understanding of how our human brain works. Our brains have evolved to react primitively to ‘threat’ in short, sharp periods of time (about as long as it will take our bodies to fight or flee for safety if we were to be chased by a saber-toothed tiger!). But we are in a world now where our ‘threat’ is perceived and/or experienced far more regularly and in many different forms. Lack of cash flow, planning redundancies, health fears for ourselves and others, lack of connection with work colleagues are all states that can trigger our ‘threat’ system, bringing with it, powerful emotions of anxiety, fear and anger. Such heightened and sustained states of threat is something that our brains were simply not designed for. We need to be open to learning new ways to manage modern-day stresses in order to stay healthy – now more than ever.’
Becoming more aware of our emotions can help us become attuned not only to our own needs but the needs of others around us, too’
Concerns for leaders
For many organisations, Covid-19 has exposed the inadequacies of their traditional structures and ways of operating and highlighted the need to be adaptable in the unsettled future we are coming to terms with. When the road ahead is uncertain, and feelings of unbalance, isolation and a lack of control are rife, people turn to leaders for a sense of purpose, to gain clarity and find hope for a more positive outlook.
This has led to a shift in worries for CEOs from profit to wellbeing, with concerns of ‘how can I keep my workforce well and motivated when the world around is impacting our ability to be motivated and productive?’.
Traditionally, as leaders, we have been encouraged to work in a style that demonstrates speed of thought and authority (knowing and telling). Decision-making today is far more complex because competitive edge is now found in innovation and knowledge sharing (influencing and shaping), requiring leaders to not only feel comfortable with ‘not knowing the answer’ but also be curious enough to encourage others to develop the best answer without seeking the security of taking control.
Add to this mix our acceptance of (or reassurance from) the constant distraction of technology from our best ability to focus and leaders find themselves trying to personally perform in an environment of heightened anxiety that doesn’t serve them well. So, while we have been intellectual and innovative enough to develop new technologies and ways of doing things, we have also diminished our ability to make capable decisions.
Becoming more aware of our emotions can help us become attuned not only to our own needs but the needs of others around us, too. It can help us make better decisions, develop better relationships and increase our ability to inspire, influence and develop others while managing conflict.
Handling the coronavirus pandemic with self-compassion, honesty and more self-awareness can make us better leaders and, ultimately, better employers and businesses.
So, can we consciously train our mind to focus, in order to be our most capable self? Yes, contrary to popular belief, you can teach an old dog new tricks. If we have an intent to change and choose to commit to the training required.
Learning how to be more aware
Emotional intelligence is the ability to know our own feelings and those of others. Daniel Goleman, the American psychologist who popularised the concept of emotional intelligence, states: “It’s the distinguishing competencies that are the crucial factor in workplace success: the variables that you find only in the star performers – and those are largely due to emotional intelligence.”
To increase our emotional intelligence requires us to first ‘notice’ when our emotions are coming online. A dry mouth? A heightened heart rate? A churning stomach? These are all physical signs that our bodies are getting ready for our primitive reactions to threat: fight, flight or freeze. Developing our self-awareness of these physical signs allows us to then ‘choose’ how we want to respond rather than react to those powerful emotions.
When we are able to step back and witness what is going on in the mind rather than being caught up in it, we can learn how we develop and capitalise upon our best self – even when we are under huge pressure. While we can’t control our emotions, we can manage them. While we applaud this in many professions – medical professionals, the services, police, sports – it’s less often recognised to be a competitive advantage in business. Think about the regard shown for a footballer who can take a penalty without being put off by the ear-splitting jeers of the crowd… that footballer has worked hard to manage his/her primitive reactions to make sure they score.
Stress can be of great benefit to us in the short term. It can give us a welcome boost of physiological changes, including increased blood pressure, higher levels of glucose in our blood and decreased appetite. These are important adaptations, which normally cause little damage to our body. But prolonged or uncontrolled stress can result in a wide range of health conditions, such as suppressed immune system, diabetes and heart attacks.
Scientific research shows us that one of the simplest things we can do to let our brain know we are no longer under threat is to use slower deeper breathing techniques. Research shows the immediate impact of doing this can be seen in the reduced production of one of the stress hormones.
Resistance to mindfulness
Of course, noticing ourselves and what’s around, can be a difficult habit to start. Helping clients learn to notice their emotions and training them to focus, and choose their best response when under pressure, is at the core of what we do at Indigo. But in my experience of creating coaching and personal development programmes for CEOs, exec boards, high-performing teams and senior managers, there can often be a somewhat half-hearted reaction to the discussion of training the mind. The word mindfulness is not embraced in most boardrooms.
‘We have found that those who have struggled to connect with and/or maintain the practice of mindfulness find two senses are better than one’
A typical response from those new to this practice is often a groan of awkwardness, slight embarrassment or a general feeling of discomfort. Even those that know a little more about the science behind the benefits of mindfulness can still find it challenging to devote time to really developing their skills in this area.
So, how do we get leaders to step into the cold plunge pool of mindfulness?
A virtual mind trainer
Last year, I had the idea for a mind training product specifically for people who had struggled to engage and maintain with the popular mindfulness audio apps. I decided to combine guided mind training audios with visual stimulation. Beautiful videos of scenes and sounds of nature to help people rebalance their emotions and increase their wellbeing, decision-making, problem solving, stress management and relationship skills. It would be easily accessible and simple to dip in and out of.
Partnering with Dr Ashleigh McLellan, a clinical psychologist who specialises in compassion-focussed therapy at her company Ubuntu Psychology, we created a new online mindfulness product to support both our clients between sessions, to help them achieve their goal.
Your Virtual Mind Trainer (YVMT) has since evolved into a service that looks at ways to both ‘calm the mind’ and ‘train the mind’ in different qualities and characteristics that we know can be incredibly beneficial in approaching life generally, but also in finding a sense of ease or happiness or competence at work. There are now more than 120 ways our members can combine mindful audio tracks with a choice of 360° videos of nature.
As Dr Ashleigh McLellan explains: “Our modern-day life is so full of visual stimulation via technology and often what we’re looking at has a negative physiological effect on our body. YVMT comes to you through the very devices we’re so often glued to anyway but rather than spending six minutes on social media – and let’s face it, it can suck you into spending longer than six minutes!– you can spend that time getting a boost from nature and rebalancing your system.”
The feedback so far has been positive and we have found that those who have struggled to connect with and/or maintain the practice of mindfulness find two senses are better than one. A beta version of Your Virtual Mind Trainer has been available for a few months, and focus groups are playing an important role in the development of an enterprise version of the service. We are also working closely with researchers at Aston University to trial its implementation within organisations.
A calmer future
When we had the idea for this offering in 2019, we had no idea of the challenging environment waiting for us all in 2020. But now we are all looking for ways to manage pressure through calm and focus. And we are valuing nature more than ever.
About The Author:
Hilary McLellan, founder of Indigo Talent Development, is a Cambridgeshire-based Organisational Behaviourist. She specialises in organisational psychology and behavioural change and creates bespoke coaching and personal development programmes for CEOs, exec boards, high-performing teams and senior managers across the UK. A Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development, Hilary is an Institute of Leadership and Management Level 7 Executive & Leadership Coach. Her areas of expertise are emotional intelligence, resilience, compassionate leadership and psychological safety.