One of the questions I get often is how to bring a mindfulness initiative to an organization. This is not uncommon as organizations as diverse as Ford, Target, Apple, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, the U.S. Marines, and the New York Knicks offer mindfulness programs. So I was pleased when I attended the 5th annual Mindful Leadership Summit in Washington, DC, last month and three speakers gave their first-hand accounts of what worked well and what was less successful as they implemented their mindfulness programs at Google, Ernst & Young, and SAP. Here is a summary of the common themes across their presentations.
Be clear. While it is fantastic that there is a growing interest in mindfulness, a downside is that there is a “mindfulness is everything” side effect as it becomes commercialized (e.g., The Mindfulness Coloring Book). As Clif Smith of E&Y said, “If we do not define mindfulness, it will be everything to all people, which means it will be nothing to no one.” The definition that he (and I) use is that popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” I use this definition because all the proven benefits of mindfulness result from this type of deliberate, regular practice.
Make it simple. The science shows that mindfulness is like any other skill – the more you practice, the better you get at it. But also like any new skill, start with a practice that is straightforward and do-able, to begin a sustainable habit. While I do a 20-30 minute mindfulness practice daily, this is difficult for a newcomer. Beginning practices at E&Y include 3-5 minutes of breath awareness. At SAP, meetings begin with one minute of silence to give attendees time to get fully present. Google teaches the Three Breaths “micro-practice” – on the first breath give attention to the breath, on the second relax your body, and on the third ask, “What’s important now?”
Know your audience. While some practitioners do not want to separate mindfulness as a practice from the Eastern religious traditions it comes from, front-line reporting suggests you will have greater program success if you de-emphasize spirituality and highlight scientific studies, neuroscience, and evidence. Clif Smith says “the religious connection is the elephant in the room.” So E&Y states clearly you do not need to be religious to embrace mindfulness. SAP avoids connotations that are religious, spiritual, or “esoteric” and instead uses instruction that is secular, based in science, and uses business-friendly language.
Find alignment. One way to help your mindfulness initiative get traction is to demonstrate how it ties to existing initiatives and organizational objectives. Does your organization offer diversity and inclusion training? Make the link between mindfulness and mitigating biases. Does your company support wellness programs for employees? Show the connection between mindfulness and improved physical and mental health. There are a number of demonstrated outcomes of mindfulness that are relevant to the workplace. Educate yourself on what they are, and determine which ones are most relevant to organizational interests and priorities.
Show results. General Mills, Intel, and Aetna are all examples of companies with mindfulness programs that ask attendees to self-report on outcomes after completing the program. This is a powerful and easy way to provide evidence of real and immediate impact. Some of the results those organizations reported were improved productivity, better listening, and higher engagement in projects and team efforts. If you designed a participant self-assessment for your mindfulness program, what would be in it? What are the results that would resonate at your organization?
Mindfulness programs can benefit your employees as individuals as well as the effectiveness of your organization. Utilize these lessons learned from “the front line” to and improve the chances of success and longevity of your own mindfulness initiative.