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MINDFULNESS: The Key Differentiation Between Effective Manager and Effective Leader

The topic of "Mindfulness" is a popular buzzword in today's HR and business conversations. Anything that incorporates mindfulness into its description sounds great - as though we are better able to connect to our people, strategy, and overall well-being if we are simply "mindful" in our efforts. While I don't necessarily disagree with this concept, I do believe that the term merits additional specificity and conversation to know exactly what it is, how it manifests in leaders, and how we can increase mindfulness to improve outcomes and the bottom line.

In my studies and experience, I have worked with many individuals in leadership positions who are good managers, but not necessarily effective leaders. There is a plethora of literature, workshops, videos, and other materials describing the difference between an effective manager and an effective leader. In my perspective, if I had to sum up the primary differentiating factor between the two, I would use the term "mindfulness" as making the most difference. Effective managers who apply principles of effective mindfulness are those who tend to move faster and more efficiently into the realm of effective leadership.

There is a wealth of literature exploring mindfulness in leadership. Some of it seems a little light to me...very conceptual and theoretical. However, many sources provide a solid approach to practically understand and apply principles of mindfulness that result in tangible outcomes. I'll consider some perspectives on the practical application. This is in no way addresses mindfulness comprehensively...but perhaps it will generate a thought or two of ways to improve your use of mindfulness to improve your leadership capabilities.

Mindfulness Explained

Mindfulness can be defined as simply being aware - aware of your surroundings, aware of how your actions affect other people, aware of how your employees view you, your actions, and your decisions. The awareness should be considered both internally and externally.

Internal awareness includes maintaining a check on your own emotions, your communication style, use of empathy, listening skills, and personal behavior. It involves being aware of BOTH what you say and how you say it - and how it may be perceived by others. In short, it is being aware of what you do, what you say and how you act.

External awareness focuses on others - how they perceive the world, how they perceive the organization, and how they perceive you as a leader. Mindfulness encompasses patience when working with others, compassion for others' circumstances, understanding others' feelings and respecting others' beliefs.

With this awareness we can think before we speak and act. This alone can improve the outcomes of our conversations, save considerable grief from misunderstandings and hurt feelings, and improve our relationships with others.

Why Mindfulness Matters

When considering mindfulness, many managers will think this is too "soft" or "touchy-feely" to be a topic in business. After all, "we're here to get work done." That's the sound of a manager. An effective leader understands a few simple truths:

  • Work gets done through people...

  • ...people are emotional creatures...

  • ...emotions affect morale, attitude, motivation and job satisfaction...

  • ...which in turn directly impact individual performance...

  • ...and organizational performance is the sum product of individual performance.

The bottom line is that your organization is ONLY AS GOOD AS THE PEOPLE THAT WORK FOR IT. If they are negatively impacted at the emotional level, this will directly impact job satisfaction, which in turn negatively impacts individual productivity which then negatively affects collective company performance. Alternatively, higher emotional satisfaction = higher job satisfaction = higher individual performance = higher collective organizational performance.

In summary - helping employees feel good about the workplace, their job, the company and its leadership can directly and positively affect employee and organizational performance. Mindfulness is at the center of a leader's efforts to ensure that an employee's work experience is positive which directly contributes to the bottom line.

3 Differentiating Factors

Let's consider 3 differentiating mindfulness behaviors that separate good managers from great leaders.

1. Focusing on "What" AND "How"

Effective management practices focus on efficiency, transaction and tactical elements of execution. These are significant considerations and should not be minimized in their level of importance to organizational outcomes. The notions of competitive advantage (better, cheaper, and/or faster) are the primary drivers to effective management. Getting things done through other people in a way that maximizes outcomes and minimizes the resources needed to achieve those outcomes are of the utmost importance when it comes to efficiency. This often creates a focus on the "what" of deadlines, production, and getting more things (whether they be products or services) out the door faster.

The mindfulness factor that moves effective managers into the realm of exceptional leadership incorporates a vision of overall effectiveness, execution and strategy. The "what" is important (often defined as deadlines, assignments, and metrics). Mindfulness considers "how" work is done to achieve the "what". For example:

  • Autonomy and flexibility are a must. Consider ways to let your employees make decisions, have authority to make corrections, and ultimately be accountable for the end result. So long as they get to the desired outcome, does it really matter how they get there? (within ethical parameters, of course) Let your employees drive their own performance, make improvements and show you what they've got.

  • Accessibility to a network is crucial. No matter the project, someone somewhere has done it before - or something like it - and they are probably within your own organization. Allow employees to access resources beyond their own department. Break down silos by expanding possibilities, making introductions, and helping employees discover the world of networking available to them.

  • Goal orientation over task focus. No one really likes to be told what to do, but if you make them think it's their own idea, they are committed and driven to accomplish it. Work with employees to set goals and give them the ownership to succeed. This will instill the passion behind the goal and allow for better outcomes.

2. Developing Others

Effective management focuses on getting things done while effective leadership focuses on getting the right things done by helping people become and do their best. The primary differentiation is how we align people, practices and leadership strategies. As we engage in new projects, it is easy to consider who is the best person for the job TODAY. Mindfulness also considers who would be an ideal candidate for this same skill-set TOMORROW and incorporates them into TODAY'S project to learn, gain experience, make mistakes, and gain experience. The key to mindfulness in developing others is to consider what THEY want to do in their career and then find ways to facilitate successful advancement to meet those career objectives.

It still surprises me when I come across managers who do not want to send their employees out for professional development experiences such as conferences, giving presentations, or training events. What if we invest all this time and money on them...and then they leave us? Well...what if you don't invest in them and they stay? Whether people come or go is a primary factor for managers. Leaders, however, understand that the better we can develop employees for their next job, the more likely they are to stick around. Investment in employees generally creates greater loyalty and greater job satisfaction - as they grow in their abilities, so too grows their self-esteem, confidence, and skills, all of which are factors in job satisfaction.

Our goal should be to develop people for their next job - whatever it may be. Effective leaders know that their #1 priority is to find and develop their own replacement. Even if they leave, we will gain a higher level of productivity and performance from them when they are with us. Additionally, while they may still leave the organization, we can in many cases extend their tenure with us - instead of leaving at 2 years, they stick around for 4 or 5 years. Finally, if you do it right, they can find growth opportunities within your organization. While they may leave your area, the company still benefits as highly skilled and motivated employees remain loyal and continue to advance to higher levels in your company.

3. Mindfulness About the Employee Experience

An effective leader takes into consideration more than just the employee's job and his/her performance. Leaders must also consider the work environment that can help sustain and support strong emotional satisfaction for employees. A growing trend is the use of companies such as Best Places to Work to evaluate organizations and to identify those practices that make an employer a "best place to work". While there are many options and ideas, here are some of the most common practices effective leaders employ to create an incredible employee experience.

  • Consider the new employee experience. Many employers recognize that they can improve the new employee experience by removing much of the anxiety before they even arrive. Consider the questions that they have (even if they are simple) such as where to park, what door to come in, the appropriate dress code for the position, who to ask for when they arrive, and what to expect the first day. Find ways to reduce the paperwork and boring time over the first few days by streamlining processes, breaking new employee orientation into smaller bits, and getting them into their job - doing the actual job - as soon as possible.

  • Find ways to generate fun. As emotional creatures, people thrive on interaction with other people. That's how we're built. Sponsoring opportunities to bring people together in a non-work environment helps to build camaraderie and friendships which in turn support high levels of emotional satisfaction. Throwing a monthly employee barbecue, taking employees and their families to the local theme park for a day during the summer, maintaining the annual banquet to recognize and appreciate employees, bringing in free chair massages, sponsoring the "Office Olympics", offering chili cook-offs, and a long list of other activities are options available to create that human interaction.

  • Consistently ask employees what you can do to improve. As a company, consider regular employee surveys to assess conditions, provide feedback, and seek ideas and input for ways to improve. Report back to employees what the survey says, what your company will do about the feedback, and then do it - reporting back after the fact what has been done. As a manager, ask your employees regularly how they are doing, what obstacles they have and how you as their supervisor can help them to remove those barriers. Regularly asking employees for their opinions and feedback - and then acting on those recommendations - will help them to recognize that you are listening to them and that they are an integral part of the organization.

No One-Size-Fits-All

There are many other options you can consider - and the literature is prevalent to find best practices and ideas to implement. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to mindfulness. Each leader is different. Each employee is different. Each company is different. You must consider your situation specifically and identify opportunities to grow in your capacity to increase your mindfulness. By doing so, it will not take long for you to become more aware of what is going on, how to make improvements, and how employees are feeling about you, your company and their experience in their job.

Keep trying new things and seek feedback for ways to continually improve your ability to grow your personal and professional mindfulness. As you connect with people on an emotional level, you will find it easier to build relationships, gain commitment, and achieve greater performance at the individual and organizational levels.

Here's to your success!

Dr. Wade M. Larson

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