Monthly Archives: February 2015

Mindfulness for Senior Executives – a commentary

The management magazine strategy+business have just published a short video on this topic with Havard Psychology Professor Ellen Langer

Having watched it, I think that some of what she says is correct and has real value. The real benefit of meditation in this regard is the clarity and focus that comes after it rather than the act of meditation. That everybody benefits from being more in the moment rather than coasting through life on autopilot. That the act of mindfulness increases attention and focus and leads to better interactions and results in many cases (from a personal point of view at work it’s one of the things I ask for in meetings, even if it’s just by putting away laptops and phones). All good stuff.

But I really hope that some unfortunate editing cut out some deeper explanations of her comments as there are some glaring mistakes that make me wonder how much time Professor Langer spends in the business world.

Her statement that you should always be mindful does not take into account the mental and emotional cost of “always being on”. If you’ve ever have the chance to see a capable C-level executive at a major function you will notice how exhausting it is being in the moment to every person they speak to. It’s very much like an actor being on stage except the spotlight is always on you. Typical strategies I’ve seen used by CXO’s are to either make their involvement very short and controlled or to have a small support group that they dip in and out with when they need to get re-energised. We need to be aware that mental resources are not an inexhaustible resource and one that we need to husband throughout the day. Prof Langer does mention that “you cannot be actively thinking about everything” but I read that as referring to the depth of your mindfulness not to the duration.

-note to self, I regard the work day as neither a sprint nor a marathon but a series of sprints. One of the tricks of using mindfulness comes from recognising when one needs to be sprinting and fully engaged and when one can back off the accelerator, defocus slightly and recoup energy.

Late in the video, her assertion “there’s no more information than there ever was” is either blindly simplistic or just plain wrong. The rise of the machines has meant that we have a far greater insight into the workings of our business as thing’s a easier to measure and monitor. Barely a day goes by without someone proposing a new metric and it becomes a critical task of a leader to decide which metrics need to be paid attention to and which should either be ignored, killed off or delegated to someone else. The only way that her statement could be true is if you redefined information to its most abstract platonic ideal. Yes, the information has always existed in-potentia but now we have direct access to a firehose of real actual information, far more than we had before.

And how about her sign-off for a weapons-grade “thought leader” bullshit aphorism.

Rather than spending so much time worrying about making the right decision, I think we should spend more time making the decision right“.

I know that we play a game with soundbites, the media love them for their ability to make easy headlines from them and we the viewer love them for their ability to distil a proposal down to its essence. Unfortunately, what Professor Langer has said is a Deepity of epic proportions. It’s  trivially obvious in that of course we want to make the right decisions (duh!) but it’s totally false to infer that we don’t make correct decisions without sufficient worrying about both how we make them and the data that we are basing our decision on. Even if we are generous and focus on the use of “so much time worrying”, then it is still wrong – the only way we can test that a decision is correct before we make it is by running it though thought experiments to see what the consequences of that decision are. The greater number and varieties of these virtual scenarios then the greater confidence we will that it is correct and it follows that the more examined decisions will likely be the better ones.

I’m actually a strong advocate for mindfulness, especially in the workplace, but these sort of vapid statements do not help people understand mindfulness nor implement the sort of changes that can have a positive impact.