Presence and Personal Efficacy

mindfulness.jpg

Reflections on Buddhist psychology with implications for Leadership Practice

The presence I have in mind is temporal (now), spatial (here), and it is nongrasping. It is the purest, simplest way of being. It is without purposive striving and judgment. It is first and foremost a silent witness to experience. And insofar as it is as I describe, it is neither practical nor theoretical, neither, conceptual nor technical. So, if you are a manager or leader why would you even care about it?   

The efficacy I have in mind is indeed practical, and it’s consequential. It is charged with emotional energy that fuels purposive strivings. Its temporal orientation leans into the future, and its spatial orientation charts a trajectory from here to an intended there-place-and-state. In many ways, then, presence and efficacy are diametrically opposed, perhaps most obviously in efficacy’s grasping.

But what is meant by qualifying the notion of efficacy with the term “personal”? Is presence not also personal? And what does it mean to couple these terms, presence and efficacy, in this title? Perhaps answering these questions is sufficient as means to making my purpose clear, for my intentions are ultimately practical and concern the coupling of two virtues.

The Two Virtues

Presence as I’ve described it is most distinctive in what it is not. There is virtue in this. For when I am abuzz with thoughts, desires, and anxious attachments to all that I fear losing, I experience a fullness, but it’s not a fullness of being. It’s a fullness that possesses me and impels me to want, to act and react, often without understanding why. There is no virtue in a life controlled by blind appetitive drives.

The art of cultivating presence is an instrumental virtue. It is the enlightenment of seeing, feeling, and knowing what is here now that is the larger virtue, indeed an end in itself, for “minded” creatures like us. It’s through enlightenment that we free ourselves from unconscious drives, a virtue evidenced both in the joy we derive from understanding and the practical capacity it yields for “right action.”

Only from a mindful state of presence does the world reveal itself to us in its ultimate nature. As these revelations emerge, we’re able to discern right and wrong ways of being in the world, ways that lead to health and vitality, ways that relieve suffering and advance us toward realization of virtue.   

Efficacy in its virtuous form is skilled doing, and it relies upon cultivated habits whose value are seen in what they accomplish. It is personal because as persons, especially as minded beings able to reflect upon the life we live and freely choose the actions we take, it is our chain of acts that define us, that constitute our identity. If presence is skilled seeing, then efficacy is skilled doing.

In the Buddha’s teachings, this is the law of Karma. It states that all our actions have consequences. It therefore concludes that “we are the heirs of our actions.”[i] Efficacy is virtuous, then, when it guides our choices and actions such as to produce desired outcomes with excellence: That includes timeliness, efficiency, and sound prudential judgment, but also truthfulness, fairness, and compassion. 

The virtues of presence and efficacy are coupled in this way: Karmic law recognizes that we are mortal beings who grow, learn, thrive, and pass away through taking actions and making choices. As leaders the consequences of our fiduciary roles affect many others, including future generations. Thus, our efficacy could not be a more personal matter. Nor could it be more virtuous than by cultivating presence.

[i] Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism (2002). New York: Harper-Collins.

Full-Minded Leadership Presence

Mindfulness water.jpg

Leadership is practical, it ultimately involves purposive action. It’s the face of our managerial work that engages others and the situation at hand. So, whether it’s a C-level executive on a big stage presenting a bold new vision or an operations manager solving an emergent problem after hours, they lead insofar as they engage both the situation and challenge as well as the people charged with handling it. 

Given the bias for action implied by this characterization of leadership, what is the meaning of mind, let alone full-minded leadership? That’s what I’ll discuss in this short article.

The Mind

Mind in its simplest meaning is conscious awareness. Awareness of what? Well, that depends. The scope of our attentional awareness is quite elastic. It can be reactive or responsive, an important distinction. The former state arises from a constricted scope, often narrowed by stress, strain, or fear. The latter, responsive awareness, implies a breadth of scope, formulation of purpose, and freedom to choose. 

The narrowing of mind can manifest in our thinking, i.e., less reflective and flexible, and less able to “problematize”[1] the presenting situation. Full-minded leadership is just the opposite. It broadens and deepens thought. But the inputs that an open mind draws upon are not simply ideas or concepts produced by the intellect, taught in text books, or embedded in formulaic procedures.

Mind as the Summing Factor

Our rudimentary inputs come from sense experience, but that experience arrives at eyes already trained see what something is and what something means. We’re rather immediately inclined to interpret and judge. We are born into a world and nurtured by parents, teachers, and traditions to make sense of what our senses provide. That is, until those habitual ways of meaning-making fail to work. 

Fortunately, the interpretive, networks of meaning shaped by culture that we adopted naturally are not our only resource for sorting things out. Indeed, that’s where mind in its most distinctive aspect comes in. When we choose to do so, we can attend with curiosity to what we are feeling (emotional mind) and thinking (cognitive mind), and also to our bodily sensations (somatic mind). This further step in mindful attending and inquiry acts like a summing factor, bringing to mind what we are aware of as a whole.

Multiple Pathways, One Mind

Full-minded leadership, then, is our capacity to synthesize the inputs of experience, to intuitively take their lead, follow their semantic and non-semantic sense. Calmness, equanimity, and insight arise and are maximized in this synthesis. It is the task of the leader to translate this understanding into words, bring it into discussion with others, allowing them to question it, and to test its truth and validity. 

In emergent situations opportunities for discussion may not be feasible or appropriate; what’s needed is immediate practical guidance for action. But afterwards there will be time and opportunity for learning conversations. In any case, these multiple pathways of input merge and yield a fuller understanding with practical implications for action that we may not have otherwise anticipated.

Conclusion

Leader Identity Devleopment - Multiple Curve - cropped.jpg

None of this happens when we are in a state of acute stress or beleaguered by chronic stress. Not only are our adaptive capacities arrested under these circumstances, they begin to decline (decompensation). This is illustrated in the Challenge-Development Curve (to the right).  

Mindfulness practices are a vital moderating variable (points B1, D1, and F1) in alerting us to an approaching inflection point and needs for adaptive change. It can be learned, and it may be a basic survival skill in today’s fast-moving world. 

To be sure, this is not mere problem solving, nor is it some “woo, woo” mystical idea of leadership. Its efficacy for mitigating the cumulative effects of stress and for bolstering performance is well established in empirical research. Its benefits include improved cognitive and social-emotional functioning, increased resilience, and greater happiness. Something we could all use, right?  

Finally, there is no better way to model the resilient, adaptive capacity full-minded leadership than to first cultivate a personal mindfulness practice. Others will notice the difference when tense moments arise, when difficult conversations are needed, when the sense of challenge becomes daunting. They’ll welcome the leader’s more composed presence and effect, they’ll want to learn more about how to achieve it themselves. Who knows, you may start a contagion of healthy development!

 

 

[1] An attitude of curiosity that seeks to make sense of a situation while suspending any immediate inclinations of judgment or action. It thereby invokes a reflective pause, allowing inquiry, analysis, hypothesizing and considered appraisal of the situation before acting. This reflective pause is part of adaptive development (see Figure 1).

 

The Responsibility Discussion in Teams

When considering how to promote team development and performance, the Tuckman Model is always a helpful way to conceptualize what’s needed, and how to proceed. (See my article for more.)

Team lightbulb small.jpg

It proposes as a matter of theory, supported in empirical research, that a group becomes a team by progressing through four vital stages of development: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. In this article, we’ll be focusing on the first stage, the process of forming.

Forming is a process we must repeat any time group composition changes (i.e., when members come and go, and when team leadership changes). However, it may also need to be addressed when the group’s mission has changed, and when its reliance on external resources change, especially those with whom we must cultivate critical interdependencies.

In any case, the central task of forming is achieving initial clarification of roles, goals, and responsibilities. As the Tuckman Model suggests, beyond this initial clarity, there’ll be more to do in the storming stage, but the forming stage is where it must begin. So, let’s consider a way to get the process started in something I call the responsibility discussion.

It’s a Special Kind of Conversation

First, we must arrive at a consensus view of the team’s mission and goals, its raison d’être, beforehand. The responsibility discussion then proceeds by calling upon each member of the team to offer his/her view of their individual role and contributions to the mission: “What must I do? What are my specific responsibilities? More specifically still, how do I see myself playing that role and having authority and the prerogative to act, to make decisions?

In 25 words or less, each member of the leadership team should summarize their response to these questions and be ready to share it with their fellow team members. I can be helpful to read it aloud twice in an unrushed manner while others are attentively listening. Then, each member in turn is free to ask one clarifying question; not to challenge or take issue with anything said, but only to ensure one is hearing the other clearly.

This process implies the need for “role takers” to be thoughtful, but they should not feel like they need to provide an exhaustive explanation. It should take no more than 1 minute for the role taker’s initial statement and 1 or 2 minutes for each clarifying question. Those listening are responsible for attentive listening and seeking to a understand. Once this round is completed, a group discussion proceeds.

In this follow-up discussion, one person should volunteer to facilitate, keeping the discussion on track. The purpose? At this point, group members should be noticing and describing areas of overlap in roles, authority claims, and decision-making prerogative that were just presented. You’ll also want to surface and describe patterns of interdependence as well as the kinds of communication, coordination, and collaboration required to realize cooperative action.

Addressing the Overlaps and Loose Ends

The boundary between forming and storming can be fuzzy and nuanced. Mindful of this, you’ll find it helpful to resolve any of the easy questions about overlap, authority, and prerogative first, leaving the stickier ones, those for which we find no immediate solutions, for later. You may need some further experience to guide resolution of role confusion, meanwhile recognizing that case-by-case discussion of such sticky cases will be necessary.

We thereby proceed with an “eye-open” attitude. Some of our felt needs for autonomy, inclusion, or involvement in vital areas of decision-making and action are based upon needs for control in the face of risk: “If I cede a lead role to another person or department am I limiting my freedom to act in ways that will exclude me from decisions or deprive me of opportunities?” We all have egos, confidence, interests, and preferences.

As we get to know one another better – usually through working closely together – we begin to find a more solid basis for trust, goodwill, and more confidence that if something is not working out as we intended or wanted we can discuss it and be heard. In fact, an important part of capacity building that emerges from storming is just this basic competence and belief that we can usually work things out. 

Finally, as our responsibility discussions lead to further development in the storming stage, anchoring our conversations in the concrete realities of the here-and-now is critical. To talk or think in generalities about what’s my role and what’s your role is only conceptual. It’s when we take the discussion down to current business imperatives and streams of work that we see the realities in full concreteness.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve noticed how important it is to communicate for understanding first, that is, before arguing a point of view and communicating for influence. I’d also caution you to avoid the veneer of seeking to understand that becomes a bit too “clever”, only to be found out later as false and manipulative.

Building trust involves taking risks, risks of honest self-disclosure about what we want and what we fear, and risks of taking others at their word. We’ll make mistakes, and when we do, it’s just as important to attribute benevolent intentions to others rather than adopting an attitude of suspicion. 

There’s nothing difficult about this simple exercise (in concept). But to make it really work for you, you must allocate time (i.e., 1.5 to 2 hours for a group of 8-10 people). The rest is a matter of attitude: being present, attentive, curious, and open. It’s a beginning. Approach it with patience and persistence.

Tapping all the potential of your talent pool

What’s the Issue?

As a management psychologist, I have often wondered how many “false negatives” suppress the size of our high-potential talent pools. What is a false negative? It’s when we conclude that someone does not have potential to advance into managerial and leadership roles when, in fact, they do. It’s a “miss” from the standpoint of appraising talent and a person’s potential to advance.

TALENT.jpg

Of course, there are “false positives” too. There probably always will be some. They are the candidates who, after being given a chance, turn out not to be what we thought they might be. Our goal there is to identify them as soon as possible. But that raises a question about what we are looking for and if what we are looking for is sufficiently valid to guide decision-making. Or, might we be biased in favor of certain demographic factors, personal qualities, and behaviors?

The answer, of course (based on research), is that there remains a bias that favors white males. But other external markers also play a role, such as an outgoing and extraverted style, and a capacity to easily socialize with and act like their bosses. Now more than ever, because we draw from a more diverse workforce, we must be willing and able to see potential in other forms. Color, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are just a few variables that may blind us and contribute to a high rate of false negatives.

I can already hear the challenges: “So, what are you saying, that we shouldn’t trust our judgment? Isn't this just another imposition of political correctness into business practices?” Legitimate questions I suppose, which I believe we can answer in the negative by the way, but they miss the point. We do not want to exchange one bias for another.

Rather, in this increasingly competitive, 24/7, global marketplace, we want to increase the size of our high-potential talent pool. Therefore, we must minimize any false negatives that may be attributable to what today’s talent market looks like, i.e., more women, more people of color, more immigrants, and more nontraditional life styles.

Okay, What’s the Solution?

First, if someone is motivated, ambitious, and willing to work, whether it’s in a quiet, dutiful manner or in a more outspoken manner, we must try to notice this energy and then understand it. We must not only see what they can do, we must also see who they are. Is their drive too much about self-interest? Do they seem to avoid conflict? Do they work till 8 PM or leave promptly at 5:30 every day?

Whatever your initial answer to these questions, what you are seeing now may not tell the whole story. People mature, change, and adapt. What looks like excessive self-interest may be undisciplined ambition or competitive drive. What looks like avoidance may be more about a reserved temperament or skill deficit in knowing how to deal with conflict. Leaving at 5:30 may be about important duties at home with child care, not a lax work ethic; and working until 8 PM may compulsiveness predictive of burnout.

Take the time to investigate more thoroughly. Get to know the person, suspend judgment, provide feedback on the potential you see and the alternative avenues he/she might take to advance and succeed in the company. Assign them work that demonstrates their capacity for stretch and growth. Specify your expectations for results and for how they achieve the results (norms of mature behavior). Watch, notice on-target and off-target performance and patterns of behavior.

How does the candidate respond to feedback, both initially and in their subsequent efforts to translate feedback into adaptive action? Adaptive development of this kind is promising. It represents an advance in self-management, and it reveals a ready-now capacity to learn and grow. Everyone will hit plateaus where they are integrating and honing what they’ve learned, so we must pace our developmental challenges accordingly.

Conclusion

If you are not seeing sufficient progress in the diversity and representativeness of your talent pool, it’s probably because you are missing the boat in identifying potential at time of hire, in onboarding, and/or in ongoing supervision of new talent. This is not a job that you can delegate to HR. They should be able to offer expert guidance and support, but it’s up to management at all levels to get smarter about their role in talent management and more skilled in doing it.

Finally, I would recommend that you consider making more effective use of assessment tools and strategies that can help identify individual differences. Why? Because only as supervisors and managers become able to see how very different people (personality, background, style) can get the job done, sometimes by adopting familiar approaches and skills, but other times by adapting these approaches and skills to better fit who they are, will management get smarter and more skilled in spotting potential. 

The Social Sources of Self

Curves of Personal Capacity from Dan - the revised graphic.jpg

We tend to think of self-identity as something individual, internal, and stable, but it’s not that simple. I will share some thoughts on how “relationality” is a fundamental condition of human existence and experience. As you’ll see, what persists are patterns of self-awareness, which are memorable but also malleable. We are, in our most vital nature, a project of continuous becoming. Alas, this vital process may also become blocked. Relationality then also becomes a means to right our forward movement.

Development of self begins in that small, intimate relational world of mother and infant. There is no me without this experience of an I-with-thee and a thee-knowing-me. All of this, of course, transpires in the preverbal exchanges that guide care of the child. It’s the gaze, touch, and tone of voice, as well as the associated acts of care, but also the expressions of frustration and distress, and their resolution which restores attachment. The we as a dyadic unit grows in its capacity to function, cope, and adapt.

When it progresses in this way, imperfectly but “good enough”, beliefs form that relationships can be worthy of trust, can prove reliable. Any failings are as seen isolated failures of efficacy. Even as failings, these acts bear a virtuous intent and commitment to care that survives them as a determination to “get it right”. Thus, with belief comes a basis of hope, which can only emerge when there is something yet to be, strivings that live on as active evidence of an underlying capacity for belief and hope. 

A relationship of nurturance manifests as encouragement in the next modality of caring. It’s when the caregiver expresses belief and hope in the child’s independent potential to initiate action and effect change in his/her environment. Especially now, “good enough” becomes advisable (normative) in order to avoid hovering and smothering, while remaining available as a safe harbor when the child is overwhelmed. Knowing this support is available, the child’s distress is quickly displaced by curious confidence.

This positive me (self-concept) reflected back to the child bolsters his/her readiness to enter the social world of peer relations outside the home in those difficult middle school years. Again, belief and hope persist as a basis of confidence, not just their own belief and hope, but their caregiver’s. This positions them to navigate the challenges of this new social arena. Still, even with a healthy level of self-esteem and resilience, the role of caregivers as a safe harbor and sounding board remains important.

With a history of good-enough parenting, youths are well-prepared to shape a social identity, one that is anchored in values of good and bad, right and wrong, but one that is also distinguished by patterns of interest and ability. Of course, one also experiences moments of falling short that evoke painful self-judgment and conscience. We may disappoint ourselves, but we can also fail others who depend upon us as friends, lovers, colleagues. Learning to mend these ruptures is a vital source of maturity.

In fact, learning to form enduring relationships, including the capacity to navigate periods of conflict, is an important part of what enables us to achieve and sustain intimacy. It is through these deeper bonds that we open ourselves to the influence of others. We “unfreeze” the foundational beliefs and values that have heretofore defined us. We discuss them with our intimate other. We hear about theirs too. Individual identities become mutually understood, and the basis for a we-identity emerges.

A deeper sense of authenticity and vitality as a person evolves when we experience life in this way. As we live, adopt roles, accept responsibility, and do the adaptive work of dealing with life’s challenges, we grow. Prosocial motivations arise that focus on encouraging the next generation, promoting the greater good. This is a natural, normatively positive direction of development in adulthood. Retreating from this call to care about more than oneself – at home, at work – can lead to stagnation.