Another Use for Mindfulness at Google

Most of us have heard about the recent Google engineer’s diatribe on why women are less qualified to be engineers than men. Beyond being insensitive and ill-conceived (not to mention being an imprudent career move), it reveals a kind of willful ignorance that is anchored in attitude. I say “willful” because we are free to critically consider and change our attitudes. 

Indeed, such attitudinal change could be a quite practical and adaptive application of the mindfulness practices Google has been promoting over the past several years. But rather than merely producing a calmer version of the masculine, technically-oriented cognitive openness to ideas, mindfulness might also be used to discover the humanity and capacities of their female colleagues. 

Not to pick on Google, this avenue of development is equally relevant to the other technically oriented firms in Silicon Valley. Whether such stone-age mindsets are clothed in the Mountain View chic of clever T-shirt slogans and primary colors, or in the conventional attire of male engineers who predominate in DOD contractor firms, they’re neither cool nor encouraging, neither kind nor respectful. 

Mindfulness is not just about intellectual mind; it’s also about an attitude of compassion that opens us to understanding and respecting our fellow human beings, indeed, all living things and the life spaces we share whether constructed or natural. So, why not use our greatest sources of wisdom for being more fully human and more intelligently responsible. It's a win-win at work, at home, in the world.

Smiling Back at Our Problems

A smile can convey many things, among them, genuine happiness. But since a smile is also expressive of what we want to project to others, it may also conceal as much as it reveals. That is, at times it serves as a mask: “I’m fine (even as I suffer insult and frustration). I’ll never let them see me sweat!” So, what kind of smiling – for what purpose – am I referring to, and in response to what kinds of problems? 

Problems and Problematizing

Lexical definitions of the word problem vary: “a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome,” but also “an inquiry starting from given conditions to investigate or demonstrate a fact, result, or law.” Considering its root meaning in the Greek próblēma, “to throw or lay before us as an obstacle or challenge,” we see also suggestions what problematizing means. 

The simple shift from noun to verb suggests a movement from encountering something that is given, to reflectively and deliberately reframing our consideration of what does in fact lay before us. The verb form involves an attitudinal, cognitive, and emotional transformation. Attentional and intentional regard change the relationship we have to the problematic matter at hand. 

The emotional tone of this attitudinal and cognitive shift may become an intensely active one that seeks to control or change the problem state. However, it may also become a reflectively curious state of relative equanimity – just letting the problem state be as an object. And as it is allowed to simply be, it may also reveal more of its potential meaning, which, in turn, may then disclose possibilities for action. 

Smiling as Freedom

In this analysis, we see attitudes and emotions of East and West, Buddhist calm and rational agency, as they intermingle in moments of reflection. There is both the freedom from the “tyranny of the urgent,” as Stephen Covey so aptly put it, but also freedom for asserting informed choice. We may regard the smile as an expression of this freedom from, even with awareness of the limitations on our freedom. 

The smile is not a smug expression of dominance, although that too may emerge in a subsequent moment of this new-found freedom. Rather, it is a smile of aligned understanding. The universe as manifest in this moment through this problem situation is revealed in its truth. We see what is or may be possible, and we are able also to recognize the limits of freedom – a felt state of wisdom. 

We recognize in this wisdom that insight is gained by letting go and by letting the state of being reveal itself. This is an example of the paradoxical nature of Zen wisdom. But we need not drape ourselves in Buddhist garb to find it. We need not deny the active, agenic style of expressing freedom that we in the West prize. But I hope you can see the virtuous balance achieved in merging these traditions. 

Frustration, Waste, & Personal Performance

Of course, you work hard, try your best! Maybe you even try a little too hard. It’s a natural direction in which achievement-oriented people will err and eventually self-correct. Experience, insight, mature judgement, they'll come, but perhaps sometimes they come too late or at too steep a price may. Let me explain. 

Frustration

There is nothing more basic in human psychology. You try to acquire, achieve, or grasp something, but it eludes your best efforts. It’s out there, and you are here. It’s where you want to be, a destination, but getting there feels harder than it should. So, you wonder, “Is it me?” Even less helpful, you may rashly conclude the shortfall is the fault of others, “It’s the situation and others. Damn, I have bad luck!”  

Frustration is the consequence of our “deviation monitor”, which is the covert voice in our head that tells me "you are not where you should, could, or must be." After this initial message, it may continue, “And that's awful, unbearable, and ….” Or perhaps, we're able to regulate the effects of our deviation monitor. Perhaps we notice low-level, but building frustration and nip it in the bud by how we respond.   

Waste

In manufacturing, quality management is about maximizing the production of products that meet or exceed a standard. This means achieving an ideal, and doing so in a way that is also efficient. And it means not just doing that one time, but building into our operations a discipline of continually finding ways to improve our processes, and ways to ensure that our product maximizes value for the customer. It's about eliminating waste, wasted time, material, effort, and about making every investment payoff. 

If we are to go about this approach to business in an adaptive manner rather through fits-and-starts, from crisis to crisis. We will need to cultivate a positive attitude toward the feelings of frustration that we, our colleagues, and our customers experience. They must be treated as data: “What are they (our frustrations) telling us about what might work better?” In this way, frustration becomes a cue for a transformed attitude of productive curiosity. 

Personal Performance

Personal performance might be evaluated in terms of our capacity to self-manage the emotional work of noticing and responding to frustration in ways that minimize waste and maximize production, and increase our underlying capacity to produce. When left to run its more neurotic, maladaptive course, rising levels of frustration generate a sense of desperation, a loss of perspective (objectivity), exhaustion, conflict, and burnout.   

When we recognize that our energy is largely felt and managed through an intelligent, adaptive use of emotional data, we – even the most hard-headed rationalists and data hounds – are more likely to thrive and reduce waste. That's important because waste not only means lost opportunity; it can mean harm to self or others. It means less energy available for positive, productive purposes, and for treating one another well. 

The Solution

Space won’t allow me to fully spell out the path of adaptive growth and development that is most responsive to this challenge. But this brief discussion is sufficient to reveal a few characteristics of that developmental path:

1)     It’s rooted in the person and in a person-centered view of organizational work and relationships.

2)     It’s reliant upon greater emotional freedom (a practical kind of mindfulness & reflective attitude).

3)     It’s inherently social, concerns ways to be and to be with others that shape norms of collaboration.

4)     It’s best learned when practiced in the workplace and outside of work, adopted as a basic way of being & relating.

5)     You’ll need a coach, commitment, and sustained practice (6-12 months) to make it your way of being.

The 4 T's of Great Relationships

Tension – Trust – Telos – Traction

Whether you are new to an organization, a role, or a vitally important leadership challenge, you won’t get much done without good relationships

In this article, I provide some clear guidance for how to cultivate great relationships by attending to what I call the “4 T’s.” 

Tension

Some will associate tension with stress, conflict, and strain – negative stuff. And when tension is a force that builds, persists, and becomes chronic, it is negative. It exhausts us, depletes our social, emotional, and mental capacities to function at the top of our game. But episodic moments of tension are normal, and they can be a sign of vitality – it depends on what we do with the experience.  

Tension becomes something negative and unhealthy in relationships when it is not attended to as data. When we react to emerging, low-level tensions by ignoring, denying, or avoiding explicit notice of them, we let fears govern us. We reinforce a habitual tendency to avoid things that feel difficult. We come to see them as being beyond our control, as threatening our wellbeing. 

Fear grows in the darkness. But when we cultivate the capacity (mindfulness) to simply notice emerging tension – in our body, in our mood, in our thoughts – let it be and accept its presence, then we are freer to discover its source, course, and meaning. We then become more able to see the “logic” of it, what it is about, the worries or troubled thoughts or feelings that must be addressed. 

Try it in a relationship that you’d like to improve, and also in one that’s going well. Notice when you feel tension, what do you and others do with it? Does it evoke curiosity, seeking to understand, reflective dialogue? Do you give the conversation time to breath? Or do you “run” and try your best (you and others) to not discuss the “elephant in the room.”  

Trust

If you have a readiness to navigate episodes of tension and conflict, to discover its meaning and work through it to resolution, it’s likely that this relationship is one in which trust levels are high. The opposite is also true. This is especially true of the trust we place in the motivations and intentions of others. Trust grows in light and transparency.  

When we work through tense and difficult moments, making ourselves vulnerable, acknowledging we’re part of the problem, we co-create trust and safety. But there’s more to trust. We must also trust the competence of others, their insight, practical savvy, technical know-how, and their capacity to execute. Our mutual success depends on it. We must trust their humility and capacity to know their limits? 

We’ll want to know that we can trust the integrity others to keep confidences and to be there for us when we need support. If this aspect of trust is lacking, we may still trust their commitment to working through differences and their competencies to be a reliable leader or partner. But most of us will want at least one other person with whom we can share this more intimate trust.  

Notice the importance of emotions up to this point. The mood and emotional qualities of a relationship are foundational. We and others may express them too cautiously at times. But this blinds us to noticing tensions and building trust. When we use emotional experience as data, and suspend our biases long enough to understand what they’re telling us, our minds are better able to do their work. 

Telos

The third “T,” telos, from the Greek τέλος for "end", "purpose", or "goal", characterizes the practical, purposive nature of relationships at work. Are we aligned on the ultimate or strategic aims of our work together? We may drift from such alignment in the course of execution. It may seem clear at the outset, but then we may adaptively redefine our purpose and ends based upon experience and feedback.  

This is the most rational-logical element of the 4 T’s. In the early “forming” stage of a team, for example, we observe a rather formal quality of interpersonal dynamics characterized by politeness, deference to authority, and artificial harmony. As work intensifies, a “storming” stage emerges, differences manifest. They register cognitively, but also emotionally as tension, which becomes the first real test of trust.  

In the storming stage, as we put our thoughts, feelings, concerns, and points of view on the table. We can choose to examine them or retreat. When we’re able to face up to the differences, use emotions as data to inform our deliberations, we are usually able to improve our knowledge of one another, even as we adaptively redefine a “truer” version of our telos.   

Traction

Through our emerging capacities to navigate difference and work through conflict, we implicitly create normatively positive, constructive ways to reckon with our differences – that’s the “norming” stage. These norms of interaction, procedure, and mutual respect deepen trust and create a more authentic quality of engagement. As this takes shape, we enter the “performing” in which we gain traction. 

Traction is well-aligned action, interdependent action. It’s gained, sustained, and lost on a daily basis. It’s the discipline of executional focus. When we drift in ways that cause us to lose focus, momentum, and efficiency. We may be tempted to react poorly, blaming others and defending others. But now, with greater confidence, we adaptively notice, examine, and learn from the tension rather than run from it.   

Over time, the normatively positive response more prevails. We will come trust our capacity to welcome feedback, view issues with curiosity, thereby allocating more mental bandwidth to positive, solution-focused thinking. This is the heart of great relationships; it’s believing that “we’ll survive the tension if we face it squarely with fresh eyes, and we’ll come out the other side in a better place.”  

Conclusion

This discussion describes the work that must be done to forge and maintain great relationships at work, but also outside of work. The effort required consists in self-managing and learning to jointly monitor and manage the state of the 4 T’s. We do it by stepping back, reflecting on the dynamics of interaction (what’s happening and how’s it feeling?), by asking about the state of Tension, Trust, Telos, and Traction that we’re currently experiencing, and by the proper action even when it’s difficult.

Two Selves, Together and Apart: Practical Consequences

The “I” and the “Me”

William James long ago distinguished two selves, the “I,” the active, experiencing agent of the present moment, and the “me” or narrative self, the storied agent with a past and future.[1] It has been thought that they are naturally linked in experience and are most distinguished in terms of their temporal aspect.  

This is all quite simple on its face, but it becomes more complex when we consider the dynamics of adaptive development and change. Insofar as the narrative self (me) brings to each new moment a point of view, beliefs, and assumptions it preconditions how the “I” will experience and interpret the now. 

Some psychologists[2] refer to this conditioned way of seeing the world as being “embedded” in one’s own presuppositions and habits of thinking, feeling, and relating. That is, we’re embedded or centered in the subjective stream of experience, the living "I", which is constitutes the “me.” It's our common way of being, usually no problem. 

But what if our familiar ways of seeing and responding to the world include self-limiting beliefs about self, others, situations, and relationships? In that case, we may benefit from “dis-embedding” in order to see the situation with fresh eyes, more objectively, without the filters of legacy beliefs. 

Mindfulness as Dis-embedding

This brings us to the power of mindfulness meditation as a means of “de-centering” or “dis-embedding” ourselves. Neuroscience research and psychological science[3] has been learning more about how the “I” and “me” modes of self are activated in the brain as the physiological correlate of how we attend to things in our mental experience. 

From research by Farb et al (2007)

From research by Farb et al (2007)

So, although the “I” and “me” areas of the brain usually and by default function in a closely linked manner, the brains of those trained in mindfulness meditation work a bit differently: They exhibit a capacity to see the here-and-now with little or no influence from the “me.” They suspend the judgments usually provided by the "me."

Thus, for those who have tendencies to ruminate on negative or self-limiting thoughts and beliefs, and to generate negative or troubled moods (anxious or depressive) as a result, greater emotional freedom is purchased by the “mindfulness effect.”[4] Beyond mood issues, research also shows that mindfulness is able to enhance problem solving.  

In either case, this additional cognitive flexibility and emotional freedom enhances our potential to adaptive learn, problem solve, and cope with peak moments of challenge more resourcefully. And this explains why mindfulness training is finding its way into professional and personal development practices. 

Notes:

[1] In traditional grammar, we would call “I” the first person “subjective case” (the subject in a sentence) and “me” the first person “objective case” (the object in a sentence).

[2] See Attachment in Psychotherapy by David Wallin, Guilford Press: 2007. Also, Attachment-Based Psychotherapy by Peter Costello, APA: 2013.

[3] See Farb et al, 2007, Attending to the present: mindfulness mediation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference, in SCAN, (2) 313-322.

[4] See Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy by Segal, Williams & Teasdale, Guildford Press: 2013. Also, see Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Bantam Books: 2013.