Why is Mindfulness so Popular?

Stress, strain, and fatigue dramatically affect our coping capacities. Perhaps you have felt yourself becoming rigid, reactive, and "brittle" under stress? Or maybe sustained periods of stress and strain leave you feeling scattered, less able to focus and function? Even worse, some of us find ourselves volleying between these emotional extremes.

In any case, the effects are problematic - for us, for our co-workers, and for those at home who want to support us. So, there are few skills more valuable than those that help us arrest such emotional dysregulation.

Dealing with strain is the new normal

The risks of chronic strain leading to burnout are inherent to the world of work today. The flatter, leaner, faster-moving, and globally dispersed organizations emerging in the post-2008 recovery demand much more from all of us. We are all expected to stretch and maximize our individual contributions. We're also expected to "play ball" with colleagues and to provide engaging and encouraging leadership to those we lead.

Even those most skeptical of the so-called "soft skills" are recognizing that coping with the strains in today's organizations requires greater emotional self-management, greater social-emotional maturity.

It is in this context that mindfulness has gained currency as a recognized competency in corporate America. It's about being present, quieting the noise, regaining and sustaining an internal locus of control. It can help us arrest extremes of emotional dysregulation. It may be used in brief doses during the day by simply taking a breath and interrupting the building momentum of emotional intensity that drives us into zones of dysregulation.

Okay, now I'm present, what's next?

When we manage to "stop the train" (or at least slow it) we are left with a question, "Now what?"

The short answer is that we then have an opportunity to invoke another state of mind, the reflective function. (See my recent blog.) It's a metacognitive state of mind in which we see ourselves situated in a here-and-now, social-organizational reality. We see ourselves, others, and our presenting situation in a context defined by diverse points of view, shared goals, schemes of purposive action, relationships, and values that we all have reason to care about. It's time to see it again for the first time!

Seeing all of this afresh means reorienting ourselves to what it means for us in our role, and for others. They have a point of view too, those we lead and those with whom we collaborate. It is a reflective state, not yet action, but we're gaining practical insight.

In this state of mind, capacities for prudential and moral judgment are awakened, our sense of agency is invigorated. We feel more potent. That enables and encourages us to act more responsibly, with greater wisdom and practical savvy. And when we engage in this kind of reflective reorientation with others, we help them regulate their emotional energies and those of the human system as a whole. It becomes a contagion of adaptive functioning, an important difference that good leaders can make.

The only way we can partition the emotional and rational aspects of mind is through an exercise in abstraction. The fact is that these facets of mind are always interacting, they affect each other, and they shape our presence and behavior as leaders. 

When we try to operate our organizations at greater velocity and through networks of greater complexity and interdependency, more is called for from all of us, especially leaders. When we care about our enterprise being healthy, adaptive, and sustainable, we raise expectations for emotional self-regulation. And we must count on our leaders' capacities for jointly regulating the emotional and motivational energies of the groups they lead and the larger social-organizational system.