Mindfulness has become more popular in the business world, with companies such as Google, General Mills, and Target offering meditation training to workers. A Fidelity Investments survey of 163 large companies found that more than half offered mindfulness classes or training this year.
What exactly is mindfulness? And how can it help business leaders make better decisions? We asked two local experts.
Michael Baime is the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s mindfulness-based program for stress management, which has trained more than 20,000 people since 1992. His group offers an eight-week course that includes 27 hours of meditation training.
Due Quach is CEO and founder of Philadelphia-based Calm Clarity, which helps clients from corporate executives to students learn mindfulness. Calm Clarity’s previous corporate clients include Bristol-Myers Squibb, Ernst & Young, M&T Bank, and Vanguard.
What is mindfulness?
QUACH: It’s about the ability to have a state of open, active awareness and attention on the present moment. [It’s] being able to see how your mind jumps from input coming into your senses to having this whole story of what’s happening, and being able to slow it down so you can see your biases, patterns, and habits, and you can choose a response that’s the most effective and wise rather than acting out default patterns that have been programmed into you.
BAIME: Meditation has somewhat been replaced by the term mindfulness. It’s a form of meditation and it’s kind of a re-branding. It takes meditation, which was something that odd people did and was associated with foreign religions, and makes it American and friendly. I’m inclined to lump them all together and just say that meditation always involves directing attention to something that’s in your experience in the present. … The focus of the attention doesn’t matter as much as just the fact that you’re training your mind to remain present so the attention is bright and clear and is available to you whatever you need to accomplish.
How does mindfulness help the brain?
BAIME: You become less engaged with worries and preoccupations and negative predictions for the future that distract you. Mindfulness actually improves decision-making, probably by increasing working memory, which we’ve shown in our lab that it does. The areas that mindfulness strengthens are the core areas in evaluating choices and making decisions. We know that these areas don’t just work better, but in people who practice mindfulness you can see structural changes in their brains. These areas get denser. They have more neural connections.
QUACH: The brain has three patterns of activation. When your fight-or-flight system is in control and driving you, I call that Brain 1.0. You’re in a state of fear. You get so overwhelmed that you lash out and get angry. Brain 2.0 is when the rewards system is driving. This is the dopamine system. You get so task-oriented that you’re just checking off things you have to do that you might miss the bigger picture. … There’s another state I call Brain 3.0. It’s your higher brain that gives you ability to see the big picture, to be agile, to learn, to say yes to change and embrace disruption and opportunities for growth. … The power of mediation is that it activates and strengthens Brain 3.0.
How can mindfulness benefit CEOs and employees?
QUACH: When CEOs meditate, they do it because they don’t get hijacked by Brain 1.0 or Brain 2.0. They get to make wiser decisions. They get to see a bigger picture. They’re not reacting to issues. There was a study at Wharton that looked at sunk cost bias, when you get so locked into decisions you’ve made in the past because of how much you’ve invested into it that even when you should cut your losses, you go down with the ship. People who meditate, they can let go and fix the ship and move onto the next project.
BAIME: Managing distress and difficulty is part of leadership and so are self-awareness and emotion regulation and lots of the things that mindfulness supports. And so is a flexible and stable attention because it is what helps us learn what we need to learn or see what we need to see, and it’s what helps us to function our best. … Usually business leaders seek mindfulness training because the demands and stresses of their role are [very taxing]. The first task is to come up with a way of managing that so that the stresses don’t affect their mood or performance or impair their happiness. The second task is to use mindfulness to enhance performance in any way they choose. … We usually get all tangled up in hopes and fears and our own reactions. Mindfulness helps you take a step back from that to see it more clearly instead of justifying why we are upset or telling ourselves a story about it. It helps us to see what’s actually there and to make better choices.
What is the biggest obstacle people face when trying to meditate?
BAIME: The biggest obstacle that people face is their own judgments about themselves. The biggest obstacles are themselves because everybody who tries to practice mindfulness thinks they’re doing it wrong. They think that they’re not supposed to have thoughts, and that’s not actually possible. Your mind produces thoughts just like your body produces breath. It is a natural thing. The trick with mindfulness is not to get all tangled up in it. Not get embedded with the thoughts and start having a conversation with them in a way that takes you away from what’s actually happening.
What is something else businesses don’t know about mindfulness?
QUACH: A lot of businesses tend to have a very narrow view of what mindfulness is. They see it as a stress reduction or a wellness program, and they pigeonhole it as such. Companies need to appreciate that mindfulness can unlock much higher engagement and performance. It enables people to self-regulate more effectively so they can handle more complicated situations, like very stressful challenges, without breaking down or burning out. … If they have to do layoffs, they can do them in Brain 3.0 and be compassionate and fair in the way they’re giving severance packages. They will have relationships with those employees going into the future.
These interviews have been edited for space.