Summary: Mindfulness for Leaders
Corporate psychologist and mindfulness expert Patricia Thompson, Ph.D., helps us bridge the gaps between leadership, work-life balance, and mindfulness.
If you’ve ever questioned why ‘soft skills’ matter, you won’t wonder again after this interview.
Words of Wisdom
Leaders have a lot on their plates. Not only the tasks, but also the people getting tasks done.
Sometimes leaders can just get very task focused. But when they take a step back and really think about the people and their motives and their needs and how they can develop them, and those sorts of things to create a more meaningful work environment, I think that’s how you create the positive work culture, just by, again, thinking about people as a whole. This is why having mindfulness for leaders is very beneficial.
I mean it sounds straight forward and obvious, but my experience is that people can just get so stressed out and focused on goals and metrics that they forget about the interpersonal element of it.
— Patricia Thompson, PhD, Mindfulness Expert
Transcript: Mindfulness for Leaders
Hello, and welcome to The podcast. I’m your host, Jen McFarland. For the past couple of weeks, we’ve talked about controlling your thinking or reframing thoughts for a more positive outlook on things. This week, we’re going to bring it all home with mindfulness expert, Dr. Patricia Thompson. You are not going to want to miss this. All that and more here on The Third Paddle.
Welcome to the podcast recorded at the Vandal Lounge in beautiful Southeast Portland, Oregon. Why The Third Paddle? Because even the most badass entrepreneurs get stuck up in business shit creek. Management consultant Jennifer McFarland is your third paddle help you get unstuck.
Welcome back to the show. Patricia Thompson, PhD is a corporate psychologist and founder of Silver Lining Psychology, a management consulting firm devoted to helping organizations to achieve better results by applying psychological principles. During her 15-plus years or consulting experience, she has worked with clients such as: The Home Depot, Chick-fil-a, Suntrust Banks, The United Way, Habitat for Humanity, Baylor Scott & White Health, Children’s Healthcare of Atalanta, and many others, assisting them with executive coaching, team building, leadership development, and enhancing emotional intelligence through mindfulness. She’s also the author of The Consummate Leader: A Holistic Guide to Inspiring Growth in Others and in Yourself and the creator of the Executive Mindfulness online course, a self-paced course to teach professionals how to apply mindfulness practices in the workplace. Her work has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Business Insider Inc, and many others. Please join me in welcoming Patricia Thompson, PhD to The podcast. Let’s hear what she has to say.
What I love about your background is it’s so diverse. You approach leadership and business holistically, and yet, you love data, which I love too. So I’m curious, would you mind sharing why you’re so passionate about leadership, organizational culture, and mindfulness?
Yeah, sure. And it’s the kind of thing that I wasn’t always passionate about because, actually, my PhD is in clinical psychology. So I had envisioned that I would go more of a therapy route. And it wasn’t until I was in my post-doc, so basically, my last year of formal education, that consulting even came onto my radar. There was actually a firm that was telling us different things that we could do with our degrees, and they were recruiting. And it seemed really interesting to work with a different population, and I think I was also just interested in traveling too, to be honest. And so just kind of fell into it. But I think the one thing that I really love about it, is that I feel that when I work with leaders, I can have effects that really ripple out. So I feel like my impact can be greater because I’m working with a leader, that person’s becoming more effective and, hopefully, happier and better at their job. And then, obviously, the people who report to them feel that, and so they get to be happier and better at their jobs and have a better impact in the organization.
And then what I also feel is that the effects ripple out to their families just because people spend so much time at work. So when they’re not happy, it really has an impact on everyonne around them. And so, it’s just been really gratifying to see the effect that I can have on a lot of different people by working just with one person. So that’s one thing that I love. And just, I think, like I said, people spend so much time at work, that if your worklife is miserable, it’s just terrible. So just at a practical level, I think it just helps people’s quality of life to go up.
Oh, I totally agree. And we do put so much effort and time into being leaders and running businesses, or if you have a large organization leading a group and having that organizational culture. We spend that much time there, why not have it be pleasant [laughter]?
Yeah. I mean, there’s almost a belief that work is not supposed to be fun or work is supposed to be unpleasant. And it’s kind of like you’ll come across someone, say in the elevator, and you’ll say, “How are you doing?” And they’ll go, “Oh, it’s Monday.” And that’s all they have to say and you know what that’s supposed to mean, work is supposed to suck basically, right [laughter]? And so to be able to give people a different perspective, but help them to see that when it’s actually more pleasant, you can get better results is a really satisfying thing for me to do.
Oh, yeah. I bet. And I love those commercials because I think it’s so true. Those, kind of, pay-it-forward commercials where one person does something nice and then they follow the person that had something nice given to them and they continue to pay it forward. And if I’m hearing you right, what I think you’re saying is you see that ripple effect within organizations too and I mean, that’s just a beautiful thing. If everybody just feels a little bit better, they’re more willing to collaborate and work together.
Yeah. Exactly. You got it on point [laughter].
Awesome. So how do you define a positive organizational culture and what do we as leaders need to do to foster that?
Yeah. I mean, I think there are various ways to think of it, but I think one way that I like to kind of get my mind around it is based on a study that Google actually did called Project Aristotle. And in that study, what they did was within their organization, they wanted to look at, what were the characteristics of the highest functioning teams? And so they have all sorts of data, they’re Google [laughter]. And they were looking at personality characteristics on teams and how much time they were spending eating lunch together, all kinds of things. But what they found was one of the most important factors was something called psychological safety, which essentially came down to feeling a sense of trust at work, feeling like you could be your authentic self, feeling like you could ask for help if you needed it and it was a safe environment to do so, so basically, kind of a place where you can be vulnerable if you need to be. So there was that kind of safety to be yourself. And so I think, when you think about that concept of psychological safety, it means that a positive work environment is one where there’s trust, where there’s respect, where there’s compassion, and compassion doesn’t mean not asking people to do their jobs or having low standards, but it means that when you have to give people feedback, you do it in a caring and compassionate way. So I think all of those are important and I think a focus on results, obviously, too is part of a strong organizational culture. But I think the results are less fear-based, like, “Do this or else [laughter],” and it’s more inspiring people to accomplish results. Kind of the sense of, “Look at what we can do as a team,” or allowing people to dream and really be pulled towards some sort of compelling goal. So, yeah. I would say those are the characteristics.
Yeah. I totally agree. I think when I studied leadership for public administration, they talked a lot about the stick and carrot, right, and how that just doesn’t work anymore. People don’t want to be essentially beaten with a stick [laughter] or given a carrot. I mean, people want to feel like they’re part of something and I think we see that a lot, especially– I’m a Gen Xer, so it’s like Gen Xer and anybody younger than us. We just don’t respond as well to that kind of feedback of fear and, “You’re going to do it because I said so [laughter].”
Right. Yeah. Exactly. You want a little more meaning in what you’re actually doing. Absolutely.
Yeah. To feel like we’re a contributor and a collaborator as opposed to just a, I don’t know, minion [laughter].
Exactly. And so I think, as a leader with a that means it’s that you can’t just think about the task getting done, you have to think about the people who’re doing the tasks. And I think sometimes for a leader that could be hard because they have so much on their plate, and they can just get very task focused. But when they take a step back and really think about the people and their motives and their needs and how they can develop them, and those sorts of things to create a more meaningful work environment, I think that’s how you create the positive work culture, just by, again, thinking about people as a whole. I mean it sounds straight forward and obvious, but my experience is that people can just get so stressed out and focused on goals and metrics that they forget about the interpersonal element of it.
Oh, absolutely. And soft skills are just so important. And, yeah, it almost sounds like a lot of leaders get stuck in the managerial rat race instead of the aspirational visioning how’re we going to actually achieve all of the tasks, right, meaning in the bigger picture, as opposed to this person does that. And I think you make that transition through things like mindfulness and self-awareness. And so with that in mind, how can mindfulness be transformative?
Yeah, I think at its core mindfulness is something that increases your self-awareness, right? So I think a lot of us can, if we’re not careful, just kind of go from thing to thing in our lives and be very reactive and not take a step back to think how are we going about our lives or why are we doing the things that we’re doing. And I think especially in the work world where everyone’s so busy, very often people don’t even have the time. I won’t say they don’t have the time. They don’t make the time to take a step back to think about like, “Why am I doing things this way?” or “How am I responding in this situation?” Just taking that step back. And so what I found for leaders is taking a mindful approach causes them to kind of take a pause and think before they respond or kind of be more aware of their emotional reactions to things or kind of view a room in a different way as opposed to just being in the room. They’re kind of observing what’s going on in the room in a non-judgmental way. And so it’s just kind of gives them, I think, greater depth of understanding of what’s going on in any given point in time and allows them to behave with greater intention instead of just being reactive.
Yeah. And it’s so hard in just this disruptive world we’re in right now to not just be reacting and putting out fires all day, right? I mean constantly answering emails or social media or all of it [laughter]. It’s easy to just be putting out fires and not take that step back and think about how am I engaging with everything and what would be a better way, right?
Yeah. I think there’s so much of a tendency to need to act with urgency that people don’t even think like, “Am I working on the right things at any given point in time?” Because they’re, again, just reacting to what’s in front of them that they’re not taking that time to prioritize and be more intentional. Absolutely.
Yeah. And I love that you mentioned prioritize because I know that one of your big things is that mindfulness can actually increase your productivity. So when you think you’re being reactive and you’re actually responding and doing, sometimes you’re actually reducing your productivity, right?
So what’s the connection between mindfulness and productivity?
Well, so if you think of the classic way of learning mindfulness initially, it’s through meditation. That’s one way that a lot of people learn it. And typically the exercise is to just kind of close your eyes and focus on your breathing, right? And focus on your breathing. And as you have a thought come in, you notice the thought, and then you kind of let it go and focus back on your breathing. And that’s going to happen numerous times you’re trying to meditate, right? You have a thought. Oh, got to let it go. Again. Oh, a thought. Got to let it go. But every time that you’re doing that, basically what it’s training you to do is number one, to let a distraction go, and number two, to focus on what exactly it is that you’re trying to focus on. And if you think of what productivity comes down to, it’s being able to concentrate on what you’re doing at any given point at time and not get distracted by various things impinging on you. And so just the exercise of getting good at letting distractions go enables you to be more productive in the moment when you’re actually allowing yourself to work on a given task. And then, like I mentioned, there’s also the aspect of taking a step back and prioritizing so you’re working on the right things at the right time. So there are multiple ways that it does it.
I think that’s great. I’ve been reading this really good book – you maybe have read it – called Deep Work by Cal Newport.
I have it.
And he talks a lot about that, how a lot of strategies for how to relearn eliminating distractions in the workplace so that you can do deep work if you have something to write or a job like a professor or a computer programmer or even a leader. To engage in some deep thought. How we can actually retrain our brains to engage in that and eliminate distractions for periods of time throughout the week. And I’ve been testing it out. It actually has made me much more productive because I just set an intention for what I’m going to do and set aside a period of time to work on it. It’s like a different– it’s like mindfulness in the workplace.
Yeah. Well, the thing is, too, I think when you start to practice mindfulness, it feels good, right? So it’s calming. You feel more grounded and so you might be more prone to do something like turn off your notifications for a while and not have the fear of missing out, because you know that it feels good to be focused on one thing at a time. And so I think it opens up people just to approach their work lives differently.
How do you, because I’m sure that you get this when you work with leaders. How do you respond when somebody says, “I can’t be mindful. I’ve got too much to do,” or, “I’ve got too much on my plate.” How do you respond to that?
Yeah. So I think that’s where my background as a psychologist comes in, because I’m someone who loves research and I love data. And I find that with a lot of sort of hard-nosed kind of business types, this can sound like you’re kind of pointing out very soft or impractical– but I think that when I can point out research about how mindfulness has been linked to greater productivity or enhanced concentration or improved decision-making or enhanced emotional intelligence, those sorts of things, then it’s harder to refute. And so it’s almost like I suggest you just do it as an experiment. Try it out. See how it feels for you. And yeah, then it tends to be something that, once they try it out they can see the benefit.
Right. Yeah. No, and don’t get me wrong. I think that soft skills are where it’s at.
But actually increasing communication, emotional intelligence, all of that. So saying soft skills, I don’t mean it as a negative. I think it’s actually what makes organizations really great, so.
Yeah. I actually once read an article where the author made the point that they should just be called skills because soft skills in some way seems to lessen their level of importance. But at a certain level, soft skills are what are your competitive edge, right?
I totally agree. I totally agree. So I think we’ve kind of danced around it a little bit, but how does mindfulness make someone a better listener?
Yeah. I think, again, we have danced around it. I would say the one way in which it makes me a better listener is it just helps you to be more present in the moment. A lot of times, I think, when people are listening, we’re listening, but then we might get distracted by a thought that we have, or we’re thinking of an argument in the meantime, or we might have an emotional reaction that we’re not even aware of that’s impacting how we’re responding in the moment. And again, mindfulness just helps you to be more self-aware and have more insight in terms of what is happening with you in any given moment and what’s happening with the other person. Mindfulness, I think, is basically about paying attention and paying attention, sort of, in a non-judgmental way. So you’re just kind of noticing what’s happening. And I think in a conversation, that’s so powerful because if someone pushes one of our buttons, you might at least notice that. If you’re mindful, and you’ve gotten a mindfulness-awareness of your body, you might notice, “Oh, my heart rate’s increasing right now, maybe I need to be more careful because I decide what I’m going to say next.” Or, “Maybe let me listen a little bit further to understand what this person’s really trying to get at.” And so it’s really this concept of the self-awareness and the self-management that I think really helps you to be a better listener, as well as just your ability to be able to be more present with the other person. Right? Not be looking in every direction or looking at your emails while somebody is trying to talk to you, but just being present and focused on that person. And it’s interesting, I think that’s something that people don’t usually experience a lot, because I’ve done exercises with groups in which I tell them to pair off and listen to each other mindfully. And the feedback I always get is that it feels so good because they don’t get it very often.
Yeah. Why do you think that is? Why do you think people don’t exercise that?
I don’t know. I guess we have so much going on, and so I think sometimes if someone is talking too much, and you have people in the business world who can sometimes be achievers who are a little bit impatient, they might just be wanting the person to get to the point as opposed to really trying to listen and dig into what they have to say. So I think sometimes it’s just being busy and wanting to be efficient. But I also just think it’s a skill that maybe a lot of us aren’t taught to do. And so people just haven’t learned to listen effectively.
Yeah. I think that that’s [laughter]– yep. You’re hitting on all the points. I had a boss who would like to play with his phone or tablet while we were in the middle of a meeting, one-on-one meetings. Or even when we were meeting with some of our other collaborators, and then his questions were just so off-point. He was the head– I worked for the leader of the organization, and then it was clear he wasn’t paying any attention, and then his questions either had already been covered or were off-topic or off-base. It was a hard situation to navigate, actually, as someone trying to support that leader.
Well, I think it’s demoralizing. You kind of feel like, “What’s the point of this exercise? Why are we even– why are we pretending to talk?” And I think it makes you feel like you’re not valued. And so when you think about a positive organizational culture and someone can’t even value you enough to pay attention to you, I mean, it’s demoralizing.
Yeah. Well, I don’t work there anymore [laughter].
Yeah, I wonder why [laughter].
So baring in mind that a lot of leaders are very task-oriented, or like, “Okay, mindfulness, go. How do I do it?” I mean, I’m sure not everybody is like that, but you’ve probably–
There are some. Yeah. Absolutely.
–run into– yeah. So how can we be more mindful as leaders knowing that there’s so much pressing on our time?
Yeah, I mean so I recommend just starting with the mindfulness practice of deep breathing. I recommend just starting with five minutes a day or something that seems really doable. Everybody can find five minutes in their day to at least just start to try something like that. So that’s one thing that I start with. And just ask [some how?] it feels. And typically, if you actually make the effort to do it, you see the benefits for relaxation. And might tell some challenges with distractions coming in. But lot of people who are achievement-oriented that [will?] want to get better at it, because they don’t like not being good at something. Still, that’s not really what mindfulness is about. For some people that can be the hook to get better at it. And then for those who don’t want to try meditation, I teach it more from the standpoint of just taking it step back and just trying to observe what’s going on in the moment. And notice what judgements are coming up and try and let them go. So almost try to observe a situation like you’re a curious scientist, just really objectively. So you can be in a meeting, and just observe the interactions going on in the meeting. So that you’re not just focused on the content of what is being said, but you can also kind of get some of the nuance behind it. And so for some people that’s a way they can get into it. Or noticing their own reactions in the moment is another way that they don’t have to think about meditating. And they want to try that. And then it seems more practical. And then they, again, can get more curious about it, and then we can kind of go from there.
Yeah. It’s so interesting because the resistence to medication– or calling it just sitting and being quiet for a while or breathing and paying attention to your breathing. The resistence to that is so fascinating to me.
Yeah. I mean, you can also call it training your attention And for some people that is more palatable. And so you can get at it in a different way, but it’s still the same behavior that they’re going to be learning. So it’s just how do you frame it in a language that’s going to resonate with them.
Absolutely. And that’s where I think your background really comes into play. Where you understand reframing and the importance of, maybe, looking at things from different angles. I think your training really helps with that a lot. Is that right or–
–it just seems like it would–
I think so. Yeah.
Yeah. So can we talk a little bit about some of the amazing work you’ve done with your clients? Or can you tell us a little more about what it’s like to work with you, and how you kind of combine all of the data with learning all these cool new skills, like mindfulness. I just think people would be really interested in that.
Yeah. So I would say there’s definitely some art and science to working with me. I like to use data. And so a lot of times when I’m working with someone, we’ll start by doing some personality measures. And some of them are more user-friendly, like the Myers-Briggs, which probably a lot of people have done. Others are less user-friendly, but I can use the data and kind of use it to understand them and really [often?] to identify their strengths and areas that they might want to work on. Strengths that they might overplay into liabilities at times. Those kind of things. Just to get a really well-rounded view of who they are as a person. And then based on that – and their own goals coming in – we’ll set some development goals or things that we want to work together on. And then, I guess, that’s where some of the art comes in. Based on the goals that we’ve set, I try to meet them where they are and work on them. And there are variety of different things that I would do, and it kind of depends on the person. I have some online courses. So sometimes I’ll assign them a course that they can do along with their work with me. So that they can dive deeper into mindfulness and learn about it in a way that maybe we can’t cover just in the time that we have together one on one, that kind of thing. And sometimes we will do some real-time mindfulness work. A lot of times, I’ll give assignments. So it could be trying out a new behavior in the workplace, for instance, or reading up on something. But I try to keep it very active in a lot of assignments just because there’s only so much that you can do in the work together, but where the rubber is really going to hit the road is when they try it out in the real world. And then based on that, we can kind of tweak and adjust based on that.
Oh, wow, that sounds great. Do you have any examples of results that you’ve seen, or anything like that, you’d like to share?
Yeah, I mean, they’re a lot. I guess one recent one I can think of is that I once worked with a leader who had a problem of being perceived really negatively by her team because she was very impatient and kind of off about focused on the work. And she had really high expectations. So quite frankly, she was just stressed all the time. And we know that when we’re under stress, we’re probably even less effective personally, and so it kind of compounded the problem of her impatience and not taking the time to really deal with people on an individual level and thinking about the relationship aspect of things. And so we actually did a lot of mindfulness work together. And the great thing I think, for me, is that it was transformational for her, but not just at work. It was transformational in her marriage, it was transformational in her personal life because in a sense, it just really changed the way that she interacted with people and it changed her view of the world. She wasn’t like impatient all the time or feeling under pressure. She was managing her stress and in a sense, having more fun at work by getting to relate to people. And so they were still getting tasks done, and people who were working for her were actually more motivated because they were working for a better boss, in a sense. So yeah, it was just transformative for everyone involved. And so that was really gratifying for me to hear.
Wow, that is so amazing. I think people don’t realize how sometimes our work bleeds into everything.
I bet you see that a lot, where people are there working with you to focus on the work, but then things like their marriage is going better.
Yeah, I hear all the time, like, “Oh, my spouse wants to say thank you. She doesn’t know exactly what we’re doing, but I’m so much better,” you know, that kind of thing. Or, “I’m making more time for work-life balance, but it’s still getting everything done. And I didn’t know that life could actually feel this way.” So yeah, it’s really great to hear those kinds of things.
Oh, that’s so awesome. So you also have a podcast?
Do you want to tell us a little bit more about the Success Unlimited Podcast?
Yeah. I will say it’s a very irregular podcast in terms of when it comes out. It’s kind of based on when I have time. But basically, what I do is cover a lot of the stuff that we’ve been talking about together, I really like to talk about research and a specific topic as it relates to work. A lot of the different things that I talk about relate to stress management, finding more meaning in your work. A lot of positive psychology comes into there as well. And so there are brief episodes, I would say, 20 minutes or less that we kind of focused on a topic, talk about some of the research, and then talk about practical ways to apply the research so that you can have a more joyous work life.
I love that. That is so awesome. Do you want to talk a little bit about how people can contact you, or if you have anything to offer our listeners?
Yeah. So you can find me at silverliningpsychology.com. And I think there are two things on the website that people tend to be drawn to. One is a leadership quiz that I have on the homepage, if you’re just curious about what you’re like as a leader, you can take the quiz and then you can get some resources based on that. And then the other thing is just work related to mindfulness. And so in the menu bar, there’s actually a link called Mindfulness. And you can take a mindfulness quiz there if you’re curious about how mindful you are at work. You can read information about the different research as it relates to mindfulness and how it can help you in the workplace, too. So those are some things you could try out.
Yeah, it’s awesome. I loved your website and the quizzes. You have a lot going on there. And I just think it’s all fantastic for helping people to manage their work-life balance or how they manage people, and maybe how much time they have for their kids, I think it’s great.
Oh, thank you. Appreciate that.
Yeah. Thank you so much for being on the show. [music]
Thank you for having me. It’s been fun.
Thank you for listening to the podcast. Be sure to catch every episode by subscribing on iTunes. To learn more, check out our website at www.jenmcfarland.com/podcast. The podcast is sponsored by Foster Growth LLC, online at www.jenmcfarland.com.
- Patricia Thompson, Ph.D., Silver Lining Psychology (leadership quiz)
- Executive Mindfulness Online Course (includes a link to the quiz)
- Patricia Thompson, Ph.D.’s book: The Consummate Leader: a Holistic Guide to Inspiring Growth in Others…and in Yourself: available on Kindle or paperback
- Google’s Project Aristotle
- Deep Work, Cal Newport