Successful leaders manage complex environments by simultaneously responding to multiple variables. When it comes down to it, decisions are made in order to control the world and shape the future. However, the desire to control can result in being hyperreactive, which can lead to unanticipated and unsuccessful outcomes.
We seek to control things around us for multiple reasons. One reason is that we are rewarded for having an impact at work, and this requires controlling for specific outcomes. Emotionally, we seek control to reduce anxiety and create a sense of predictability and permanence in a complex world. Unfortunately attempting to constantly control the environment can result in high stress for yourself and others. Furthermore, rigid controlling behaviors can actually reduce the amount of control one has on the environment. A great example of this is when we react negatively to people at work.
A mindful leader understands when the need for control is causing more harm than good. Mindfulness has revolutionized the field of psychology, teaching us that individuals resisting their experiences are less able to change than individuals who accept their experiences. I recently worked with a group of executives who want to use mindfulness techniques to be more intentional. During one of our programs, a very smart and experienced business person challenged the notion of mindful acceptance. He asked, “I know a guy who constantly wastes time in meetings thinking out loud in a disorganized way and I can’t stand it. I get angry whenever I’m around him. Are you telling me that I should just accept that I’m angry at him and my problems will go away?” I asked him what happens when he is angry in the meetings and he replied that he feels tension in his chest and tends to zone out. I then asked him why he is so angry with this person who happens to ramble in an unaware state. He said it is because he selfishly wastes everyone’s time. I asked him why having his own time wasted makes him angry. He replied that he already has enough on his plate and too little time for his family, and when this person wastes his time it is directly hurting his personal life. This was a key insight. I asked, “So a socially unaware person who rambles is responsible for damaging your personal life?” He nodded that there was something messy about that causal belief. We discussed a list of common cognitive distortions. One such distortion is a tendency to personalize people and events. We talked about practicing acceptance and understanding his anger during meetings. Instead of zoning out and rehearsing angry thoughts, one option is to think, “I am angry right now and it is okay to be upset from time to time” (acceptance). This is very different from thoughts such as, “I can’t believe this idiot is wasting my time again. He has ruined my day again.” After accepting the anger, he can then decide how to handle the situation effectively by addressing the underlying issue.
In this particular case, the underlying issue was time-management, which is far easier to address than a person’s disposition toward rambling in meetings. Once the focus of our workshop conversation shifted to how the meeting can be better managed to respect peoples’ time, numerous options were generated in the room. For example, I suggested reaching out to the meeting leader offline to share some observations and think through ways to create more efficient meetings. We discussed having meeting participants individually reflect on a specific question and then take turns sharing with the room as a way to create equal speaking times. Another technique described to handle dominating talkers was to assign roles of time-keeper, facilitator, and note taker to group members, rotating roles every meeting so members collaboratively manage time. There are many strategies to employ once a business issue such as meeting time efficiency is identified.
A key take away is that there is a difference between reacting with emotion and planning. Accepting your emotions is the first step, followed by exploration, and determining the best options to successfully adapt to the environment. Keep in mind that when we are upset, the discomfort and resistance to feeling "bad" adds even more stress. When we accept the present moment, we let go of this additional layer of stress. This enables us to better think through the best way to proceed. Acceptance can mistakenly sound like giving away control but when practiced mindfully it enables leaders to create successful outcomes.