The Tao of Association Leadership

tao, mindfulness September 5, 2017 By: Stephen Gold

Good leaders thrive by exhibiting strong mental health. One association leader takes a mindfulness approach to reducing anxiety and building trust in the workplace.

In early January 2016, I stood before the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation's 40 employees during our first staff meeting of the year. MAPI, which is a nonprofit manufacturing leadership network, had been going through a reorganization, and as I looked around the room, I asked, "How many of you feel so anxious or frenzied in the office that it affects your reliability, your work-life balance, or even your sleep?" A few people raised their hands immediately, then more, and finally every person in the room had their hand up.

Before you assert that my association is just a high-strung, intense organization, remember the adage—people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. We live in a society that is connected 24/7, and workers today are exposed to information overload and external pressures that prior generations never knew. Associations aren't exempt from any of these pressures.

I knew that I couldn't shield my employees from workplace challenges and business cycles, but I could help them adjust their expectations and provide them with tools for managing internal stress and turmoil. I planned to do this by introducing mindfulness into my office.

As a member of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, I knew mindfulness, also called "nonjudgmental awareness," could provide mechanisms for managing stress by training the mind and enhancing one's awareness of the present moment. To illustrate this, sometimes IMCW teachers use the equation: pain x resistance = stress.

Workers today are exposed to information overload and external pressures that prior generations never knew. Associations aren't exempt from any of these pressures.

There will always be pain at the office—from impatient bosses and deadline pressures to event logistics and member demands. How much resistance one presents (i.e., the level of internal anxiety and turmoil) determines the levels of stress. I also knew that I wasn't alone in this initiative. An increasing number of businesses worldwide, including Google, Target, Royal Bank of Canada, General Mills, and SAP, have introduced various levels of mindfulness training. Some companies, like global manufacturer EnPro Industries, have changed their entire corporate culture based on such initiatives.

Many of my association peers were skeptical about my intentions, but mindfulness isn't mysticism. For example, a growing body of research, including studies by Harvard University's James Stahl and Sara Lazar and books by Dr. Daniel Siegel and psychologist Rick Hanson, shows that meditative practices can alter brain patterns, reduce anxiety, and make people happier. By practicing awareness, we recognize that much of our stress is self-inflicted and exacerbated by an incessant chatter in our minds. Sometimes the voice in our head is fretting about the future; sometimes it's rehashing events of the past. Whatever it's saying, it's rarely in the present moment very long.

That takes a toll on our mental and physical health. There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system, which controls the function of internal organs. In parasympathetic mode (the "rest and digest" branch), the heart rate is low and the body is in a state of equilibrium. The sympathetic ("fight or flight") system only kicks in when there is a perceived threat—the heart rate increases, muscles contract, blood pressure rises, and blood supply shifts from internal organs to limbs in order to enable fighting or fleeing. While humans evolved spending most of their time in the parasympathetic system, the stresses of modern society have altered our natural state, so that today most of us live in a continuous low-grade state of fight-or-flight. Consequences of this include heart disease, hypertension, substance abuse, and depression.

Sadly, office life can contribute to this. According to a study by the American Psychological Association [PDF], work is neck-and-neck with personal finances as the biggest cause of stress in our society. Practicing awareness helps us to see these patterns as they're occurring and to take steps to manage them. It can even transition us back into our parasympathetic mode. My objective as MAPI CEO has been to see if I can provide tools and trainings for my staff to create a culture of trust and transparency while helping staff cope with stress and anxiety.

One example of how I do this is with monthly mindfulness discussions. This is an hour-long period spent with staff to discuss openly and share how they use mindfulness in an office environment. For example, at one recent meeting we discussed "RAIN" as a means of building awareness. RAIN stands for recognize, accept, investigate, and nourish. The group is asked to recognize what is happening at this moment, such as anger, anxiety, ambition, or hope. Accept the emotions and feelings that the mood evokes. Investigate what deep-seated beliefs are stimulating those emotions and feelings. And nourish them—that is to say, have compassion for yourself.

When leaders think about mindfulness and incorporate tools and trainings into the workplace, it can help to address stress and anxiety. At MAPI, we like to think of these exercises as one of the many benefits that promote personal growth, as well as leadership and organizational stability.

Stephen Gold

Stephen Gold is president and CEO of the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation, in Rosslyn, Virginia.