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 The Lift Effect takes executives on a ride of a lifetime, using a network of people, experiences and processes to lift leadership performance. 

- Clare Goodman

The Lift Effect Blog

Mindfulness; connecting to your senses

”The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not” William James.

Mindfulness has been linked with Buddhism and other religions and yet in recent years science has combined with religion to explore why mindfulness and meditation works. This has been driven by many including the Dalai Lama, who has a fascinating with looking at the science behind the tenets of Buddhism. He has held a number of conferences with hard core Neuroscientists to discuss the connections. Practicing Buddhists have also been asked to be used as guinea pigs by scientists, inviting them to be involved in mainstream experiments using fMRI scanners. The most notable practicing Buddhist was Mathieu Ricard who was involved with many experiments with Richard Davidson. What they discovered was that the practicing Buddhists were able to a) switch their minds from one state to another quickly and b) had a greater capacity for compassion.

“The Dalai Lama has noted that the most powerful influences on the mind come from within our own mind. The findings that, in highly experienced meditators, there is greater activity in the left PFC, therefore happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain”  The Plastic Mind by Sharon Begley.

What scientists and Buddhists do agree is that your mind can be trained to cultivate more positive emotions.

Default vs Direct Network

What we do know is that there is a default network that we go into when we day dream. We go into the default when we allow our mind to wander. Scientists agree that it is our default so when we give our mind a rest and break from focus on work we will unconsciously go into the default state. It can also be called the narrative or rumination, it can be a useful state to ponder over things that have happened and embed memories and make connections. A recent lecture by Assistant Professor Golnaz Tabibnia from Carnegie Mellon University in the USA states that the default network includes;

  • Thinking about self (medial PFC)
  • Thinking about others thoughts (Dorsal medial PFC)
  • Thinking about others actions (Lateral temporal lobe)

So when you slip into default and start thinking about yourself and start to wonder about what others may be thinking about you, it is quite normal. However it can have a downside. For many of us our rumination leads to catastrophising or a downward spiral. The rumination may start with reliving something that someone said yesterday and then that may trigger another memory which could lead to a threat response.

The direct experience network is when we are aware of our bodily sensations, so our attention is on our senses. When we activate our direct network, we shut off the default network and vice versa. David Rock in his book Your Brain at Work writes:

“When the direct experience network is active several different brain regions become more active. This includes the insula, a region that relates to perceiving bodily sensations. Also activated is the anterior cingulated cortex, a region central the detecting errors and switching your attention. When this direct experience network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or the future, other people, or yourself. Rather you are experiencing information that comes to your senses in real time.”

So when the direct experience network is turned on the default quiets down. So if you are walking to a meeting and ruminating that the meeting is going to be bad and you feel yourself getting more stressed then switching to the direct network and feeling the sun on your face, or become aware of your feet on the floor or just breathing can prevent the increasing limbic response and keep you cool under pressure.

Leaders who regularly meditate and practiced mindfulness found that they were;

  • Better control over the default circuit.
  • Better able to regulate emotions
  • Become more aware of their unconscious processes
  • Able to change their attention
  • Improve self control or willpower
  • Have greater cognitive control
  • Reduces stress – including lowers allostatic load (prolonged stress)
  • Increase cortical thickness
  • Benefits higher order cognitive functioning – including working memory and ability to process information.

Mindfulness is becoming more accepted as a ‘power app’ for leaders, a great antidote to our fast moving, complex work lives. Mindfulness is a great way to take care of your mind, to value it and to make sure that it is in good working order when you need it. Most of us are unfortunately not employed for our good looks, but we are employed for our minds. Yet like a neglectful tradie we mistreat our greatest tool, like leaving a valuable saw out in the rain, and yet still expect it to work magnificently when we call upon it.

For those interested there are a number of courses that can help you take the first step into developing mindfulness in your worklife. Contact me on info@lifteffect.com.au for more details.

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Curiosity – a leaders tool to manage uncertainty

Could the power of curiosity help leaders to emotionally manage uncertainty and ambiguity in the workplace? There is no doubt that the world is becoming more uncertain – leaders are called upon to have a higher degree of adaptability to handle the ever changing business landscape.

Curious? is  new book by Todd Kashdan that explores the power and benefits of cultivating a curious mind. As children, our world is full of unknowns and we continually pester the adults in our world to answer question after question ‘ why is the sky blue? where does milk come from?’  at that age it is an open inquiry, for many without fear. We all have a capacity for curiosity, however as we experience life we start to change how we use curiosity. Some adults continue to be open to new experiences and face life with inquiry whilst others become more fearful of new experiences, uncertainty and life.

Working with leaders in a diverse range of industries across Australia it seems clear that curiosity is often replaced with control and knowing. This can lead to excellent problem solving based on past experience but undermines innovative thinking, it also can lead to increase in stress levels as leaders try to contain and control the variables in the workplace rather than engage curiosity and innovation.

Curiosity in Action

I spend my work life with leaders in highly intense, experiential leadership development programs. In these programs we use simulations and work based scenarios to observe and coach the participants through challenging, uncertain and pressurised situations. These simulations are designed to trigger a threat response, what we are looking for is how well a leader can emotionally regulate so they can adapt, deal with the uncertainty and work through the simulation effectively. I often coach these execs to use curiosity of a situation or a challenging person to regulate. Curiosity is an emotion that is based on being open and inquiring, this is often the exact opposite of how our leaders behave in these intense programs. With practice,  leaders start to develop curiosity in those situations and are more able to read others emotions, respond rather than react and see another’s perspective. It’s a powerful tool.

Curiosity is underused – and certainly under-recognised by leaders and those who support the development of leaders.

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