With the increased focus to develop more powerful cultures, mindfulness has become front and center for many organizations.

However, that growing trend doesn’t come free of controversies.

Does mindful help or hurt performance? Should every company embrace mindfulness? Or is it just a hype?

For starters, there’s a lot of confusion about what mindfulness is and how it should be implemented. Ironically enough, most companies’ approach seems anything but mindful.

Does Mindfulness Work?

Mindfulness is reaching cult status. That’s a dangerous thing — it polarizes behaviors.

The desire to debunk the hype is creating some superficial attacks. Like this New York Times article “Don’t Meditate at Work” that created a lot of stir among longtime mindfulness practitioners. The research cited in the piece missed the point — mindfulness is not something gained after a one-off meditation; it requires practice.

On the other hand, mindfulness isn’t the solution to everything either. However, the business world’s love for buzzwords is presenting mindfulness as a silver bullet to create better cultures.

We need a mindful approach to mindfulness.

Mindfulness is knowing yourself, to be centered and grounded. It’s about increasing self-awareness so you can make better decisions.

Max Coleman, the founder of Daocloud — a social network for wellness — believes that the competitive fight for talent has put mindfulness on center stage. “Companies are creating better atmospheres because they understand people don’t want to be stressed out all the time.” — Mr. Coleman said.

Mindfulness is neither good nor bad — the way you implement it can be beneficial or not to your organization.

Mindfulness Is a Mindset, Not a Thing

Mindfulness is not something you can provide — it requires more than offering meditation rooms or free yoga lessons.

Mindfulness is not an activity itself, but a mindset — it’s less about what you do than how you do it.

It’s difficult for our minds to stay quiet — a Harvard study found that we spend 46.9 percent of our time thinking about something other than what we are doing. Mindfulness is the opposite of living in auto-pilot.

Most people use meditation and mindfulness interchangeably — they are intertwined but are not the same.

Mindfulness is the quality of being present — the experience of being open and aware in the present moment, without judgment or criticism. Meditation is the practice of training your mind for everyday mindfulness — you prepare yourself by strengthening your mind.

Mindfulness is a mindset; meditation is the training to achieve it.

Meditation is not the only way to practice mindfulness. Becoming aware of your breath, checking-in before a meeting, going for a slow walk, or enjoying daily chores are some of the many opportunities you have to become aware and be intentional.

Mindfulness allows to watch our own and collective behaviors from a distance — we choose to reflect instead of reacting.

“Self-awareness makes you realize the impact you have on people. People are watching and expecting things from us.” — Raji Arasu, SVP of Intuit platforms shared with me — “Sometimes I need to call a timeout on myself. You are going too fast, Raji.”

Promoting mindfulness at work has many positive benefits. It increases focus and presence and reduces stress and conflicts. However, getting there requires a strategic approach, not a one-off or a watered down version of mindfulness.

Move Beyond the Hype

Corporate mindfulness programs are still at an early stage — organizations are still figuring out how to do it right.

A report by Deloitte shows there’s a lack of a unified approach among those in charge of corporate mindfulness programs. Some companies believe that the emphasis on individual well-being overshadows the impact on business performance. Interestingly enough, mindfulness programs are seen as an investment more than as an employee fringe benefit cost.

Either way, the research shows, results need to be demonstrated for ongoing investment — decision makers feel skeptical if mindfulness is just about developing the individual.

Mindful programs must be designed balancing both personal development and team performance — too much emphasis on either can hurt the outcome.

The researchers found that techniques of “slowing down” were seen as necessary, but only as preparation to go deeper. Furthermore, many participants showed dissatisfaction when programs failed to make a connection between meditation and work performance.

Aetna is the picture perfect example of a corporate mindfulness program. The insurance company created a cultural transformation — it used a holistic approach since the get-go.

Here are some of the key lessons:

  • Be authentic: Mark T. Bertolini, Aetna’s CEO almost died after a ski accident in 2004. He pulled through against the odds, but conventional treatments didn’t help him overcome the pain. He grew enamored of yoga and started practicing mindfulness meditation. Bertolini wanted his employees to benefit from those practices too.
  • Don’t force mindfulness: Aetna doesn’t impose yoga or meditation on any employee — there are no incentives for those who join the classes either. No one wants people to think you are trying to brainwash them.
  • Provide a context: Aetna was clear that the move was about improving overall well-being first, and productivity second. Be clear with your team: why are you doing this and what are your trying to achieve.
  • Start gradually: Mr. Bertolini started leading brief meditations to his executive team. Some liked it, and some pushed back full of doubt. The executives agreed to begin measuring heart rate variability and cortisol levels among participants — Aetna used data to move beyond the hype.
  • Make the business connection: Aetna’s employees who participated in the program reported, on average, a 28 percent reduction in stress levels and 20 percent improvement in sleep quality. Productivity increased on an average of 62 minutes per week. Aetna’s stock hit a new record. The program wasn’t the only cause but played a key role.
  • Be consistent: one thing is offering mindfulness perks, and another is embracing a mindful culture. Aetna increased its employees minimum wage by 33%, as reported here. Providing financial well-being to employees is consistent with a culture of mindfulness.

The Four Dimensions of Mindfulness

A comprehensive mindfulness program must address the body, space, and culture too; not just the mind.

1. Body

Mindfulness and wellness are interrelated. Knowing what and, especially how you consume — food, entertainment, work, relationships — affects your health and focus. Also, marrying mindfulness and physical activity reduces stress and boosts positivity.

Max Coleman’s personal journey inspired him to create Daocloud — the traditional medical system failed to cure a chronic back pain he had since age 17. It took him four years of research and experimentation with alternative medicine to finally overcome his problem.

Coleman believes in a holistic approach — conventional medicine and alternative methods must work together. Trauma is where modern medicine is critical. But, for autoimmune diseases, alternative methods make the body cure itself.

Daocloud’s founder is an avid promoter of water fasting — though he cautions not to practice it on our own. Fasting correlates with mindfulness. It helps one realize where our cravings come from — how we eat and why become more evident.

2. Space

Brigitta Glick, the CEO & founder of Provenir Healthcare, started her company with mindfulness at the core. She didn’t want the Provenir office to resemble the usual corporate space.

“I wanted a workplace that allowed me and my employees to be fully present.” — Glick reflects — “I wanted to create a woman/ family–friendly environment.”

Provenir’s office was designed to ensure that every employee would be exposed to natural light. Not everyone gets a private office, but many are unassigned and can be used on a first come, first serve basis. The nursery room is no exception — it has one of the best views in the office, unlike most companies.

3. Mind

Mindfulness reminds us to be aware, present and focused.

Raji Arasu’s leadership mantra is “Going slow to go fast.” The Intuit executive uses awareness to create a meaningful pause. It’s a reminder to see the problems through the larger organization lens, not her specific function.

She describes some meetings as “emotional explosive” ones — people’s reactions test her mindfulness.

“I train myself to have the right level of detachment — I have to listen and understand other people’s perspectives,” Arasu explains, “If I bring my perspective first, I’m walking there emotionally. Most of the times, everyone is aligned with the business outcomes, but our inner-worlds are not aligned.”

Mindfulness starts with the leaders — you cannot create the right conditions if you are not entirely convinced. Leaders must personally embrace mindfulness before trying to encourage a mindful workplace.

Authenticity is key — otherwise, it will backfire.

4. Culture

A Culture of Mindfulness requires authentic and compassionate leadership.

Intuit CEO, Brad Smith, is always reminding his team: “Don’t assume context; bring context.”

Most people don’t know where we are coming from — managers usually assume their teams shared their views. Acknowledging that leaders see differently, as I wrote here, requires both self and team awareness.

Intuit promotes a culture of authentic leadership, a behavior that is modeled by Smith himself.

Mindfulness is more than just awareness — it’s about observing but also acting upon it. A mindful and collaborative leadership approach turns vulnerability into a strength.

“I’m in unchartered waters. As the business continues to grow, I don’t know what lies ahead,” Glick of Provenir Healthcare reflects, “People challenge me — and everyone speaks their minds. They don’t expect me to be perfect, but to pay attention and adjust my behavior if I forget something or if I fail somewhere.”

You would think that such friendly-environments can affect productivity. However, as I explained many times, providing Psychological Safety doesn’t lower the bar. When people trust each other, they can bring their best selves to work.

Mrs. Glick has learned that finding balance is not easy, but people realize that being kind and mindful doesn’t mean you don’t still have a business to run and grow.

Mindfulness Program Checklist

Think big, but act small: Design an ambitious program, but start with a small group. The smaller the team, the smaller the resistance. It will also help you get feedback and make adjustments.

Be authentic: I can’t stress this enough. Don’t launch a mindfulness program if you are not convinced, or you don’t buy into it personally. It’s hard to convince others of a mindset you are not willing to model.

Start with individual activities: Provide activities where people can practice and experiment without feeling exposed. Mindfulness connects us with our deepest sides — people need time to learn to be more vulnerable.

Make the business connection: Track how mindfulness improves your team’s wellness, attitudes, and productivity. Balance personal and business transformation.

Be consistent: A mindful culture requires a holistic approach to both leadership and decision making. You cannot promote mindfulness and not pay fair salaries, for example.

Be open to critics: Don’t impose mindfulness. Let people embrace it on their own. Provide evidence to neutralize doubts. Not everyone needs to meditate, for example. Give people time and options.

Design a holistic approach: In the long run, your corporate mindfulness program should integrate body, mind, space, and culture. However, you don’t need to start with all at once.

Be ready to let go: Mindfulness is a mindset — we are okay accepting our whole-selves (flaws included). It’s about embracing your vulnerability as a leader. Let go of your power.

Your organization needs a mindful approach to mindfulness. Are you ready to get started?

Move from Self-Awareness to Team Awareness

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