How to be a Mindful Leader: Emotional Intelligence for Workplace Success
Updated: Jul 12
Victor Frankl, a brilliant psychiatrist, neurologist and Holocaust survivor, is often quoted in essays and articles related to emotional intelligence. He attributed his survival of the Holocaust to his own mental state. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes how everything can be taken away from a person: their family, physical safety, sustenance, but they cannot take complete control of one’s mind; over one’s beliefs and attitude. This is where our freedom lies. When leaders develop the tools that allow them the freedom to choose their behavioral responses in the face of a difficult emotion, they regain more control over communication and relational interactions.
Mindfulness can be an effective tool because it allows increased space between stimulus and response. I believe all of us can agree that we would like leaders to be thoughtful in their actions and responses. Through mindfulness and other emotional intelligence enhancement practices, leaders can build this skill and provide a better, more successful work environment for themselves and for their team. Practicing mindfulness can have a profound impact upon leaders’ psychosocial, emotional and physical well-being.
There are many ways in which mindfulness can help leaders to reach their goals, such as: improved workplace communication, enhanced conflict resolution skills, increased ability to read internal and external cues, creating a better work/life balance, and developing a workplace culture that promotes respect and investment in the organization’s mission. This in turn improves employee engagement and retention.
If you are an experienced meditator, you probably already know that meditation has the power to bring subconscious material into the conscious. What do I mean by that? Well, all of us have emotions, physical sensations and thoughts that are just beneath our conscious awareness. When we grow up in relatively healthy societal and family systems, we are taught to express thoughts and emotions in a productive way as they arise. We develop the ability to express our happiness and woes in a way that allows us to remain positively interconnected with those around us, versus causing unintentional harm to ourselves or others.
Unfortunately, our society and the families we grew up with often miss the mark when it comes to healthy emotional development. We may be ignored when we are emotionally distraught, taught to “suck it up”, “walk it off’, or, even worse, directly punished for displaying emotional vulnerability, rather than encouraged to take the careful introspection needed for healthy emotional growth and intelligence. There is often a sexist component to this maladaptive way of coping with stress; thus, boys may hear “Quit crying!” and “Don’t be a girl!”. Difficult, raw emotions such as sadness and fear (which ALL of us experience, despite whatever our gender expression may be) are somehow labeled as ‘weak’ and we are discouraged from expressing them. I could write an entire book devoted to this general subject and the deleterious effects it has upon one’s personal life and relationships.
Instead, let’s fast forward to adulthood and look at how hindered emotional development can specifically impact leaders’ performance in the workplace. With the sort of patterned messaging outlined above from families and society, leaders are often left with skill gaps that impact their success and the success of their team. If you have been taught to repress certain emotions (which almost all of us have), these emotions are pushed into the subconscious where it is more difficult to maintain emotional control and they may manifest as a frustrated outburst, an impulsive behavior or inappropriate comment, etc.
Mindfulness is one powerful antidote to this maladaptive coping strategy. If we were to compare the psychological processes of repression versus healthy processing of emotions to a garden, repression would be the haphazard spreading of seeds just below the soil, where they remain unattended to and the garden may become overgrown with weeds. Mindfulness would be the very conscientious act of planting the seeds, taking great care to tend to the plants’ health and uproot weeds when they become visible. So, in either example, you begin with the same seeds (loneliness, fear, etc), but you have a vastly different outcome by caring for the seeds in such exceptionally different ways.
When leaders have the willingness to work on improving emotional intelligence through the practice of mindfulness, i.e., tending the garden, this undoubtedly leads to improved leadership, better overall performance, and greater feelings of competency. The ripple effect that results can be extraordinary: better leaders create better teams; better teams create an improved work culture; and an improved work culture creates a better overall organization.
If employee retention is an issue within your organization, these practices can create an environment that encourages employees to stay long-term. All of us want to work with people who have strong emotional intelligence skills and are able to monitor their own internal emotional responses, allowing for optimized communication.
Let us take a moment to practice a mindfulness exercise that can contribute to enhanced emotional intelligence.
Bringing mindful attention to your feelings:
In a quiet space, get in a comfortable position. This can be in an office chair, if that’s where you find yourself as you read this.
Focus your attention on your body, paying close attention to your bodily sensations. Notice what parts feel relaxed and what parts feel tense.
You’ll notice thoughts arise intermittently. That is okay. Simply imagine that the thoughts are clouds and let them gently pass through yourmind without judgment. Soften your brow. Bring your focus back to your body.
Name the physical sensations and, if you are able, the feeling (e.g., “My stomach is tense and I feel a little nervous”).
BREATHE into the tense area, imagining the breath going wherever it is most needed. If your abdomen is tense, notice your abdomen rising and falling with each breath. If your legs are tense, use your imagination to envision that your breath is traveling all the way down to your feet, releasing tension as you exhale, and so on.
Allow the feelings and sensations, observing them and noticing how they change purely by the act of observation.
Continue breathing. You will discover that no feeling or sensation is permanent, if you are really paying attention.
Practicing this just once daily will help you on your path towards enhanced emotional intelligence. Data shows that this practice can yield more effective emotional expression, interpersonal relationships, self-actualization, empathic responses, self-regard, and stress tolerance. Eventually, you may notice that you start to feel your emotions before they seem too strong to bear and thus become less susceptible to maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as attempts at repression, frustrated outbursts, negative self-talk, or attempts at numbing (such as drinking or drug use).
When we mindfully and purposefully notice an emotion as it arises in the body, we also notice that emotions are fleeting. In fact, neuroscience has proven that an experienced emotion is a 90-second chemical process. If we are attuned enough into this process, we can sense when this process starts, a tiny crest of said emotion, and its dissipation. Thus, it is a false assumption that emotions are a static state. Nothing is static! This is both the beauty of the human experience and also what brings us suffering – we attempt to cling to emotional states that evoke pleasure and fight against emotions that bring us pain. It is biologically impossible to control emotions through this sort of exerted willpower and, paradoxically, this only serves to increase our level of discomfort when a good feeling eventually wanes and the uncomfortable feeling inevitably arises. Mindful acceptance of these events brings a greater sense of ease and peace.
Let’s look at an example. I was attending a writing retreat, which involved repetitively practicing the exercise above. At one point during this silent exploration, a person walked into the room. My eyes were closed, but I was acutely aware of their footsteps, which were quite loud. Immediately, I noticed a *twinge* of annoyance, a slight constriction in my chest and the thought “Could they BE any louder?” (spoken à la Chandler from Friends). Only a couple of seconds after this mindful occurrence, I recognized that it was not this human’s fault for simply existing and walking the earth, but rather the problem was my reaction to them. I took a breath into the constricted area in my chest, let the breath out with a release of tension, and the twinge of annoyance was gone. In 90 seconds. Conversely, if this hadn’t been a mindful moment, I am certain that I would not have noticed the tension in my chest, and the annoyed thought would have remained subconscious. I likely would have felt a general state of annoyance, pinned it on this poor human for existing, and experienced no emotional growth as a result; no empathy.
When you practice mindfulness individually, you could experiment with times of day and timed to certain events. Let’s say you struggle with a degree of social anxiety during public speaking, for example. You may dread leading meetings at work, even though you are a respected leader within your company. Do not wait until you feel a sense of dread to try this exercise. Not to say that it will be ineffective, but in general it is more useful to work on this emotional processing before our brains have been hijacked by our amygdala. In other words, by the time you feel dread, you are already operating out of the fear center of your brain. Instead, try this practice when you wake up in the morning, on the day of the meeting and, if needed, a couple more times before the meeting.
During each of these practice sessions, you’ll likely notice that feelings of anxiety reduce a couple of notches, versus progressively building during the day largely below your conscious awareness until the meeting happens and SURPRISE!, you feel dread.
Working to enhance your emotional intelligence skills through the use of mindfulness is a win-win. You will undoubtedly notice a positive shift in your own emotional responses to situations, and your team and organization will notice your emotional growth. Let’s work together to create a work environment that employees want to join and stick with for years to come.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
- Victor Frankl
Allison Carey is an Executive Coach and licensed Psychotherapist. She specializes in coaching leaders to enhance emotional intelligence.