It’s tempting to dismiss mindfulness as magical thinking—until you connect it to the hard science and ROI underpinning its success inside organizations.
At what was the height of her career responsibilities, Janice Marturano hit bottom. As vice president of public responsibility for global food giant General Mills, she was charged with completing the very complex and contested US$6.1 billion acquisition of rival Pillsbury in 2000.
“At stake were the jobs of thousands of people who would likely lose their employment if the deal was blocked by the Federal Trade Commission [FTC],” says Marturano, whose team was providing truckloads of data, expert witnesses, and other evidence in response to the FTC inquiry.
The company had hoped the transaction would take six months. It lasted 18, with Marturano logging 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. During that time, she lost both her mother and her father—“the very bedrock of my family,” she says.
She also had her own family to care for, with a husband and two school-age children at home.
The acquisition was eventually approved, but Marturano found she couldn’t bounce back. “I was still going through the motions, because that’s what we’re trained to do as leaders. We’re trained to play hurt,” Marturano recalls. But at the end of those 18 months, she says, “I’d lost my resilience.”
She looked into grief counseling. But it was more than the deaths of her parents that had brought her low.
She was burned out.
Burnout among all professionals is rampant. While there is a clinical definition, the condition is generally described as a psychological response to chronic stress resulting in emotional exhaustion, detachment, diminished motivation, and decreased performance.
This condition impacts not only individuals personally but the business’s bottom line. Job stress costs American companies an estimated $300 billion annually in increased absenteeism and turnover, diminished productivity, health and legal costs, and other repercussions.
Though workplace stress does not discriminate, leaders can feel the greatest pressure. The more invested leaders are in their roles, the higher the risk of burnout can be. And the higher up in the organization they sit, the more isolated they may be in their struggles.
While there is little scientific research into burnout levels in the executive ranks, a 2013 Harvard Medical School study discovered that 96% of senior leaders reported feeling burned out to some degree, while around a third said they suffered from extreme burnout.
A doctor friend suggested that Marturano take a week-long retreat. Marturano couldn’t envision taking a trip just for herself, let alone to what she envisioned was some kind of spa to commune with nature. Leaders don’t retreat; they forge ahead.
“I’m an executive,” she says. “I grew up on the East Coast. I’m not going to burn incense and hug trees.”
Indeed, there seemed little to suggest that Marturano should do anything differently. For decades, the most successful leaders were thought to be those who met every challenge, worked those 12-hour days, multitasked better than the rest of us, required little sleep, and just kept going—no matter what.
And there was plenty of advice about how to go even further: classes, books, and articles about how to do more in less time and with greater results. But no one said what to do when it all got to be too much.
The more Marturano researched one particular six-day program for executives in Sedona, Arizona, however, the more it began to make sense. It featured Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading researcher into the benefits of mindfulness—the psychological process of bringing one’s attention in a nonjudgmental fashion to the present. The attention is developed through the practice of meditation and other training, such as body scanning, focused breathing, mindful seeing, and emotion or anxiety awareness exercises.
While Kabat-Zinn may have hugged a tree or two in his time, he is also a molecular biologist and professor emeritus of medicine who integrated mindfulness practices with hard data to develop effective stress reduction interventions.
Marturano went to Arizona, but almost left on day two. Her first attempts at meditation—pausing and being present—were painful.
“I’d been going at 150 miles per hour on autopilot for so long that I had no idea how hard it would be to stop,” she recalls. It was uncomfortable, but Marturano stayed.
And it changed everything.
When she began incorporating mindfulness into her work life, she noticed an increase in focus and in her ability to redirect her attention. If her mind drifted during a meeting, she would become aware of it and bring herself back. She started doing what she called a leadership reflection with her calendar each day, taking a few minutes to be more intentional about what she chose to prioritize.
“Was it necessary or was it just screaming loudest? Was it strategic or did I not even need to be there? Did I set aside some clear space?” she’d ask herself.
When she found herself in a heated or emotionally charged situation—as she often did—she was able to stay centered and clearheaded. “It made an enormous difference.”
Marturano saw so much value in her own transformation that she began sharing some of what she learned with other execs at General Mills through offsite retreats. Within the first year, a number of those mindfulness pioneers requested similar training for their own departments.
In 2006, Marturano developed a full mindfulness curriculum at General Mills—one of the first and largest such programs. Other enlightened companies have done the same, including Google, Intel, Ford, and Target.
In 2013, SAP launched its first mindfulness pilot at its Palo Alto campus. Five years later, 7,000 employees have participated in mindfulness training, with another 5,000 on a waiting list. The program was recently expanded to SAP’s 22,000 German employees, with plans to expand globally. SAP is also helping now key customers build their own mindfulness training organizations.
From 2008 to 2010 Marturano studied more than 100 leaders who had participated in a seven-week mindfulness course at General Mills. In her book, Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership, she reveals that 83% of study participants said they were taking time each day to optimize their personal productivity, up from 23%; 82% were eliminating tasks with limited value, up from 32%. Eight out of ten reported improvements in decision-making, and 89% said they had become better listeners.
Marturano left General Mills in 2011 to found the Institute for Mindful Leadership. The nonprofit’s mission is to help individual leaders and companies improve focus, clarity, creativity, and compassion.
“It’s really about changing the kind of leadership that has existed for decades because it does not work,” says Marturano. “That kind of leadership has resulted in where we are today. You have burnout and addiction. You have an epidemic of employee disengagement. You have ethical breaches.”
A brain-based leadership approach that considers the performance and health of a leader’s mind, both its capabilities and its limitations, can be an antidote to all of that. We now have hard evidence of the benefits of mindfulness on the brain—and on leadership performance.
For example, a seminal 2015 research paper published in the Journal of Management examined 4,000 scientific papers on various aspects of mindfulness to document the overall impact mindfulness has at work. Among the study’s conclusions? Mindfulness positively impacts human functioning at work overall, with specific improvements in attention, cognition, emotions, behavior, and physiology.
Initial evidence also suggests that individual mindfulness practices can improve interpersonal behavior and relationships, as well as processes that rely on effective leadership and teamwork.
We also have proof, in the form of brain scans and other neuroscientific research, that mindfulness approaches enable leaders to physically alter their brains and train them to work in new ways. This enables them to survive and even thrive in a punishing business environment.
The convergence of ancient contemplative practice with modern understanding of neural processes is opening the door to a new model for leadership—with the tools of mindfulness at its core and a proven ROI that even the most hard-nosed executives can no longer ignore.
The Mindfulness–Leadership Connection
The greatest weapon in a leader’s arsenal is the gray matter in their skull that drives all behavior. That it’s taken so long to emerge as a key component of leadership performance confounds Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and medical doctor who runs an executive coaching consultancy and is a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management on neuroscience for leadership and applied neuroscience.
If you’re a leader of a business, you’re getting paid to use your brain. The fact that it’s not seen as the single most important asset of the business leader is continually surprising to me.
Tara Swart, neuroscientist and senior lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management
“If you’re a leader of a business, you’re getting paid to use your brain,” she says. “The fact that it’s not seen as the single most important asset of the business leader is continually surprising to me.”
Yet, for years, leaders have misused or even abused their brains. The assumption was that we each had a certain brain makeup—part nature and part nurture—and did the best we could with it.
In recent years, however, neuroscientists have shown that our brains aren’t fixed but are malleable. There are relatively simple actions we can take that, with time and practice, have been shown to enhance the brain’s performance in the ways that matter most to corporate leaders.
That started to become clear a couple of decades ago as research into the psychology of effective leadership took an important turn. Daniel Goleman made waves in management theory circles when he argued that emotional intelligence has an outsized influence on leadership performance.
Examining nearly 200 large, global companies, Goleman found that the truly effective leaders had a high degree of emotional intelligence. His 1998 Harvard Business Reviewarticle (access restricted to magazine subscribers), which is one of the publication’s most enduringly popular, laid out key components of emotional intelligence, including self-regulation, self-awareness, motivation, and empathy.
The key to those core capabilities, it turns out, is mindfulness. “Emotional intelligence is built on a platform of self-awareness, understanding how emotions drive your performance, and the ability to monitor them and adjust behavior to achieve particular outcomes,” says Martyn Newman, a clinical psychologist and founder of leadership consultancy RocheMartin, who helps individual leaders and corporations increase emotional intelligence using mindfulness techniques.
This Is Your Brain on Mindfulness
Thanks to brain scanning, we can see the physical impact mindfulness can have. In 2012, researchers at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging compared the cerebral cortex—the brain’s outermost layer of neural tissue that plays a key role in memory, attention, thought, and consciousness—in meditators and nonmeditators.
They found that meditators have larger amounts of gyrification in their brains—the “folding” of the outer cortex that enables the brain to process information faster. The greater the number of years they meditated, the greater the gyrification.
“Over a period of time, you get an increase in folding, which allows us to press a pause button between our initial emotional response to something and how we choose to behave,” Swart says. “And that has huge implications for leadership.”
In just a couple of decades, the nascent field of neuroscience has established that our brains are capable of change, for better and for worse. It is this so-called neuroplasticity that mindful leaders tap into to improve their performance.
“The experiences you expose your brain to shape and mold it in real time,” explains Swart. “Putting that kind of science around something that was once considered so alternative or spiritual is very compelling to people.”
In their 2017 book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, Goleman and neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson reviewed hundreds of behavioral and neuroimaging studies related to mindfulness and meditation. They highlighted evidence that regular sessions of mindful attention have a soothing effect on the brain’s amygdala—the emotional center of the brain, which activates the fight-or-flight response.
In one study, people who were randomly assigned to practice mindful attention training showed reduced amygdala activity after just eight weeks. The meditators not only responded with less of the stress hormone cortisol but also perceived stressful situations as less stressful than nonmeditators.
Aggregating results from more than 20 neuroscience studies of mindfulness, a team of scientists from the University of British Columbia and the Chemnitz University of Technology identified at least eight different regions of the brain that were impacted consistently by mindfulness. One key area is the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped region deep inside the temple on each side of the head often associated with resilience.
Because it is covered in receptors for cortisol, studies have shown that the hippocampus can be damaged by chronic stress; individuals suffering from chronic depression or PTSD tend to have a smaller hippocampus. In meditators, however, scientists have recorded a thickening of the left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory, and emotional regulation.
The converging evidence suggests that individuals can reshape their brains with mindfulness training in the same way they can reshape their bodies with physical training.
Mindfulness at Scale
When Marturano started the program at General Mills, no one even knew what mindfulness was. By the time she left, she saw engineers and scientists walking through the halls with their meditation cushion to a conference room for their 4 p.m. meditation.
Senior leaders and other employees know that if they’re stressed and overloaded, the fight-or-flight instinct crowds out executive function and they may snap at the next person who walks through their door or may make a rash decision.
If they instead take a “purposeful pause”—redirecting their attention to their breathing or the feel of their feet on the ground or another tactic for bringing their mind back to the present moment—they have more clarity, are able to listen more openly, and focus on what is most important.
“It was starting to change everything,” Marturano says. “That’s where the neuroscience helps.”
As the science has advanced, other big companies are also embracing mindfulness at an enterprise scale. Six years ago, Aetna began offering yoga and meditation classes to its employees. Today, nearly 15,000 employees have participated in at least one yoga or meditation class. The company now also sells mindfulness training to its health insurance customers.
And it’s no wonder: Aetna employees who participate in the in-house program have reported an average of 28% reduction in stress levels, 20% improvement in sleep quality, and a 19% reduction in pain. They’re also more effective in their work, gaining an average of 44 minutes per week of productivity each, which is worth $1,750 per employee per year, says Andy Lee, who joined Aetna as its chief mindfulness officer in 2016.
Four years ago, Newman was hired by European media giant Sky Media to launch its “better self” leadership program. The company had grown and thrived by building a culture of critical thinking and innovation and had a reputation as a demanding workplace.
“I walked into the room to address 500 senior leaders and told them, ‘The single most important skill you need to be able to lead well in the second half of your personal and professional life is the ability to develop a peaceful mind.’ You could have heard a pin drop,” he recalls.
“There wasn’t a single senior person in that room who really knew how to settle and quiet their mind. They were under so much pressure that they were in a fog of anxiety and stress almost perpetually,” he says.
Data collected on participants in the Sky Media program over 12 months showed increases in empathy, self-awareness, flexibility, curiosity, self-control, and engagement. “The skills of quieting their minds, being able to focus, and sustain attention—with colleagues and direct reports and stakeholders—have massively improved,” says Newman. “These are some of the busiest people in the world, and mindfulness has become for them this extraordinary technology to give them back some control of busy minds.”
What was initially intended as a program for an elite group of senior execs has gone viral, just as it did at Aetna and General Mills, with a six-month wait list to participate.
Meanwhile, not only has SAP’s mindfulness program been well received by employees, it’s reaping real returns for the company.
SAP’s data science team looked at more than 4,800 employees who participated in mindfulness training between 2015 and 2018. The researchers found a significant increase in employee engagement and leadership trust index scores and a significant decrease in absenteeism compared to a control group.
The company estimates that a single percentage point increase in employee engagement translates into an increase of €50 million to €60 million in operating profit. A similar increase in SAP’s business health culture index can boost operating profits by €85 million to €95 million.
All told, the company estimates it has seen a 200% ROI on its mindfulness initiative.
A Neuro-Leadership Tipping Point
The growing body of mindfulness research has helped to get people in the door, says Aetna’s Lee. But once they’re in, “there’s really a sample size of one that matters,” he says.
“You can read about 3,000 people who have seen these results in a long-term study. The bottom line is, what happens after I do this? What happens after I do this for a week? And that will be what either convinces you or doesn’t.”
Swart sees it in her clients’ transformations. “I tell my clients you will literally be a different person,” she says. “Your brain will be different in six months’ time than it is now.”
Those who come in severely physically ill get a new lease on life. The screamers and reactors are able to regulate their emotions and exhibit more empathy. The less severe cases are able to move beyond some of their biases, solve problems in new ways, and increase their appetite for considered risk taking.
“Now that we have a reasonable understanding of the cognitive science, being able to develop your leadership along these lines is becoming the single most critical factor to good leadership,” says Swart. “Mindfulness is a massive part of that. It’s not religious or spiritual, it’s scientific.”
Instead of just working harder, leaders can learn to make their brains work more efficiently and effectively.
For Marturano, the shift in perspective has been profound. She approached her first attempt at mindfulness with considerable skepticism, doubting it would produce any hard benefits for her in her corporate role. Now she sees it as absolutely essential—not only for her but any modern leader.
“I don’t think of mindfulness leadership training as a soft skill. We’re talking about training our minds and our capacities, and that is where the science is important—because it validates what we’re doing,” she says.
“What I’ve found over more than a dozen years of doing this is that the things we’re teaching are absolutely necessary skills. Leaders tell us that they simply can’t sustain what they’re doing in the current environment without them.” D!
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