Mindfulness for Couples

Soul Mates copy
Soul Mates 

Three years ago, I did my first “Mindfulness for Couples” retreat with my friend and colleague, Don Ferguson, Ph.D. Don is one of those unique individuals who think deeply about the way things are and he can translate that insight into something that makes a real difference.

He understands something about intimate relationships that few of us realize.

While an intimate relationship can be the most wonderful thing that a human being can experience, our intimate partner also holds more power to hurt us than any other person in the world. In a truly intimate relationship, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our partner. He or she knows us in ways that no one else does. Being rejected by this person feels different than being “dissed” by an acquaintance or a co-worker. While rejections in a relationship that is not as deep can be distressing, the potential to be told we are unwanted by a person who truly knows us intimately feels like being told that the essence of who we are is bad.

This is why fights between couples can often be both so scary and so intense. The potential to be told, by the person who knows you most deeply, that you are disappointing to him or her triggers an intense feeling of threat that can result in a primitive neurobiological reaction nearly equal to the reaction that your life is in jeopardy.

To make matters worse, this reaction happens amazingly fast.  You can be having a full-blown, fight-or-flight reaction toward your partner even before you can formulate a thought! So you are feeling angry or wanting to escape before you even have a clear thought about what is going on between you. Many arguments that couples have, even about very trivial things, rapidly develop a quality of self-preservation (because you and/or your partner feel threatened) rather than working together to find a solution. Because you are in a mode of self-preservation, you are much more likely to say things in order to hurt your partner. You find it difficult to listen to his or her point of view. You may want to win the argument and even want to destroy this person you love because you feel like you will be destroyed by him or her if you do not emerge victorious.

This is, of course, an irrational response. (You and your partner are both irrational during one of these fights.) When you are not fighting, you want the best for your partner. You trust him or her with your feelings and dreams and fears.

When Don and I first talked about putting this retreat together, I understood that he had identified one of the most difficult and confusing aspects of relationships that couples faced.  To a lesser degree, this is even a problem for many other relationships – with friends and co-workers. But it is a significant problem within deep and committed relationships.  Don understood the potential of mindfulness to navigate these difficult issues within intimate relationships.

Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. as a particular way of paying attention: on purpose, in the present, and without judgement. The skill of mindfulness increases awareness of the present moment.

When you learn to become more mindful, you can learn to notice the neurobiological threat reaction that occurs within intimate relationships. A mindful awareness allows you to notice the physiological change that occurs when you perceive a potential threat.  But rather than react, you can choose to pause to evaluate first.  Is this person attempting to harm you?  Or are you reacting because of your own feelings of vulnerability? With a brief pause to become more aware, you are able to make a more rational choice.

With the development of a more mindful relationship, you can act with more compassion toward each other and be more self-compassionate with yourself. You and your partner do not need to be perfect to deepen your connection to each other and to recover from mistakes and miscommunications that happen in the course of trying to share your lives with each other.

With practice, this means that you are able to develop an ability to regulate your response rather than react to the circumstances. If you are able to recognize that the issue that is sparking a neurobiological threat reaction is actually a relatively minor annoyance, you can choose a response that is appropriate to the situation. When your partner is also mindful, there is less defensiveness and more willingness to work together to resolve issues.

Developing this kind of relationship takes practice. When you know that both you and your intimate partner are working to make the relationship a place that honors each of you as fully and as completely at possible with all of your strengths and weaknesses, you can safely let go of the impulse to react to each other from a defensive place and treat each other with the love and respect that you dreamed of when you committed to each other.

Being in a truly successful and loving relationship takes hard work. It does not happen by accident. And it does not occur because you found the right one, so now you will live happily ever after. You must work on yourself and learn to work together with your partner to make your relationship become what it truly can be.

Since Don and I developed this weekend retreat, he has accepted a position out in California where he continues to work with couples using this approach. I continue to offer weekend retreats, although I really miss doing them with Don. The next retreat is scheduled for October 28-30, 2016 at the Whitehaven Bed & Breakfast in Minocqua, WI.  To learn more you can contact my office at (262) 544-6486.





Are Optimists Just Luckier than the Rest of Us?


DrivingWhen I was five years old I won a car. It was not actually a car that my parents could use, it was designed for use by very small children but it was powered by a car batter and reached speeds of 4 to 6 miles per hour! I won it by entering a contest to name a pair of roller skates that would be sold for use by children who wanted to roller skate indoors.  I suggested the name “Zippy. ”

Zippy Roller Skates were still being sold when my nephew was old enough to want to zip through his house.  Much to my sister’s and brother-in-law’s horror, I bought him a pair.  Come to think of it, I don’t remember ever seeing them again.

But by entering the contest and naming the skates, I had my first encounter with being lucky. I would drive around the neighborhood with all the other kids chasing after me. It was great fun, at least until the battery ran down.

I don’t suppose that I was an optimist then (I don’t really remember much from that age) but I am often accused of being one now – by co-workers and family members. Perhaps that early experience set me up to expect that good things will happen in my life. And this is characteristic of optimists. They expect good things to happen in their life.

Studies show that pessimists are actually more realistic than optimists. This is something that many friends who identify as pessimists have told me over the years and it turns out to be accurate. When pessimists predict that bad things are likely to happen, they often are making predictions that are similar to predictions made by actuarial professionals.  They are generally much closer to being realistic than optimists.

Optimists regularly predict that good things are more likely to happen than should happen according to actuarial science. What is interesting about that is that optimists regularly beat the odds. More good things happen TO THEM that would be predicted.

So are optimists just luckier than the rest of us? Do they expect good things to happen simply because of this luck, so that they are accurately predicting their life but it is just by chance that their life turns out to have good things happen?

It appears that the answer to this question is that optimists are actually doing something different in their lives that tips the odds in favor of having more good things happen.

To understand this, we need to more clearly define optimism. I use the framework that was articulated by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. in his book Learned Optimism. He noted that an optimism is an “attributional style.” This is different than positive thinking.  Optimists do not always expect that everything will be good for them. They attribute the good things in their life to something that they do, at least in part. And because they make the assumption that their efforts have an influence on bringing more good things in their life, they adopt a set of behaviors that makes it more likely that they will have more good things happen in their life.

For example, an optimist and a pessimist may experience the same event. To make this very simple, I will use the example of seeing a beautiful sunset.

The pessimist sees the sunset and enjoys it but makes the assumption that the encounter with a beautiful sunset is a random circumstance. Sometimes there is a sunset, sometimes it is cloudy. Noticing it was “lucky.”

The optimist sees the same sunset, and makes a slightly different assumption. The optimist notices that they chose to look when the beautiful sunset was occurring. Therefore, the optimist begins to put himself or herself in a position to look for sunsets more often.  They are less likely to miss a good sunset because of the attribution that actively looking for sunsets is an aspect of being able to see them. If it works for seeing beautiful sunsets, it will also work if the optimist looks for other beautiful things in his or her life, so the optimistic strategy actually increases the number of times the optimist enjoys beautiful things in his or her life.

This simple example demonstrates that an optimistic attributional style means that the optimist assumes that there is some personal choice that influences whether good things happen in his or her life.  He or she then repeats that behavior again, increasing the odds that the behavior will result in more good things happening. If repeating the behavior works, then he or she is likely to extend that behavior to other circumstances, which again increases the odds of good things happening.

An optimistic attributional style systematically increases the odds of good things happening.

Perhaps that is why optimists are more successful in their work lives and their family lives. They are finding connections between what they do and what goes well. They repeat this behavior and try it in more places in their life, increasing the probability of creating more good things in their lives.

It often appears, to me, that I have been very fortunate in my life. I have had many good things that have happened.  Perhaps the experience of winning a car early in my life set me up to make a connection between what I did and a good thing that happened to me that set me on a path to be ready and willing to take advantage of opportunities that have brought so many good things into my life.

Perhaps you can do this in your life too!

Remedies for Workplace Violence

This article was originally published in 2001 for Executive Update Magazine. It was written in the wake of two workplace shootings that happened then. I am republishing it today in response to the shootings at a local news station in Virginia. I dream of the day when articles like these are no longer needed.



The recent shootings in Hawaii and Oregon are stark reminders that every organization needs to devise a plan to reduce workplace violence. The remedies proposed here to organizations create an atmosphere that will promote safer surroundings. The applications are not expensive. The benefits will lead to a positive environment for employees and will also result in a more productive workplace.

Much of the media attention regarding violence on the job has been devoted to identifying individuals who might be prone to violent acting out. The work done in this area is extremely important but limited in scope. Focusing on a “deranged” individual who is to blame is tempting and agrees with the value that we, as Americans, place on individual responsibility. It is, however, naive to believe that we would be able to accurately identify and remove all who might, but have not yet, violently acted out. In fact, this would clash with another deeply held American value that protects the rights of individuals who have yet not committed illegal acts.

There are individual risk factors that we have been able to identify. All of those who possess these factors will not act violently, but when the risks factors are present there is a higher likelihood of aggression. In the same manner, there are workplace risk factors that also must be understood. Although no single factor “causes” violence, reduction or elimination of these factors will decrease the probability that a violent act will occur.

One in six violent crimes occur in the workplace. An estimated seven percent of all rapes, eight percent of all robberies, and 16 percent of all assaults happen on the job. These startling statistics come from the 1994 U.S. Department of Justice report on workplace crime.

Three workplace conditions that are associated with a higher risk for workplace violence have been identified: 1) perceived unfairness, 2) punitive disciplinary styles, and 3) job insecurity.

Risk Factor: Perceived Unfairness.

A highly stressful job condition occurs when employees perceive conditions as unfair, according to J. Greenberg, writing in a 1990 article of the Journal of Management. This can be independent of the actual workplace conditions.
What we are dealing with here are employee perceptions. One of the most common complaints I hear when I talk to employees is a belief that they are being treated unfairly. Sometimes this occurs because the employee has a very limited perspective on the overall goals of the company. At other times, employees point out inconsistencies in management or favoritism to other employees. Intimidation by management is also commonly cited as unjust. When employees perceive an inequity in the workplace, they engage in attempts to restore their sense of justice. Employees that do not understand the goals of the company, or experience inconsistency coming from management are likely to explain the conditions at the company as “unfair.” As the level of threat increases, in the judgment of the employee, the likelihood of an aggressive or violent attempt to equalize conditions also increases. Individuals who have a history of resolving issues using physical or verbal aggression will be more likely to use aggressive means in their attempts to establish fairness.

Remedy: Consistency, Clear Goals.

It is important for an organization to provide consistent and clear goals for its employees as a remedy for perceived injustice. This effort originates at the top levels of management and is implemented by the immediate supervisors of the employee. If the top levels of management do not set clear and consistent goals, immediate supervisors cannot compensate for this deficit. Consistency provides an employee a reasonable opportunity to accurately predict potential benefits or risks inherent in the workplace. This becomes “the way things should be.” For example, when an individual arrives at work on time, meets quotas, and completes a full week of work, he or she expects a certain amount of pay. It that paycheck is altered because the company cuts wages due to an economic crisis or the cost of benefits rises, this is experienced as “unfair.” It seems even less fair if no reasonable explanation is offered or the wages are changed unexpectedly. Other policies or work rules are also judged “unfair” if they are applied inconsistently or without clear reason. Policies and procedures that are both clear and consistently applied are necessary because they form a basis for expectations in the workplace. Meeting expectations increases the sense of justice in job conditions.

Another tool for establishing a workplace environment that will be judged fair is to set and communicate clear goals in the organization or at the association level. Human beings are driven to make “meaning” out of the events of their lives. When an individual has limited vision about organizational goals, there is a tendency to become self-centered in thought. Events are interpreted as “good” if they provide comfort and as “evil” if they are the source of discomfort. In the presence of a larger goal, people are able to sacrifice immediate comfort for the sake of a larger benefit, and sometimes even exert effort of “heroic” proportions, if the vision is strong enough. Those organizations and associations able to put forth a strong and clear vision are able to unite employees in a common goal. This not only decreases the perception of unfairness, but increases the effort people will put forth to accomplish the tasks set before them. Once clear goals are set, a process of open communication that provides effective feedback at all levels of the organization continues to reduce the perception of unfairness. It is in this feedback process that employees begin to discover conditions on the job that address and correct injustices and fosters the experience of fairness.

Risk Factor: Punitive Discipline

J. Barling, in a 1996 publication, Violence on the Job, notes that an overly close and punitive style of supervision has characterized many workplaces in the 20th century. Many organizations, as well as many individuals, view punishment as an essentially corrective process. When I discuss remedies for problems with individuals in authority, punitive measures are often the only remedy the person knows to suggest. This view results in reactive attempts to control other individuals. There are several problems with this view. It is virtually impossible to control behavior by reacting to it after the fact. Punishment as a primary means behavior control does not work! Punishment temporarily suppresses behavior until the punishing agent is no longer present. This creates a very labor-intensive form of behavior control. The punishing agent must continually monitor behavior. When the punisher is absent, the behavior will reappear, stronger than before. Punishment also sparks the emotions of anger and fear, which are direct behavioral pathways to aggressive behavior for some individuals. Individuals who have a history of past aggressive behavior, who abuse alcohol or other drugs, and who personalize behavior as a direct threat to them are particularly at risk to act out in reaction to punitive discipline.

In addition, the emotional cost of anger and fear saps important energy necessary for the completion of job tasks. This emotional energy remains unfocused, and is unavailable to the organization as a result. Performance drops. Additional energy is used to escape punishment and is also unavailable to the organization. Performance drops again. Not only does punitive discipline increase risk for violence in the short run, it decreases work performance in the long run.

Remedy: Balanced Incentives, Emotional Control

What is needed is a more balanced incentive plan. Corrective action does need to take place. But effective control, and increased performance, is the result of clear expectations and effective incentives for the accomplishment of work tasks. Wages and benefit packages do not substitute for acknowledging and promoting talents of workers. Human beings need to feel good about their lives and about what they accomplish. Efforts to help them improve skills, and recognition of work that is high quality is encouraging and energizing. Blending personal goals with organizational goals is a very powerful means of motivating workers to perform it top levels. When employees are highly motivated and acknowledged for their contributions, energy is spent improving the organization. This dramatically reduces the risk that employee will act out in an aggressive or violent manner.

Using incentives to elicit effective behavior requires managers who exercise emotional control. Reactive negative responses are most characteristic of individuals who lack control over their psychological states. The managers who are effective in establishing top performance have highly developed skills to regulate emotions, so that emotional reactions they have to problems are informative, but not “in control” of decision-making. This allows managers to think clearly and calmly when problems occur, and (perhaps even more importantly) allows them to plan ahead to prevent future problems. It is easy to understand why a preventive approach would be far less likely to be associated with violence than a reactive and punitive confrontation with an employee.

Risk Factor: Job Insecurity.

Job insecurity is a fact of life in the modern economy. Job insecurity may also precipitate violence. According to S.J. Ashford, C. Lee, and P. Bobko, in 1989 article of the Academy of Management Journal, job insecurity leads to feelings of powerlessness and loss of control. Many researchers point out that violent incidents sometimes occur after an employee has been laid off or believes he or she is about to be laid off (for example, see P. Stuart, writing for the Personnel Journal in 1992).

Things have changed in the modern workplace. A lifetime career with a single organization is now uncommon. The same company rarely employs workers for many years. At the same time, when job insecurity is combined with perceived unfairness and punitive discipline on the part of managers, it is a potentially volatile factor in the eruption of workplace violence. Insecurity is experienced as powerlessness and loss of control. Lack of control is the most important factor contributing to destructive forms of stress. Individuals take action to reassert their power and control as a means of de-stressing. When the reassertion is directed toward the company, and it is delivered aggressively, it can have devastating consequences.

Remedy: Honesty, Frequent Feedback.

Companies sometimes unnecessarily withhold bad news from employees. It is difficult to be honest with employees because some of the news will be disappointing to them. But it is more devastating when the bad news comes without any forewarning. The withholding of information adds to the emotional impact of the bad news. The employee is likely to believe they have been lied to, and he or she may in fact be correct. This is one situation where honesty is the best policy. Having some advance notice increases the perception of control. As noted above, the ability to reasonably predict the potential benefits or risks of situation can be helpful to us. We are more likely to be able to identify active and effective problem solving strategies when we can anticipate potentially negative circumstances in advance. There is a risk to this kind of honesty; it could lead to an employee leaving a job prematurely. There is also a potential benefit for the company; it also may lead to creative problem solving that might benefit both the employee and the company, negating the need for a layoff or downsizing.

In addition, supplying frequent feedback to employees, both positive and negative, will assist them in identifying areas of strength and weakness. This also adds to a sense of control. While employers may worry that this strategy will also cause workers to leave prematurely, if the information is given directly and honestly, it may in fact result in a worker who is more committed to the goals of the company because he or she will better understand what is required to be successful. This increase in employee commitment to the job would result in improved job security for the worker and improved productivity for the company.

Individual risk factors, such as the abuse of alcohol and other drugs, a history of past physically aggressive behavior, self-esteem problems, and use of verbally abusive or aggressive language interact with the workplace risk factors to increase the likelihood of violence. Comprehensive strategies for reducing risk will include an analysis of conditions on the job, as well as vigorous policies to provide intervention for individuals who demonstrate dangerous behavior patterns. It should be pointed out that the application of each of these remedies for reduction of risk of violence in the workplace also has the potential for dramatically improving productivity within a company. It is not only good safety policy. It is good business policy. As a result, by a creating a safer workplace, both the worker and the organization benefit. It is a true win-win situation.

Side Bar

Prevention efforts reduce the risk of violence. Unfortunately, they do not eliminate the risks. According to the FBI’s Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Profiling, and Behavioral Assessment Unit these are signs of potential danger:
– Direct or verbal threats of harm;
– Intimidating, harassing, or other inappropriate aggressive behavior;
– Numerous conflicts with supervisors and employees;
– Bringing a weapon to the workplace, making inappropriate references to guns, or fascination with weapons;
– Statements showing fascination with incidents of workplace violence, approval of the use of violence to resolve a problem, or identification with perpetrators of workplace homicides;
– Statements indicating desperation (over family, financial, and other personal problems) to the point of contemplating suicide;
– Drug/alcohol abuse, and
– Extreme changes in behavior.
There are no reliable “profiles” of individuals who may be violent and “early warning signs” have generally proven to be inadequate to predict risk for violence.

OSHA recommends these components for a program to reduce violence:

– Management commitment and employee involvement to establish a safe working environment. A threat response team that includes representatives from all levels of the association should be established to investigate and resolve any reported threat.
– Worksite analysis to identify high-risk situations. This can be done through employee surveys, workplace walkthroughs, and reviews of injury/illness data
– Hazard prevention and control efforts. This includes alterations in design of physical structures or administrative procedures to reduce the risks or limit the potential of violent incidents.
– Training and education for all members of the association. Training topics should include: review of workplace violence policy, instructions for reporting threats or incidents of violence, methods for preventing or diffusing potentially volatile situations, and reminders of security procedures.
– Record keeping and evaluation. Procedures for violence reduction prevention programs, data about investigations of threats and follow up efforts need to be collected.

Additional Resources:

Violence on the Job (1996), edited by Gary R. VandenBos and Elizabeth Q. Bulatao American Psychological Association.

Violence in the Workplace (1995), Raymond B. Flannery, Jr. Ph.D. Crossroad.

Dealing with Workplace Violence: A Guide for Agency Planners (1998). U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Combating Workplace Violence: Guidelines for Employers and Law Enforcement (2000). International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Becoming a High Performing Sales Professional

In a recent article from the Harvard Business Review, titled “What Makes Great Salespeople?” by Ryan Fuller, he discussed analytics from VoloMetrix that identified 3 factors that were highly correlated with the best sales outcomes:
1. More time spent with customersMORE Logo
2. Larger internal networks
3. More time spent with managers and senior leadership.

It is easy to understand that spending more time with customers would lead to better sales performance. The relationship between the sales professional and the customer is a strong element in any successful transaction. The salespeople in Fuller’s article, however, did not work significantly more hours than their peers. They saw fewer customers but closed more deals with them.

While it is easy to understand the importance of this pattern of interaction, it is more difficult to know how to create opportunities to make a greater impact on customers by spending more time with them. Sales professionals with optimistic attributional styles and well developed resilience skills can leverage these skills to increase their connections with customers.

Sales professionals with optimistic styles of working are looking for the potential opportunities in each interaction with a potential customer. There are many reasons for this. Those who are more optimistic broaden the amount of possibilities they possess, are more thoughtful, and more creative and open to new ideas. This is a good foundation for a better relationship with customers. Studies show that people who expressed more positive emotions when negotiating business deals did so more efficiently and successfully than those who were more neutral or negative.

Resilient professionals are able to make even more powerful and lasting connections when conditions are stressful. They are able to make connections with customers by aligning them with a bigger goal and helping their customers to grow toward new possibilities. This ability to reach a helping hand to a customer who is stressed makes the sales professional a major asset. In the best of circumstances, of course, the salesperson is not just out to make a sale, but to help the customer to have a better opportunity to be successful. It is truly a win-win situation.

It is also the case that great salespeople have a stronger connection with the internal networks of the organization. These internal networks provide support, the sales professional is able to make sure that the organization is aligned with the goals and needs of the customer, and there is a great working relationship between them.

The interactions with internal networks help the sales professionals to continue to look with fresh eyes at the challenges they face every day, and they do the same for their networks. It is easy to become stuck in a pattern of thinking and that eventually turns toward negativity and cynicism. Optimistic sales professionals are able to break those patterns by being exposed to alternative ways of thinking and by exposing others to alternatives to keep things fresh and collaborative. Great sales is not a solo activity. It requires interaction and collaboration.

A mistake that average sales professionals make is to assume that either everything is in your control or nothing is in your control. The reality is more nuanced. There are some things that you can control, some you can influence, and some that are out of your control. By establishing a rich internal network, the sales professional is able to let go of things that will not change and focus, with resilience, on the things that can change and improve.

Finally, the great salespeople have significantly more contact with managers and senior leaders. While there may be some individual sales professionals who attempt to work without much input from the managers and leaders above them, it is a much more successful strategy for the individual and the organization to work in collaborative efforts.

This happens much more easily when managers and senior leaders are also more resilient and optimistic in their work styles. When the managers and senior leaders are dedicated to providing their team with the support that will help them to be successful, it increases performance. Being recognized by your manager or senior team has shown to increase productivity by as much as 31% in some organizations. Taking an optimistic and resilient approach to managing and leading provides opportunities to have a much greater alignment between the goals of the sales professional and the mission of the organization.

Training in optimism and resilience can assist an organization to be able to foster the kind of great sales professionals that VoloMetrix analytics have identified.

For more background on this article:

The Happiness Advantage (2010) by Shawn Achor
Resilience at Work (2005) by Salvatore R. Maddi and Deborah M. Khoshaba

The Failures of a Perfect Leader

Imagine an employee in your organization who arrives early for work every day. He also stays late. He is the type of person who “sweats the small stuff.” He is extremely careful to cover all the details. He knows the policies and procedures of the organization inside and out. And he follows them precisely. He gives you 110% commitment all of the time.

Now imagine that this employee is a liability.

To understand how this can happen, I need to tell you about Don (not his real name). Don was one of those “sweat the small stuff” individuals. He worked harder than anyone in his organization. He was scrupulous about his efforts. He was also less successful than any of his colleagues.

Hard work did not pay off for Don because he was a perfectionist. I did not need to identify this characteristic for him, he already knew it about himself and he came to me for help with it. He was precise about his work, although that precision was bought at the expense of speed. But he persevered and worked very hard.

His liabilities were exposed in many arenas:

Don was good with the technical aspects of his job. He was not good with people. Unfortunately he was in a job that primarily involved people contact.

He did not vary a process once he determined how it “should” be done. This rigidity did not serve him in his efforts to work with the real situations people presented. He could not adapt to the situations that were outside the policy and procedure manual, and got angry if he was asked to do so.

He was a disaster on teams. Don did not value or practice cooperative work. He could not share his ideas and was not open to the thoughts of team members.

He was not very creative, but he could be relied on to produce the same level of quality each time he engaged in a task. He did what he was told, either by his boss or by the book, but he was disturbed by the demands for self-directed thinking. He opposed change. He resisted new ideas. Don could not see the big picture. He was detail-bound.

Without being able to see the big picture, his decisions, in an attempt to solve the issue at hand, created havoc for the future of the organization. He was unable to step back and take the long view. He did not even consider the implications of a decision for the organization five years into the future. As a result, his “savings” end up costing the organization a significant amount of money, market share, and/or good will in the long run.

He was miserable, and the organization was suffering.

Then Don went on vacation. When he returned I saw something in him that I had not seen before. He was excited as he asked me a question.

“Do you know the difference between an authentic Navajo rug and a cheap rip-off?” he asked.

I did not.

“A cheap rip-off,” he announced, “is perfect. The authentic Navajo rug always has a flaw in it!” The Navajo weavers, he explained to me, intentionally build a flaw into each rug as a reminder that humans are not perfect. In their spirituality, perfection is not to be sought after. It would make us less than human.

For a rug with a flaw in it, the cost is in excess of $2000. The perfect rug will sell for less than $150. There is a lesson in this.

Don was able to use this image to remind himself that it was good not to be perfect. He not only became happier as a result, he saw his work life dramatically improve. He was able to appreciate the people he worked with as he learned to accept himself. He was also able to discover new creativity in himself. He had always been unwilling to try new thing because he could not be certain he would be able to perform without errors.

As he let go of his need for perfection, he was free to try, and even to fail, and learn from the experience.
Success, for Don, required that he let go of the rigidity of needing to be perfect. He still worked hard and put effort into being as precise as possible, but he now used “excellence” as his standard rather than “perfection.”

Signs of a Perfectionist:

~ Fear of making a mistake
~ Rigid adherence to the “right” way of doing things
~ Inability to think independently
~ Resistant to change
~ Cannot work quickly even when the situation demands

Sometimes we think we can transcend the condition of being human. We have machines that are built for precision and we begin to use those machines as metaphors to understand ourselves (e.g. the brain is like a computer).

In reality, we are much more like a butterfly than a machine. Our gift to the universe is not in precision but in creativity. We are more successful when we let machines be instruments of precision and we live as
human beings.

Perfect does not mean perfect actions in a perfect world, but appropriate actions in an imperfect one. (R.H. Blyth)

The Mindful Workplace: Resources

This article was originally published on April 4, 2014 for the APA Center for Organizational Excellence blog.

If you have followed my blog posts on mindfulness and business so far, perhaps you have an appreciation for some of the potential the development of this skill brings to the workplace. One of the reasons mindfulness has been practiced for over 2,500 years of human history is that it has great potential to foster human growth. When something stands the test of 2,500 years of use, it has probably been beneficial.

Director of The Healthy Thinking Initiative
Director of The Healthy Thinking Initiative

The issue though is how to make this mindfulness skill available for the workplace in a practical way.

The first question: Is this a personal skill that should be offered to interested individuals or is it an organizational skill that would benefit groups by improving the way they work?

There are some who have seen this as a personal skill to be developed on an individual basis. Successful individuals from major companies (like Goldman Sachs and the Ford Motor Company), professional actors and politicians have touted the value of mindfulness in their success and advocated it for others within their organizations.

This approach to a mindful workplace views a mindful practice as a positive personal choice that will benefit the individual who makes the decision to develop this skill. This choice will enhance the growth and development of the individual and it will benefit the organization that employs him or her.

Mindful practices enhance the whole person, not just the work-related part of the person. When an individual chooses to develop this skill as a personal choice it can result in a more satisfying work-life balance. The expected work benefits are indirect. Better employee health can lead to better organizational outcomes. The Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award Winners have demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach many times.

Other organizations have introduced mindfulness as a workplace practice that is designed to systematically affect organizational performance. In his book Toyota Kata, Mike Rother details the approach in Toyota assembly plants to train the workforce and managers to use mindful awareness to make continuous improvement to the assembly process. Chade-Meng Tan began a program titled “Search Inside Yourself” at Google, providing mindfulness training for employees since 2007. Professional sports teams like the Seattle Seahawks and the World Championship Basketball teams of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, coached by Phil Jackson, also used mindfulness practices as an integrated part of the development of excellence in their teams.

In these organizations the application of mindfulness is applied very explicitly as a systematic process that is aligned with organizational goals. If there is a process for how to use an air gun on the line at Toyota, there is also a process for how to be aware of what to address in the quality improvement process. If there is a football process for blocking, there is also a mindful practice that promotes being able to stay in the moment and not be distracted by what happened on the previous play. These applications of mindfulness to the systematic work processes that contribute to organizational goals can be made explicit.

In contrast to the approach of encouraging mindfulness as a personal choice and letting the organization benefit from the development of employees in the practice, this organizational approach focuses on developing specific attentional skills in the workplace that are clearly connected to desired outcomes. The goal is to help the company succeed. The personal benefit of mindfulness is a side effect of this approach.

The Second Question: How much training is required to acquire a skill in mindfulness that will be able to be used effectively?

The standard for teaching mindfulness practices has been an eight week training class. Each class lasts between 2 and 2 1/2 hours. Some courses include an additional 8 hour retreat about midway through the program. This format allows the participants ample time to learn and practice mindfulness skills. Most participants who are consistent in their homework of daily mindfulness practice report a significant shift at around the fifth week of the course. The mindful awareness seems more accessible and its value is more keenly felt at around that time. There has been research studies that showed brain changes that are measurable after the completion of the eight week course.

There are alternative approaches that have been used for the development of mindfulness. Two and four day retreats have been offered for executives who are interested in learning these skills. There are shorter courses (four weeks) that are available. There is even some attempt to introduce mindful practices in a self help format. These alternative approaches may be effective but have not been studied as intensely.

It should be noted that the goal of mindfulness is to practice it daily. It is not effective to set a goal of gaining knowledge about mindfulness to use on occasions when it seems appropriate but to develop a habit of mindful attention that is consistent. Mindful attention allows an individual to be able to notice important events as they occur. If it will make an impact in your workplace it must be practiced daily.

The advantage of the eight week class is that it provides participants with an experiential awareness of how regular practice is important. Shorter introductions may be effective if they lead to regular use of the skills. When the workplace becomes an environment that supports this practice, it is easier to justify a brief introduction. The Seattle Seahawks started each practice with a mindfulness exercise. Google offers regular opportunities for group practice of mindfulness. This is may be less likely to be supported in organizations that advocate mindfulness as a personal choice. Often this requires that the individual set aside time in his or her schedule to bring mindful exercises into the workday.

Tips for finding resources

If your organization is advocating mindfulness as a personal choice for employees, you might consult with your wellness program to see if they have resources to provide mindfulness training to your employees. Many universities have mindfulness training programs and some psychologists (like me) offer classes in their private clinics. If you have a number of employees who are interested in learning mindfulness you might also work out a contract for mindfulness training classes at a preferred rate for your employees.

If your organization is looking to integrate mindfulness into the core skills of your business, consider a long-term consulting contract with a mindfulness trainer or hire a mindfulness trainer for your organization. It will be essential to have onsite and regular mindfulness practice if it is going to be an effective skill that will enhance your organizational outcomes. This might include opportunities for teams to engage in a brief mindfulness exercise at specific times during the work flow.

Here are some sources of additional information and resources for helping you create a more mindful organization:

The content provided above is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The inclusion of any product, service, vendor or organization does not imply endorsement, recommendation or approval.

The Mindful Workplace: Lessons to Be Learned

This article was first published on March 24, 2104 for the APA Center for Organizational Excellence blog. Human behavior in organizations holds both the highest potential and the greatest risks for the success of the business. There is incredible potential for collaborative action to build and create and improve the quality of life. There is, unfortunately, a dark side to this, too. Humans have the capacity to resist and even actively oppose the systems and processes in place at a business.

Working with the human dimension of business is one of the keys to success. In a similar way that businesses need clear financial direction and must comply with legal and regulatory requirements, it is essential to maximize the human benefits of the workforce in a sustainable way. This is more than minimizing the impact of depression or stopping bad workplace behaviors like bullying. These are important dimensions of successful work, but there is much more to high performance than the elimination of problems. Creating a mindful workplace fosters the development of qualities that help excellence to emerge.

Breaking through barriers: Buddhist monks, in their training, are sent out to spend a February night in the Himalayan mountains with nothing to keep them warm except a damp sheet, and their ability to mindfully maintain their body heat. This is an exercise that I have no desire to imitate (although I live in Wisconsin, so I could have used this skill a few times during this winter), but it is a reminder that the human mind is capable of breaking through barriers that seem to be insurmountable.

There are many, smaller ways that being mindful does allow individuals to extend themselves beyond their apparent limits. One woman completely reversed a six-month pattern of being late for work. Another man was able to overcome his anxiety and effectively train new hires in complicated job procedures–an accomplishment that ultimately helped him get a promotion. Yet another manager began to have the most productive and interactive meetings he had ever had.

These are not isolated examples but common outcomes for those I have worked with to develop their mindfulness skills. Their worksites benefited as much as they did from these changes.

Increased awareness of the positive: Positive psychologists, like Shawn Achor and Barbara Fredrickson have demonstrated significant performance increases associated with happiness at work in their research. But it turns out that knowing this often has a limited impact in the workplace because it is more difficult to notice positive events than negative events. In fact, noticing what is positive seems to require conscious awareness. Mindful practices develop this ability to become more aware of the positive. As a result, there is strong research evidence that mindfulness develops the part of the brain that is associated with happiness.

In the business world, happiness is associated with significantly higher levels of creativity, with better problem-solving skills and more effective relationships. These are important qualities to foster in a high-performing company.

Handling disruptions: Today’s work environment is full of disruptions. Some of this is because businesses are asking more from each employee in a lean workforce. Some of this is due to the electronically connected environment with instant communication demands and access to social media. It also arises when a worker is anxious about potential negative reactions. And, of course, there are the unexpected events that occur.

It is not the circumstances of life, however, that are the problem. It is our reaction to those circumstances that define us. Disruptions happen every day. They happen to every person. Developing the ability to pause and choose a response to those circumstances, rather than to give in to the first reaction, can dramatically change the impact of a disruptive event. Think about a person you consider to be “heroic.” Is your admiration of that individual due to the fact that he or she never had difficult circumstances to handle, or is he or she demonstrating “heroism” because of his or her ability to choose a response that overcame the challenges?

The skill of mindfulness creates a pause in the cycle of reactivity and makes space for a thoughtful response to emerge. Imagine an organization that was able to follow through on its intentions, even in a world where there are so many things that compete for attention.

Developing wisdom: Many skills that are developed in mindfulness training have an immediate impact on the flow of day-to-day work. There is another area of growth that occurs in a longer time span among those who are regularly practicing mindfulness. It is the development of wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to know how things fit within a bigger picture. The practice of mindfulness includes learning to take a mental step back from a situation and look at the context in which it occurs. It promotes seeing and acting in a way that is appropriate to the larger whole.

A high-performing company cannot depend only on a management team that exercises top-down control to accomplish organizational goals. A high-performing company needs workers who are able to see the big picture and understand how to integrate their action into the whole. This is what a mindful workplace promotes.

These are some of the qualities that are promoted in a mindful approach to business. There are specific skills that employees bring to the tasks of the business. These mindful qualities are characteristics that, when shared across the workforce, provide a foundation the brings out the best in each employee.

In my final article, I will discuss the process that companies are using to create a more mindful workplace for their employees.

The Mindful Workplace: Sustainable Value

This post was originally published on March 3, 2014 for the APA Center for Organizational Excellence blog, Good Company.

PsychologiMORE Logost Teresa Amabile, author, with Steven Kramer, of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement., and Creativity at Work, and the keynote speaker for this year’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards, identifies the inner work life of employees as a key factor in organizational success.

She writes, “Individual performance is closely tied to inner work life.”

This is a problem for many organizations. There are systems, processes, incentives and consequences put into place to ensure that observable behavior is appropriate in the workplace, but it is more difficult to assess and far more difficult to control the inner work life of an employee. If the state of the inner work life of employees significantly influences their performance, it becomes important to pay attention to this dimension of the workplace experience. But how does an organization do this in an effective way?

Directing observable behavior can be very effective in standardizing processes and promoting productivity. Ideally, it is shaped by careful attention to the systems that contribute to organizational goals. When inner attitudes of employees align with these organizational efforts, there are dramatic improvements in performance that are mutually beneficial for the worker and for the company. One way to foster this alignment is by creating a mindful workplace.

The practice of mindfulness develops a particular way of paying attention. It fosters awareness of the present moment, improves focus and does this in a non-judgmental way. This type of awareness, in a mindful workplace, increases the connection with inner work life.

A mindful employee becomes more aware of his or her inner life as it fluctuates moment by moment. It interacts with ever-changing circumstances. This heightened awareness allows the worker to make the small adjustments that facilitate emotional stability, accurate perceptions and consistent motivation over the long-term. It is an important ability in a complex marketplace in which organizations constantly need to find ways to adapt to new demands and to grow and develop in order to stay viable for its customers.

This mindful workplace, however, requires an adjustment in the way an organization looks at itself. The inner work life of the employee is not as directly influenced by incentives and consequences as observable behavior. It cannot be dictated by a supervisor. However, when the organizational goals align with the inner experience of the worker, he or she will engage in a deeper and more consistent effort and will do his or her best work.

Mindful leadership styles must shift from establishing control to establishing a partnership with the employee (see the APA Monitor article, “Venus Rising“). That is one reason why most companies that are trying to develop a mindful workplace start by engaging the executive team first. When leaders are mindful, they are more able to attend to the inner work life of the employees and link that to the work of the organization in an effective way.

This mindful leadership is a more interactive relationship. Leaders must take time to understand the experience of employees and to more fully explain how the work they are doing has meaning for the benefit of the larger whole. Mindful employees must become more willing to give input to shape and direct the effectiveness of the work that is being done.

We have seen these kinds of shifts in the relationship between the organization and the workforce in the companies that have been recognized as psychologically healthy workplaces. We have seen the development of positive relationships between leaders and the workforce in these organizations. We have consistently seen workers actively contributing to make the company more effective and more successful.

Creating a mindful workplace may be a step toward creating a more psychologically healthy workplace, with the benefits recognized in those companies that have won local and national awards, yielding benefits for employee and organization alike.

In my next article, I will be looking at some of the specific effects of being mindful that promote a better organization

The Mindful Workplace: First Steps

This post was originally published in the Good Company Blog, a publication of the APA Center for Organizational Excellence, on March 3, 2014.

I have been teaching an eight week mindfulness class since 1997 that is based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD and Zindel Segal, PhD. I do this most frequently in my office at my clinical practice, but I have also taught the class in business and other organizational settings.

An exercise that is used for teaching a beginning mindfulness group is to have participants eat a raisin. This is a single raisin and the process takes about 10 minutes. In the discussion that follows, those who are first learning mindfulness talk about this raisin experience as quite different than the way they usually eat raisins. Using all of the senses to engage with the experience, they notice shape, texture, smells, sounds (yes raisins actually make sounds) and tastes that enrich and enhance eating of the raisin. There is more going on in the eating than is usually noticed, because usually we are not fully present to the moment as it unfolds. That is the point of this exercise. It helps those who are curious about mindfulness to discover that there is much more that is happening in each moment than is commonly noticed.

This is true in the workplace as well as in the classroom setting. There are many moments during the day that have the capacity to be much richer than is recognized. The day-to-day tasks can be managed, measured and recorded. But the opportunities for a deeper connection with a customer, or a better process for the workflow, or a recognition of something that is well done might be discovered if the workplace is a mindful place. A colleague of mine, Al Bellg, PhD coined a phrase for this – mindful tasking. Rather than being distracted by trying to do more than one thing, as occurs in multi-tasking, mindful tasking involves bringing full attention to what we are doing right now. In a more mindful state, there are many opportunities to make choices that will influence how the day unfolds.

This is not a simple process. It is certainly not as simple as eating a single raisin in a guided exercise. Yet developing a mindful workplace holds great potential for making the workplace more psychologically healthy and effective. Developing a mindful workplace supports higher levels of employee engagement. The personal growth and development that comes from becoming more mindful can enhance professional development in the workforce. Continuous quality improvement is more reliably achieved when there is a commitment to be present in the moment and employees are able to see what is actually happening as the work is being done.

The first step in developing a mindful workplace is to become more aware of what is possible. Most employees spend much of the day on “automatic pilot.” The day-to-day responsibilities can become so familiar and routine that they can be done without conscious attention. This works, but it is not an ideal state of mind for you or your workforce to be in when you are trying to get work done. It leads to careless errors, accidents at work or even to conflict with customers who feel (sometimes rightfully) that they are being treated as an object rather than as a real human being.

Developing a mindful approach to work means that attention is being paid to what is happening in the moment (mindful tasking). The mind isn’t wandering off to something else that is irrelevant or counterproductive. It is awake and fully present to this moment.

This type of training of the mind does not occur simply by reading about mindfulness or even by understanding what it is about. It requires utilizing a systematic process that is practiced on a repeated basis. Neuroscience research shows that regularly practicing mindfulness results in a series of changes in the brain that, like exercise strengthens muscles, strengthens key brain areas so that they are able to function more effectively. One of the challenges of creating a mindful workplace is to make space for consistent and systematic practice, essential for developing this type of mind strength.

In the next article, I will discuss what we have discovered in research about how this works in sustainable ways and what is necessary to make it effective in the workplace.