• Date July 28, 2011
  • Author Kristin von Donop

 “When we cultivate mindful awareness we help our emotions guide our thoughts and behaviors, rather than hijacking our limbic system. When our emotions are hijacked, we often act before we think. We can be hijacked by anxieties or fears…Positive emotions matter when dealing with change because emotions impact our ability to stay focused and succeed at whatever we are doing.” –Annie McKee

At a four day leadership development workshop led by Teleos, an executive shared a story about his daughter and how she became a source of inspiration.  She loves gymnastics and when she was 12 years old she participated in a regional competition. The week before, he cleared his schedule to ensure he could attend this important event.  They drove several hours from their hometown that Saturday and he noted she was understandably nervous.  By the time she began her routine on the uneven bars, he wondered if he was as nervous as she was feeling when they had started out that morning.  The uneven bars are an event where gymnasts flip their bodies back and forth, spinning between the bars to create and sustain momentum for the routine.

About halfway through her performance, she spun from the low bar up towards the high bar with such a force she missed the bar and propelled forward, and with a big “slap”, landed face down on the mat.  His heart went into his throat and the audience was silent.  Yet his daughter, without skipping a beat, leapt up into a proud stance to conclude her routine, complete with a smile.  The crowd roared with applause and tears streamed down his face as he marveled at her resilience.  How could she encounter a public failure and bounce back so quickly with such dignity?

Part of the solution is mindfulness.  Mindfulness helps us tackle setbacks with composure.  It also helps us maintain a connection to our inspiration to perform at our best, and ultimately, growing toward self actualization. This happens because the practice of mindfulness helps the brain maintain conscious access to action.  This is important because when we practice something over and over we can develop habits that can result in flawless execution which, in fact, also become mindless automatic responses.

People who develop mindfulness strengthen the brain’s capacity to go from action, to rest, and back to action, aligned with our best intention. Mindfulness also protects us from exhaustion.  As adults, when we try to improve our performance, we need to notice habits that have become unconscious and may be unhelpful.  Those habits may have helped us at some point in the past and they could also prevent us from growing and learning.

One habit I have observed with executives, and myself, is a pursuit and reward for flawless execution.  While beneficial for advancing, it reinforces behavior at the height of success, not for the depth of one’s learning from mistakes.  Mistakes are seen as defects that need to be minimized.

In our leadership development work, people create learning agendas to improve their effectiveness. We encourage them to experiment with new responses and learn from them. The Theory of Intentional Change and the Gestalt Cycle of Experience emphasize the importance of experimentation.   Yet most of the people I work with, including myself, have a low frustration tolerance for experimenting with new behaviors.  It feels awkward and mistakes feel like failures.  When we try to improve, breaking habits can be painful and embarrassing.  This is a common experience for executives who have been promoted for their flawless execution and track record of success.

In the June 2006 HBR issue, “The Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes,” Schoemaker and Gunther observed that many managers recognize the need for experimentation, but usually design experiments that confirm initial assumptions.  The risk is that the organization may be moving in the wrong direction and instead of harvesting the powerful learning that comes from mistakes, they retract from them.

People attend our workshops with the intention of learning and discovery.  There is both a desire to address current challenges and develop a preparedness for challenges lurking on the horizon.  The antidote is to practice mindfulness. When people practice mindfulness they are more capable of avoiding habitual responses to moods and thoughts that spin them toward distress.

Our emotions focus our attention on both threats and opportunities; they are a driver of attention, focus, and ultimately our behavior. When we cultivate mindfulness, our emotions inform our thoughts, behaviors and decisions, rather than hijacking them. When emotions like anxiety or fear diminish our attention, we often act before we think. Mindfulness matters because it helps us stay focused and succeed at whatever we are doing, even when we fail.

Let’s remember the gymnast, and her proud stance, in the face of our mistakes and the crowd’s compassionate response.  The next time you make mistake, instead of feeling sorry for yourself, be mindful. Stay curious and compassionate to prevent the downward spiral of embarrassment, then you’ll stay open to delight in the learning.