Practicing Mindfulness as a Global Leader

A recent New York Times Sunday magazine article featured the work of Ellen Langer, Psychology professor at Harvard and one of the pioneers of the concept of mindfulness.  This term is almost a buzzword these days, and is used often by those who lean towards meditation and Zen philosophy.  For example, Chade-Meng Tan has developed a meditation course that he offers to Google employees (Mr. Tan himself works at Google) and has written a book about his approach called Search Inside Yourself.  According to the New York Times (April 28, 2012) more than 1,000 Google employees have taken his class, which is offered four times a year.  Each class has 60 people and runs seven weeks.

Professor Langer’s approach is different, and in her book Mindfulness, she herself writes that “My work on mindfulness has been conducted almost entirely within the Western scientific perspective.”  In the Times magazine article, she states clearly that her approach is different from the popular mindfulness meditation techniques in vogue today.  According to the article:

“Her emphasis is on noticing moment-to-moment changes around you, from the differences in the face of your spouse across the breakfast table to the variability of your asthma symptoms.  When we are ‘actively making new distinctions rather than relying on habitual’ categorizations, we’re alive; and when we’re alive, we can improve.”

Nonetheless, Langer admits that there are some parallels between her approach and the more mystical approach advocated by Tan and others.  What makes Langer’s work so important is that it provides a way to counteract the powerful unconscious biases we have that Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-prize-winning behavioral economist, recently summarized in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. 

So what is mindfulness and why does it matter for a leader working across cultures?  In re-reading parts of Professor Langer’s book, these are four take-away’s on how global leaders can improve their mindfulness.  I’ve summarized her suggestions and re-phrased them in ways that can be applied to the work of global leaders.

First, “re-categorize” as you are interacting with business colleagues from different cultures.  As Langer explains this, what I think she means is that when we are actively taking in new information about others, we should pay attention to the situation and the context.  For example, say that you are meeting a female Argentinian executive on your first visit to Buenos Aires for a possible joint venture.  You have taken some Spanish lessons although you may not be that comfortable in speaking Rioplatense Spanish, which is the kind of Spanish spoken in the part of Argentina where your host is from.  You have an initial expectation of her based on what you know about her company and about her status in the company.  When you meet her, you might notice some other characteristics that might cause you to “re-categorize” your impression of her.  She might, in fact, be speaking excellent English since she went to university in England, you learn.  More surprisingly, you learn that her parents are actually from Spain, and that she goes to Spain quite regularly to visit relatives.  So by being mindful of these different “categories,” you get to shift and adjust your impressions.

In their book Blindspot, Banaji and Greenwald provide research that shows that we have a category-forming capacity that enables us to think about four to six “identifiers” at any one time (pp. 82-83).  For example, they show that by considering six person categories simultaneously – race, religion, age, nationality, gender, and occupation – we can quickly form a mental image or a description of a person, e.g., white Catholic Polish male factory worker in his sixties.    

Second, be open to new information.  As Langer puts it, “Mindfully engaged individuals will actively attend to changed signals.  Behavior generated from mindful listening or watching, from an expanding, increasingly differentiated information base, is, of course, likely to be more effective.”

In psychology, such individuals are said to be “high self-monitors.”  They are aware of cues in the environment, and will not only pay attention to these cues, but alter their behavior accordingly.  In one of my first presentations to a Japanese audience several years ago, I noticed that not even halfway into my talk, about 70% of the managers in the audience had their eyes closed.  What was going on, I wondered.  Was my presentation that boring and uninteresting?  Perhaps they did not have enough sleep last night?  On the fly, I adjusted my presentation and began to ask questions to make my presentation more interactive.  Only later did I find out that closing their eyes is common for Japanese audiences, who want to concentrate on what the speaker is saying, especially if he or she is speaking in English.

In high context cultures, as well as in cultures where direct confrontation is avoided, it is especially important to “read between the lines.”  This means paying attention to the tone of what individuals are saying, and their body language.  As a global manager, you may be receiving nods from your team but that may not necessarily mean that they agree with you, or that they will follow through on what you have asked them to do. 

Third, adopt a “multiple perspectives” attitude.  This means trying to understand the situation from others’ points of view.  As a manager going into a subsidiary from headquarters, for example, you might think of yourself as someone who is there to make sure that the local employees understand what is expected from them by “corporate.”  You might think that you should be welcome because you are coming from the mountaintop to “enlighten” the local population.  Well, consider the situation from their point of view.  They might see you first of all as a corporate “spy” who has been sent to check up on them.  They might also see you as an ivory tower, naive manager who has very little idea of what goes on in the country and who is trying to impose corporate-wide solutions that will not work locally.  As Langer suggests (p. 69): “If we cling to our own point of view, we may be blind to our impact on others; if we are too vulnerable to other people’s definitions of our behavior, we may feel undermined, for observers are typically less flattering of us than we are of ourselves.”

Nonetheless, this ability for perspective-taking is critical for global leaders.  There is evidence that this is one of the characteristics that distinguish effective negotiators from average or ineffective negotiators.

Fourth, pay attention to process and not just outcomes.  As a global leader, especially if you are sent overseas, you will no doubt be focused on producing results and on achieving the goals set out for you.  Being mindful means understanding that different processes may lead to the same outcome.  Langer says (p. 34):  “Throughout our lives, an outcome orientation in social situations can induce mindlessness.  If we think we know how to handle a situation, we don’t feel a need to pay attention.” 

An American expatriate I was speaking with recently mentioned to me that in his first trips to Asia, he was very concerned about getting things accomplished in the short time that he was visiting a few Asian countries that he became impatient with his hosts, who wanted to take him out to dinners and have him meet with various managers in the country.  He was especially annoyed during meetings, when it seemed so difficult to reach decisions and move forward on the actions that he wanted them to take.  Only later did he realize that by focusing so exclusively on “getting things done” in the most efficient way, he was ignoring, and in fact, violating, some processes very important in these cultures.

Banaji, M. and Greenwald, A.  (2014). Blindspot.  New York:  Delacorte Press.

Grierson, D.  (2014).  What If Age Is Nothing But a Mind-Set?  New York Times Sunday Magazine, October 22.

Kahneman, D.  (2011).  Thinking Fast and Slow.  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kelly, C.  (2012).  O.K., Google, Take a Deep Breath.  New York Times, April 28.

Langer, E.  (1989).  Mindfulness.  Cambridge, MA:  De Capo Books Press.

Tan, C.  (2014).  Search Inside Yourself.  New York:  HarperOne.