The demands of the 21st century make mindfulness a critical part of a leader’s toolkit.
“Mindlessness is the application of yesterday’s business solutions to today’s problems. And mindfulness is attunement to today’s demands to avoid tomorrow’s difficulties.”
~Dr. Ellen Langer, Harvard University 
Too many companies have discovered only after it’s far too late to course correct that yesterday’s solutions have an expiration date. Blackberry, Yahoo, Kodak, Blockbuster, and Sony are examples of companies that didn’t respond early enough to signals that once dominant products and services were no longer relevant to consumers. In the new economy, organizations can no longer afford to let mindless patterns and ingrained ways of thinking and doing drag them down. Nonetheless, the challenge is that people’s brains can get so overwhelmed by change and uncertainty that they cannot think straight, create, or innovate.
In my work as a neuroscience-based leadership consultant, I have found that many executives are baffled by how management practices that worked in the past no longer apply to today. In the old economy, it was possible to execute according to a five-year strategic plan and anticipate how the world would evolve. Today, it is getting harder and harder to predict and forecast even six months to one year into the future. No one can tell when a new technology will revolutionize their particular field or industry. No one knows how long certain expertise or skills will remain relevant. No one can anticipate when what they do for work will become obsolete.
Yet some things haven’t changed. Human beings still don’t like uncertainty. We still don’t like losing our sense of control. We still don’t like having the rug pulled from under our feet. We still resist change. These responses are still normal because it is the way we are biologically wired. Change, uncertainty, disruption, and unpredictability trigger our brains and bodies to unleash high levels of stress hormones that put us into a state of fight-flight-freeze.
To make brain science easy to understand in the Calm Clarity Mindful Leadership Program, I describe the underlying neural structures of the fight-flight-freeze system as Brain 1.0. When Brain 1.0 gets activated, it reduces blood flow to our frontal lobes, thus impeding our ability to think clearly and respond effectively to challenges. When our frontal lobes are impaired, we essentially become “mindless” (the book Scarcity explains that under stress, people’s IQ may drop by an entire standard deviation ). Without fully functioning frontal lobes, we can’t come up with new solutions. So in that state, we tend to throw whatever we’ve seen work in the past at the problem and hope it will go away.
Given the fast pace of modern society, people have accepted stress and anxiety as part of the fabric of everyday life, but most have not yet found healthy and effective ways to cope. Many organizations that have embraced the philosophy of “work hard, play hard” activate the reward system as a means to motivate people without realizing it also unintentionally discourages self-care, rest and rejuvenation. Medication has become one of the most common forms of coping as suggested by the rise of the twenty billion dollar anti-depressant and anti-anxiety market.[4, 5] To get relief, people also turn to alcohol, marijuana, and comfort eating — activities which further imbalance the reward / dopamine system and increase the risk of addiction and other health problems.
To simplify neuroscience, I refer to the neural structures of the reward system as Brain 2.0. When Brain 2.0 is highly activated, our chase for rewards (such as status, wealth, immediate gratification, instantaneous relief from anxiety and pain) become all-or-nothing fixations that impair the functioning of our frontal lobes. Brain 2.0 compels us to look for quick fixes that merely stick band-aids on symptoms rather than perform the learning, thinking and reflection required to truly understand underlying root causes and design effective solutions to address them.
Most conversations about stress focus on the negative impact on health, but we don’t focus enough on the negative impact on cognition: how it reduces our ability to learn, take in new information, be open to new opportunities, see the bigger picture, and build meaningful connections — in other words, how it makes us mindless. Essentially, stress causes a well-documented phenomena called cognitive tunneling: when people are only able to see what is directly in the center of their field of vision and become “blind” to the periphery. Cognitively tunneling can cause serious consequences and even disasters.
In his most recent book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg explained that cognitive tunneling was responsible for one of the worst accidents in aviation history due to human error — the crash of Air France Flight 447 in which 228 people lost their lives. The recovered black box recording showed that after a minor mechanical issue caused an alert signal, the pilot had gotten completely fixated on the information coming in from the panel right in front of him and ignored all the other readings. The misguided action plan he took based on reading that one instrument caused the plane to crash.
According to Duhigg, “Cognitive tunneling can cause people to become overly focused on whatever is directly in front of their eyes or become preoccupied with immediate tasks. It’s what keeps someone glued to their smartphone as the kids wail or pedestrians swerve around them on the sidewalk. It’s what causes drivers to slam on their brakes when they see a red light ahead.”
In the business world, cognitive tunneling is a mental state in which managers and leaders become myopically focused on the issue that is right in front of them or top of mind and fail to see what is happening in the rest of their environment and to seek out other relevant data. It is a state in which Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0 overreact to one piece of information / one story and cause us to miss the bigger picture. It is a state in which we become blind to emerging opportunities for growth and innovation. For the most part, leaders have underestimated the degree to which cognitive tunneling and other forms of mindlessness have hurt and impeded their companies. This is partly because once we are in a cognitive tunnel, we get so locked into it that we aren’t aware we are in one.
One could make an argument that cognitive tunneling is one of the many underlying factors in corporate scandals and crises. For instance, Wells Fargo developed a myopic fixation on increasing cross-selling (by tracking the average number of products per customers as a performance metric) which led employees to open fake accounts in consumers’ names so the could get rewarded with higher pay. When this unethical practice finally came to light as one of the worst bank abuses in modern history, the tunnel vision was finally lifted, leaving management baffled as to how the corporation had gotten so derailed.[7, 8]
What leaders need to understand is that even in the absence of greed and wrong-doing, in normal everyday life, mindlessness happens all the time. Using the frontal lobes burns a lot of fuel, so the brain evolved the autopilot as an energy efficient mechanism for storing lessons and skills into Brain 2.0. Once people have repeatedly done something over and over, that skill/learning gets coded into our autopilot as a habit/reflex, so the frontal lobes don’t have to burn energy each time we do it (in fact, when neuroscientists observe people do an activity without the frontal lobes being activated, they conclude that they are doing it on autopilot). This frees up our conscious minds to do other activities. For example, our autopilot allows us to walk and push a shopping cart while our minds make plans for dinner. Our autopilot allows us to drive while our minds hold an engaging conversation. The challenge is that numerous activities can get relegated to the autopilot that are much better performed with conscious awareness and presence.
When people slip into autopilot mode and stop consciously thinking about what they are doing on a regular basis, this is where mindlessness presents itself. Because businesses gain scale and efficiency through standardizing processes and using incentives tied to metrics to manage employee behaviors, businesses are highly susceptible to mindlessness. When people stop thinking, they not only stop innovating, they are more likely to make costly mistakes and errors in judgment. To prevent falling into the trap of mindlessness — that is where mindfulness comes in.
Ellen Langer, a professor at Harvard University who is one of the world’s foremost researchers on mindfulness, defines it as “the simple act of actively noticing new things and challenging our natural human tendencies to be inattentive over time.” Interestingly, Langer’s research on mindfulness has nothing to do with meditation or yoga. She focuses on people’s nuanced ability to discern how each moment is different from the one before and keep themselves from falling into a mindless autopilot mode. In the Zen tradition, this corresponds to a notion called “beginner’s mind” — the ability to experience any activity in life, no matter how mundane, with childlike curiosity as if you are doing it for the first time.
Again, to make neuroscience intuitively simple, I refer to the frontal lobes as Brain 3.0. The easiest way to explain brain functioning is through the maxim: “ Use it or lose it.” If you want to keep the Brain 3.0 on, you have to proactively and intentionally activate the neural pathways within it.The frontal lobes activate when we learn new things, when we experience awe, wonder and curiosity, when we are being creative, when we ponder questions without simple answers like riddles, when we try to see a bigger picture, when we connect to something bigger than ourselves, when we make deep meaningful connections with people, and when we empathically listen for understanding.
Mindfulness essentially involves cultivating a state of mind that keeps us in Brain 3.0. It’s not an easy thing to do because the brain is hardwired to go into autopilot mode to save energy. So this is where turning to meditation and yoga can be helpful because these techniques teach us how to cultivate mindfulness by observing and watching our autopilot, learning what got stored in there, and identifying when what’s in our autopilot no longer serves us. Only then can we re-train our autopilots by replacing obsolete habits with better ones. This is why rewiring our brains for mindfulness eventually results in gaining inner freedom from self-limiting patterns and beliefs.
Once Brain 3.0 is sufficiently strengthened through mindfulness practices, it becomes more resilient to stress (meaning it is not easily deactivated by the fight-flight-freeze cascade) and is able to stay on without slipping completely into autopilot mode. By staying “on,” Brain 3.0 can help us avoid the traps of cognitive tunneling and other forms of mindlessness. By staying “on,” Brain 3.0 enables us to be our best selves through any difficult challenge.
Businesses need as many people as possible to fully develop and cultivate Brain 3.0 and use it to become attuned with the dynamic changes happening in their industries and in the larger world as a whole. Moreover, businesses need mindful leaders who have sufficient horsepower in Brain 3.0 to respond effectively to changing circumstances and to identify and embrace opportunities for growth.
To help people understand how their brain functions and how shifting out of Brain 1.0 and 2.0 into Brain 3.0 can transform their life at work and at home, I developed the Calm Clarity Mindful Leadership Programin 2013. Since then we have shared the benefits of Brain 3.0 with many organizations, including leading companies such as M&T Bank, Vanguard, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Ernst & Young, and Devereux Advanced Behavioral Heath as well as leading institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania and New York University.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to make the shift into Brain 3.0, please consider joining a Calm Clarity Weekend Workshop. If you would like to bring our neuroscience-based leadership training to your team please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about mindfulness, please read my article: Mindfulness Explained by a Mind-hacker.
UNC Executive Development white paper: “The Neuroscience of Leadership: Practical Applications” by Kimberly Schaufenbuel
Mullainathan, Sendhil and Eldar Shafir. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means so Much. First edition. New York: Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2013.
Duhigg, Charles. Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Productivity in Life and Business. First edition. New York: Random House, 2016.
Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012.
Bio on Ellen Langer by The Pursuit of Happiness: http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/ellen-langer/
Langer, Ellen J. Mindfulness. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1989.
Dean, Jeremy. Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick. Boston, MA: Da Capo LIfelong, 2013.