Mindfulness is a popular mantra these days. There are dozens of books on how to practice it in all aspects of life, from eating to relationships to education. For Gretchen Steidle, practicing mindfulness changed her approach to her work in the nonprofit sector. She has written a book called Leading From Within: Conscious Social Change and Mindfulness for Social Innovation, which looks at how organizations and companies can benefit when leaders invest in mindfulness and bring it to the workforce. Steidle, who runs Global Grassroots, spoke to Knowledge at Wharton about the transformational process of mindfulness. Following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Knowledge at Wharton: Tell us about how you started to see this link between mindfulness and other areas of our society?
Gretchen Steidle: I started off on a path that began in the investment banking arena, and I was very much in the business realm. I was very focused on ambition and leading a life that was relatively stressful. I recognized a need for my own personal stress management tool, which is when I first found mindfulness.
But it wasn’t until a career change into the social impact realm, where I was working more in issues related to genocide and war and social change in impoverished countries, that I started recognizing mindfulness needed to be a tool integrated into the way that we see social change unfolding. There are plenty of people in the social sector who have brilliant ideas for social change, but they are often delivered in ways that are not attuned to the needs of the people they are serving.
We’re just as good in that sector as in the finance and business sector of getting burned out and overly stressed, and that distorts the way in which we see how we can effectively implement our work. There is much greater innovation that can happen if we’re coming at it from a place of deeper self-awareness around how change actually unfolds.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you believe that mindfulness can be transformational?
Steidle: Absolutely. Mindfulness goes so much further beyond the benefits to the self. Those benefits that science is increasingly defining for us make us better leaders and better change agents, so we’re going to run more effective organizations, we’re going to diagnose problems within and outside our institutions more effectively and with deeper understanding, and we’re going to build relationships and create solutions that are going to be longer, more sustainable and more impactful in the long term.
“Mindfulness goes so much further beyond the benefits to the self.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Mindfulness certainly isn’t a new concept. Why is it getting so much attention right now?
Steidle: Science is catching up with what these traditions have known for centuries — that mindfulness is a way of training your brain. Mindfulness is simply paying attention on purpose, in the present moment. That can mean paying attention to whatever is going on inside of you, like recognizing you’re getting frustrated at something that is unfolding in front of you, and what is happening around you, like actually seeing and hearing the circumstances that you are facing in your external environment.
The more that we pay attention to that, the more that we are exercising our brain and changing the structure and the functioning of it. That brings us certain benefits. We become less reactive. We are able to regulate our emotions better. We have the ability to disengage our automatic ways of responding. We use more insight and a deeper understanding of ourselves and others in the way that we make decisions.
It has plenty of positive benefits to your physiology as well. Decreased stress, decreased anxiety, decreased depression, increased immune functioning — all of these things make us better capable of building relationships. We can express ourselves better. We are going to handle anger and conflict with less emotional reactivity.
Obviously that makes for better managers and leaders. But now we shift into how it affects the way in which we understand and create change. The conventional ways of creating change typically used sticks and carrots. We try and force and tell people to comply with what we want to do, with respect to our policies or behaviors or actions we want.
Conscious social change invokes mindfulness to address change from an entirely different perspective. We start with understanding change from the inside out as we employ mindfulness in seeing how we deal with change in our day-to-day environment, how we grasp at it. We desperately want success, or we want those improved metrics, but we also avoid it. We have trouble adapting to different environments.
When we see how we go through that process, we start to have a deeper level of understanding, empathy and compassion for those we are trying to change. This is critical in any sort of social impact work. First, it starts from that understanding of the human drivers of behavior. Then we work in different ways rather than getting too attached to our own agenda or our own solution. We are more inclined to listen and open up to the radical wisdom that comes from unexpected sources. We collaborate in ways that allow us to diagnose issues more comprehensively and completely. We then understand and hear all views and needs and values.
We discern collaboratively what is really going to work and be most effective, rather than create blame or use division to say they need to change their problem. We work in a way that is more comprehensive and collective in coming to a common vision, and the interventions, business models and products we choose to address that particular issue. Mindfulness changes the way in which we go through the entire social innovation process.
“Conscious social change invokes mindfulness to address change from an entirely different perspective.”
Knowledge at Wharton: If company leaders follow a mindful approach, perhaps it will filter down to the employees. The organization as a whole will improve?
Steidle: You lead better as a manager who approaches things from a place of curiosity as opposed to judgment and blame. You are more likely to keep an open mind and grow with the things that are unfolding for you. That is going to inspire other people, and the best in other people, to go through a similar process.
On a practical level, you can foster that in the way you lead your organization, creating policies and space and time that honor people’s need for renewal. Create avenues for them to learn these kinds of practices. It provides greater levels of creativity and innovation within the firm. But then it’s also the way that you handle decision-making.
For example, Patagonia went through a period where they faced major shortfalls. There was likely to have to been cuts of up to 150 people in order to meet needs in one particular quarter. The leadership went into a reflective process and asked, “Are we making these decisions, imposing them from the top down from a place of fear? How else could we do this more mindfully?” They decided to be transparent about what they were facing, and the entire staff worked together to create a much more innovative solution that cut costs. Not one person had to be laid off because of that approach.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think other companies are willing to take a mindful approach?
Steidle: I am seeing significant shifts that are taking place. A lot of the tech companies are looking at mindfulness. It’s starting as an investment in the well-being of staff and understanding that it supports productivity, creativity and morale. But I think that it is starting to be recognized as a tool that goes beyond the individual benefits. It is a way of shifting, creating change and doing business more effectively and more collaboratively, especially with your stakeholders.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think this acceptance of mindfulness marks a generational change?
Steidle: That is a great question. I am seeing it across all generations at this time. There are individuals who have been practicing this for decades who are really leading the charge and helping us see the applicability of mindfulness in settings beyond where it initially emerged out of more wisdom traditions. And I think young people today are seeking a professional experience that brings a level of meaning and purpose, in addition to the other forms of success that we seek from our professional endeavors. By investing in a process of mindfulness that may come from something outside of the workforce, they are recognizing that this is integrated into the way in which they choose career and life balance.
This is relevant. Companies that can embrace this now will really be on the cutting edge of creating workplaces that support the well-being of all workers. This is not about self-indulgence. This is about recognizing that there is a different way of leading, of understanding each other, and creating environments and cultures that support the best from each individual.
“You lead better as a manager who approaches things from a place of curiosity as opposed to judgment and blame.”
Knowledge at Wharton: In the book, you break this down into five areas. The first is cultivating the present. Could you talk about that?
Steidle: This is the first step of integrating mindfulness into the change process. It is understanding and building your own self-awareness. We do this by practicing different mindfulness activities. There are a lot of different places where you can learn mindfulness practices, but if you simply practice sitting and noticing, even if you just are watching and counting your own breaths, that is the start of stimulating the parts of your brain that are going to bring you the benefits.
As the first step, I use the question, “What is happening?” The more that we begin to notice how change and our current circumstances are affecting us, where stress originates, what we might need in that particular moment, what is our role in any particular circumstance and situation, then we begin to see that whatever we experience is usually something that is relatively impermanent. We can stop identifying with certain things, we can let our judgment go, and we can be more patient with whatever we’re experiencing in the moment, and less reactive.
Knowledge at Wharton: How do you think curiosity impacts mindfulness?
Steidle: I think curiosity is a critical component of mindfulness that allows us to look at what is unfolding. This includes scrutinizing and examining a business strategy or circumstance, or looking at whatever is creating anxiety for us in a moment. It allows us to open with that level of non-judgment so that we can explore what’s really underlying this at the root level.
Part of the effectiveness of a social innovator is getting to the roots of an issue by inquiring. We inquire with that curiosity through a mindfulness practice, and also by looking at the innovation process. We try to understand the whole ecosystem of what is taking place. We ask why. We’re proactive in looking at our own role in maintaining the status quo. We look at our blind spots and our own biases. We look at where our reactivity is coming from.
With all of that kind of curiosity, we’re less likely to get attached to our own agenda and not hear the ideas of other people. We’ve all worked with people like that, who just can’t see beyond what they think. It makes us more willing to learn from what our relationships and experiences are teaching us. We come at our relationships with more humility and greater levels of willingness to compromise and take accountability and responsibility for our stuff. That is going to make us willing to be more inclusive, more open to diverse ideas, and thus have greater potential for innovation because it’s being informed by a much more diverse collective of input.