A leader’s role in building workplace resilience

This is a guest post by Sonja Antell of Action Learning Associates.  

I spent a fruitful Saturday morning last week, at my CIPD branch event – where a surprisingly large number of us came together to look at workplace resilience from Michele Grant of Rising Minds.

After my initial surprise – and clearly that of the organisers – that almost 100 people turned up on a sunny Saturday in the Chilterns – the session went really well.

A mindful exercise

Michele drew on work from Daniel Goleman, well known for his writing on emotional intelligence and asked us to do a mindful exercise looking at a recent difficulty, what feelings it evoked in us, what thoughts we had about ourselves and locating the feelings in the body. We put the exercise away – and interestingly returned to it later…

Resilience awareness

Michele talked eloquently of David Rock’s work on what can hinder our resilience at work, what our individual triggers may be and how they might trip us into an unconscious, less helpful response. Clearly day to day we need to manage many things unconsciously, but as leaders, other interactions in organisations need to be managed more mindfully and therefore more skilfully.

David Rock developed the SCARF model, as a way to look at what reduces our resilience in the workplace. The acronym refers to individual triggers of certain types:

Status – our perceived importance in relation to others

Certainty – the extent to which we can be sure of what will happen or how we deal with ambiguity

Autonomy – to what extent we have a sense of control over others

Relatedness – the extent to which we feel a sense of belonging, team or safety with others

Fairness – our perception of what is reasonable between people

While this model is a useful tool to look at motivators at work, it can also enhance our sense of self and improve our ability to relate to others, especially when under pressure.

The work on resilience described by Michele encourages us to become more mindful, in the moment, to slow down as managers and to fully notice our responses. Any one of these motivators can also act as triggers, leading us to react rather than respond.

Fast and slow thinking

This also chimes with the work of Daniel Kahnemann on thinking fast and thinking slow. His books sell well at the moment in stations and airports –perhaps in an attempt to capture people while travelling, to prompt them to pause and think about what is done naturally, and quite rightly on automatic pilot – “fast” thinking, and then what needs to be done in a slower and more reflective mode.

We returned to our exercise and after some mindful reflection on the difficulty we had identified, looked again at the feelings it evoked, the thoughts it created about ourselves and our emotional response. I certainly saw my difficulty in a spacious and more generous way and as a result it seemed to be more of an interesting event than a slightly distressing issue.


This all caused me to reflect on when we run action learning sets in the workplace. By encouraging participants to slow down and reflect on the open questions they receive from the set, people consider an issue in a deeper way than they have previously had the space to.

This supports leaders in identifying when they make unconscious motivations and responses and pausing long enough to consider alternative, more conscious ways of interacting. This experience in itself is empowering, as participants go through a thought process that is solution focused, thus building resilience.

The individual exercise we did on that busy Saturday morning was a similar experience for me as being in an action learning set. It is encouraging to see so much recognition now of the value of mindful responses in the workplace and as leaders. A Saturday morning well spent indoors despite the rare sunshine!


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IES mindfulness at work paper

Here’s an interesting and compelling paper for the Institute of Employment Studies – written by a Rising Minds Associate Liz Hall – on mindfulness in the workplace. It includes on pages 5-6 a case study on Rising Minds’ mindfulness training work with Poplar Harca Housing Association: IES mindfulness paper

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Rising Minds at Coaching at Work conference

Here’s a video of our session at this year’s Coaching at Work Conference about our ‘This Way Up’ life coaching and mindfulness programme, which we run with low income East Londoners for anti-poverty charity Quaker Social Action.




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A meeting of minds: mindfulness in law firms

Law is a stressful profession. At least, that’s what can be concluded from a recent Law Society survey of 2,267 practising certificate holders. It found that 95% reported having negative stress in their working lives, while 17% went further, reporting ‘severe’ or ‘extreme’ levels of stress at work.

Stress is bad for organisations. As well as leading to staff absenteeism, it also gives rise to the accompanying problem of ‘presenteeism’ – attending work when ill – which in turn leads to reduced productivity.

Recognising the damage that stress can do, a growing number of legal firms in both the US and the UK are investing in staff ‘wellbeing’ to ensure they are functioning well and to retain talent.

And one major strand of the wellbeing programmes that law firms are putting on for staff is ‘mindfulness’. With roots in ancient practices, mindfulness is a way of training the mind to pay attention in the present moment, without judgement. It’s learnt through a range of simple meditations and awareness exercises and is being increasingly used in the modern secular world to help individuals and organisations manage stress, think more clearly, and make wise decisions.

In the US a number of mindfulness programmes have been pioneered under the banner of ‘contemplative law’. Once viewed perhaps as a bit touchy-feely, it’s now going mainstream. At least a dozen bar associations and some 20 law schools run programmes focused on some aspect of mindfulness. It’s also being integrated into classes on negotiation, professional responsibility and effective relationships.

The results of the programmes point to two main benefits. Firstly, participants are better able to handle the stresses that are an inevitable part of legal work. They are better at recognising the first signs of stress and, through a range of simple techniques, to manage heavy workloads more effectively, and to surf the ‘rhythm’ of the day.

Secondly, mindfulness training can help lawyers avoid getting sucked into the reactive state of mind of the ‘opponent’ (or indeed the client). This tendency to be ‘triggered’ happens because the mind has gone into autopilot mode – when we act on more primal instincts to protect ourselves against a perceived threat, rather than responding rationally. Mindfulness is an antidote to this. It helps to provide a natural breathing space in which we can see things more dispassionately.  And, more intriguingly, it seems to promote better use of ‘mirror neurons’, which fire not only when we perform an action, but also when we observe someone else make the same movement. If we can enhance our mirror neuron capability, we can better catch ourselves starting to experience the same set of emotions and behaviours as the ‘other side’ – and instead of going further down that road, we can choose to respond in a more considered way.

Taking this further, this enhanced ability to understand human interactions can lead to a more holistic ‘meeting of the minds’ between opposing parties than case law would suggest as a condition for a binding contract. In other words, it leads to better and more robust agreements and resolutions.

The thrust of these conclusions are backed up by the findings of a bespoke four-session mindfulness course that we ran recently for eight lawyers at a London-based litigation firm. The training sessions and course materials taught staff how to use and adapt mindfulness techniques within their working days. All the participants said they would recommend the training to their colleagues. One participant reported that: “It has shown me the techniques to think rationally and objectively about the task at hand. I think it will make me less panicked and anxious in difficult situations.” Another was impressed by “the fact that it can be implemented and practised almost immediately, and that the first step – awareness – almost naturally leads to the ones that follow.”

This law firm is not alone in the UK in investing in innovative approaches to promoting wellbeing. It would be good to see mindfulness – an approach with a clinically proven record of mitigating the damaging effects of stress – increasingly at the core of wellbeing services in the legal profession.


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Can mindfulness tackle unconscious bias?

If you are familiar with the benefits of mindfulness then you will know that at its core is the practice of over-riding our autopilot function so that we can respond more wisely to the problems life throws up, large and small.    Paying attention to our experience, staying with it long enough to develop greater clarity, creates space for choosing our responses.

If that works,  and it does, then might we apply mindfulness to other kinds of autopilot such as the unconscious biases we harbour?   Researchers Adam Lueke and Bryan Gibson set out to test just that and the results, published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal,  are fascinating.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review takes up the story:

“Lueke and Gibson explain that a group who listened to a 10-minute mindfulness exercise exhibited less bias on the race and age implicit association tests (IATs) than those who didn’t—without even focusing on the biases themselves.

The 72 participants were white college students who didn’t know what was being studied beforehand. The test group listened to a recording that made them aware of their heart rate and breathing. It told them to accept these sensations and thoughts “without restriction, resistance, or judgment.” The control group listened to a 10-minute recording about history. Then both groups completed the race and age IATs, which captured response times in pairing positive or negative words with black or white faces and then with old or young faces.

The mindful group showed less implicit racial and age bias than did the control group, and this was, in part, due to a reduction in the automatic activation of negative associations (i.e., black-bad, old-bad). This confirmed older research that mindfulness makes one less reliant on previously established associations. But the researchers were surprised to also find that the mindful group was less able to see differences between the faces than the control group, which seems to suggest that when you’re less likely to automatically associate black and old with “bad,” race and age are also less detectable.

The ability to curb implicit bias and weaken negative associations by simply being more mindful could help prevent all kinds of negative effects. Previous research has shown how implicit out-group bias can make someone more likely to shoot at a black suspect in a simulation or become more aggressive in a video game.

Implicit attitudes even predict some negative behaviors in the workplace better than explicit attitudes. For example, they are more predictive of discriminatory hiring decisions, lack of trust in out-group members, and hostile body language toward stereotyped out-group members. As Lueke explained, “People high in implicit bias will tend to maintain distance, not make as much eye contact, fidget, remain terse in their responses, and generally give non-verbal cues that are indicative of discomfort.” And this happens even if they consciously want to communicate in a non-biased way.

So how do you become more mindful? As Lueke said, “We often have other things on our mind regardless of whether we are at work or not; our to do lists, that date we went on the night before, mulling over that crazy episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ we saw, wondering what we are going to have for dinner tonight.” Silencing and focusing these thoughts is a practice. But even if you’re busy, there are really basic steps you can take—anywhere, anytime—to make you more aware of the present.

Past experiences have a way of influencing our decisions and immediate reactions in ways we don’t fully understand and may not even realize. It’s important to acknowledge this and find ways of making ourselves less reliant on them.”

The full HBR article, including a link to the full study is here.

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Is mindfulness for sharing with coaching clients?

Is mindfulness for sharing with coaching clients? Here at Rising Minds we feel that it is. Here’s a online talk on this very subject, which Tim Segaller gave at coachmindfully.com: http://www.coachmindfully.com/resources/4576396419

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Open Book project award

We are delighted that our Open Book pro-bono coaching scheme was honoured with an award for Best Case Study at the recent Coaching At Work Awards.    The Open Book Coaching Scheme is a project of Rising Minds which matches coaches to people who have missed out on higher education due to difficult past experiences including prison, addiction, abuse and poverty.  Open Book itself is based at Goldsmith’s college and Queen Mary, both part of the University of London.   Individuals come to the scheme with a spark of interest in pursuing education but with little confidence or support.  The coaches stick with them for as long as is needed.

The case study was based on an evaluation of the scheme by Marcus Morgan,  sociologist and Fellow at Murray college, Cambridge.


These are some of the judges’ comments:

  • “This refreshing piece distinctly positions coaching within a broad social enterprise agenda”
  • “This case study is particularly inspiring because of its context, but also because of the way it shows impact on coaches, as well as clients.”
  • “A reminder of how coaching can add value in different settings.”
  • “A glimpse into how the modern world and changes in technology don’t substitute the need for and value of, human relationship.”

You can read the full article here



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