Speed up high-potential employee growth and reduce their risk of career derailment, thanks to mindfulness1

March 14, 2012

This week’s article follows up on the concept of mindfulness providing you, our reader, with further guidance as to how you might proceed to applying this concept within the workplace. If you haven’t had the chance to read part one of this series, please take the time to do so now!

Developing mindfulness in the workplace

Mindfulness training has enjoyed a quick rise in popularity over the past 15 years, particularly as an effective aspect of handling physical and psychological problems. In this respect, the most commonly cited benefits of the development of mindfulness are the reduction of stress and its physical symptoms, and improve mood and well-being. Furthermore, mindfulness training and mindfulness-based therapies have been proven effective in treating numerous illnesses, including anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, sleep disorders and eating disorders, and in reducing the symptoms of asthma, diabetes, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia (Germer, Siegel & Fulton, 2005).

A number of organizations, including 3M, Apple, Dell, Ford, GE, Google, IBM, Nike, Toyota and Yahoo (Boyce, 2009; Der Hovanesian, 2003; Duerr, 2004), have already begun to introduce mindfulness training in order to reduce the stress levels and increase the well-being of their employees.  In addition, mindfulness has been successfully incorporated into several leadership development and coaching programs (Carroll, 2007; Silsbee, 2004). Nevertheless, there has been little scientific research on the specific impact of mindfulness in the workplace. The research that does exist has demonstrated that mindfulness improves concentration, even after relatively brief training (Zeidan, Johnson, Diamond, David & Goolkasian, 2010). Other results suggest that this type of training contributes to better stress management (Stanley &Schaldach, 2011).

Consequently, although research on mindfulness in the workplace is still in its infancy, the initial results tend to indicate that it may contribute to the well-being, satisfaction and efficiency of corporate leaders. In addition, considering the effects of mindfulness and knowledge on the growth of leaders, there are strong reasons to believe that it could have a positive effect on the development of high potentials. For example, mindfulness could increase the effectiveness of HiPos in assuming the very stressful roles entrusted to them and reduce the risk of them cracking and becoming derailed under the pressure.

Boosting the learning curve in stressful situations

The ability to adapt and learn from new situations is considered a key quality in HiPos, given that they are frequently exposed to difficult roles that demand that they push their limits (Lombardo & Eighinger, 2000). For example, high potentials are regularly assigned international roles, in the start-up of a new company or the restructuring of a department in difficulty (McCauley, Ruderman, Ohlott & Morrow, 1994). This means that they must not only be able to learn from their experience, but also deliver on the expected results, all of this under difficult, stressful conditions.

The scope of the challenge set by any job can affect an individual’s learning curve: beyond a certain point, the development of new abilities tends to plateau, thendecline (DeRue & Wellman, 2009). One reason for this phenomenon is that high levels of stress are believed to interfere with memory and learning (Chen, Dube, Rice & Baram, 2008). As a result, it is very likely that the stress-reducing effect of mindfulness might increase a person’s learning capacity when faced with a situation that represents a developmental challenge. Some initial research appears to confirm this hypothesis (United States Army’s Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training program; Jha, Stanley, Kiyonaga, Wong & Gelfand, 2010; Stanley &Schaldach, 2011). The capacity to observe and accept the reality of events in stressful situations seems to release cognitive capacities that would otherwise be occupied by anxiety or distraction.

Furthermore, mindfulness may also improvement HiPos’learning orientation. One of the characteristics of the state of mindfulness that is is consistent with a high level of learning orientation is the maintenance of an open, nonjudgmental mind in the face of current experiences. And, according to DeRue and Wellman (2009), people who are strongly learning-oriented will continue to accumulate development benefits and to learn, regardless of the scope of the developmental challenge posed by a situation. In short, mindfulness may diminish the tendency to feel overwhelmed by events, as well as the appearance of dissociative behaviours that protect self-image, in favour of learning and professional development.

Reducing the risk of career derailment

Derailment occurs when individuals whose careers get off to a brilliant start subsequently find themselves unable to move beyond a certain level, in terms of hierarchy or responsibility, and suffer significant professional setbacks as a result. According to McCall (1998), the factors leading to the derailment of high potentials are the following:

  • their strengths are used excessively or inappropriately;
  • their weaknesses become more obvious at higher levels, where a broader range of skill sets and abilities is needed to succeed, and, as a result, weaknesses previously hidden behind very solid strong points may become far more apparent; and
  • success can encourage some people to believe that they have the knowledge and abilities they need to succeed in any situation, with this arrogance in turn decreasing their motivation to learn, grow and modify their behaviours.

Managers caught up in this process tend to display behaviours such as poor emotional self-control, insensitivity, difficulty establishing strong interpersonal and professional relationships, as well as difficulty handing conflicts and/or failure (Hogan, Hogan & Kaiser, 2010). In view of this, Hogan et al. (2010) suggest that self-awareness may be the most important factor in reducing the risk of derailing.

As was mentioned above, awareness is one of the characteristics inherent to mindfulness (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Consequently, mindfulness training appears to be completely relevant, particularly in that it provides for the development of self-knowledge, through impartial self-acceptance as well as self-awareness, and through awareness of our thoughts and emotions in the moment. Additionally, mindfulness training can subvert tendencies toward arrogance, knee-jerk emotional responses, and insensitivity.

All in all, mindfulness training can foster calmness, self-awareness and empathy in HiPos, while at the same time chipping away at a number of factors that commonly lead to career derailment. As a result, there are strong grounds for thinking that mindfulness training could bolster the development of HiPos while lessening the risk of derailing. In other words, mindfulness could, in all likelihood, contribute to the growth of high potentials, who would then not be overwhelmed by new challenges, would be able to establish solid, genuine relationships, and who would put their abilities to good use in making the right decisions and meeting their objectives.

Using mindfulness to develop leaders

Although some organizations do currently have mindfulness training programs, companies that want to adapt such programs to the development needs of their high potentials will most likely face a number of challenges in this area.

The first challenge concerns the content of the training program. Most of the existing mindfulness training programs aim to reduce employee stress levels and enhance their well-being. But even if this content is effective, high potentials may not be particularly receptive to the idea that slowing their pace to focus more on what is happening around them, or sitting quietly and concentrating on their breathing, will improve their performance. They may also mistake impartial acceptance for passiveness, and so on. The content of the training program will therefore need to be adjusted, based on the specific traits of this group. Moreover, other content will need to be added, such as guidance on the application of mindfulness concepts to the challenges of leadership.

The second challenge lies in the program’s format. Most mindfulness training programs take place in eight weekly sessions of two hours each. HiPos may have a hard time conforming to this type of timetable, especially if they are working in geographically remote divisions of the organization. As a result, the format will most likely need to be modified, possibly including virtual attendance or a variable time slot.

The third challenge is a more fundamental one: the need for patience. The development of the in-depth practice of mindfulness can take months, which does not sit well with today’s culture of immediate gratification. This means that everyone involved, whether they be HiPos, their managers, or talent management specialists, will need to summon all their patience and perseverance in order to truly reap the fruits of this unique practice.

Workplace mindfulness training offers an entirely new approach to the development of high potentials, leaders and employees in general: it suggests that people have the potential to be more efficient in their work, by using their innate capacity to be completely present in the moment and by changing how see themselves and the world around them.

1Summary and translation by Lee, A. (2012). Accelerating the Development and Mitigating Derailment of High Potentials through Mindfulness Training. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 49, 3, 23-33.

Philippe Longpré, Ph.D. (cdt)



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