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

March 7, 2012

This week’s article addresses the theory pertaining to the concept of mindfulness. Be sure to check back in with us next week for further guidance as to how you might proceed to applying this concept within the workplace!

The development of future leaders is one of the most critical parts of the human resource management function, because it is directly connected to the organization’s long-term success. Unfortunately, most large organizations have yet to fully grasp the growth process suitable for high potential employees (“high potentials” or “HiPos”). For example, a study conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council in 2006 demonstrated that at least half of the 122 organizations surveyed considered the failure of recently promoted managers to be a significant problem. As a result, many managers, researchers and specialists have asked the same question: What is the reason for this problem?

Part of the answer to this question undoubtedly lies in the fact that the main goal of identifying HiPos is to make preferential investments in their development: the organization gives them more responsibility, more opportunities to participate in important projects, as well as more resources to foster their growth. However, this special treatment comes at a cost: upper management puts HiPos’ actions under the microscope, and expectations of them are much higher. High potentials are, therefore, subjected to greater pressure. In addition, they are regularly assigned more complex tasks and promoted more quickly, which can push their capacity to adapt and grow, beyond their personal limits. Finally, the qualities and abilities that allow HiPos to stand out from the crowd are not necessarily the vectors for their future success…

So how can organizations increase the success rates of their employees identified as talented? More evaluations, training and special projects may not be the answer, but rather teaching these HiPos to “pay attention” to the present moment, to develop their capacity to be fully aware of what is happening in the here and now. This is what is called “mindfulness.” This concept is undervalued by most industrial psychology and human resource management specialists. However, it has been the subject of a number of studies in recent years, in other realms of psychology. The results of these studies tend to indicate that mindfulness could, in fact, accelerate the development of HiPos and reduce the risk of their careers being derailed. This is what we will be exploring in this article.

What is mindfulness?

In simple terms, mindfulness can be defined as “living in the moment,” i.e., being fully present and aware of what is happening at any given time. In other words, it essentially means “giving complete, open-minded, nonjudgmental attention to the present situation and moment.” Several characteristics are inherent to the state of mindfulness:

  • Focus on the present: Being aware of the present moment, rather than thinking about the past, planning ahead for the future or being “lost in thought.”
  • Awareness: Cultivating continuous awareness of the state of our internal environment (thoughts and emotions), as well as that of our external environment.
  • Pragmatism: Maintaining an open mind, without judgement or criticism of what is happening around us. This attitude makes it possible to perceive events objectively, rather than interpreting them based on our own expectations or beliefs. It entails adopting a practical attitude, which in no way means lapsing into indifference, denial or rationalizations.

As the capacity for mindfulness is developed, a number of positive effects will be felt (Thompson & Waltz, 2007; Bauer & Wayment, 2008; Brown, Ryan, Creswell & Niemev, 2008; Shapiro, Schwartz & Bonner, 1998):

  • self-acceptance develops, in terms of both qualities and flaws;
  • the need to deny or rationalize weaknesses decreases;
  • the tendency to focus on flaws and limitations declines;
  • the need to maintain and defend one’s ego and beliefs decreases, resulting in less emotional / defensive responses in the case of failure; and
  • empathy for others increases.

Mindfulness is considered to be an individual difference: the fact is that some people are more aware than others (Brown & Ryan, 2003). We have all encountered people in the workplace who are able to give their full attention to each person they encounter or who can analyze each situation from a new perspective, asking questions that are not tainted by judgements, but rather that lead to new answers. And we have also come across people who only give others their partial attention and who jump to conclusions based on their own world views, regardless or whether or not these are relevant to the situation at hand.

That being said, we’d like to invite you to reflect upon the concept and on its potential applications in the workplace throughout the upcoming week as we’ll be providing you with a more concrete action plan for implementing this practice throughout your organization next Wednesday!

1 Summary 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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