Apr 112016

Any attempts at organisational transformation need to begin with changes in people. To achieve this, leaders in the 21st century must seek out tools that foster resilience, further creativity, improve decision making and stimulate empathy. Resources such as mindfulness involve paying attention to what is going on in our mind, body and surroundings moment by moment.

Ruben Llop

Ruben Llop, Cofounder and director of the Instituto EsMindfulness in Barcelona

In contemporary management and training there is constant mention of change and transformation, and like other terms that are often touted in business school literature and management fads, they run the risk of ending up devoid of meaning, completely worn out and reviled. Although we are currently witnessing continuous and swift transformations in individuals, organisations and societies, the way to systematically and efficiently tackle these uncertainties – or the usual upsets that accompany them- seems to elude us. We often make the mistake of mixing up the tools we need to use to “manage” change (especially the training to acquire new and better learnings) with the key (and unique) instrument that can leader the transformation processes required for the survival of organisations and the sustainability of contemporary social realities: the person.

Consequently, training in managerial skills, processes management, Lean, Six Sigma, team work, negotiation, effective communication, leadership…may and usually do end up being attempts to transmit contents and concepts that rarely have a real impact after the specific training period has ended.

Our approach to leadership in these transformation processes which encompass both company and social transformations, consists in seeking individual commitment and self-leadership by connecting with the intentions and purposes of a particular individual, thus prompting them to align themselves with a greater good that is more complex, in the form of a specific corporate or social project where they constructively and proactively interact with other people.

And the fact is that in order for an organisational transformation to be successful it cannot be founded exclusively on comprehensive and detailed knowledge of a series of management tools no matter how powerful and useful these may prove to be, regardless of how necessary or convenient the accumulation of knowhow and development of skills derived from such knowledge may be.

The success of a specific organisational transformation, which entails the co-creation of an emerging and better future, can only be founded on individual transformation, on finding and defining an intention and a purpose that allow for greater and better individual contributions, orchestrated in the work of a team of committed individuals who, when provided with the appropriate tools, will achieve extraordinary results within an extraordinarily short timeframe.

Therefore, the first step we need to take is to cultivate the skill of paying attention in a deliberate way to the present moment without making judgments; in other words, to incorporate mindfulness into the organisation (something that, although it doesn’t get you to your chosen destination, does invite you to step back from the current state of affairs). And from here we can proceed to foster commitment and enthusiasm. The extraordinary results, that are the destination, will be reached through this commitment.


A series of statistics which are cause for alarm to managers have been published in recent years on employee dissatisfaction and the lack of leadership inside organisations. One example is a report by Accenture (1), which states that satisfaction in the workplace fell from 52% in 2013 to 44% in 2014; in other words, dissatisfaction now affects the majority of employees. This report also brings to light other interesting data that help us understand why people are unhappy with their work. Although the largest complaints concern the lack of opportunities, low wages and an excessive workload, it is interesting to see that 64% of employees consider that they are being listened to less, and that 36% complain about the constant distractions that prevent them from doing their job properly.

This dissatisfaction was initially blamed on the crisis because of its impact on the economy, relieving leaders of responsibility for the situation. But now times are changing and we need to come up with an effective response to address an emerging future. What’s more, we need to take into account generational changeover and changing values as well as the use of information technologies whereby being connected is the general rule and where power relationships have changed. A big challenge for management teams that have to adapt their organisations and businesses to a future that, though uncertain, is already emerging.

Andres Martin Asuero

Andres Martin Asuero, Cofounder and director of the Instituto EsMindfulness in Barcelona

This leadership deficit which we can see in many institutions that do not know how to address current problems, along with other social problems, creates stress and tension on a personal level and this has led to a sustained increase in mental illnesses in the workplace. A recent study in the United Kingdom found that the number of working days lost due to stress, depression and anxiety had gone up by 24% since 2009 (2). Another symptom of this problem is the rise in absenteeism or “presenteeism” whereby people turn up to work but do not create added value due to dissatisfaction, stress or depression. Although quite a lot of companies are aware of the importance of promoting their employees’ wellbeing in order to foster creativity and commitment they do not always know how to go about doing this effectively. In such a state of affairs it is complicated to have a motivated and enthusiastic team with which to address the challenges that will arise.

In the field of modern neuroscience we are witnessing discoveries that could entail a radical change in the way we train the mind and consequently, the way we cultivate leadership. Neuroscientists are studying the human brain with individuals of all ages and from all walks of life (including executives and leaders) in order to begin to understand the processes that lead to distraction, dissatisfaction and distress in the workplace. We now know that attitudes which are prevalent in the workplace profoundly affect people’s wellbeing given that this is where they spend most of their time. But how can science help us to develop wellbeing in the workplace and among leaders in particular? To begin with, here are some strategies that the managers of the xxi century should consider.


When we notice our phone vibrating inside our pocket our most frequent impulse is to immediately answer it and interrupt the task we are doing. Of course this might be necessary if someone is waiting for an important call or is on duty. However, for most people this isn’t always the case. Research studies show that a person may take up to twenty three minutes to get over a distraction and really get back into what they were working on.

Thanks to neuroscientific research we now know that simple exercises can help us to be more present. This is where practicing mindfulness comes in, a type of conscious attention that can increase concentration and strengthen the connections in the brain related to the executive function and behaviour targeted at an objective.

We also know through neuroscience that the advantages of a multitask are a myth because they reduce attention and increase errors so closing our e-mail and silencing our phone is the most effective way to do things if we want to concentrate with greater clarity on important decisions.

“Mindfulness” means paying attention to what is going on in our mind, body and surroundings in the present, with an attitude of curiosity and amiability (3). Recently, there has been an enormous upsurge in academic research on this subject with over five hundred articles published every year in scientific journals.


Being physically present but mentally absent in a conversation or task may prove to be especially dangerous for leaders because they are the ones who set the guidelines in interactions and group meetings in addition to being responsible for the decisions that are taken.

When attending meetings or conferences it is quite common to see people bending over their smartphones instead of paying attention to the speaker or to one of their employees. This is particularly obvious in an auditorium where the screens light up the faces of those members in the audience who decide to attend to their mobile phone or iPad instead of paying attention to the presentation. Some companies have had to restrict or do away with telephone conferences because they found that many people present were busy doing other things such as answering e-mails instead of paying attention to the meeting. Can we really say that people are the most important thing in an organisation when we prefer to deal with them through devices? How can a group possibly work as a team if people don’t listen? How do employees feel when they are not being listened to or taken into consideration?

Being entirely present – feeling yourself sitting in your seat, noticing your breathing, being conscious of emotions as they arise whilst paying attention to what is being said and to its emotional impact – is fundamental for comprehension and for creating links among people.

What’s more, according to neuroscience, the art is not in just listening but in listening with empathy because this furthers memory, trust and collaboration. Although we are only just beginning to understand how the brain works there is evidence that suggests that training empathy in listening alters the activity inside the brain giving way to more ethical and altruistic behaviour towards others. Everyone can tell whether a leader is oriented towards their own career or benefit or whether they are doing something for the interest of benefiting the company or society as a whole. Leaders who seek to benefit all stakeholders are the most admired in the long run.


As Harvard Psychology Professor, Ellen Langer says: “Most of us live from day to day without recognizing the alternatives we have and without actively deciding between them” (4). This lack of vision is the outcome of excessive psychological tension due to a leadership dynamics instilled around pressure, rushing, worrying, hyperactivity, greed and excessive competitiveness. These behaviors, which originate from fear and anger, not only affect stress and wellbeing but also affect decision making. The negative repercussions of stress on cardiovascular health for example are well known but there had been very little research on its effects on key areas of the brain such as the tonsils (important for negative emotions such as anger and fear) and the prefrontal cortex (which influences self-control and decision making). When the brain is in “reactive” mode due to stress and pressure, it is on the defensive and interactions with others run the risk of being articulated through avoidance and confrontation.

It is blatantly obvious that so many managers think it is a good thing to have their team under constant stress but that at the same time they also want them to be creative, efficacious and to collaborate with one another. This is chemically impossible because the stressed brain is immersed in cortisol, the stress hormone, when what is needed for creativity and collaboration is oxytocin, the trust and bonding hormone.  Published studies have begun to discover how brain chemistry works but what we know up to now points to a relation between activation of the prefrontal cortex and emotional regulation. This process is experienced as taking a distance between ourselves and our emotions which facilitates better decision making.

Taking time to manage stress through practices such as mindfulness or through physical exercise or yoga (to name but a few) can help to create the necessary space for addressing, instead of reacting to, challenges and taking decisions from an emotionally balanced mind.

Having greater consciousness entails no longer repeating old patterns and actively focusing on new things. It involves sensing the future that is emerging instead of clinging to the past that is running out. It demands leaving aside the fixed ways with which we have learnt to view the market, the company or our colleagues. The more changes we perceive the more aware we become of how things change depending on the context and the perspective from which they are observed.

This attitude requires a new listening and a new dialogue. As we become more aware we discover that our organisational behaviour is guided by rules but not governed by them: we can explore new routines and new relationships so as to better address the changes that are already here.


The organisations that will survive today’s changes will be those that adapt best to the emerging future. This adaptation process demands a clear intention on the part of leadership to look towards the future with enthusiasm and awareness, knowing that organisational change first of all requires changing leadership habits and styles.

This new leadership involves training in new personal skills such as practising mindfulness, which will facilitate resilience, foster creativity, improve decision making and nurture empathy. The best companies to work for, those that best manage talent, will be those whose teams are full of enthusiasm. This entails not only seeking profits and remunerating employees properly but also taking on responsibility for the wellbeing of collaborators and that of society as a whole. This is the big challenge of leadership in the xxi century, to recuperate enthusiasm and make working inside an organisation a source of wellbeing for the whole planet.


  1. Listen, Learn and Lead. Global Research 2015.
  2. UK Mindful nation. Report by the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG). October, 2015(www.themindfulnessinitiative.org.uk).
  3. Martín Asuero, A. PlenaMente, Mindfulness o el arte de estar presente. Planeta, 2015.
  4. Harvard Deusto Business Review, issue 168. May 2008

Learn more about EADA’s Transformational Leadership Centre from Director Rubén Llop here. (Link: https://youtu.be/GR4yPVIhqXY?list=PLI2gg0L5WZAfbVWlxntibLtM1iJVF5Cws)

Originally published as:

Martín Asuero, Andrés and Llop, Rubén. “El arte de estar presente.” Harvard Deusto Business Review 56 April 2016.



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