In January, I made a personal pledge to be a more mindful leader in 2020. “I must empower people to do excellent work yes,” I wrote on LinkedIn. “But I am also committed to bringing about purposeful outcomes that contribute to the well-being of others.”
Be careful what you ask for.
This year has challenged everyone who dares to be a mindful leader, including me. Whether you manage a team, a department, or a company, I’ll bet you’ve been forced to take a fresh look at what it means to bring about purposeful outcomes that contribute to the well-being of others. If you’ve been coasting along with the same game plan that got you where you are, there’s probably something wrong.
The questions arising throughout the year are serious and soul-shaking. How might we be mindful leaders in a world where people have had their lives forever altered by a global pandemic? A world where our collective mental psyche has been pushed to the brink as we struggle to adapt to permanently changed working environments and economic uncertainty?
We were still processing those questions when waves of social unrest globally sparked another set of equally pressing and profound questions about how a mindful leader can elevate social justice as a central priority in the workplace — especially for those who might believe they were doing so already. For example, how can mindful leaders make social justice a natural part of the conversation in the workplace?
Those questions are hard. They should be. I’m still working through them, and plan on doing so for the rest of my life. Questions like these emphasize the importance in embracing mindful leadership, where leaders redefine success as something far more than helping businesses create lovable products, but also as contributing to the well-being of each other and the world we live in.
Mindfulness and Empathy
One of the reasons I’m more committed than ever to mindfulness is that mindfulness is the foundation for empathy. And empathy is a key component of a culture that people want to be a part of. Empathy helps us become more attuned to the needs of coworkers whose emotional core has been shaken by the pandemic and the systemic racial injustices of our society. And although being more empathic alone does not make you more responsive to those suffering from the burden of social and economic inequality, it’s still a necessary element.
The good news is that product teams have been developing empathy for a long time – just in a different context. Because of the work we do at Moonshot, we use tools such as design thinking and lean innovation all the time to help product teams become more empathetic to the needs of their customers. Lately we have been figuring out how to use the principles of empathy-based design to develop products that also improve the lives of others (I delve into this topic here).
Now here’s a challenge: how do we use those principles of empathy-based design to make people more naturally empathetic:
- To each other’s needs in the workplace (a question that has become more important during the pandemic)?
- To the needs of society at large (a question that has become more important amid social unrest)?
It’s not unreasonable to try to transfer those principles over to workplace culture. We already have the tools to make ourselves more empathetic to the needs of customers. As I look ahead to the rest of 2020, I’m inspired by the challenge of applying those tools to develop a stronger, more empathetic work culture.
A Product Mindset
What I’m talking about is applying a product mindset to build a more empathetic workplace culture. I’ve talked about one way to do that – applying human-centered design principles to the workplace. Another way to do this is to constantly test and learn, just like product teams do with the digital and physical products they put into the world.
The product mindset is all about co-creating with customers and stakeholders throughout the product lifecycle, committing to testing and learning through feedback, and measuring success through clearly defined objectives. A key aspect of the product mindset is the Minimum Lovable Product (MLP). An MLP is a prototype for a product that generates the most customer love with the least amount of effort. Sometimes the MLP gets thrown out because the solution doesn’t work in the real world. An effective MLP undergoes additional rounds of testing and development based on the feedback of the customer. Ideally, even when an MVP fails, your team learns something.
And aren’t we all in test-and-learn mode now? How might we test-and-learn, say, with better ways to make the workplace more diverse and inclusive? To make our own teams more connected to the world around us? To activate ideas for improving the lives of others?
The Right Questions Change Everything
I’m convinced that we cannot be mindful leaders unless we ask the right questions. Questions that challenge others in a respectful, uplifting way. Questions that leaders are not always comfortable asking, such as:
- How are we feeling today?
- What can we do to help each other? Not just become better at what we do, but help us bring our whole selves to work?
The right questions encourage a conversation. As a leader, if we ask the right questions, we won’t always know the answers. You know the saying: “Don’t ask a question you won’t like the answer to.” Well, mindful leaders actually have to throw that advice out the window and willingly ask questions that you might not like the answer to.
Scary, right? That’s because leaders like to think several steps ahead. But if we’re asking questions whose answers we can sort out on our own, then we are asking the wrong questions. We need to lean into the unanswered and unexplored questions. Doing so means creating a safe space where ideas are valued. Where people feel comfortable answering questions honestly and without fear of being penalized for speaking up. We have to create a space to exploring the unknowns.
If you aspire to be a mindful leader, I’d like to hear from you. What questions are you asking of yourself? Of your teams?