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Buzzwords We Can Believe In

Empathy and mindfulness are hot topics because they speak to glaring needs in today’s workplace.

Buzzwords, ugh! They’re generally irritating and usually make our minds glaze over. We’ve heard them so often that we learn to dismiss them rather than consider the reasons they have come to gain such currency. Over the past year, both empathy and mindfulness tumbled into buzzword territory. Even though these concepts have been around for a while, they really seemed to (apologies for the buzzwords!) go viral and gain market share during 2015. You can hardly attend a conference or a seminar these days without being asked to attend an empathy workshop. Famously button-down shops like the Conference Board are now beating the drum for the value of a mindful practice. 

As is often the case, the popularity of buzzy phrases tells us a lot about today’s workplace. And although both empathy and mindfulness could be dismissed as soft stuff, they have been brought to the fore by hard realities.

Let’s take empathy first. Empathy has increasingly become recognized as an essential leadership skill, the vital ingredient required to spur employee engagement. As growth strategist Dev Patnaik noted in his thorough exploration of the subject, Wired to Care, empathy is neither a vague concept nor a value judgment. Rather, it is an observable and even measurable phenomenon that operates when so-called mirror neurons get activated to create a bond between two individuals. These neurons operate in tandem in both empathizer and empathizee, setting up a reciprocal hormonal flow that those who experience it interpret as being in sync — on the same wavelength, appreciated for what they really are.

It’s easy to see why empathy has become a sought-after skill in organizations today. On the one hand, leaders increasingly rely on full hearts-and-minds engagement in order to coax forth the kind of creative thinking that continual innovation requires. On the other hand, the focused attention needed to activate mirror neurons has become harder to sustain in an environment that thrives on distraction.

A similar situation exists with mindfulness. The capacity to be mindful — defined as the ability to maintain full awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences on a moment-by-moment basis — is a necessary spur to creative and reflective thinking. However, our capacity to keep our minds focused on what is before us — instead of jumping all over the place or racing ahead — is undermined by the distractions that pervade our always-on, always-connected culture.

Given that both these capacities have become simultaneously more important and more difficult to achieve, it’s not surprising that they have secured a place in the autopilot vocabularies of even (and often especially) the most tech-intensive organizations. As buzzwords, they speak to a widespread recognition that our human capacity to be present is continually being tested and often undermined by the tools we use to communicate, do our work, navigate our environment, and make moment-by-moment choices.

Our digital devices not only operate at a speed beyond human consciousness, but, per Moore’s Law, they do so at a speed that will only continue to increase for the foreseeable future. In other words, the devices we use every day are literally programmed to exhaust us. Trying to keep up by working harder, faster, or even smarter is always going to be a losing game — a conclusion most of us have been forced to acknowledge over the last decade. Our only hope is to set boundaries around how we use our time and technology; seek to connect with others in a grounded, non-virtual way and hone our capacity to be fully present — for others, for our tasks, and for our larger purpose.

Trying to keep up by working harder, faster, or even smarter is always going to be a losing game.

Beyond exhausting us, I am also convinced that laboring to keep up can undermine our ability to position ourselves as leaders. The whole effort of trying to remain perpetually current makes us look (and feel) reactive, as if we are merely responding to events rather than shaping them. In the leadership work I do, I find people are fascinated by the connection between a strong leadership presence and the capacity to be present. Whereas leadership presence is often spoken and written about and even taught in a superficial or cosmetic way (how you dress, your handshake, should you carry a purse), it is chiefly conveyed by the capacity to show up fully for whatever you are doing.

I first noticed the connection between leadership presence and being present back in my speechwriter days, when I traveled to conferences at which the executives I wrote for spoke. I quickly learned that I could identify other featured speakers at high-profile confabs simply because they moved through the crowds in an unhurried and unencumbered way.

Precisely because these corporate leaders had others to do the last-minute fussing — with their remarks, the mic, the slides, the chair arrangement — they were free to mingle, relax, and engage others in conversation. Because they had drivers, they didn’t worry about finding a parking space. Nor did they have to root around in a messy folder to find their remarks. This freedom from distraction distinguished them and gave them stature, marking them as leaders more eloquently than any ribbon or nametag or flowery introduction could do. While others sweated the details, they remained relaxed, focusing their attention on others and on what lay within their control.

This lesson has stayed with me, even as distraction has become more pervasive and more characteristic of people at every level. It’s become more common to see those in leadership positions engaging with their devices instead of listening carefully, and so allowing their attention to be fragmented. A gain in efficiency? Perhaps. But they’re also sacrificing their ability to project ease and authority while also demonstrating interest in those around them.

I often hear managers lament the inability of younger employees to focus in meetings or take their eyes off their cell phones. But they rarely make the point that doing so undermines young people’s ability to position themselves as leaders, something many of them are eager to do. I think we’re missing a chance to encourage both mindfulness and empathy when we fail to link the simple disciplines of presence with the capacity to inhabit the relaxed authority that people look for in their leaders, especially in the workplace.

So here’s a buzzy thought for 2016.

Strong and persuasive leadership presence isn’t so much the result of physical attributes or even natural-born charisma. Rather, it’s something we can all cultivate simply by paying attention.

Sally Helgesen

Sally Helgesen is the author of seven books on leadership, most recently How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job, coauthored with Marshall Goldsmith. She delivers workshops and keynote addresses around the world and has been a contributor to s+b since 2005. 

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