by Keren Tsuk, PhD., author of “Mindfully Wise Leadership: The Secret of Today’s Leaders“
In my mindful leadership course, I focus on working with managers on their ability to be aware, to respond to what is happening at this very moment, and to contain the unknown.
It sounds like a strange concept, but acknowledgment of the unknown is a simple, practical, and sincere consent to check and meet the reality of the moment. It is the ability to be present in the moment itself — and recognize our feelings, sensations, and thoughts — without immediately attempting to give interpretations and explanations or a solution. It’s about living with discomfort and the ability to not know an immediate answer.
Why do we aim for this? Think about your average business experience. Many of us have undergone a significant change in the workplace, such as a restructuring, that involved the chance of causing considerable damage to employees’ working conditions. Management teams often try to display a rosy picture, even if the reality is far from it. They tell employees that they are fighting for them to retain their jobs.
I was in a consulting role, where I was trying to mitigate exactly this type of challenge for my client.
The question presented to me was how to manage this change when it was evident to everyone that the change would significantly affect a large number of employees. The vice president I was working with was mostly concerned about senior-level employees leaving the organization if they knew too much, because the attrition would be devastating. In order to control the rollout of information, he didn’t want to say anything to the employees.
I asked what he thought would be the consequences of such a move, how people would react once they received a decision in which they were not involved. He replied that he thought they would not respond well. I suggested a different approach entirely, one in which employees would take part in the process, one based on living with the discomfort of the current mandate and reaching out to the team. We decided to create focus groups where the vice president would present everyone with the real picture — not the rosy one — and ask for their opinions. I suggested that he come to them as someone who wants to consult with them and hear their ideas or thoughts on ways to deal with the situation.
No doubt, taking on this task was not an easy thing. It required him to be in a position of not knowing. If until that moment he embodied the rescuer figure with all the answers, he was now required to come down from his pedestal and face reality.
What is presence?
Presence is developing a skill for being in the moment and experiencing everything that comes along with it.
It’s a lot harder than it sounds.
Presence does not mean a person is balanced or calm. It means we are in the process of acting on opposing forces that generate energy. We are present when we change according to our experiences.
Presence requires deep listening, and a sense of openness beyond the personal perception of the thinking person. A moment of presence requires us to let go of old identities and automatic behaviors, to abandon the need for control, and to prefer choices that serve evolution in life. The importance of the present moment lies in the possibility of creating a changing new reality that is not based on past experiences and recycling existing patterns.
When we are present, we may feel that we are becoming vulnerable. This is an internal state in which our identity, which includes our perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs, doesn’t have to be established. Because we do not know what will develop in dialogue and what will emerge from it, being present will enable the unknown to take place, and for changes to occur until the answer to whatever we are questioning becomes clear.
Problem-solving with presence
Two weeks after our initial meeting, I met with the vice president again. As soon as I saw him, I could sense that he was angry and that his entire entity was in resistance to the ideas we had discussed before.
He told me the process had been very hard. People were angry and frustrated with the situation. In some groups, creative solutions were offered; in others, people only released steam. He didn’t believe the meetings were productive, and he was thinking of ending them.
I listened to him very carefully and non-judgmentally. After he finished expressing his feelings, I said that I understood his discomfort. I pointed out that I had not assured him that the process would be either easy or simple but that those meetings were very significant. If he had approached the work in the opposite way, employees would be upset for different reasons, and he would have faced different hurdles. At least this way, they had been heard and some ideas were being generated.
I have to point out that during my meeting with the vice president, I felt something parallel to what he felt. Throughout the encounter he expressed his frustration and even tried to challenge my professional perceptions and disagree with me. I remember feeling that I had not fulfilled his wishes, yet I still believed everything was okay, and that his emotional response was part of the process. I had to contain the discomfort this had caused me, and I knew that his ability to unload his feelings was a necessary step toward success.
By the end of the meeting, the vice president realized that despite his discomfort, he was on the right track. Despite his ambivalence and resistance, he embraced mindfulness, the presence, the transformation; above all, he was ready to give it a chance.
In doing so, he created trust and partnership with the managers of the organization. When some of the employees were later affected by cuts, they still felt a commitment and connection to the organization. Their opinions were heard, and some of the ideas they came up with were taken into consideration.
The sweeping attrition the vice president had feared did not take place.
*Excerpted from “Mindfully Wise Leadership: The Secret of Today’s Leaders“
Keren Tsuk, PhD. is a sought-after speaker, consultant, and thought leader in 21st-century leadership. As founder and CEO of consulting firm Wisdom To Lead, she specializes in the development of senior management teams and corporate leadership. She is the author of “Mindfully Wise Leadership: The Secret of Today’s Leaders“.