The secret to getting more out of training and development initiatives is mindfulness. This once-mysterious concept with roots in Eastern philosophy has exploded in popular culture and management circles. As many people are now aware, mindfulness is a state of non-judgmental, present moment awareness. In essence, it involves paying close attention to what is happening both around you and within you, without evaluating, judging or interpreting your observations.
In a paper published in the journal Industrial and Organizational Psychology, my colleague Alan Saks and I argue that including mindfulness in training and development programs can lead to more learning and better outcomes. We argue that mindfulness training shouldn’t just be available to employees as a stand-alone initiative but, in order to enhance its effectiveness, should be incorporated into all training and development exercises.
Mindfulness promotes self-regulation
One of the benefits of mindfulness is that it promotes self-regulation, which means it allows people to take control of themselves. Specifically, mindfulness enables people to notice the customary and often automatic thoughts and emotions they have, and associated behaviours they engage in. The heightened awareness produced by mindfulness allows people to take charge of those habitual patterns and replace deeply ingrained, thoughtless reactions with more intentional and potentially more beneficial ones. This helps people deal with stress, which is the work-related problem to which mindfulness is most frequently applied. But self-regulation can be useful in other areas too. The awareness and attention that characterize mindfulness make it a powerful tool for all training and development because awareness and attention are crucial for learning. We suggest that mindfulness is an important component of any training and development program.
Mindfulness enhances awareness
When trainees pay close, non-judgmental attention, they can see more clearly how the training material applies to them and how they can effectively put it into practice at work. This reflects another feature of mindfulness — which is referred to as “wide attentional breadth.” Wide attentional breadth involves being more aware of the internal and external details of your situation. Internal roadblocks, like thinking that training is unnecessary, and external roadblocks, like unsupportive colleagues, can strongly influence training effectiveness. Being more aware of internal and external roadblocks enables you to overcome them and increases the probability that training will transfer to the job, something that is the bane of all trainers. All too often, lessons learned don’t make their way to the actual job. Mindfulness prevents the internal and external factors that can interfere with learning, improving the chance that training will transfer to the actual work environment.
In addition to facilitating learning, incorporating mindfulness into training and development programs has two other advantages. First, the cost and time needed for mindfulness training is reduced because it is integrated into existing programs. Second, it addresses any concerns about the relevance of mindfulness training because it directly enhances the effectiveness of other initiatives, demonstrating its value.
Including mindfulness in training and development programs can also positively alter employees’ perception of learning in general. I work with someone who is on a constant path of self improvement. By all appearances this person is enormously successful. He is an accomplished medical doctor who has a master’s degree in Engineering and an MBA. He also is about to embark on a master’s degree in Epidemiology. Because I have worked with this gentleman closely and have been able to observe the things that motivate, aggravate and deflate him, I know that the forces underlying his constant desire for self-improvement are not just about the desire for professional success or knowledge. He is motivated by the need to fill the gaping hole of self-doubt that lurks within him. He needs the constant validation of external accolades and positive feedback in a never-ending and desperate attempt to overcome his perceived inadequacy.
But he isn’t aware of this. His training and development choices aren’t mindful. If he took the time and mustered the courage to look more closely at his real development needs, I’m confident that he would make different choices — choices that would better reflect his particular development needs and lead to not only more personal fulfilment but greater professional accomplishment. Each of us must wrestle with our demons before we can dance with our angels. Mindfulness just allows us to hear the music.
It changes our focus from grasping at answers to being open to questions. Not that answers aren’t desirable, but mindfulness opens us up to wiser answers by making us aware of the potentially difficult questions we might not otherwise ask. The non-judgmental consideration of ideas and circumstances allows us to see situations, and our role within them, more honestly and more accurately. In addition to enhancing learning, mindfulness allows us to make training and development decisions that promote our growth instead of our ego, to collect valuable experiences instead of useless certificates, and to approach work in a way that fuels genuine improvement. And in the end, this is the purpose of all training and development.