To Build a Winning Culture at Work, Learn from the Best

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To find an organization who has designed a culture of winning, look no further than this year’s NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors. Head Coach Steve Kerr has built the program into a powerhouse by emphasizing four core values: competition, compassion, joy, and mindfulness.

The first comes as no surprise; pro sports teams focus on thriving in the face of adversity. The second and third may raise eyebrows, since compassion and joy seem more like virtues to cultivate in one’s private life, not one’s professional life.

Much like Google discovered that empathy unlocks teams’ potential, Kerr has found that caring for one another transforms a collection of talented individuals into an effective team. Compassion makes the sum greater than the parts.

Genuine enjoyment with one’s work uplifts and motivates. The opposite is also true. Witness the abysmal performance for years of the LA Raiders, whose toxic culture is legendary.

The last, mindfulness, may come as the biggest surprise to those unfamiliar with it. Mindfulness is the means by which the team achieves joy, as it boosts happiness. It’s the way the team develops compassion and bonds with one another, as it grows emotional intelligence. It’s also how they function better under pressure, since it increases focus, enabling them to make buzzer-beater shots.

The Golden State Warriors aren’t the only ones to use mindfulness to create success. While coaching the Chicago Bulls, Phil Jackson brought in sports consultant George Mumford to teach his athletes how to be more mindful. In The Mindful Athlete, Mumford describes how mindfulness united the team after Michael Jordan returned from his stint playing baseball, overcoming hurt feelings and helping teammates adjust to one another.

A key to applying mindfulness to transform culture is to imbed mindfulness into daily practice. The Golden State Warriors strive to achieve each of their core values every day; that means incorporating practicing these values into their workouts.

Too many corporate initiatives strive to transform culture with the most superficial of approaches. The company brings in a dynamic speaker for an hour or two and passes out posters on how to accomplish the goals laid out in the speech.

A month passes. The demands of the day have taken over, and hardly anyone remembers the latest initiative, much less takes the time to apply what was talked about. The status quo abides.

Transforming culture takes time and effort. The payoff is immense, though. If leadership follows Steve Kerr’s example and has the courage and vision to avoid short-termism, organizations can build more enjoyable cultures that win.

How to Cut the Costs of Addiction

Addictions cost the US $700 billion per year, including $120 billion in lost productivity for businesses. There’s also the incalculable cost to families who struggle with the addictions of loved ones.

New evidence shows that applying mindfulness to addictions has yielded results far superior to conventional treatments.

By practicing mindfulness, people who wrestle with addictions learn to gain more perspective on their own emotions, thoughts, and behavior. They figure out how to separate themselves from their cravings so they are not controlled by these urges.

In so doing, they can observe their cravings without needing to satisfy them. While they can recognize the strength of these cravings, they recognize that the cravings will soon pass, and they’re able to ride out the sensation.

One of the most unyielding addictions is created by taking nicotine. Smokers can attest to how difficult quitting is. Even though the costs of smoking are well known (over $6 for each pack and more than five times that in health-care costs per pack), nicotine addiction clings to smokers like hot tar on asphalt.

That’s why the success rate of mindfulness as treatment is all the more astounding. One study showed that over four months after treatment had ended, 31% those who had practiced mindfulness had abstained from nicotine while only 6% of those who had done a more conventional treatment approach had been able to resist. That means mindfulness was five times more effective than conventional treatment, a truly remarkable outcome.

Another study focused on young adults who both smoke and engage in binge drinking. Those who practiced mindfulness showed significant reductions in smoking and alcohol consumption compared to the control group. Increased awareness of one’s own actions and emotions, a main benefit of mindfulness, has been linked to reduced alcohol consumption.

Even with illicit drugs such as marijuana and crack cocaine, mindfulness has bested traditional methods of treatment among participants. People who were incarcerated and taught mindfulness had superior reductions in drug use compared with those who took more conventional treatments. After being released, the mindfulness practitioners also showed decreases in psychiatric symptoms.

Given the staggering costs of addiction and growing evidence of mindfulness’ efficacy, we would be wise to expand mindfulness as treatment. Businesses and other organizations can cut costs and improve society and families by offering mindfulness as a solution to those struggling with addiction. The return on such an investment would benefit all of us.  

10 Easy Ways to Include Mindfulness in your Day

If you’re curious about mindfulness but feel like you already have too much to do, relax. You can experience it without adding anything to your day.

There are some things you can do differently to gain some of mindfulness’ benefits. Try one of the suggestions below each week. Experiment and see which ones work best for you.

  1. Take a single breath in and out before you speak. This is especially useful in heated situations. (Doing so may seem like it takes a long time to you, but others usually won’t even notice, and it will calm and focus you.)
  2. Minimize multitasking. Do just one task at a time whenever possible.
  3. If and when you drive, turn off the radio, and don’t take any calls. Just pay attention to the sights and sounds of driving.
  4. Slow down. When you realize you’re rushing, take a moment to reflect whether what you’re doing is what you need to be doing. If not, stop doing it. If it is, do it with a full awareness of what you’re doing rather than letting your mind wander to the next task.
  5. Use routine activities – drinking coffee, hearing a phone ring, going to the bathroom – to check in with yourself. What do you sense in your body? What are your thoughts? What emotions do you notice, if any?
  6. Before you eat, take a moment to be grateful for all the people involved in producing and transporting the ingredients that went into your food.
  7. When you eat, focus on the taste of each bite. Try not to reach for your phone or computer, or to think about what you need to do before your next meeting.
  8. When you read something, make sure your inner voice is silent. Sometimes, our eyes look at the words, but our minds chatter about something completely unrelated. Imagine the inner voice is reading the words in your head to help you focus.
  9. Listen deeply. When someone is speaking to you, make sure your inner voice is not preparing what you’re going to say next and your mind is not trying to predict what the person is going to say. Instead, focus on receiving each word and waiting till the person is done speaking before considering what they’ve said.
  10. If and when you walk somewhere, concentrate on the physical sensation of walking. When your mind starts to slip away, bring it back to the sensation of each step – the interplay of hundreds of muscles and the moment-to-moment balance required to stay upright.

Print this off and highlight each suggestion as you try it for a week. Once you’ve finished trying all ten, pick your favorite 3 and keep doing them. That way, you can benefit without adding anything to your schedule.

Quit Social Media

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If the mere idea of quitting social media gives you what teens refer to as FOMO, or fear or missing out, listen up. Cal Newport makes an excellent case that you’ll be coming out ahead in his book Deep Work.

The Main Time Drain

Before we tackle social media, let’s start with that enormous time drain: email. Look back on your last full week of work, and including checking email at night, tally up how much time you’ve spent on email. How much of that time, if any, was truly productive? How often did you make something worthwhile and lasting versus take care of logistics?

Newport acknowledges that we can’t escape email, but we can set up constraints to protect ourselves. One counterintuitive suggestion he has is to do more work when you email someone. Newport asserts we can save ourselves time in the long run by putting more work in upfront.

For instance, rather than email back and forth about when to meet and what to talk about, send the person a short, specific agenda, along with several potential times and dates that you could meet. Or rather than forward an email to your colleagues with just “What do you think?” added at the top, craft specific questions and insights about the original message for colleagues to respond to. Doing this work upfront can save you several email exchanges that would fragment your time.

The more controversial advice he gives is to not respond at all if the email meets certain criteria. If 1) the email is vague, 2) it has nothing that interests you, and 3) nothing very good would happen if you respond and nothing very bad would happen if you don’t, then simply do not reply. The last criterion requires some judgment. However, the more you practice, the more you’ll get a feel for when not to reply.

Social Media: A Cost-Benefit Analysis

Newport proposes a radical experiment. He urges us to quit social media for 30 days and assess the impact. At the end of the experiment, we can analyze what we lost and what we gained. Based on those who’ve tried it, he suggests we will find our lives are more peaceful and productive without social media, and we will have missed out on very little of actual importance.

Such a strategy might not be possible for everyone. However, at the very least, we need to consider the  cost and benefit of each and every piece of social media we use. He argues that the cost of social media is much higher than we realize: not only is there opportunity cost through time lost, but also our attention becomes increasingly fragmented. We lose the ability to concentrate deeply for long periods of time, which is essential to producing valuable work.

Thus, each tool we select, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn, needs to fulfill a specific, worthwhile purpose. We should use this tool only for this purpose and not for entertainment.

One suggestion I’ll add to Newport’s is to practice mindfulness daily. Practicing mindfulness strengthens our attention, counteracting some of the ill effects of social media. (Be careful about mindfulness apps, however, as they can exacerbate some of the very problems they’re attempting to solve.) Mindfulness will also sharpen your awareness of what the true costs and benefits of social media are.

Although you don’t need to go cold turkey, try easing back on social media and email, and discover what a difference it makes.

How to Produce Like Bill Gates: Take a Dive into Deep Work

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to produce like Bill Gates, Cal Newport gives some solid ways for you to try in his book Deep Work.

Newport dives into how to achieve the most significant work you’re capable of, which he refers to as “deep work.” This kind of work requires the utmost concentration and pushes you to your limit. However, it improves your skill, adds much value, and is hard to imitate.

Deep work benefits those who do it by shaping our outlook. Neurological research indicates that our attitudes are shaped by what we pay attention to. Although humans have a negativity bias, we can override that bias by focusing intently on something worthwhile. Deep work induces such a state of focus. So deep work actually makes us happier and produces value for our organizations.

Why Deep Work is Rare

You might expect deep work to be common, given its benefits to organizations and individuals, but Newport notes that it’s actually rare. One reason is what he refers to as the “metric black hole.” We don’t know how much it costs our organizations for individuals to spend time on shallow work (e.g. drafting email responses and attending meetings) so this issue doesn’t get much attention. Since it’s difficult to measure productivity, especially in an office setting, we use busyness as a proxy. Unfortunately, very few of these activities constitute deep work that provides value for the company.

Another reason deep work is rare is our cult of the Internet. Our culture associates the Internet with progress and glorifies the newest online tool, regardless of its merit. As a result, we waste much time learning systems that will be obsolete or discarded soon. This learning further fragments our attention, disrupting our ability to do deep work.

Some Solutions

Newport offers a bevy of advice to engage in deep work. One way is to block out time every day for deep work. That requires figuring out a place where you are less likely to be interrupted. It also means blocking out your calendar for that time, as well as figuring out what you need to be productive. For many of us, that’s coffee!

However, to make the most of this time, ban yourself from using the major source of distraction: the Internet, which includes instant messaging and email. If you realize you need something from the Internet to complete your deep work, make a note of it and keep going as best you can without it.

You may be distracted by thoughts of other tasks you need to complete. They seem to spring to mind precisely when we’re trying to accomplish something else. A research paper by E.J. Masicampo called “Consider it Done!” offers help: just jot down the task and a short idea on how to accomplish it. That enables us to move on from ruminating over that task and focus on the work at hand.

One other piece of advice Newport gives is to be lazy in our free time. Having downtime by not checking work email at night and engaging in enjoyable activities restores us for the next day so we can continue working hard.

Activities that are truly restorative are ones that align most closely with our values. For instance, succumbing to clickbait such as cat videos and political-opinion pieces will not restore us. Instead, spending time with family and friends, reading a good book, gardening, and exercising are examples of ways to restore ourselves.

One key way to recuperate is practicing mindfulness, which has been shown to increase happiness and focus while reducing stress. If you’re fortunate enough to work at a company like BlackRock or AETNA that offers mindfulness sessions, you can even practice on the job. Otherwise, try practicing at home and see how it restores you.

How to Innovate

In companies flush with cash, investors demand that excess funds are either invested in new growth initiatives or disbursed through handsome dividends. CEOs are feeling the pressure and are desperate to find investment opportunities.

However, inventing a slightly better blender or a fancier paper clip isn’t going to generate the returns needed to satisfy shareholders. True innovation, the kind that disrupts and revolutionizes, is what’s needed.

Practicing mindfulness might not come to mind when one thinks of innovation. After all, a common misperception is that it’s nothing more than sitting down, closing your eyes, and trying to stop thinking -- hardly the behavior anyone, much less the CEO, wants to encourage in employees.

However, mindfulness isn’t about shutting off thoughts. Instead, it’s about breaking old, unproductive patterns of thinking. Practicing mindfulness clears out those patterns and creates space for fresh ideas to take their place.

Steve Jobs, a mindfulness practitioner himself, challenged his employees to think innovatively. He pushed them to revolutionize familiar products. One notable challenge he gave his engineers: devise a phone that needed only one button. Boggled by the challenge, his staff struggled. After all, a phone seemed to require at least ten times as many buttons, 1 for each number.

Such a difficult task could only be achieved by using divergent thinking, the process by which we devise as many novel solutions as possible. Throwing open the doors to imagination, mindfulness bolsters practitioners’ capacity for divergent thinking. The practice of open monitoring (instructions below) has been shown to significantly increase one’s capacity for idea generation.

Once a batch of potential solutions has been created, one must evaluate these ideas to find the most valuable one and develop it, engaging in the process known as convergent thinking.

Mindfulness can help with convergent thinking as well. In one study, all participants were given a test requiring insightful solutions. One group practiced mindfulness while the other had a language lesson. All of the students were given a second chance to fix the problems they had done wrong. Ultimately, the mindfulness group scored significantly higher than the control group, demonstrating improved convergent thinking.

With cash piling up, companies need to innovate. By bolstering both sides of the creative process with divergent and convergent thinking, mindfulness practice offers a path forward for companies uncertain as to how to grow.

If you’re looking for fresh thinking, try practicing mindfulness daily for two weeks. Discover what new ideas bubble up!

Open Monitoring Practice

  1. Find a quiet place to sit for ten minutes each day. Close your eyes. Sit with your spine straight, away from the back of the chair if possible, and your head upright but your shoulders relaxed.  

  2. For the next ten minutes, pay attention to the physical sensations that come and go in your body, as well as the thoughts and emotions that come and go in your mind, and any sounds that you might hear.

  3. There’s no need to try to make anything happen, to stop anything from happening, or to judge yourself for whatever you are or are not doing. Just observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they come up and then move on.  

  4. When you end your practice, tell yourself to bring this nonjudgmental awareness of yourself and your environment into the rest of your day.

Bias Cuts into the Bottom Line

When some execs hear about diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives, their first thought is of incremental costs. However, not having D&I is far more expensive. Indeed, a lack of D&I not only increases costs but also decreases the potential for revenue growth.

Increased Costs

Bias in the workplace, a major barrier to developing D&I, raises costs. Turnover costs at least 20% of a position’s annual salary, and biased behavior in the workplace causes some employees to exit faster than they otherwise would. One in four doctors from non-dominant groups reported leaving positions due to biased behavior, with some even saying they considered leaving medicine altogether.

Businesses that achieve genuine inclusion can recruit from a much wider candidate pool to acquire the best employees. With the shifting demographics in the US, a true commitment to D&I functions as a significant competitive advantage for companies that can attain it.

Reduced Revenue Potential

Revenue growth potential suffers without diversity. As reported in the Financial Times, extensive research shows that diverse companies were 45% more likely than their peers to have grown their market share. What’s more, diverse companies were 70% more likely to have captured new markets.

That should come as little surprise. With ever-increasing global diversity, companies that embrace diversity can better target potential consumers. In fact, when teams have members who belong to the same identities as target consumers, the whole team is 158% more likely to know the habits and attitude of these consumers. The team can then adjust marketing and even the products themselves to best suit these consumers.

The key lesson is that companies that embrace D&I experience better financial results. In its report “Why Diversity Matters”, McKinsey notes that companies in the upper quartile in terms of gender and racial diversity achieve higher profits than those that have less diversity.

What Not to Do

Some companies embark on a slapdash, ad-hoc approach to D&I. They might put up table tents in the cafeteria, bring in a speaker for an all-company presentation once or twice, and put a policy about D&I on their website. Then they’re surprised when D&I fail to materialize.

These cursory efforts fail more often than not. They can actually backfire and reduce productivity and teamwork in a company.

Harvard has documented how other traditional means of addressing this issue (e.g. mandatory diversity training and grievance systems) can backfire as well. These approaches fail because they don’t address the root problems of ignorance and unconscious bias.

How to Achieve Greater D&I

We can’t assume that leaders naturally know how to go about creating a culture that embraces diversity. Leaders need to be properly trained in how to structure organizations, teams, and processes so they’re capable of fostering diversity.

Additionally, everyone in the company needs to reduce their unconscious biases through mindfulness training, so they can be inclusive toward those who differ from them. My TED talk that I gave recently at the University of Wisconsin explains how and why mindfulness has such a huge impact on bias. Mindfulness training also offers a host of other benefits, which makes gaining internal buy-in for this part of the new approach easier.

This approach does require sustained commitment. Each company should go into such an undertaking with eyes wide open. If they follow through, they’ll be the richer for it.

Self-compassion Makes You Stronger

Self-compassion may call to mind weakness or fragility, the inability to cope with life’s harsh truths and situations. It may evoke images of people who hug themselves, speak breathlessly of raising self-esteem, and become overwhelmed at the challenge of parallel parking.  

I’ve covered elsewhere how beneficial it is for you to take care of others, but what about taking care of yourself?

Self-compassion vs. Self-esteem

Many people think self-compassion is synonymous with self-esteem. Self-esteem refers to your opinion of your own worth. The problem is that people compare themselves with others to determine their worth. As Teddy Roosevelt said a century ago, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Research has confirmed Roosevelt’s sentiment by finding that self-compassion trumps self-esteem for producing emotional intelligence. This emotional intelligence includes greater stability and regulation of one’s own emotions. A pair of studies showed that students who had self-compassion also had healthy coping strategies for dealing with failure.

Other studies have shown that self-compassion allows people to handle negative situations and emotions with fewer of the problems of self-esteem, such as narcissism or defensiveness. Self-compassion has been linked to personal initiative, curiosity, conscientiousness, and happiness.

Benefits of Self-compassion

Self-compassion is simply taking care of yourself. Through awareness of your physical, mental, and emotional condition, you identify your needs and address them. You don’t beat yourself up over failure. Instead, you recognize that failure is a universal experience.

In case you’re worried that you’ll shy away from challenge if you embrace self-compassion, relax. The pair of studies referenced above indicate that those who have self-compassion are less likely to avoid challenges. Why? The studies don’t say, but I suspect it’s because they understand that failure is a part of life and a key to learning.

If you’ve been raised to believe that you need to put others ahead of yourself, keep in mind that you can’t give what you don’t have. In other words, in the long run, you can’t take care of others very well (or at all) if you’re not taking care of yourself. So let go of the guilt and start doing what you must to take care of your own needs.

How to Practice Self-compassion

Easier said than done, right? A key way to grow your capacity for compassion is to practice mindfulness. Doing so develops your awareness of your needs as well as others’ needs. Dr. Richard Davidson at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin has shown how compassion can be cultivated through mindfulness, actually changing the physical structures of our brains for the better.

Try the exercise below to rewire your brain for self-compassion once or more per day for a few weeks. You’ll make yourself better able to handle failure, regulate your emotions, and enjoy life.

  1. Sit comfortably. Close your eyes to stay focused. Take several deep, slow breaths to settle yourself.

  2. Silently say the following phrases to yourself: May I be safe and free from suffering. May I be happy and healthy. May I have peace and well being.

  3. Repeat the phrases, pausing after each one and noticing what you sense in yourself.

  4. Call to mind someone, past or present, who has cared about you unconditionally. It could even be a pet. Recall their compassion for you. With their compassion for you fresh in your mind, repeat the phrases again.

  5. Take a few more deep, slow breaths.

  6. Vow to notice your needs throughout the day and to take action to meet them.