The Power of Stillness

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By Khatera Sahibzada Ph.D.

As a leader, there is pressure to make right decisions often under time constraints and with competing interests. These demands may make the practice of stillness in leadership counterintuitive, especially considering the needs of a rapidly evolving 24-7 and fast-changing workplace. However, chaotic and unpredictable environments require precisely this– a stillness and ability to be fully present to arrive at the best decision.

Jon Kabat Zinn, one of the pioneers in introducing mindfulness to corporate environments, states that being “fully present is far from trivial. It is the hardest work in the world- at least to sustain presence. And the most important.” Being still allows us to engage the observing ego- the part of self that has no emotions, refrains from judgment, and does not take action. Operating from the observing ego allows us to reflect and respond consciously.

In fact, neuroimaging studies have found that when people consider problems from the position of an observer they use brain circuits involved in complex problem solving.

However, engaging in reflective investigation is not always easy and one of the largest threats to this is our active ego. When we operate from the active ego, we are under the command of our emotions and are quick to cast blame or make judgments, which profoundly inhibits our ability to make sound decisions. In fact, researchers have found that various centers of the cerebral cortex, the area responsible for problem solving and cognitive functions, become dim when emotional centers are aroused. As we all know, emotional arousal is an inherent part of leading and working with others.

A further consideration we must contend with is “cognitive overload,” which is the overwhelming demand on our working memory.

Cognitive overload can occur as a result of constant flow of information, disruptions and multi-tasking and has been linked to poor decision-making, low job satisfaction, tension with colleagues and poor health.

In fact, according to MIT researchers our brains are not wired to multi-tasking well and multi-tasking encourages the production of cortisol, the stress hormone which hijacks our thinking part of the brain and engages our primitive brain to take quick and immediate action in other words flight, fight or freeze.

These two factors, emotional arousal and cognitive overload, engage the active ego whereas being still allows us to engage the observing ego. There are numerous ways to practice stillness (i.e. meditation, mindfulness techniques, conscious breathing, etc.). All of these practices give us the gift of recharging our cognitive batteries.

Researchers have discovered that people who take the time to recharge have higher levels of well-being and better work performance.

It is important to investigate which practice resonates most with you and apply it, at first to minor challenging situations or even relatively benign situations. The key is to observe the process and demonstrate patience with yourself. There is no need to expect to get it “right and now.” You are exploring new possibilities and working your way to more challenging situations.

The message is simple- next time you find yourself under a tight deadline, dealing with a demanding client, or similar, take a few minutes and be still. Stillness will allow you to step back from the experience of the moment, observe it from a larger field and reflect and respond consciously.