Mindful Humans

This crucial talent so often overlooked

Initially published in Revue Gestion.

In a constantly evolving world, managers are always on the lookout for new talents and skills to meet the challenges they face. However, the “crucial talent,” often overlooked, is the development of the thinking capacity of their team members.

Indeed, effective thinking is essential for processing the growing volume of data, complex problems, and tough decisions that need to be made daily. While we usually prioritize rational thinking with its analysis and logic, we often overlook the influence our emotions, experiences, beliefs, and values can have on it. Yet, these elements have just as much potential to lead us astray as they do to inspire a better solution than one derived solely from logic.

Managers would do well to encourage their employees to develop the quality of their thinking through objective observation, balance, and integration of these various influences on their thoughts.

To do this, we first need to understand how our mind works.

How humans think

Thinking depends on two distinct but complementary modes of thought: rational thinking and intuitive thinking.

Rational thinking proceeds step by step: it gathers relevant information, analyzes it, and leads to a decision. It is deliberate because it requires a conscious and sustained effort on our part. Rational thinking is primarily expressed through words.

Intuitive thinking, on the other hand, stems from the brain’s ability to automatically establish associations between the current context and past experiences. A conclusion then emerges spontaneously, without going through intermediate steps. The language of intuition is emotion, although it is often possible afterwards to find words to explain it.

Intuitive thinking occurs, for example, when we have a first impression of a stranger (“I like them!”) or when, as an expert, the solution to a complex problem is immediately apparent (excitement). Our mind then makes links between the present and past situations.

A person who relies only on reason is likely to limit the solutions they consider. By focusing only on tangible data and logical analysis, they risk ignoring relevant but forgotten knowledge, associations of ideas that inspire innovation, or the emotional impact of a decision. Thus, the solution they choose might be technically viable, without being optimal.

Similarly, a person who relies solely on their intuition might repeat past solutions that are not ideal in the present case. This intuition-driven approach can lead to judgment errors and decisions that are unsuitable for the current reality.

Therefore, a balance between the two modes of thought allows for more nuanced and effective decisions, taking into account logical aspects, past experiences, emotional and interpersonal elements, as well as unlikely idea associations that lead to innovation.

Finding the right balance between our two modes of thought

To balance these two modes of thought, it is essential to develop:

  • Our attention capacity, which allows us to focus on relevant information and avoid distractions (derailing of our thoughts, stress, electronic messages, etc.);
  • Our objective observation, which helps us analyze our thoughts impartially and consider different perspectives by questioning our intuitive (or emotional) reactions;
  • Our power of veto, which is the ability to decide objectively to do otherwise.

Age-old mindfulness practices play a key role in developing these skills by training our brain to become more efficient.

The fundamental principle is always the same, regardless of the mindfulness practice we prefer:

  1. Train our brain to stay focused and concentrated on an object we have consciously chosen.
  2. Observe objectively what is happening within us and around us during this training.
  3. Practice our power of veto by refocusing our attention on the chosen object when our thoughts drift away.

The implication of this practice in everyday life is as follows: just as strength training makes our muscles stronger and more efficient when we engage in our daily activities, regularly practicing mindfulness makes our brain more attentive when we need to solve a problem or make a decision.

Indeed, if we take the example of mindfulness meditation, it is common to train our brain to stay attentive to our breathing (step 1). We may eventually notice that our brain is occupied with thinking about something else (step 2). We then decide to concentrate again on our breathing (step 3). The more often we practice, the more we master our attention capacity.

Thus trained, we will have an easier time staying attentive to a discussion during an important meeting (step 1). We will notice much more quickly when our thoughts are suddenly elsewhere (step 2) and we will be able to return to the discussion to not miss anything (step 3).

Or, we may notice that an emotion – say, stress – overwhelms us and diverts our attention to negative thoughts (step 2). We will then decide to ignore those thoughts and refocus on the discussion (step 3).

In this way, we will be more impactful in our interventions because we will have been attentive to what is happening within us and around us, and we will have consciously decided on our course of action and reaction rather than being blind to these cues and getting carried away by our emotions and the impulse of the moment.

By cultivating mindfulness, we learn to observe and understand our mental processes, allowing us to balance reason and intuition and improve our thinking capacity. In our times, the importance of physical exercise is emphasized. However, the most important organ in our body is our brain. Shouldn’t we train it daily?

Contributing to the development of our employees’ thinking capacity

Based on these principles, here are five concrete practices that managers can implement to develop the thinking capacity of their teams:

  1. Encourage age-old mindfulness practices. Offer training and resources to improve attention capacity, objective observation, and decision-making, promote these skills, and educate your teams about them.
  2. Establish team reflection sessions. Regularly organize meetings where team members are encouraged to share their ideas, concerns, and perspectives on complex problems and to remain open to a diversity of opinions.
  3. Encourage questioning and openness. Ask open-ended questions to encourage team members to explore different perspectives and to question their emotions, biases, and personal preferences to achieve a deeper and more nuanced understanding of situations.
  4. Create a favorable and safe climate. Foster an environment where new and creative ideas are encouraged and where mistakes are seen as learning opportunities. This will make team members more inclined to explore their intuitions and to take calculated risks.
  5. Learn from both successes and failures. Encourage your teams to analyze successes and failures, and to learn from them afterwards. This period of collective reflection will contribute to the development of new, high-quality knowledge. 

By implementing these strategies, managers can help their employees develop their thinking skills. This will contribute to creating a more agile, innovative, and efficient organization in a constantly evolving world.

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