Zazen Meditation And The Art of Leading Your Team In The Now

Photo Source: Personal. Seoul, South Korea 2016

Zazen, which literally translated means seated meditation, has been part of my life for a few years now and has been one of the main factors that pulled me out of deep sadness, financial problems, job burnout and even questioning every aspect of my self-worth. Years ago, I was completely isolated from my own psychology and careless about nurturing the spiritual side in me.

Inspired by some of the books and documentaries I read and watched about Zen philosophy, I started to set aside 20 minutes a day to sit straight and try to be fully mindful of the simplicity of the space I am sitting in. Observing my breathing patterns and listening to my own thoughts come and go – a practice that allowed me to continuously train myself on casting away my daily “earthly” desires and attachments and focus instead on the “now,” on what would the “now” requires and then make that requirement my simple next step. The result was astonishing. I entered into a new phase of focused creativity and high productivity that I never knew before while at the same time, being happy and excited to experience each day as-is.

When I reflect on my own leadership style, I see how zazen changed the way I manage my team, adapt to changes, and provide vision rooted in the now. Before I used to focus my team on all the traditional aspects of defining and executing projects (outlines, deadlines, costs, risks…etc.). Today, after zazen, I tend to bring the focus of my team on the one step required by each individual that is needed to be executed now. Reminding them to let go of future and past attachments and to trust the power of being mindful of what needs to be done today. Of course with that you risk losing track of business goals, something no leader should tolerate. So how can we apply Zen Mentality in business context without the risky part of being completely “plan-less”? I have given it some thought and drafted some of the ideas on how I apply zen mentality into my leadership style:

Accept your monkey mind, as well as the monkey minds of your colleagues:
One of the first terms you hear when you start learning about Zazen meditation is the “monkey mind”. It describes how our brain tends to jump between thoughts rapidly and how “jumping between thoughts” might become manic if we try to control it using more thoughts.  If you are sitting to meditate with an aim to think about nothing, your brain immediately starts playing games of resistance bringing up thoughts from the past, future or imagination. No matter what you try, you will always encounter this monkey mind in you. Instead of drifting into nervousness and anxiety, you simply need to let the monkey be. Don’t interact with it. But let it be… That’s Zazen.
As a team, it is important to accept that each individual at a certain time will score differently on a scale of productivity, engagement, creativity or performance. And at any phase, the leader should try to bring back the focus of the team on letting it be without any judgment and to heal any anxiety that the individual experiences by simply watching it come and go.

Split roles based on your actual Now:
It is easy for us to get lost in details when it comes to assigning roles and titles. Details of what our friends and advisors say, what books or workshops recommend, what our personal desires dictate, etc... This is exactly what your current Now in your business does not need.
Instead try to let go of all these extra details, start looking at your team’s skills and today’s setup, and assign roles according to what goals you have in hand today. Don’t plan for things that might happen, but instead keep the process of changing-roles flexible and dynamic following what every new Now brings. And try to transfer this mentality of setting roles to every unit, department and team within your company.

Build a culture that melts down egos and nurtures empathy:
Egos at work are a major threat to achieving positive results. To remove egotism at work is to let go of comparison and judgment. You can start by inviting every individual to remove the words “better”, “worse” from their vocabularies when discussing people. And to respect that each individual has an ego that is no one’s business.

But you might ask, can you evaluate performance without judgment and comparison? My personal answer is Yes. Instead of traditional performance review processes where you rank your team performance in a chart, create a custom performance review processes where you cultivate the ability to solve problems and move forward without threatening or encouraging the egos of your team members.

On an individual level, for me the private one-to-one is still the best solution to addressing performance issues. Make it a quarterly meeting where both employee and employer privately contribute. On a group level, pulse-survey tools are great minimal solutions to addressing group performance issues.

Not to forget the power of love vocabulary in the workplace. Harmony, relationship, family, trust, honesty, friendliness, good time -- these words should be encouraged on a daily basis.

Set markers to to celebrate the Now:
Being engulfed in the now over longer periods of time can bring with it physical and spiritual exhaustion so it is important for you as a team leader to set specific periods where all hands are down, and a party or a team event takes place to celebrate positively and unconditionally the progress your team has been making on a daily basis. Those celebrations should take place regardless of performance or outcomes and create a continuous affirmation of commitment to being in the Now together as a team.

If you feel you’re losing control, don’t automatically try to change everything
This might sound passive and pessimistic, but here is why you shouldn’t change things when you feel not in control. A lot of us make the mistake of trying something completely new when things are not working as expected neglecting the fact that, in many cases, feeling not in control might be completely caused by past experiences or future expectations. When feeling not in control and things are not moving the way you want, simply stay still, let your team continue the way they used to, while you listen carefully to what the Now dictates. Once you know for sure what needs to change, you will feel it and you will be inspired to take the simple steps toward the right action with no hesitation. That’s only possible after staying still and fully listening.

Introduce only the tools that keep your team in the Now
In today’s workplace, digitalisation is rapidly changing every aspect of our work. It is easy to choose a highly intuitive tool with the flashiest user experience and design, neglecting its impact on being mindful of the Now. Too many notifications, slack bots, Facebook for work or Yammer plus many other distractions might make it difficult for you to align everyone on focusing on doing what the Now requires.

I am not a big fan of letting each team choose their tools. Instead either assign someone accountable or better you choose what are the aspects where your company can save time, review all tools that are available to solve these aspects, then invite everyone to use each tool accordingly.

At our company we use a handful of tools to solve specific problems, mainly communication or productivity problems. On a company level we only use Slack for almost all kinds of internal communications and teambay for analysing our strengths and weaknesses as an employer.

Clean up messes silently and be the doorman for your team
Finally, when issues appear, don’t raise them in public. Instead try to define a solution and act accordingly. Always bring the focus of your team to the positive changes needed looking forward not to the issues and their negative effects.

Additionally, as a team leader, it is important to keep the mentality of a doorman in your action. Yes, a doorman. The person who welcomes people, helps them take off their outdoor-clothes and makes them feel comfortable, prepares a welcome cup of tea, gets them to where they are heading and greets them with a smile when they leave. This is what binds you as a team leader with your team.

Thanks for reading. Have a mindful day!

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