Managing Your Seductive Mind: Why Meditation Matters

Managing Your Seductive Mind: Why Meditation Matters

Last year one of my clients asked me to teach mindfulness meditation to a group of managers. After the first session, one of them, we’ll call him Andy, commented that the meditation time went really fast. I asked him what he was experiencing during the meditation, and he said his mind was racing and full of thoughts. I call that the seductive mind because those thoughts are so compelling that they are hard to resist. Have you ever been in a meeting when someone was talking, and suddenly you realized you’d become completely distracted by your thoughts and entirely missed what was being said? The seductive mind sneaks up and takes your attention without you even noticing. It hijacks your thought processes and can take you down fruitless paths of distraction, wasting time for you and those you should be listening to.

Andy’s experience in mindfulness meditation, where I asked him to pay attention just to his breath, revealed how little control he has over his seductive mind. That awareness helped him better understand a leadership challenge he faced.

Andy is an engineer. One of his key leadership challenges is that he doesn’t always listen well to his employees, especially when they’re not presenting their ideas in technical jargon that he can parse into engineering concepts. He frequently misses the emotional signals that indicate how important what someone is saying is to them. He therefore misses opportunities where empathy would serve him better than thoughts. Rather than understanding what his employees are saying to him and why it is important to them, Andy’s thought processes race ahead, figuring out how he will counter their ideas and keep them on the technical track that he values so deeply. That’s another version of the seductive mind. We love our own beliefs and perspectives so much that we pay more attention to them than to what others think, thus missing opportunities to learn and create collaborative relationships.

This creates two kinds of problems for Andy: missed opportunities to capitalize on the creativity and intelligence of his co-workers and employees; and a diminishing of engagement, self-worth and enthusiasm in those he leads. When you are lost in thought it is difficult to be empathetic, because your attention is on your thoughts rather than the person with whom you are interacting. Andy works in a highly dynamic environment, where change is a constant and creativity is essential. Missed opportunities and diminished morale are costly to him and to the company he works for.

As Andy became more aware of his seductive mind he realized that most of the time he was lost in thought, it wasn’t a choice. It was just a default state of mind. The same was true when he rushed to conclusions and focused on defending his own point of view instead of understanding others. Eventually, Andy’s seductive mind led to a significant breakdown. Sharon, one of his project managers, suggested adding someone from another part of the company to her project. She felt the person had insights that would enhance how she and her team thought about the project, helping them break through some bottlenecks they were experiencing. Andy rejected the idea immediately because the proposed team member wasn’t an engineer. And Andy failed to notice the extreme disappointment that Sharon experienced when he wouldn’t listen to her. She left the company a short time later to work for a competitor.

I have no idea whether Sharon’s idea was a good one or not, but I do know that everyone needs to feel respected and heard. And for work to be meaningful, people need to feel that they can offer ideas and contribute more than their time and labor. In her exit interview, Sharon said she didn’t feel valued and that she wanted to work in an environment where creativity was welcomed and people’s ideas were respected.

Andy isn’t a bad guy. He means well, and he genuinely cares about his people. But he is constantly seduced by his mind. He has lived much of his life in analytical thought, and is uncomfortable with uncertainty. I spoke with him after the meditation training and suggested that, while it could be challenging for him, mindfulness practice might help him engage more effectively with his employees and create a better work environment.

I don’t usually offer mindfulness training when I’m first starting an engagement, either with a one-on-one coaching client or a team or large group. People need to develop some sense of its value before they will invest the time to practice. In Andy’s case, he had been in several training sessions before the one in which we introduced mindfulness practices so he was familiar with the importance of awareness, empathy and centering.

These two forms of the seductive mind—wandering thoughts and rushing to conclusions—may seem different, but in both cases they arise when you let your unconscious mind take over your thought processes. Both are deleterious to leadership and effectiveness at work, and meditation can be an effective antidote.

The seductive mind is not something that ever goes away, but it is something that can be significantly tamed. It takes time and ongoing practice, which is hard work, but the payoff is less stress, better relationships, and more effectiveness at work.

Andy still struggles with meditation, but he’s also finding it useful. When I last spoke with him, a few months ago, he’d been at it for almost half a year. And he commented that he was more relaxed, he felt more engaged with his employees, and he even noticed that some of his conversations at home are better. His team is noticing the difference as well. They report that he listens more to them, that he is more open to new ideas, and is more fun to be around.

Meditation is not easy. Many people find it difficult to sit still for any period of time. That is evidence of how seductive their unconscious mind can be. But it has been demonstrated over and over, and reported in numerous business journals, that mindfulness training has a profoundly positive effect on leadership, team performance, and individual effectiveness.[1] [2] [3]

[1] Keltner, Dacher. “Avoiding the Behaviors That Turn Nice Employees into Mean Bosses.” Harvard Business Review 94, no. 10 (October 1, 2016): 112–15.

[2] Bradberry, Travis. “How Mindfulness Will Turbocharge Your Career | Dr. Travis Bradberry | LinkedIn.” Accessed December 31, 2015.

[3] Goleman, Daniel. “The Focused Leader.” Harvard Business Review, no. December (December 2013): 1–11.