-reading time: 6 minutes- / -audience: leaders, teams and team members-
Observation is Priceless
Last week, I attended the 5th module of my Master in Coaching & Consulting for Change and during the case study presentations, one team put the phrase Observation is Priceless on a slide. It felt very accurate for the increasing need for and focus on being aware, showing empathy, being mindful and building high quality relationships for trust and psychological safety. But observation is also the gateway to self-leadership.
Observation is priceless and it does not come at a cost either – apart from paying attention. However, many business schools make you or your company pay a truck load of money to help you become a (better) leader in their 1 or 2 weeks leadership programs. I had my share as well and I am thankful for the chances I had to partake in a number of programs.
But did these programs make me become a better leader?
To be frank, it did not have an enormous impact. In some cases, I think I was even too young to participate in some quite expensive leadership programs among many experienced and seasoned colleagues. In other cases, we went through leadership exercises with the speed of light without actually having the chance to internalise the materials or to understand what the foundation for the methods were.
Many moons later, a bit more experienced and seasoned, I would argue that an important foundation for leadership is actually self-leadership, and that intentional and (non-)judgmental observation of the self and others in the present moment, supports self-leadership. I have always felt a passion for observing people, what (de-)motivates them, what drives them, but also how people do things and how others react to them, including my own behaviour as self-reflection. I have learnt a lot about leadership just by observing.
So how does observation support self-leadership?
Self-leadership in a nutshell
After I quit my corporate life and started my own business, self-leadership has become increasingly important to me. No CEO speeches on strategy, no monthly pay check, no blue chip brand backing me up, no expert network at my fingertips, no consultants or lawyers a call away, no boss setting my bonus targets, no 360 feedback sessions anymore, and no annual appraisal meetings.
I had to rely on myself and embrace self-leadership even more.
- Behavior-focused strategies, such as self-goal setting, self-observation, self-reward, self-punishment, and self-cueing
- Natural reward strategies, such as fostering intrinsic motivation
- Constructive thought pattern strategies, visualizing successful performance, self-talk, and evaluating beliefs and assumptions
I am an entrepreneur now and I depend on self-leadership, since I do not have an organisation telling me what to do. However, if I would go back into corporate life, self-leadership would provide me with greater control over my performance and effectiveness.
A machine doesn’t feel that you are pissed off
Observing, sensing, feeling, being aware – it all comes down to being in the present moment. Staring at people does not count, and in fact observing how your peers interact with their teams, how leaders interact with their reports, how your team interacts with you, etc – it all starts with to which extent you observe what is going on inside and around you.
To put it in simple terms: a machine cannot feel that people are pissed off or happy, but humans can – and to which extent depends on the degree of observation.
Observation is the 1st facet – and for self-leadership the most important – of the 4 facets of mindfulness:
- Observe refers to the attentive witnessing of all internal and external stimuli (e.g., cognitions, emotions, environmental cues)
- Describe represents the conscious conceptual defining of perceived phenomena
- Act with awareness refers to paying focused attention to one’s efforts
- Accept without judgment describes holding a non-judgmental attitude toward current experiences
The Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills (KIMS) structures observation along the following questions:
- I notice changes in my body, such as whether my breathing slows down or speeds up
- I pay attention to whether my muscles are tense or relaxed
- When I’m walking, I deliberately notice the sensations of my body moving
- When I take a shower or a bath, I stay alert to the sensations of water on my body
- I notice how foods and drinks affect my thoughts, bodily sensations, and emotions
- I pay attention to sensations, such as the wind in my hair or sun on my face
- I pay attention to sounds, such as clocks ticking, birds chirping, or cars passing
- I notice the smells and aromas of things
- I intentionally stay aware of my feelings
- I notice visual elements in art or nature, such as colors, shapes, textures, or patterns of light and shadow
- I pay attention to how my emotions affect my thoughts and behavior
- I notice when my moods begin to change
In case you are not familiar with mindfulness, it may come across as a bit touchy-feely. But imagine how limited you are in observing behaviour of others when you cannot even observe birds chirping.
Intentional & (non-)judgmental observation for self-leadership
To benefit most from observing yourself and others, it is essential that observation is intentional and that you are aware of your potential judgment. Intentional observation is purposeful and together with (non-)judgmental observation, it entails:
- Self-regulation of attention: perception of current mental states, and
- Orientation toward experiences in the present moment: curiosity, openness, and acceptance
Among the Big Five personality traits of extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism, the personality dimension of openness to experience has been found to have the strongest positive association with both self-leadership and mindfulness. People with high openness to experience are imaginative, intelligent, original, curious, and open to new activities.
Self-regulation of attention (perception of current mental states) is an important key feature of self-leadership. People use self-influencing processes (e.g., self-goal setting, self-observation, self-talk, evaluating beliefs and assumptions) to influence their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in a desirable and positive direction.
For this purpose, a certain degree of self-control is necessary, and the observing component of mindfulness supports this process by ensuring continuous control over self-awareness (what is going on inside of you) as well as awareness of others (what is going on inside of others), the context and environment.
Mindful self-leaders are acutely aware of themselves as well as their environment, and undertake ongoing observations to effectively achieve personal and organizational goals. As a result, stress-related conditions can be reduced, whereas mental health, personal effectiveness, and performance can be increased.
Connect with yourself to connect to other people
How do you treat people? How are you treated and how does it motivate or demotivate you? Do you feel people are authentic and behaving appropriately? What does it tell you about you? What can you learn? Do you share the same values? Do you feel trusted and respected? Does the team culture and vibe lead to performance?
Observation helps you to understand why people trust each other and why people don’t. It helps you understanding how high quality relationships are built and maintained, and how conflicts arise. Observing yourself and others helps you in understanding team dynamics such as joy, excitement, but also tension and frustration. Observation teaches you about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, as well as the potential of people.
Observation starts with yourself. Just like leadership: it is inside of you. And you can learn it: for free!