Conscious Leadership: Skills to Add to the EAP Toolkit

By Sharon Wilson, MA, FACHE, CEAP; Carole A. Hoffer, MA, FACMPE: and Marissa L. Shuffler, Phd

Effective leadership is closely aligned with enhanced business results, improved employee engagement, and increased employee satisfaction. Many companies and other organizations already have a strategy in place for developing effective leaders. But with so many theories about leadership styles and materials on the subject, how should an organization decide what training is best? Perhaps more importantly, how can an organization determine if its training is effective?

Conscious Leadership is a new model of leadership development that draws on many principles tied to traditional teachings on effective leadership but with some twists. Conscious Leadership is similar to emotional and social intelligence, but it is more closely based on the precepts of the Conscious Leadership Group, which includes the book “The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership” by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Warner Kemp.

The commitments work in concert with one another. For instance, the first one is, “I commit to taking full responsibility for all circumstances of my life.” Conscious Leaders take ownership of what’s happening in their lives. “Unconscious” Leaders react. “Conscious” Leaders respond.

Content versus Context
One premise of Conscious Leadership is to differentiate content from context. For example, conversation is a key aspect of leadership, and conversation has two parts. Content is what we talk about, while context is how we talk about it.

Consider a supervisor who has a conflict with a vendor. The vendor has not delivered a product on deadline for the third time in a month. Most leaders would address the issue from a content standpoint by talking to the vendor about timeframes, contractual agreements, and potential repercussions.

Moreover, most companies tend to have recurring issues. In such cases, the content may be addressed, but the context is not.

Conscious Leadership involves practicing awareness and learning to focus attention on both content and context. The context is HOW the issue is being approached, while the content involves WHAT the individual(s) brings to the interaction in terms of feelings, thoughts, perceptions, etc. When we do not address underlying issues, we merely resolve things on the surface.

In the previous example, speaking with the vendor about timeliness is an obvious solution. Since a pattern has emerged, a Conscious Leader sees conflict as an opportunity to dig deeper. Conscious Leaders use self-awareness to tune into context. They look at themselves first rather than blame, accuse, or try to “fix” the other person. Conscious Leaders use conflict as a springboard to learn and grow by asking questions about themselves and others. They practice awareness by asking questions such as, “What is it about me that enables this to happen?” or “What can I learn from this?”

Using this model, the supervisor in the vendor scenario will ask, “What is it about me or my role that contributes to this vendor’s pattern?” Conscious Leaders develop a habit of practicing these self-check-ins numerous times throughout the day.

Checking in
A self-check-in is especially helpful when a leader is “triggered” by an event that ties to a personal story or basic thought about something. When we experience triggers, most of us will fall into a default behavior pattern or “reactive mode.” We are hard-wired to react immediately to common triggers with our default behavior pattern. We do so to protect ourselves, our egos, and our desire for control.

When we are reacting, we fear losing control, approval or security. Given a mild response or low-level threat, we may clench our throat and feel fearful or angry. If we experience a more intense trigger, we may have a large-scale reaction, which can show up in the workplace in unwanted behaviors, such as yelling, arguing, walking away, or slamming down the phone.

Conscious Leadership teaches us that we can develop self-awareness, which adds a pause before initiating our default response. Choosing our response allows leaders to develop very useful behaviors. This simple practice can produce a significant change in leadership efficacy and organizational culture.

A Shift in Thinking
Leaders have historically viewed problems and issues as obstacles with a core belief that a given situation is happening “to them” over which they possess little or no control. Conscious Leadership shifts this thinking to taking responsibility, becoming curious, and seeing situations and triggers from a “by me” perspective. Conscious Leaders become empowered and see work and other aspects of life as happening “by” or “through” them. 

Conscious Leaders are aware of their reactions. They pay attention to internal cues and remain mindful of bodily sensations and what they mean. Conscious Leaders can identify emotional states and express them in a straightforward, professional manner.

Conscious Leaders embrace conflicts as opportunity for curiosity and growth. They see people and circumstances as allies to learning, instead of as obstacles. This simple idea can have a huge impact on a workplace. When a team member offers candid feedback, there is “power” in choosing the response. Will we address others with a defensive tone – or choose to view colleagues with curiosity and an opportunity to co-create what happens next?

Imagine viewing the universe as one big learning laboratory. Everyone is here to support the leaders’ growth and development. In this way, judgment is suspended and innovative thinking and solutions emerge. This is the world that Conscious Leaders opt to create and enjoy.

Benefits for EA Professionals
Employee assistance professionals have the unique ability to produce change at three levels in a client organization: employee, manager/supervisor, and executive/Human Resources. Consequently, Conscious Leadership principles can add powerful skills to EAP toolkits. The following are specific recommendations for EA professionals for using Conscious Leadership:

* In supporting employees, this framework helps individuals improve self-awareness and gain insight into how they interact with others. The result is improved work/life balance and enhanced collegial and personal relationships.
* In supporting managers and supervisors, this framework helps develop self-awareness as it directly relates to being more effective leaders. Better leadership produces more engaged employees and, therefore, improved business results.
* In supporting the client organization either via executives or HR, this framework helps encourage productivity by enhancing alignment with the company’s mission and vision, increasing flexibility and creativity, and boosting overall function.

One of the first tasks of Conscious Leaders (and Conscious Professionals) is to ponder, “How am I showing up?” In other words:

* Am I open or closed (minded)?
* Am I curious or defensive?
* Am I more interested in learning, or am I more attached to being right?
* Am I “at the mercy of what happens to me?” or am I the creator of my own experiences?

EA professionals can use these questions as tools in myriad ways. First, these tools are personally powerful; that is, they can be used within an individual’s own conversations and interactions. Second, imagine using Conscious Leadership skills in your daily professional practice. Would asking yourself some of these simple questions provide more clarity to your work? Could you envision greater collaboration about issues with colleagues or client companies?

EA professionals can also benefit from these tools in their personal lives. Practicing self-awareness and paying attention to the context in conversations can bring about more satisfaction in all relationships. In conclusion, consider what Conscious Leadership can do organizationally, professionally, and personally. 

Sharon Wilson, MA, FACHE, CEAP, has held various clinical and management roles in the behavioral health field for nearly three decades. She is currently the Director of Conscious Leadership Development at Greenville Health System. Carole A. Hoffer is an Enneagram Faculty member in the GHS Academy of Leadership and Professional Development and a published author. Marissa L. Shuffler, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Clemson University.


Greenville Health System Implements Conscious Leadership

The Greenville Health System (GHS) in Greenville, SC, has implemented Conscious Leadership as its primary leadership development philosophy and core element of its organizational culture. It has also entered into a research partnership with Clemson University to study the impact of Conscious Leadership. 

The initial results are promising, as these principles are shown to correlate to scores in employee engagement and political skill, which is defined as the ability to understand and influence others at work. Measuring human behavior is challenging, but GHS and Clemson University are in the process of defining what Conscious Leadership looks like “in action.” By analyzing data from various surveys, interviews, and focus groups, the goal is to produce a valid, reliable measurement tool.  

In addition, GHS is developing plans for “Conscious Professionalism” as these principles are shared with employees in all departments and at all levels. Of particular interest is the GHS Clinical University, which includes the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville. Training physicians and other health professionals with a Conscious Professionalism philosophy will provide the needed skills for the future of health care. If healthcare professionals are more aware (that is, more conscious), they will be better equipped to manage the challenges they will inevitably face.

- Sharon Wilson, Carole A. Hoffer, Marissa L. Shuffler