Scott Milligan Mindfulness at Work:
Manager Finds Mindful Engagement Diffuses Conflict


SRD’s Forest Management Branch counts on Manager of Forest Operations Scott Milligan and his staff to solve problems and resolve conflicts. Mr. Milligan’s study of Active Engagement: The Practice of Mindful Leadership (formerly PCD) has equipped him with the skills to do this from a new depth. Now, the first question he’s inclined to ask is whether there is a real conflict or problem in the first place. He’s also exploring how mindful dialogue can help to build understanding and prevent conflicts from developing.

Mr. Milligan offers the example of two clients who recently sent heated e-mails about one another to his office. “It was looking like a big  issue that might have to be brought to the Minister’s attention,” Mr. Milligan says. One company insisted that the other’s absence at a key meeting was evidence of an unwillingness to work together to resolve issues. Rather than jumping into the fray, Mr. Milligan took a step back and tried to see the full picture of the situation from all perspectives.

He wondered if anyone had picked up the phone and checked with the absentee company about their understanding of the meeting details. He discovered that, in fact, there had been a miscommunication about the meeting date. What had been assumed to be evidence of uncooperativeness was nothing more than a misunderstanding. “If you don’t check assumptions, a tremendous amount of energy can go into these perceived problems,” Mr. Milligan notes.

In talking with Mr. Milligan it becomes clear that his insights have deepened through an honest exploration of his own leadership qualities. As the AE training manual notes, our ability to quickly assimilate information and draw assumptions is a key ingredient to our success in learning and business. Paradoxically, though, when we allow this tendency to govern in our engagement with people, it can blind us to understanding others’ perspectives and intentions.

“I have become adept at making assumptions and especially making assumptions about what people’s motives are,” Mr. Milligan laughs. I’ve learned to not be so cynical; to ask a few more questions, to check my assumptions. I’m also coaching my staff to test their assumptions and to make inquiries before jumping to conclusions.”

Mr. Milligan has long been drawn to the power of mindfulness, an experience he describes as “just being engaged in the moment” and which he has read about in books such as The Miracle of Mindfulness  by Thich Nhat Hanh. His passion for the Active Engagement training, which he intends to pursue through a practicum study, is that the practical mindfulness skills it offers “integrate well in the workplace and into life”.

“You can see the concrete results from slowing down and getting at the truth of matters from all perspectives,” he says. “Encounters with people are in a more positive light even though they’re not always comfortable as you address differing assumptions.”

Like  most of us, the manager can find staying in the moment challenged by myriad work demands. However, now he intentionally stops what he is doing when people come by his office to check in with them about the issues they face.  He hasn’t yet had a chance to evaluate the results of being more focused on the people he works with, but he has noticed more often hearing from people, “‘Yeah, that’s what I mean.’ That’s feedback to me that I’m doing a better job of engaging,” he notes.

Mr. Milligan has found new focus in his work through Deputy Minister Brad Pickering’s direction to “do a few core things well” rather than trying to tackle everything that arises. However, he has discovered that integrating this principle throughout his department requires clarification of the conflicting operating assumptions that might affect staff members’ approach and performance. “Some staff members feel they are not doing a good job if they are not overloaded, working overtime and/or immediately responding to every request from the field,” the manager says.

“We need to take the time to slow down,  to discern what is important and ensure that expectations are clear. The culture of our organization is such that many of us are inclined to quickly take action. We need to take more time to discern what action, if any, is required in a given circumstance.”

Mr. Milligan was moved, during department performance evaluations, by one scientist on his staff who requested “more free thinking time”. “He didn’t want more money or a new computer, just more time to think. That hit home,”  says Mr. Milligan. “We used to spend our meeting time checking in on assignments. Now, I intend to use it to check in on what is on peoples’ minds.”

Mr. Milligan was among a group of managers invited to review staff evaluations. He wondered what was behind some of the comments, such as, “management doesn’t care”. Reviewing his own tendencies to let business get in the way of engagement with the people around him, he thought, “perhaps we have missed the boat on building strategies to address staff concerns. People want to be recognized and acknowledged. Maybe we just need to slow down and notice them.”