The Power of the Pause

Words and language are powerful. There’s a reason why we call ourselves “Human BEINGS” rather than “Human DOINGS.” Yet, far too often, the way we go about trying to promote change ignores the importance of being and jumps right to the “doing” — frequently adding more “stuff” onto an already overloaded plate — and it usually backfires. In organizations, this commonly surfaces as an over-use of incentives to try to control desired behaviors. However, we know from the research that incentives do not work long-term.

This is because behaviors (i.e., what we DO) are a manifestation of the underlying thinking (i.e. who we’re BEING). Therefore, creating the conditions for any lasting change requires supporting people in developing better thinking – in BEING differently. How do you create the conditions for better thinking? By pausing and creating a space for people to become more present and self-aware.

For over 40 years, researchers have examined the role of wait time (i.e., pausing) on learning and attitudes in educational settings ranging from elementary schools through college classrooms. Investigators found that when teachers ask students a question, they typically only wait one second or less after the students begin to reply to start formulating their reaction. However, when teachers can pause longer (approximately three to five seconds) after they ask a question and again after students respond, there is profound improvement in learning and in attitude for both the students and teachers:

  • Teachers are more effective in engaging students; teachers are less focused on themselves and telling students what to do and more focused on maximizing student participation.
  • More students voluntarily participate in classroom discussions.
  • Teachers exhibit greater flexibility.
  • Teachers improve their expectations, and previously “invisible” students become visible.
  • Student confidence increases

So what does this research have to do with organizations? EVERYTHING!

Organizations can only learn and grow through individuals who learn.1 Or, as renowned psychologist, Carl Jung is credited with saying, “Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakens.” This sentiment has been echoed by numerous leadership experts. In his bestselling book “Leadership from the Inside Out,” Kevin Cashman states that the ability to grow as a leader is based on the ability to grow as a person and to have a personal awakening. In his latest book, “The Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead Forward,” Cashman defines the critical importance of the Pause Principle as:

“the conscious, intentional process of stepping back, within ourselves and outside of ourselves, to lead forward with greater authenticity, purpose and contribution.” (p. 7-8)

He continues to describe how too often we allow ourselves to be overcome by our busyness; we are unhealthily attached to our smartphones and too caught up and distracted to take the necessary time to sift through life’s complexity and find purpose. The more we rush, the more we end up going everywhere but being nowhere. If we want to lead with “transformative significance,” we need to step back first; we need to pause and shift from doing to being. So it is probably not surprising that self-awareness is now one of the fastest growing competencies in leadership development programs.2

Pausing: Lessons from Theory U

In his book “Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership,” Joseph Jaworski writes that:

“true leadership is about creating a domain in which we continually learn and become more capable of participating in our unfolding future. “ (p. 182)

The value of being able to pause to learn from our unfolding future is echoed by the work of C. Otto Scharmer, who created “Theory U” as a framework and a method for leading profound change via connecting to the more authentic, higher aspects of our self. Scharmer suggests that in a time of significant institutional failures, collectively creating results no one wants, we need a new consciousness and collective leadership capacity to meet challenges in a more intentional, strategic way. Theory U suggests that:

“The success of our actions as change-makers does not depend on What we do or How we do it, but on the Inner Place from which we operate.”

Essentially, this framework recognizes that we can’t transform the behavior of systems unless we transform the quality of awareness and attention that people apply to their actions within these systems, both individually and collectively. As is true with all living systems, instead of learning from the past, we need to learn from the emerging future.

At the core of Theory U is presencing (sensing + presence). If you imagine a big “U,” we move down one side of the U that connects us to our habitual thinking and to the outside world to the bottom of the U that connects us to the world that emerges from within us. At this place, we have to let go of old thinking, our old ego and self to start to connect to our future possible self — which requires slowing down, pausing, and engaging in a different level of listening. Once our current and best future selves meet and begin to resonate with each other, we move up the other side of the U bringing forward the new thinking into the world. This process can happen on both individual and organizational levels.

Theory U

The Story of Olivia Stephens

Olivia Stephens entered the small conference room where we were holding the first in a series of leadership workshops. She was glued to her smartphone and clearly irritated that she was being asked to take time out to “work on herself.” Her department had the highest growth in the past two years, and her team was full of top-performing employees. Olivia knew she was a good leader and didn’t see the point in spending time on “soft skills.” As we started to review the results of the Hartman Value Profile (HVP) that all of the leaders had completed prior to the workshop, things changed for Olivia.

Reviewing her HVP results, Olivia was faced with quantitative data that revealed her habitual thinking patterns about herself and the world around her, including how she shows up at work. Olivia prided herself in being a “doer” and getting things done. This was reflected by very strong Extrinsic scores. However, her scores related to stress, perfectionism, resiliency, and work-self balance were weaker. Knowing that when people are stressed, their habitual thinking patterns become even more prominent, we explained that, while being productive is certainly positive, it can also have unintended consequences. As we explored various patterns in the scores, Olivia began to see how she values the uniqueness of people (Intrinsic) even less when she is stressed and wondered if her employees felt dismissed by her as a result.

As we continued exploring the self-side HVP scores, Olivia started to see how her perfectionism was actually hurting her own wellbeing. We walked the team members through some exercises to help them be more aware of when their thinking is and isn’t serving them. Olivia had to leave the room because she became very emotional. By completing these assessments and exercises, she had hit the pause button and realized how little she had actually been present in her life — at home and at work. Olivia truly cared about people; however, her habitual tendencies to focus on tasks (i.e., on DOING) were taking over in her stress-filled world.

In that moment, Olivia began the shift from a stressed, task-driven leader to an open, more vulnerable person. She knew she wanted a different experience for herself and for the people with whom she interacted, but she didn’t know how to get there and didn’t want to sacrifice the qualities that had made her so successful. Once her eyes were opened and she had greater self-awareness, we were able to support her in moving forward on her developmental journey… and it just took a few hours of hitting the pause button and creating a space for her to look within herself.

The Bottom Line

Just as was the case with Olivia Stephens, creating the conditions for pausing and increased self-awareness inherently promotes individual wellbeing — without the need for using incentives and suffering from the host of associated negative consequences. So if we want to support profound change and create a workplace culture where both organizational and employee wellbeing can thrive, we have to stop focusing on behaviors. Instead, we can value the transformative power of the pause, and understand how presencing contributes to a greater awareness of ourselves and of the people we support. Trying to DO differently without thinking differently is doomed to fail!


  1. Peter M. Senge (2006). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.
  2. Josh Bersin (April 4, 2014). The Five Elements of a ‘Simply Irresistible’ Organization. Forbes.

Rosie Ward, PhD, MPH, MCHES, BCC, CIC®, CVS-FR Rosie is an accomplished speaker, writer and consultant. She has spent more than 20 years in worksite health promotion and organizational development. In addition to her bachelor’s degrees in Kinesiology and Public Health, and a doctorate in Organization and Management, Rosie is also a Certified Intrinsic Coach® Mentor, Certified Judgment Index Consultant, a Certified Valuations Specialist, and a Board Certified Coach. Rosie uses this unique combination to work with executive and leadership teams to create comprehensive development strategies centered on shifting thinking patterns. She is a contributing author to the book, “Organization Development in Healthcare — High Impact Practices for a Complex and Changing Environment.” She leverages these principles to help organizations develop and implement strategies to create a thriving workplace culture that values and supports wellbeing and the unique, intrinsic needs of employees. Contact Rosie at or

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