Chapter 6 Mindfulness and Humanistic Management Michael Pirson – Humanistic Management: Social Entrepreneurship and Mindfulness, Volume II

CHAPTER 6

Mindfulness and Humanistic Management

Michael Pirson

As we are witnessing various global and societal crises, we also witness a failure of management. Many management practices fail to account for the larger societal problems that business cause, for example climate change. A more mindful form of management could, however, reconsider organizational practices that respect human dignity and promote human well-being within the planetary boundaries.

Mindlessness at work, nevertheless, has become a global touchstone of mockery and entertainers have enchanted audiences worldwide with comedies featuring mindless managers (including “The Office” or “Office Space”). Dilbert is one of the longest running cartoon strips across the world. Steve Carrell, playing the role of Michael Scott as regional manager of a Dunder-Mifflin branch in Scranton, PA, epitomizes mindless behavior, which is characterized by a reliance on old, often outdated categories and a reduced awareness of one’s social and physical world. While some argue that mindlessness is a necessity in the work environment, a closer examination reveals that mindlessness is rarely, if ever, beneficial because it closes us off to possibility, freezes our responses, and prevents needed change (Langer and Moldoveanu 2000; Langer 1989). This chapter outlines how mindfulness can be beneficial in the work environment and in the organizational context. Mindfulness can be considered a basic touchstone for better organizing practices and more humanistic management.

Mindlessness vs. Mindfulness

Mindlessness can be defined as when an individual operates much like a robot; thoughts, emotions, and behaviors (hereafter just behaviors) are determined by “programmed” routines based on distinctions and associations learned in the past (Bodner and Langer 2001, p. 1). It is theorized that mindlessness is often a consequence of the tendency to apply previously formed mindsets to current situations, which lock individuals into a repetitive, unelaborated approach to daily life. It is argued that we develop mindlessness in two very different ways, through repetition, or through a single exposure to a piece of information.

Mindfulness is commonly defined as moment-to-moment awareness without judgment (Thera 1962) or “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn 1994, p. 4). It pursues a learning agenda, can be very goal-oriented, and involves the use of active engagement in enhancing problem-solving and other cognitive exercises (Baer 2003; Langer 1989). Mindfulness can be more formally understood as an active state of mind characterized by novel distinction–drawing that results in being (1) situated in the present, (2) sensitive to context and perspective, and (3) guided (but not governed) by rules and routines (Langer 2009; Langer 1989, 1997).

Individual and Organizational Perspectives

Mindfulness has been shown to affect a plethora of cognitive, affective, and behavioral outcomes on the individual level. It can positively affect outcomes such as creativity and physical and psychological well-being. While mindfulness was originally developed as an individual concept, it was then transferred to the organizational level in the context of research into error-free, reliable performance in high-reliability organizations such as nuclear power plants or hospitals (Weick and Sutcliffe 2006; Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld 1999). Based on Langer’s conceptualization of mindfulness, organizational scholars have convincingly argued that it affects organizational outcomes by affecting the following factors:

  • Organizational safety climates—if people are more mindful they pay more attention.
  • Organizational attention—if individual attention increases and is directed toward organizational goals, organizations benefit.
  • IT security—if IT specialists consider more than the simple routine protocol, they are most likely attending to external threats better.
  • Creativity—if people question underlying reasoning for existing procedures or products they are in a better position to create novel solutions to existing problems.
  • Innovation and learning—if people are willing to question existing categories they can learn better, create novel solutions, and be innovative.
  • Adaptation and performance—if people do the above things they and the organizations they work for are able to adapt better to changes in the environment and typically outperform those individuals and organizations that do not.

Mindfulness Measurement

Langer’s Western-scientific approach allows for more consistent usage of mindfulness theory within social contexts. A new 14-item scale of Langer’s mindfulness conception can help assess such organizationally relevant effects of mindfulness (Pirson, Langer, Bodner, and Zilcha 2012). See Appendix.

Mindful Management

In contrast to Michael Scott’s “The Office,” mindful managers are aware of the social, cultural, and historical contexts and are able to free themselves of existing and outdated categories.

Diversity Management

One area in which mindful management is increasingly relevant is the area of diversity management. In one episode of “The Office,” Michael Scott is assembling a basketball team from among his colleagues to play against the Warehouse crew. After naming himself to be on the team he asks his favorite officemate (Ryan) to join, who turns out to be really unmotivated. He then selects an African-American colleague, who he believes to be great a basketball player simply because of his race. He turns down others who eagerly want to join the team but are either Hispanic (“I will use your skills come baseball season”), overweight, or female. ­Unsurprisingly, his team can barely keep up with the other team and can only come up with a tie using unfair means of play. A more mindful manager certainly would have been able to draw novel distinctions beyond the stereotype and be able to understand that skillsets can vary within and beyond categories of demographics. Even though this is a very stark example of a mindless manager, the current trends toward more diversity from a legal as well as performance-oriented perspective, requires managers to be more mindful about the strengths and weaknesses of each individual member of the team and the organization. Especially in the hiring process, mindful decision making can be helpful to hire the right candidate rather than a cookie-cutter graduate.

Motivation

Mindful management could also help overcome motivational problems of coworkers. Routine-induced boredom is most often cited as reason for low levels of employee engagement (Csikszentmihalyi 1996, 2003). Through mindful management, such routines can become part of mindful engagement, specifically when they are viewed as general guides but not fixed rules. Langer and Piper (1987) show how one of the most “mindless” activities, watching television, was successfully transformed into a mindful and engaging exercise. The experiment highlights that it is not necessarily the routine itself that renders our work-life boring but our mindless perspective of it. If there are ways to engage in the work from different perspectives (such as finance, marketing, logistics, or from the perspective of a supplier, customer, or investor we can easily see how such routine work can become more engagingly relevant and meaningful (see also Grant 2008).

Negotiation and Conflict Resolution

Mindful management can also be helpful in social situations in which different interests may provide potential for conflict (Riskin 2002; Riskin 2010). To highlight this problem, consider a negotiation exercise where parties are confronted with the information that one party wants 8 eggs and the other party 7 eggs, while there are only 10 eggs to go around. The usual negotiated outcome is a split of 5 and 5. With a bit of further probing the parties could find out that one party is only interested in the egg-white and the other in using the yolks, so that everyone could have easily been satisfied and granted their entire need. This shows in many ways that negotiation is an exercise in mindfulness. Mindful managers are aware of the context and question given information by being aware of the traps of unquestioned assumptions. Mindful managers view negotiation as a creative process that cannot be predicted based on prior notions of interest and outcomes. Negotiation is reflected in the various aspects of mindfulness including engagement, novelty seeking, and novelty producing.

Strategy

Mindful management is also characterized by a general process focus. In business, however, there is a strong tendency to focus on the outcomes such as the bottom line. Langer (1989) points out that such a focus on outcomes can prevent managers from understanding how such outcomes are achieved by blinding them to process aspects. That mindless approach can lead to suboptimal, and even unethical, practices. Studies find that 20 percent of quarterly reports are indeed manipulated at any given time (Radovsky 2012) . There are other dysfunctional aspects of outcome focus, which result in a disregard for experimentation, learning, and innovation that are often only viewed as costs. Using that output perspective arguably leads to bandwagon effects in which managers copy practices of the leading companies (determined by outcomes such as market size, profitability, etc.). Langer (1989, p. 46). states that “when we envy other people’s assets, accomplishments, or characteristics, it is often because we are making a faulty comparison. We may be looking at the results of their efforts rather than the process they went through on the way.” A mindful manager is able to understand processes and their context-sensitivity. Some processes might work better in one cultural setting than in another. Mindful managers try to develop context-specific processes instead of trying to force, for example, American employees to become more like the Japanese to manage quality (as has happened plentiful in the 1980s).

Langer’s research suggests that paradoxically, by focusing on process and not outcome, one may improve both. Mindful managers understand that and try to refrain from being forced to manage for outcomes such as shareholder value maximization. In fact, the main reason why Google set up a special structure for being listed publicly was to avoid the mindless pressure of analysts so that they could still focus on product development.

Mindfulness and Its Organizationally Relevant Impacts

Whereas the previous description of mindful management is nonexhaustive, it simply highlights the relevance of mindfulness for management. The following part outlines several ways mindfulness can further be of organizational relevance. In general, mindfulness can be an aspect of a humanistic, high-performance organizational culture. It can impact and affect organizational learning, creativity, and decision making in organizational contexts. Mindful managers will be able to support all these aspects but they exceed the realm of individual managerial influence and become part of the organizational setup and structure.

Organizational Culture

Mindlessness can be part of the cultural makeup of an organization. Any bureaucracy is suspect to routine-oriented employees following the letter of the law, rule, and stipulation without reflecting on appropriateness for a given context. The character Milton in the movie “Office Space” exemplifies such a mindless bureaucrat, which can only function in a culture that values mindless behavior. The main character of this film, Peter, ultimately gets fed up by this mindless culture after three different bosses ask him whether he had read a memo that specified the use of a rather irrelevant report. This story, even though fictional, highlights how a culture of mindlessness can lead employees to unhappiness and active disengagement. Active disengagement occurs when employees start undermining the company by sabotaging its operations. In “Office Space,” Peter and two of his coworkers take revenge by developing a plot to tweak the payment system so that small sums of customer payments will be transferred to their account.

“Office Space” highlights the mindless business culture many ­people experience as employees. In such a workplace, categories of thinking are rarely revisited, context rarely matters, and individual differences and strengths are irrelevant to the job, while the focus remains on the execution of routines with an outcome rather than process orientation. It has been shown that mindful business cultures also increase well-being of employees, which most often contributes to a better performance of the company (Csikszentmihalyi 2003).

Mindful organizational cultures can most likely also affect the physical well-being of employees (Crum and Langer 2007; Langer 2009). Organizations that foster mindful engagement with a task, such as chambermaids viewing their work as exercise, have shown to positively affect various measures of physical well-being. These effects have been explained by the salience of the mind–body connection according to which the mind and the body are not separate entities but indeed mutually reinforcing each others’ reactions (Crum and Langer 2007). Thus, a higher level of mindfulness influences the ability of people to lead a healthy life, enjoy physical activity more, and see themselves as physically capable until old age. Pirson et al. (2012) also find that higher mindfulness individuals need less rest and relaxation, because they can see their work generating positive energy.

Creativity and Learning

As many scholars have suggested (Levinthal and Rerup 2006), improvisation or innovation is a result of the recombination of existing knowledge. According to Jordan, Messner, and Becker (2009) and Levinthal and Rerup (2006), improvisation takes at least two things: experience and creativity. Miner, Bassof, and Moorman (2001) suggest that experiential learning prior to action provides the necessary experience as building blocks, whereas mindfulness in action brings together experience and creativity. The creative recombination of these sets of action repertoires are mindful activities.

Pirson et al. (2012) find that higher mindfulness individuals also perform better on creativity tasks, such as identifying alternative uses for a brick or a pencil. Mindfulness interventions have shown to support product development (Langer 1989). 3M’s experience with Post-It Notes is a case-in-point: A glue that did not stick became a huge success through mindful reinvention (Albert 1990).

Various studies have also shown that learning can be improved by mindfulness interventions. For example, Langer and Piper (1987) demonstrated that by presenting information in a conditional versus an unconditional mode can be used to increase the chances of creative innovation.

Langer (1997) presents a wholly new approach on education based on mindful pedagogy. She suggests that education should mindfully establish routines and practices as guides but not as absolute governing rules. Such perspectives could easily help increase learning and creativity in the workplace. In work environments the interplay between routines and ­innovation becomes critical. Following Levinthal and Rerup (2006), mindful organizations, especially high-reliability organizations (Weick et al. 1999), recognize the impossibility of anticipating all problems and events in advance. For example, during the Apollo 13 mission NASA needed to innovate and learn very quickly because the spaceship was stalled in space due to an explosion on board. According to Lovell and Kluger (1994), the mission was accomplished without loss of life because NASA was able to improvise based on rehearsed simulations. Mindful learning embraces the fact that any action is local and situated and involves spontaneous recombination of wisdom accumulated from prior experimental learning (Levinthal and Rerup 2006). Mindfulness in organizations is often manifested by the recombination of well-rehearsed routines (Weick et al. 1999).

To create such an understanding and achieve collective mindfulness at an organizational level communication is central (Jordan, Messner, and Becker 2009). Weick and Roberts (1993) call it “heedful interrelation,” which may take place spontaneously, for example in reaction to an unexpected event. Often, however, it is supported by interactive routines, which agents carry out quite habitually. Following Levinthal and Rerup (2006) the mutual enactment of these habitual routines comprises, on the one hand, questioning one’s own knowledge and actions and, on the other hand, questioning of knowledge and action of others (Jordan, Messner, and Becker 2009; Weick and Roberts 1993). Mindfulness cultures are therefore based on activities and routines that explicitly aim at providing opportunities to question expectations and behavioral routines, and to evoke awareness of context in interaction. For example, flight attendants, pilots, and mechanics vary their checklist order to keep the process surprising and engaging (Langer 2009; Langer 1989). Similarly, Schulman (1993) observes that operators at nuclear power plants deliberately change the structure of the required paper work to be filled out to guard against mindless processing of safety-related information (Levinthal and Rerup 2006). Similar interactive routines occur during the mutual checking and questioning practices between nurses and doctors in anesthesiology departments (Hindmarsh and Pilnick 2007; Jordan, Messner, and Becker 2009) or during bungee-jump preparations (buddy-systems).

Decision Making

A central field of management research has been decision making. As an individual level concept it allows understanding the variance and conformity of organizational strategies, reactions, and behaviors. Mindfulness research has only begun to permeate the field but interesting findings can already be highlighted.

In recent studies Chow (2012) found that higher mindfulness individuals are less susceptible to priming, draw on several sources of information, and end up making more balanced, more profitable, and more socially responsible investment decisions. In a test of mindfulness intervention, Shenoy (2008) finds that participants make more virtuous decision; the more they articulate, different perspectives on a variety of choices. They also more accurately predict their own well-being and value moral choices more highly not only retrospectively but also prospectively. This aspect is interesting as it bridges the puzzle of bridging System 1 and System 2 decision making (Kahneman 2011), and provides ways on how to forego hedonically and impulse-driven decision making pushed for by advertisers.

On a more managerial level, Fiol and O’Connor (2003) suggest that mindful managers are able to avoid the bandwagon effects that dominate in the business world. That means they are less likely to accept general perceptions and remedies without checking for context and applicability in a specific situation. They are therefore more likely to question trends of “how to manage” as propagated by managerial magazines, books, and consultants in the field. They rely on their own judgment of the situation and draw distinctions of their own to see whether a new tool (such as the Internet), a new management approach (such as total quality management) or a new innovation strategy is relevant to their own organization. Being vigilant and remaining aware of the changing environment, mindful decision makers are able to adapt more swiftly and appropriately to situational shifts.

Conclusion

To become a more mindful organization, managers can try to hire mindful people and help keep people mindful through their structures and culture. However, it seems much harder to induce mindfulness throughout mindless organizations. That may mean that we will have to laugh at many more humorous descriptions of mindlessness in the workplace in the time to come. Yet, there is sufficient hope for those not wanting to be cynical, that work environments can support individual mindfulness and derive the various well-being-related benefits from it.

References

Albert, S. 1990. “Mindfulness, an Important Concept for Organizations: A Book Review Essay on the Work of Ellen Langer.” Academy of Management Review 15, no. 1, pp. 154–59.

Bodner, T., and E. Langer. 2001. Individual Differences in Mindfulness: The Mindfulness/Mindlessness Scale. Paper presented at the 13th APA Annual Meeting, Toronto.

Chow, E. 2012. Mind Your Money: Mindfulness in Socially Responsible Investment Decision-Making. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Crum, A., and E. Langer. 2007. “Mind-Set Matters—Exercise and the Placebo Effect.” Psychological Science 18, no. 2, pp. 165–71.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1996. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 2003. Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Fiol, M.C., and E.J. O’Connor. 2003. “Waking Up! Mindfulness in the Face of Bandwagons.” Academy of Management Review 28, no. 1, pp. 54–70.

Grant, A.M. 2008. “The Significance of Task Significance: Job Performance Effects, Relational Mechanisms, and Boundary Conditions.” Journal of Applied Psychology 93, no. 1, p. 108.

Hindmarsh, J., and A. Pilnick. 2007. “Knowing Bodies at Work: Embodiment and Ephemeral Teamwork in Anaesthesia.” Organization Studies 28, no. 9, pp. 1395–416.

Jordan, S., M. Messner, and A. Becker. 2009. “Reflection and Mindfulness in Organizations: Rationales and Possibilities for Integration.” Management Learning 40, no. 4, pp. 465–73.

Kabat-Zinn, J. 1994. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York, NY: Hyperion.

Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Langer, E.J., and A.I. Piper. 1987. “The Prevention of Mindlessness.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53, no. 2, p. 280.

Langer, E.J. 1989. Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

Langer, E.J. 1997. The Power of Mindful Learning. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Langer, E., and M. Moldoveanu. 2000. “The Construct of Mindfulness.” Journal of Social Issues 56, no. 1, pp. 1–9.

Langer, E.J. 2009. Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, 1st ed. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Levinthal, D., and C. Rerup. 2006. “Crossing an Apparent Chasm: Bridging Mindful and Less-Mindful Perspectives on Organizational Learning.” Organization Science 17, no. 4, pp. 502–13.

Lovell, J., and J. Kluger. 1994. Apollo 13. New York, NY: Pocket Books.

Miner, A.S., P. Bassof, and C. Moorman. 2001. “Organizational Improvisation and Learning: A Field Study.” Administrative Science Quarterly 46, no. 2, pp. 304–37.

Pirson, M., E. Langer, T. Bodner, and S. Zilcha. 2012. “The Development and Validation of the Langer Mindfulness Scale—Enabling a Socio-Cognitive Perspective of Mindfulness in Organizational Contexts.” Harvard University Working Paper Series.

Radovsky, D. 2012. “America’s CFOs Admit: Lots of Companies Are Fudging Their Numbers.” Daily Finance.

Riskin, L.L. 2002. “Contemplative Lawyer: On the Potential Contributions of Mindfulness Meditation to Law Students, Lawyers, and Their Clients.” The Harvard Negotiation Law Review 7, no. 1.

Riskin, L.L. 2010. “Further Beyond Reason: Mindfulness, Emotions, and the Core Concerns in Negotiation.” Nevada Law Journal 10, p. 289.

Schulman, P.A. 1993. “The Negotiated Order of Organizational Reliability.” Administrative Science Quarterly 25, pp. 353–72.

Shenoy, B. 2008. “Are Virtuous Choices Especially Valued Once Possessed?” Harvard University Dissertation.

Thera, N. 1962. The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. New York, NY: Weiser.

Weick, K.E., and K.H. Roberts. 1993. “Collective Mind in Organizations. Heedful Interrelating on Flight Decks.” Administrative Science Quarterly 38, no. 3, pp. 357–81.

Weick, K., K. Sutcliffe, and D. Obstfeld. 1999. “Organizing for High Reliability: Processes of Collective Mindfulness.” Research in Organizational Behavior 1, pp. 81–123.

Weick, K., and K. Sutcliffe. 2006. “Mindfulness and the Quality of Organizational Attention.” Organization Science 17, no. 4, pp. 514–24.


Appendix

Langer Mindfulness Scale/Personal Outlook Scale

Instructions: In the following are a number of statements that refer to your personal outlook. Please rate the extent to which you agree with each of these statements. If you are confused by the wording of an item, have no opinion, or neither agree nor disagree, use the “4” or “NEUTRAL” rating. Thank you for your assistance.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

Strongly

Disagree

Disagree

Slightly

Disagree

Neutral

Slightly

Agree

Agree

Strongly

Agree



Disagree Agree

1) I like to investigate things.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

2) I generate few novel ideas.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

3) I make many novel contributions.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

4) I seldom notice what other people are up to.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

5) I avoid thought-provoking conversations.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

6) I am very creative.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

7) I am very curious.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8) I try to think of new ways of doing things.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

9) I am rarely aware of changes.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

10) I like to be challenged intellectually.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

11) I find it easy to create new and effective ideas.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

12) I am rarely alert to new developments.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

13) I like to figure out how things work.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

14) I am not an original thinker.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7