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The Mindblind and the Mindful Organisation

The Mindblind and the Mindful Organisation

There is a lot of talk about ‘mindfulness’ in organisations at the moment. Usually this is about the useful personal techniques to raise self-awareness, build resilience, quell ‘noise’ and improve focus. These techniques are credited with huge benefits for people in their professional and personal lives, including many famous sports people.  However, it has struck me recently that the concept of mindfulness can be a very helpful way to think about organisations.  I believe that Mindfulness can also be seen at organisational level as focused attention to the attitudes, beliefs and emotional life of the people they work with.

Mindful organisations care about what’s going on in the heads of the people who work for and with them. They recognise that in matters of strategic change and successful execution of initiatives, what’s in people’s minds isn’t an adjunct to the problem, it is the problem.  These organisations then use their self-awareness to really understand the problem and how to engage with it.

However, other organisations can, like people, be somewhat mindblind.  In people, this is characterized by the inability to read and understand people’s needs or intentions.  As Simon Baron-Cohen, the eminent psychologist, points out in his book Mindblindedness, we cannot function as a species without the ability to mind read. 

Mindblind organisations, like people, fail to really understand what is going on for those around them – they don’t grasp the true nature of the challenge they are addressing. They are a bit like the managers of a consistently losing football team, who take their players off the pitch, repaint the white lines, order new goal posts, mow the grass and then send the players back on the pitch and hope they will start winning.  It may seem a bit daft when put like that – but how often do organisations behave in this mindblind way – trying to solve the problem without reference to the people?

So do you know a Mindblind Organisation?

‘Mindblind’ people have difficulty in developing an empathetic appreciation of other’s intent often display a number of characteristics including: over-valuing familiar and predictable processes and situations; dislike of change to these ‘rules’, a lack of interest in others; difficulty with social interaction; a lack of imagination; and a tendency to quickly unlearn new social skills. It has struck me that these problems can also be seen to be found at least to some extent in organisations.
Mindblindedness is likely to be deeply embedded from a cultural point of view. One of the major impacts of a culture is that it distorts and limits what we pay attention to and what can be discussed so sub-optimising individual, and collective, mindreading capability. How would we recognise it organisationally?

  • Applying over-simple ‘rules’: in trying to understand behaviour and performance. A classic ‘simplistic rule’ is ‘you only get what you incentivise’ – when an organisation gets and often needs so much more than that. 
  • Misunderstanding change: trotted out a million times in change management discussions – “people don’t’ like/ are afraid of change”. Oh yeah? So how come these inert employees are happy to change their: holiday destinations, houses, jobs, careers, relationship, cars, wall paper, favourite restaurant, sexual orientation, meal choice, hobby etc?
  • A struggle to embed new ways of working: (collaboration, networking, open-dialogue) that require higher-level interpersonal behaviours. And related to this often rapid ‘unlearning’ of new interpersonal skills developed though coaching and training.

Building a more Mindful Organisation?

Most of us have a well-honed personal ability to mind read – we use it every day.  This individual ability is surely the building block for a much more ‘mindful’ organisation.  We need to start to harness and respect this ability rather than leave it at the door.  We can do this by giving it space, by using the lessons of mindfulness to remove the noise and to focus on what is really going on.  As we start to do this, we will develop greater personal and organisational insight into the emotional state of the organisation, helping us to make wise choices which address the real issues and don’t just make changes on the pitch expecting the team to start winning. 

Comments on this Post

Ron Lutaaya on 4th February 2015

Insightful article, summarises big topic into a few readable paragraphs, many thanks.

Julian Hall on 16th October 2014

Great article. I really like the link to mindfulness and expanding that to a organisational perspective. Could be very powerful. We have the same aspirations for Calm Organisations

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