Mindfulness, Mindlessness, and Work

November 8, 2013 • Emerging Ideas, LEADERSHIP, Leadership Development

While mindfulness was originally developed as an individual concept, it has been transferred to the organisational level in the context of research into performance in organisations. Below, the author outlines how mindfulness can be beneficial in the work environment and in the organisational context.

Mindlessness at work has become a global touchstone of mockery, and entertainers have enchanted audiences worldwide with comedies featuring mindless managers (including ‘The Office; or ‘Office Space’). Steve Carrell, playing the role of Michael Scott as Regional Manager of a Dunder-Mifflin branch in Scranton, PA epitomises mindless behavior, which is characterised by a reliance on old, often outdated categories and a reduced awareness of one’s social and physical world.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.1,2

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Mindlessness vs. Mindfulness

Mindlessness can be defined as when an individual operates much like a robot; thoughts, emotions, and behaviours (hereafter just behaviours) are determined by ‘programmed’ routines based on distinctions and associations learned in the past”.3 It is theorised 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.

Mindfulness is commonly defined as moment-to-moment awareness without judgment4 or ‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally’.5 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.2,6 Mindfulness can be more formally understood as an active state of mind characterised 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.2,7,8


Individual and Organisational 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 organisational level in the context of research into error-free, reliable performance in high-reliability organisations.9,10 Based on Langer’s conceptualisation of mindfulness, organisational scholars have convincingly argued that it affects organisational outcomes by affecting the following factors:

• organisational safety climates
• organisational attention
• IT security
• Creativity
• innovation and learning
• adaptation and performance


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 organisationally relevant effects of mindfulness.11
Mindful Management
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 the television show, ‘The Office’, mindless regional manager 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 unmotivated. He then selects an African-American colleague, who he believes to be a great basketball player simply because of his race. He turns down others who eagerly want to join the team because they are all either Hispanic (‘I will use your skills come baseball season’), overweight or female. Unsurprisingly, his team can barely keep up. A more mindful manager would have been able to draw distinctions beyond the stereotype and understand that skill sets can vary within and beyond categories of demographics. Even though this is a very stark example of a mindless manager, the current trends towards more diversity from a legal as well as performance oriented perspective, requires managers to be more mindful about the strengths and weakness of each individual member of the team and the organisation. Motivation
Mindful management could also help overcome motivational problems of coworkers. Routine-induced boredom is most often cited as a reason for low levels of employee engagement.12,13 Through mindful management, such routines can become part of mindful engagement. Langer and Piper14 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, we can easily see how such routine work can become more engaging, relevant and meaningful.15
Negotiation and Conflict Resolution
Mindful management can also be helpful in social situations in which different interests may provide potential for conflict.16,17 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.
[su_pullquote]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.[/su_pullquote]
Mindful management is also characterised 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% of quarterly reports are indeed manipulated at any given time.18 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 outcome such as market size, profitability etc.). Langer 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’.2 A mindful manager is able to understand processes and their context-sensitivity. Mindful managers are aware that some processes might work better in one cultural setting than in another. Langer’s research suggests that paradoxically, by focusing on process and not outcome, one may improve both.
Mindfulness and its organisationally relevant impacts
In general mindfulness can be an aspect of a humanistic, high-performance organisational culture. It can impact and affect organisational learning, creativity and decision making in organisational 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 organisational setup and structure.

Organisational Culture

Mindlessness can be part of the cultural makeup of an organisation. The movie ‘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. The character Milton in the movie exemplifies such a mindless bureaucrat, which can only function in a culture that values mindless behavior. The main character, Peter, ultimately gets fed up by this mindless culture after several bosses ask him whether he had read an irrelevant office memo. This story 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. Peter and two of his co-workers in the film take revenge by developing a plot to tweak the payment system so that small sums of customer payments will be transferred to their account.

It has been shown that mindful business and organisational cultures can likely increase well-being of employees, which most often contributes to a better performance of the company.7,13,19Organisations 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.19 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.11


Creativity and Learning

As many scholars have suggested20 improvisation or innovation is a result of the recombination of existing knowledge. According to Jordan et al. (2009)21 and Levinthal and Rerup (2006)20 improvisation takes at least two things: experience and creativity. Miner et al. (2001)22 suggest that experiential learning prior to action provides the necessary experience as building blocks, whereas mindfulness in action brings together experience and creativity. Pirson et al. (2012)11 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.2 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.23

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.

[su_pullquote]Mindful individuals are less susceptible to priming, draw on several sources of information and end up making more balanced, profitable and socially responsible investment decisions.[/su_pullquote]

Langer8 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)20 mindful organisations, especially high-reliability organisations,10 recognise 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 Kluger24 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.20 Mindfulness in organisations is often manifested by the recombination of well-rehearsed routines.10

To create such an understanding and achieve collective mindfulness at an organisational level communication is central.21 Weick and Roberts (1993) call it ‘heedful interrelation’25 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)20 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.21,25 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.2,26 Similarly, Schulman27 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.20


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 organisational strategies, reactions and behaviours. Mindfulness research has only begun to permeate the field but interesting findings can already be highlighted.

In recent studies Chow28 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 Shenoy29 finds that participants make more virtuous decisions 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. This aspect is interesting as it bridges the puzzle of bridging System1 and System 2 decision making30 and provides ways of how to forego hedonically and impulse-driven decision making pushed for by advertisers.

On a more managerial level, Fiol and O’Connor31 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, a new management approach, or a new innovation strategy is relevant to their own organisation. Being vigilant and remaining aware of the changing environment, mindful decision makers are able to adapt more swiftly and appropriately to situational shifts.

[su_pullquote]Being vigilant and remaining aware of the changing environment, mindful decision makers are able to adapt more swiftly and appropriately to situational shifts.[/su_pullquote]


Summarising, organisations 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 organisations. That may mean that we will have to laugh at many more humorous descriptions of mindlessness in the workplace in 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.


About the Author
Michael Pirson is associate professor of global sustainability and social entrepreneurship as well as director of the Center for Humanistic Management at Fordham University, New York. He is a research fellow in psychology at Harvard University working with Ellen Langer on mindfulness at work. He is a partner in the Humanistic Management Network ( which facilitates a trialogue between academia, practice and policy towards a life-conducive economic system. He can be reached at

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