The case for developing organizational mindfulness

Pretty much all change management models are based on the notion of change resistance and recommend various techniques to manage and mitigate this resistance. Though the need for change management cannot be overstated, we often end up treating “the symptoms rather than the disease” through focused interventions during the course of a change program, because we are not addressing the underlying reasons behind change resistance.

Why do we resist change? I believe that a major part is played by our expectations to what organizations and careers should be like. Somehow, we have been led to believe that professional life is ideally a linear progression – and this conception is certainly reinforced by most career models. We are told that the most important is to focus and that we need to set long term goals, although it is increasingly obvious that most industries are transforming in unpredictable ways, continuously changing the requirements and redefining jobs.

If we want to get to the root of change resistance, we need – more than anything – to challenge the erroneous assumptions of linear progression. In stead, we should emphasize what the organizational reality is really like, in particular its impermanent character. We should refocus our efforts from management of change resistance towards the promoting the mental qualities that enables us to cope with changes at a personal and organizational level.

One way of doing this is to use the ancient wisdom of mindfulness, and in particular contemplation of “the five hindrances” to a mindful life. In fact, these five hindrances are very easily transferable to the key factors that are often mentioned when discussing resistance to change:

Hindrances to mindfulness  Expression of change resistance
Desire Frustration due to loss of status, job content, benefits etc
Ill-will Resentment, jealousy, passive-aggressive behavior, survivor syndrome
Heaviness of the body Exhaustion/stress due to the extra workload caused by the change program
Restlessness Fear of the uncertain
Doubt Lack of confidence in the program, distrust in management, colleagues, and consultants

There are a number of organizational development techniques that can be used to increase the general level of change readiness and ensure that the “five hindrances” do not inflict with organizational change

1) Freedom from “clinging” to current positions can be achieved by adopting programs of rotation, secondments, cross-functional teamwork, providing multidimensional career models etc
2) Resentment towards others can be minimized by ensuring openness and organizational-wide feedback (customer, downward, peer, upward), win/loss reviews, ensuring that leaders are walking the talk and etc
3) Stress and exhaustion can be reduced by diminishing administrative workload, maintaining a healthy working environment, in particular ergonomic and nutritional aspects, and ensuring appropriate lightening and quality of air
4) Restlessness and 5) doubt can be combated by facilitating and ongoing dialogue about the dynamics, complexity and impermanence facing the organization, and collaborative involvement in addressing these issues down to the level of individual development plans

Mindfulness is more than the much-hyped breathing exercises. It is seeing and accepting the world for what it is, recognizing that change is the only constant. And as more and more people are becoming aware of the advantages of developing mindfulness at an individual level, there is an opportunity to build change readiness into the system through the mechanics of organizational mindfulness.

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