Organisational mindfulness

It may be stretching a metaphor to suggest that an organisation has a ‘mind’, but it is nonetheless a useful way to think about how collective behaviour within an entity reflects a shared worldview, and certain habits of thought.

This is what we are talking about when we refer to the ‘cultural iceberg‘, where what we say we do (vision, mission, values and strategy) is above the waterline, while what we actually do is below it. The iceberg metaphor is implying of course, that our mental models, worldview, attitudes and beliefs, which drive our behaviour, are hidden below our surface awareness. We don’t tend to acknowledge inconsistencies between our declared values and our actual behaviours, and so to varying extents we all suffer cognitive dissonance and incongruity.

Image by Rolf Johansson from Pixabay

As with our personal habits, so much of what gets done in our organisations is done because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’. Many of our routines are so well practiced that we operate on autopilot, hardly even aware that we have chosen to administer work processes in a particular way, and not in various other ways.

Where good habits are ingrained, this can protect us from adverse outcomes. Some of those good habits are also highly efficient, and underpin our productivity. Bad habits often coexist with the good ones, but because they are unconscious, the contradiction is either not noticed, or is accepted as usual practice.

From an objective (outside) perspective these inconsistencies look like hypocrisy, or ‘false virtue’. Inside the culture, the misaligned intentions and behaviours are hardly noticed because of the way our attention is focused (or blurred as the case may be).

Attention management‘ is usually a topic confined to avoidance of distractions, especially in open plan offices, but a more significant form of attention management is that exercised by managers in their interactions with team members. Staff have always known that to stay in favour with their line management they should focus their energies on the things those managers pay attention to. This means that key performance indicators, strategic priorities and codes of behaviour will be ignored if managers do not demonstrate genuine interest in them.

Organisational ‘mindfulness’ can be demonstrated when our managers pay attention to the congruence between what we actually do and what we say we do.

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