The way our brains really work – Mindfullness for organisational behaviour?

I came across some critiquing of the practice of Mindfullness in organisations this week.  On the one hand, seeing it as essential for dealing with everyday stresses, not least of a digital world that attracts us towards automatic, but unhelpful behaviour.  On the other hand, seeing the investment in these practices as preventing us noticing, understanding and acting on the root causes of dysfunctional organisational systems.

Of course there’s more depth than this in the debate.  Which reminded me of another human trait, my own behaviour included, to compartmentalise into good and bad, rather than looking for the strengths in either and more subtle nuances.

Mindfullness does seem to be a practice that can help us be more reflective and present in our decisions.  Be able to see alternative perspectives that help work through tensions for innovation. But the practice of using this to think on different levels – to tackle the difficult stuff that takes sustained co-working– isn’t something we tend to connect with mindfulness.

So why does this matter?

It’s slightly scary whilst I would say also exciting to see some of the research that’s coming from neuroscience.  Suggesting how little we know about how our minds work, what an impact this has on our behaviour, whilst opening up the possibilities of knowing more.

Just taking Daniel Kahneman’s recent research work on ‘noise’ – we think we’re being objective, rational and methodical in the repeated decisions we make.  Yet the reality is there is a startling amount of variation in our decisions based on the same information.

Rachel Lilley likens all of this to being able to drive a car and assuming you know how to work the engine.   We’ve all got a brain, and we’ve certainly been using ours, but we have no idea about the effect of our physiology on our cognition.

She talks about our cultural, institutional history of suppressing emotions as a means to rationally control outcomes.  Whereas now we know this sets us up to fail because of the strength of interactions between our emotions and our cognition.  That – where we recognise this – could be better utilised for tackling seemingly intractable problems.

In hopeful and practical terms, we know a lot about the value of processes and structures that at least attempt to counter our very human habits.   Of looking backwards to judge the present, making short-cut assumptions, finding it hard to consider unfamiliar options.   Of finding it hard to really know how our emotions and cognition interact.

Mindfulness in organisations could become a term for how we deliberately take the time and effort to structure decision-making.

To bring independence and the capacity to reflect into the everyday (not just the preserve of governance boards).  To allow expertise and data to be synthesised whomever and wherever it has come from.  To see our roles as supporting decision-making whatever level of the organisation we operate in.

If this year brings anything, it must be the ability to notice.  Global situations juxta positioned with our very local community and work experiences.  Assumptions about what we can and can’t do thrown away.  Testing of very different work and home practices, with their surprising up as well as down sides.

Let’s try and build on some of this ability to notice what’s occurring.

We’re all human with only our human sized brains, and all of the habits we bring.

But with just a little more thought about what might be occurring, that’s one step closer to where we want to be.