Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Who didn't pay attention? our mindfulness lessons from Ebola



Unfamiliar situation.  Apply old mistakes repeatedly.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster doesn’t it?

It is easy for me to muse on the Ebola crisis from the safety of my Rome apartment. However having run the Florence marathon to fundraise and being a leadership consultant with an interest in mindfulness, I feel compelled to do so.  From wherever we sit, whatever profession or sector,  we should take heed of the initial reflections released by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) this week, for they highlight the need for individual and institutional mindfulness. 

An accumulation of mindless moments?

“For the Ebola outbreak to spiral this far out of control required many institutions to fail. And they did, with tragic and avoidable consequences”.  So concludes the report by MSF General Director, Christopher Stokers.

For disasters to happen, complex human factors theory will tell us that it is usually an accumulation of small moments that build into something. It is not that we seek to repeat mistakes of the past. It is just that we are often unconscious of our behaviours or what drives them.  From overworked, stressed individuals to the cumulative unconsciousness of the institutions themselves, for me, the report alludes to mindless or less-mindful behaviours accruing over time.  These include:

Being stuck in old patterns: MSF recognised it was, something we’d never seen before”. However WHO objected that it was ‘”not unlike those of past outbreaks, nor was the outbreak unprecedented”. (2015:6). We can easily fall into this trap, particularly when faced with acute stress and complexity.  We remain fixed in our own beliefs, thought patterns and behaviours and filter out ‘evidence’ that contradicts our view of the world. For Langer (1989) our “premature cognitive commitments” (seeing what we expect to see) is at the root of mindlessness.

Pretending not to notice: “Ebola had been stealthily spreading undetected for more than three months” (MSF: 2015:6).   Organizational mindfulness experts Weick et al. (1999) make the point that organisations are defined by what they ignore.  Sometimes we just pretend not to notice.  It may be for a multitude of reasons, usually grounded in fear and ego.  As Gopalakrishnan highlights, “the sceptre of authority and the trappings of power conspire to plug the leader’s ears” (2009:234).

Over-dominant behaviours: there was little room to question the formal information coming from Freetown” (MSF:2015:6) and “it was like shouting into a desert.” (2015:7).  Perhaps these situations were similar to Krieger’s (2005) cockpit research, where over-dominant behaviours hindered the creation of shared mindfulness, even in the presence of positive reasoning, because these behaviours stifled the other party’s full participation.

 
 
These behaviours are not confined to those involved in the Ebola crisis.  You may recognise them in your own sphere. And when we recognise them, it is the first step towards mindfulness.


Turning to Mindfulness

The hope that BBC reporter Smitha Mundasad concluded with, that the world will “have learnt to pay greater attention”, is not so banal.  Attention is what is required.

It is at the core of mindfulness.  Not to advocate naively that mindfulness answers all of our challenges but it does help us bring those challenges into sharper focus and respond with a more open, honest and insightful mind.

To give attention, we need to be aware.  To be aware, we need to be intentional about being fully present.  We must be willing to turn up with a beginner’s mind as if we have never seen the situation before.  With this awareness, attention and equanimity, we can gain: 

Conceptual clarity: through being in touch with the present moment, we see things as they actually are, as opposed to what we imagine them to be.  We break free from our mental modes and habitual thinking. 

Emotional balance: through awareness and openness, we are more resourceful in responding with greater empathy and compassion. We listen to ourselves and others. 

Cognitive flexibility:  through increased sensitivity, we open to new information and create a more nuanced appreciation of our context. We open to options and perspectives.

Properly applied, it provides leaders and organisations with better decisions (Weick and Putnam: 2006). And indeed perhaps this led to new ways of doing for MSF, further building their organisational resilience.  Among those mentioned in the report were the “unusual call” of requesting military effort with expertise in biohazard containment and “the first-time decision to partner with research institutions, the WHO, Ministries of Health and pharmaceutical companies to trial experimental treatments and vaccines in the midst of an outbreak” (2015:18).

So how do we build up our capability to become more mindful?  How will institutions like WHO become mindful organisations?

Developing individual and institutional mindfulness
Institutional mindfulness begins with individual mindfulness. 

We start with what is here. We come into the present moment by noticing our breath, our sensations and our feelings in this moment.  We notice, observe and we train our mind to be equanimous, through meditation and mindfulness training.

And as leaders we build organisation-wide capacity in mindfulness.  Drawing from the research into organisational mindfulness and mindful organising from the likes of Weick et. al (1999), Krieger (2005) and Vogus & Sutcliffe (2012), we:

  • signal the importance of mindfulness to employees throughout the organisation
  • commit to openness, continuous learning and compassion
  • encourage enquiry and dialogue, asking questions like “how much have we – individually and collectively - really internalised the concept of impermanence and constant change, and its implications for our everyday practice?   To what extent is the way that we are conceptualising the problem limiting our perspective and closing down our options? 
  • look to ways as to how we can communicate to include other’s opinions, such as through the use of conditional language
  • set up processes to encourage the reporting of errors and provide opportunities for informal networking for rich thinking and action
  • provide mindfulness training within the organisation to encourage informal and formal practices.

As Fiol and O’Connor (2003:68) point out,  decision makers' preoccupation with failure along with a preoccupation with success leads to greater mindfulness (their emphasis).  With its courageous work in addressing the largest ever Ebola outbreak, MSF must also appreciate their successes. This evaluation is being undertaken and will undoubtedly add to the mindfulness of the organisation.  We look forward to its ongoing reflections and those of its partners.

What are your reflections so far?




Notes:

This article was first posted on Linked In (25 March 2015)
Photo: own

References:


Brown, K.W., Ryan, R.M., and Creswell, J.D. (2007). “Mindfulness: Theoretical Foundations and Evidence for its Salutary Effects”, Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 18 No. 4, pp: 211-237.
Fiol, C. M., E. J. O’Connor, E.J. (2003). “Waking up! Mindfulness in the face of bandwagons, Academy of Management Review. Vol. 28, No.1, pp: 54–70.
Gopalskrishnan, R. (2009). The Case of the Bonsai Manager: Lessons for Managers on Intuition, Revised Edition, New Delhi, Penguin.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994) Wherever you go there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
Krieger, J.L. (2005) “Shared Mindfulness in Cockpit Crisis Situations An Exploratory Analysis”,  Journal of Business Communication, 42(2): 135-167.
Langer, E. (1989) Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
Levinthal, Rerup. (2006). “Crossing and apparent chasm: Bridging mindful and less-mindful perspectives on organizational learning”, Organization Science, Vol.17, No. 4, pp: 503–514.
Mavor, P. (2010), Mindfulness: embracing the future by understanding the present, AMED e-Organisations and People, 17(1)

Médecins Sans Frontières (2015) Pushed to the Limit and Beyond: A year into the largest ever Ebola outbreak, Médecins Sans Frontières (released 23 March 2015)

Mundasad, Smith (2015) How Ebola Changed the World, BBC (23 March 2015) http://www.bbc.com/news/health-31982078

“Swiss Cheese Model” – Reason, J. (1990) Human Error. Cambridge: University Press, Cambridge. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_cheese_model

Vogus, T.J and Sutcliffe, K.M (2012) “Organizational Mindfulness and Mindful Organizing: A Reconciliation and Path Forward”,  Academy of Management Learning & Education, Vol. 11, No. 4, pp: 722–735.
Weick, K. E. and Putnam, T. (2006) “Organizing for Mindfulness: Eastern Wisdom and Western Knowledge”,  Journal of Management Inquiry, 15: 275-287.
Weick, K.E, Sutcliffe, K.M and Obstfeld, D. (1999). “Organizing for High Reliability: Processes of Collective Mindfulness” in R.S. Sutton and B.M. Staw (eds), Research in Organizational Behavior, Vol. 1 (Stanford: Jai Press, 1999), pp: 81–123

Sunday, March 15, 2015

P.S I love you



I’m back. I’ve reflected on our relationship.  And have something to tell you.

I love you.

Just your typical conversation with your direct report who is underperforming, yes?

Perhaps not.

But it could be.                      

If you are like many leaders we work with, you don’t like having what you call those ‘difficult conversations’.  Those conversations to talk about things which are not quite right between you and the other.  Often it is around underperformance, where there is a gap between what your direct report is doing and what you want them to do. 

We help leaders work through this, by using the PRO conversation tool.  We encourage them to articulate the problem with facts and the impact of the underperformance. We help them access strategies to respond appropriately to their and the other’s reactions, and explore ways to gain ownership.

For those leaders who wish to go deeper, these underperformance conversations can be an opportunity to bring compassion into their leadership and into the workplace.

The etymology of "compassion" is Latin, meaning "co-suffering."  No longer just the domain of religion and spirituality, the likes of leadership writers Boyatzis and McKee, recognise that compassion is a key component of good leadership and good coaching.   

Underperformance, probably one of the greatest sources of suffering in the workplace, is surely a ripe place for the leader to start.

The new field of social neuroscience, shows we are wired to help.  If we attend to the other, we automatically empathise with them. So drawing from compassion theory, mindfulness and loving kindness meditation, there is a way to prepare yourself for those conversations.  

It involves saying those 3 words.  I love you.

But relax – saying them just in your mind will be enough.

It may seem far-fetched.  But there will be a shift in how you feel, how you view that individual and how you approach the conversation.

Here is a short exercise for you to experiment with..

Take a moment to relax in your chair, gently close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath and the sensations in your body. 

And bring to mind that person who you want to have a conversation with.  A conversation which is important to you to help you both move forward, to bridge this performance gap, to address this tension between you both.

You see that person. 

And you shine light on what you are doing to create separation between you both.

You offer yourself kindness. You offer yourself compassion in how you may have been creating separation.

And you turn to look into the eyes of that person. 

You see them, their vulnerability, their good intent, you sense their goodness.   You know that we all want to do a good job and you see that in them.

And feeling them close by, you reach out. 

I love you, you say. I appreciate you. May you be free from suffering. 

Coming back to yourself you notice your own heart.

And you gently open your eyes.

               
May this help you in your next conversation.










Sources:



Brach, T (2015) Sure Hearts Release, Audio Tape 4 March 2015, www.tarabrach.com 

Boyatzis R and McKee A (2005) Resonated Leadership: Renewing yourself and connecting with others through mindfulness, hope and compassion, Harvard business School Publishing, Boston

Goleman, Daniel (2007) Why aren’t we more compassionate? TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_goleman_on_compassion


Photo: quotes.lifehack.org via google