Mindful Organisations – Developing Flourishing Workplaces.
A commentary from Professor Michael West, Head of Thought Leadership at The King’s Fund and Professor of Organizational Psychology at Lancaster University Management School
Mindfulness training is so popular in general and in the business world in particular. When I started research for my PhD on the psychology of meditation in 1973, it was a decidedly niche (and weird) interest. Today, many large corporations and other work organisations are implementing mindfulness training, including Google, Apple, Proctor and Gamble, as well as the military, prisons, hospitals and universities. This is encouraging of course because of the positive effects of meditation and mindfulness practice.
However, mindfulness training may be seen as a token gesture towards work place well-being if the culture of the organisation is inimical to presence, values, compassion, values, supportiveness and authenticity. In contexts that are sometimes bullying, amoral, profit-obsessed, exploitative and manipulative, mindfulness seeds will be being scattered on stony ground.
The mindfulness movement must also aim to change cultures so that mindless organisations become mindful cultures.
This is a way of organising workplaces that is mindful rather than managerial and technocratic, where human needs go unrecognised and unmet. Mindful organisation means nurturing a constantly evolving culture that reinforces mindfulness, awareness and consciousness underpinned by compassionate leadership. It is a powerful means for enabling work organisations to fulfil their societal purpose and ensuring that those who work within them flourish. Mindful organisation can therefore be seen as a process of organising rather than an outcome.
What does mindful organisation involve? Research in a wide variety of organisations (and particularly health care), suggests there are five key elements . First is ensuring awareness or mindfulness of vision and values and this requires leaders to focus daily on how to support those they lead to deliver the vision. East London NHS Trust is focused on ‘providing the highest quality mental health and community care to our local communities’ and on staying true to and embodying the organisation’s values: We care – Everyone is entitled to the highest quality care. We respect – Everyone should be treated with kindness and respect. We are inclusive – Everyone should have access to our services when they need them, and we actively seek suggestions on how we can improve’.
The process of organising mindfully also means translating visions and values into effective performance by ensuring every team from the executive team down has agreed five or six clear and challenging objectives aligned with the vision. And mindfully focuses on making progress towards those objectives every day as the priority in their work. This is about ensuring that the organisation keeps bringing its attention back to what is important in making progress towards achieving its purposes rather than getting lost in the mindless chatter of initiatives, restructures, bumf and distractions that characterise much of organisational life.
Organising means working with and supporting people, hence mindful organisation is about raising awareness of the vital element of compassion in all interactions: attending (being present and ‘listening with fascination’) to each other, understanding the challenges others face, empathising and serving or helping the other . Interacting mindfully and compassionately creates the conditions for mindful organisation through present moment, non-judgemental awareness in all interactions – whether with customers or service users, colleagues or those in other departments or teams. Mindful organisation requires leadership that is authentic, open and honest, curious to learn about improving leadership, appreciative and compassionate.
Mindful organising also involves paying attention to the difficult challenges facing the organisation, particularly those that have come to be seen as such wicked problems that they are neglected until they become invisible. In health care organisations for example, work overload, discrimination against minority groups, staff stress and relationships with the media are often wrongly caricatured as being unavoidable. This ‘learned helplessness’ orientation to particular issues results in them not being given attention. Mindful organisation involves identifying the key problems facing the organisation and attending to them. This then enables the generation of new and improved ways of responding. In this way the organisation adapts to its environment successfully. Birmingham Women and Children’s Hospital turned their attention to the extremely difficult problem of junior doctors’ working conditions and went from being a place only 40% of their junior doctors recommended as a place to work to 100% .
Mindful organising is about interconnection – team working and cross boundary working. It involves everyone working effectively within and across teams to ensure the achievement of the organisation’s goals and creating an environment where people experience joy at work. It is in teams that mindful organisation is crucially played out – teams where everyone’s voice is equally valued. Teams that value diversity, that are cohesive, mindful of quality, supportive and non-judgemental and where there is an awareness of team working processes . The research I have been pursuing over the last 25 years shows how mindful teams, especially in pressured situations, are much more effective than other teams. Teams that take time out to reflect on what they are trying to achieve and how they are going about it and then making changes are far more productive and innovative than other teams . The power of such ‘team reflexivity’ or ‘team mindfulness’ has been demonstrated in teams around the world.
And in mindful organisations there is collective leadership, were everyone feels they have leadership responsibility; where there is shared leadership in teams; where leaders work interdependently across boundaries (for example, in health services prioritising patient care overall, not just their own areas); and where there is a consistency of leadership style across the organisation characterised by authenticity, optimism, honesty, supportiveness and compassion.
Implementing all this in practice requires leadership committed to mindful organisation and, along with the UK National Health Service regulatory agency (NHS Improvement), I have been working to develop tools, methods and organisational processes that can support such cultures. They are available to download free and represent an evidence-based approach to developing mindful cultures in health service organisations (though the content is equally relevant in other organizational settings) .
Mindfulness practice in organisations should not simply be an add on because it is unlikely this will change organisational cultures. In addition, we must aspire to create organisations that are themselves mindful so that organisations become communities that support the underlying principles on which the mindfulness movement is based – openness, authenticity, attention to difficulty, supportiveness and presence. And in this way, we can ensure their effectiveness and the flourishing of those who work within them and are served by them.
Michael West is Head of Thought Leadership at The King’s Fund, Professor of Organizational Psychology at Lancaster University Management School, and editor of The psychology of meditation: Research and practice, (2016), Oxford University Press. He will be facilitating a Masterclass at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre entitled Nurturing Work Cultures for People and Performance on 26th January, 2018.
Declarations of interest: None
 West, M. A., Lyubovnikova, J., Eckert, R., & Denis, J.L. , (2014),Collective leadership for cultures of high quality health care. Journal of Organizational Effectiveness: People and Performance, 1, 240 – 260. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/JOEPP-07-2014-0039
 West, M. A. & Chowla, R. (2017). Compassionate leadership for compassionate health care. In Gilbert, P. (ed.). Compassion: Concepts, Research and Applications. (pp. 237-257). London: Routledge.
 West, M.A., Eckert, R., Collins, B., & Chowla, R. (2017). Caring to change: How compassionate leadership can stimulate innovation in healthcare. London: The King’s Fund.
 West, M. A. Effective teamwork: Practical lessons from Organizational Research. Chichester: Wiley, Blackwell.
This guest blog from Professor Michael West is part of the OMC’s commitment to developing a research and training programme in the area of mindfulness and mindfulness based programmes in workplace contexts.