How can mindfulness be used in change management?

Written by
Margaret Chapman-Clarke

01 Jul 2016

01 Jul 2016 • by Margaret Chapman-Clarke

Margaret's book Mindfulness in the Workplace: An Evidence-based Approach to Improving Wellbeing and Maximizing Performance, is available now. 

What is mindfulness?

It is our capacity to cultivate moment-by-moment, non-judgemental, focused attention. Put simply, it is awareness of what is happening, whilst it is happening – what we are experiencing, right here, right now.

And in a workplace context?

It's an holistic, mind-body intervention which develops a deeper level of emotional intelligence (EQ). Extensive research shows high EQ, reduces stress, improves wellbeing and maximises performance. 

Typically, workplace-mindfulness-based interventions (W-MBIs) involve formal and informal reflective practices. These practices are adapted from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s original Mindfulness-Based Stress reduction (MBSR) curriculum, based on weekly sessions of usually 2.5 hours over 8-weeks. W-MBIs are usually shorter (sometimes on-line) and designed to develop skills that enable us to direct our attention ‘on-demand.’ It cultivates our capacity to be receptive to our somatic (bodily) as well as perceptual external and internal experiences. And develops curiosity and openness to all that we think, feel and see. Through the practices we become familiar with how our minds work and cultivate compassion for ourselves and others. 

Ruby Wax, in the recent issue of Changeboard, describes it as our capacity to ‘know which mode you are in and making choices- to stay in a particular mode, or pull back. The notion of ‘modes of mind’ is central to understanding mindfulness. Daniel Kahneman describes this as fast/slow thinking. Wax describes a core practice in W-MBIs, that of the three-minute breathing space; one that you can drop in at any time you feel ‘frazzled.’ At its most simplest, mindfulness is interrupting the automatic-pilot and simply stopping and noticing what is happening, whilst it is happening – and choosing how to respond rather than react.

"Mindfulness is simply stopping and noticing what is happening, while it is happening – and choosing how to respond rather than react"

How can mindfulness be used in the workplace, for change management?

There are quite a few household names that have implemented W-MBIs: Capital One, Google, eBay, BT, London Underground, even 10 Downing Street and the benefits are now well documented. For example, Natalie Benitez-Castellano, head of HR at BlueBay Asset Management was aware how implementing mindfulness might be negatively perceived in an ‘active asset management company where clients rely on technical insight and investment decision-making’. 

Here, the MBI was positioned as an opportunity to enhance performance, specifically the ability for increased focus, calmness and concentration in a highly pressurised working environment. Competencies that facilitate clearer thinking to produce the best outcomes for clients, for Benitez-Castellano mindfulness was an intervention that had a good fit; and as with Ruby Wax, she too noted a particularly good podcast within the MBI, a three-minute breathing exercise: "so if you’re feeling swamped or you’ve got a big meeting to prepare for, it is quite easy to access on your phone or online and practice at your desk.”

To date, there is still little empirical research that looks at W-MBIs within the context of change management specifically. However, facilitating change is a complex undertaking requiring high level social and cognitive skills. The change agent needs to be mindful, adaptive and emotionally intelligent and research shows that it is one of the most demanding professional roles. The capacity to process information; make decisions, solve-problems, respond and collaborate amid complexity is essential and there is evidence with different occupational groups, such as lawyers and more recently, managers in the Welsh Government involved in climate change which shows that cultivating mindfulness improves quality of working relationships, communication and decision-making.

Whats your message to those who say mindfulness is a fluffy concept?

Liz Nottingham and Susan Peacock, collaborators on The Mindful Advantage programme implemented in the fast-paced media organisation, Starcom Mediavest Group (SMG) argues ‘anyone who thinks that mindfulness is the latest fuzzy HR fad’ or ‘left-field’ are wrong. It is not a quick fix. A Sunday Times Top 100 Company, SMG introduced mindfulness ‘as a way of enabling people to hit the ‘off-button’, ways to recharge, refocus and manage their attention wisely and effectively.’

Do you believe more organisations will adopt this approach in the future?

There is greater awareness of ‘applied neuroscience’ that is, ways of understanding how our brains work and what we can do to harness our wandering mind, because minds wander. It is too simplistic now to think of the left/right brain distinction. Leaders and HR practitioners need to become ‘brain savvy’ in order to maximise, in particular limited attentional resources. As Daniel Goleman in his book Focus argues, "the most precious resource in a computer system is no longer its processor, memory or disk or network, but rather human attention."

How can HR leaders to make the case for mindfulness in change management and OD within their businesses?

Examples such as BlueBay, Capital One and SMG illustrate how implementing MBIs are not a quick fix. 

  • As with any intervention, there has to be a clear set of intentions and a business case
  • Aim for evolution, not revolution, start small, with a pilot, evaluate and then proceed – mindfully
  • Apply contextual intelligence – that is what will ‘fit’ within your organisation.
  • Pay attention to language; deal with any misconceptions head-on and use evidence that speaks to your industry, use case examples and evidence to illustrate that mindfulness, at work, works.
  • Remember to make explicit the WIFME factor (what is in this for me?)