Organisational Learning and Mindfulness – The Connection

In the last couple of weeks we have explored learning and mindfulness independently. Two weeks ago, we looked at how engaging in the three forms (single-, double- and triple-loop) of learning could be the most appropriate way to deal with unpredictability in organisations. Last week we looked in some depth at an explanation for mindfulness based in psychology. If we can find a relationship between these threads, then we may not only be able to explain the increase in popuarity of the practice of mindfulness within organisations but also apply it more effectively in our personal and organisational circumstances.

The most straightforward form of learning is single-loop. We put in a certain number of hours (10,000 according to Malcolm Gladwell) learning a skill and at a certain point we attain a level of competence deemed ‘expert’. Turns out it isn’t that simple. Just putting in the hours won’t make one an expert. The key is deliberate practice and that means two things. First, receiving prompt feedback about one’s performance, reflecting on it and applying it to one’s practice and second, a balance between maintaining motivation and increasing levels of difficulty. It is difficult to bring this reflective, balanced approach to one’s practice without being focused and concentrated, in other words, mindful. This goes against the common perception of multi-tasking as a desirable skill, at least when learning. Recent research has demonstrated the effect of distraction on performance. Groups of subjects were asked to perform repetitive tasks requiring varying degrees of alertness. One group was told they need to ready for a possible phone call during the test. This, understandably, resulted in increased errors. Surprisingly, similar observations were made of another group of subjects who were allowed to place their phones on their desks but were not asked to be prepared for a phone call. The mere presence of the mobile device was enough of a distraction. Clearly, there is a relationship between mindfulness – being present and focused on the task – and the ability of the individual to learn.

Double-loop learning involves surfacing and dealing with unconscious biases. Last week we looked at how Relational Frame Theory (RFT) explains mindfulness within the field of psychology. Briefly, we pull together a set of interconnected mental frames that experience tells us is most appropriate for the situation and we respond to situation from within this set of frames. The process we use to assemble a coherent set of frames is instantaneous and usually subconscious – and the process is influenced by our unconscious biases. Now imagine a situation in which we need to make a judgement about a person. Under normal conditions we assemble the set of frames very quickly and unconsciously – and it is very likely our biases have influenced the process. We are likely to act in a way that aligns with our bias, but since the process is unconscious we are generally not aware we have acted in a certain way. And when our actions are brought to our attention, it is quite possible we are genuinely surprised. What the practice of mindfulness does is to bring greater awareness to the process and therefore a much better chance of seeing ourselves as we are and not as we would like believe we are. A technique commonly used to demonstrate the presence of this gap between reality and our perception of ourselves is the two-column template. In the right column we write down what we are saying. In the left column we write down what we are actually thinking. Just imagining one is doing this during a conversation can be an enlightening exercise. This technique is very similar to what we do when we are trying to be mindful, i.e. surfacing and critically evaluating the underlying intent that drives our behaviour and is as relevant for groups as for individuals.

Triple-loop learning involves understanding the systems of power and meaning that influence our behaviour. Over a period of time, individuals in groups tend to develop ways of thinking and acting that are similar. This behaviour serves to enhance the value of membership and provides a sense of belonging. But this similarity can serve to insulate the group from seeing themselves as they really are, sometimes to a point where the group tacitly agrees to ignore ‘elephants’ in the room. In its extreme manifestation this urge to blend in can lead to dysfunctional behaviour, such as violent rejection of challenges to the group’s habitual ways of thinking and acting. This behaviour can be seen not only in the workplace, but even in bastions of rationality like scientific research. In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn describes how the scientific community routinely falls prey to groupthink. The practice of mindfulness, by opening up one’s own thinking to critical evaluation, can bring awareness to situations in which we are allowing ourselves to engage in such behaviour. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that RFT can trace some of its origins to Buddhist practice, which requires one to treat all sentient beings as deserving of respect!

So, it does look as if there is a very close relationship between learning and the practice of mindfulness. But what is the value of this insight?

Well, we do know that most initiatives to improve organisational effectiveness tend to fail or not be sustained. So we don’t seem to be doing a great job in this area at this point in time. If, as we have hypothesised, organisational effectiveness is dependent on us being in the learning mode, then the next question would be – How exactly are we to do this? We have a model for iterative learning that incorporates single-, double- and triple-loop learning and we have at our disposal a set of principles and techniques for individual and organisational learning. But what we lack is a procedure that we can follow that tells us exactly what to do. It is of course quite possible, even likely, that such a procedure would be contrary to what we are trying to achieve, which is learning as we go. But the practice of mindfulness, though also far from procedural, could be yet another valuable weapon in our armoury. Let me know what you think.


If you are interested in learning more about organisational alignment, how misalignment can arise and what you can do about it join the community. Along the way, I’ll share some tools and frameworks that might help you improve alignment in your organisation.