Monday, September 26, 2011


For most of my adult life, I’ve worked for large corporations. Right out of college I worked for a news paper for a time, and I worked for myself as a consultant (mostly for large companies) from 2000 to 2003. Then I spent nine months at St. Louis Public Schools, before returning to corporate life.

The corporate model of business organization has been changing for the last 30 years. The paternalistic, lifetime employment, mega-company that seemed to dominate for most of the 20th century is largely gone, replaced by (some would say) more realistic relationships between organizations, employees, customers and other stakeholders. Some would say that, and some forget that organizations mat change while organizational mindsets linger long after.

Corporations, like all other organizations – government, academia, the NGOs or “non-governmental organizations, churches – have mindsets. People often refer to organizational culture, but it’s less cultural, I think, and more of a mindset. Mindsets can be good things – accomplishing and creating and achieving and making money, and that it what corporations are supposed to do, make money. Mindsets can also be bad things, followed so rigidly that they can take organizations right over the cliff.

The thing about mindsets – good and bad – is that they tend to be focused and relentless. They can be like the proverbial steamroller, no matter how much uncertainty and counter-information is available.

This focus – including the exclusion of ideas, issues and events that might suggest that an alternative way or means or process might be preferable – is related to what author Ellen Langer calls “mindlessness” in her book Mindfulness, which we’re discussing at The High Calling. Mindlessness doesn’t mean idiocy; it means doing things because this is the way you’ve always done them – the things you do without thinking once, much less twice – regardless of the realities confronting you. (Think of a corollary practiced almost religiously by certain governments: “Since we’re technically bankrupt, let’s keep spending money.”)

Mindlessness in any organizational setting can be destructive. As the mindset keeps crashing against change, new facts, news issues and new problems that it can’t resolve, the choice becomes either change or construct ever more complex fictions to maintain the mindset.

I’ve seen both choices made. I’ve even seen both choices being made at the same time. There have been times when I’ve been part of the mindset, and (more typically for me) times when I’ve said there’s a different reality we have to face, we don’t control what affects us, we don’t control what affects our business and we have to think and act differently.

Sometimes the organization has listened; sometimes the organization has no choice but to listen. And sometimes the organization doesn’t listen, and behaves very typically when the change or issue or event happens as predicted.

They shot the messenger.

I’ve taken my share of bullets over the years. I’ve also had the opportunity to be part of the change. I’ve learned that both kinds of experiences are, unfortunately, necessary, to understand why people and organizations behave the way they do. The home mortgage disaster is an example of  how mindlessness at all levels and across the economic spectrum – government, individuals, banks, brokerages – led to disaster.

Often the message has to be one the organization doesn’t want to hear: “We have to make ourselves vulnerable. We have to admit we don’t have all the answers. We have to respond to what people are concerned about, even if the science says the concerns are baseless.”

It is not an easy thing to convince an organization. It’s easier to ride the mindlessness flow. But truth still must be told and acted upon.

To see more posts on Ellen Langer’s book Mindfulness, please visit The High Calling. Laura Boggess is leading the discussion, and this week we’re looking at the first three chapters.


Louise Gallagher said...

Another good read!

In my world, 'mindfulness' is being mindful of how my actions align with my values and principles -- and sometimes, the rote takes over and I find myself unmindful of the impact of my doing. Mindfulness takes energy and focus and a commitment to fearlessly walking the walk of integrity.

Nancy said...

I read the first three chapters and kept thinking instances where I've seen mindlessness play out on a personal level. I think your analysis of organizational mindlessness is dead on--especially within large bureaucratic government agencies.

Maureen said...

Mindless is also acting without intelligence, not the IQ kind but the kind that reflects having looked all around, taken stock of assumptions, made observations, considered consequences, and discerned from all this the possibilities of approach. Mindful is taking action with understanding of and care for the result(s).

One application of the above: think about what happens when one receives a diagnosis of serious disease.

Excellent post, Glynn!

Laura said...

Very interesting read, Glynn. Working for a large hospital has given me plenty of opportunity to see the mindlessness of corporations. So much meaningless red tape. Just because it's always been done that way. I think the truly progressive company would do that thing we read about in Enchantment--where the employees try to imagine the venture failing and comb over possible problems that way. I wonder if more corporations are doing that now? Or maybe just newer ones? STill thinking about this...

Lisa notes... said...

I was reading everything you said as it applies to churches as well.

"As the mindset keeps crashing against change, new facts, news issues and new problems that it can’t resolve, the choice becomes either change or construct ever more complex fictions to maintain the mindset."

I've seen some churches accept change, and others construct more fallacies to maintain the status quo.

I'm glad to be reading Mindfulness alongside you. I'm enjoying it thoroughly so far.

Anonymous said...

it took me a while to notice that there is not a white pillow on her couch.


H. Gillham said...

I worked for the government. They were not an "organization."

Just sayin'.