Collective Mindfulness, A Starting Point: Don’t just do the work, think together about it

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague of mine sent an email to a few people in her work-tribe. The recipients of the email are skillful at and passionate about social change and well-being. They work hard. And, like you, they face pressures, frustrations, delights, opportunities, and the ups and downs that emerge when the goal is to create meaningful change. The article my colleague sent was written by Michael Hobbes. It’s entitled, “Stop Trying to Save the World.” Here’s a link:

The article chronicles the unitended consequences that often occur when philanthropists and/or NGO’s serve up great ideas to “save the world.” Yet, once executed, those good ideas just create a big mess. My colleague asked us to read and reflect on the article. And, so we did. One by one the reflective emails arrived. Each response offered important insight about the issue as well as critical questions about our own social change efforts. No big conclusions were reached.

What follows in this post, is not about the article we read, but about something else that occurred and why that “something else” is important. OK, so, what else did we do? We thought together about our work.

In his book, The Mindful Brain, Dan Siegel revealed a fascinating concept emerging in neuro-science. Here’s the idea: The brain, it seems, creates more neural connections when we increase mindful attention during action. Here’s Seigel,

Preliminary research involving brain function hints at the view that mindfulness changes the brain. Why would the way you pay attention in the present moment change your brain? How we pay attention promotes neural plasticity, the change of neural connections in response to experience. What we’ll examine are the possible mechanism of how the various dimensions of mindful awareness emerge within the activity of the brain and then stimulate the growth of connections in those areas (p.25).

Your expereince of life likely bears out this emerging research. Think of a new skill, or even one you are very adept at performing. The more mindful you become of the doing, as you do it, the more it increases the quality of the doing. Think of the mishaps that occur when you drive “mindlessly.” So, mindfulness not only increases skill, but it changes the brain in postive ways. When you’re mindful, you do what you do better and your brain is shaped for greater future effectiveness.

Is it possible the same idea could be true for tribes that work together? 

Is collective work more effective if the tribe is practicing collective mindfulness? 

Well, it seems like that’s the case. Karl Weick’s work is a great example. Weick and his colleagues studied groups under great collective work-stress and noted how the level of their collective mindfulness decreased errors and increased efficiency and effectiveness. Instead of the word “mindful,” Weick used the word, “heedful.” Weick and his colleagues assert that heedful interrelations increase the quality of collective work on a number of levels.

Check out: Weick, K. E., & Roberts, K. H. (1993). Collective Mind in Organizations: Heedful Interrelating on Flight Decks. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38(3), 24.

I think we can safely say that collective mindfulness is not easy to consistenly achieve. Of course the same can be said for personal mindfulness. So, this leads to another important question.

Since collective mindfulness takes practice, what can a tribe do if they want to increase their collective mindfulness, but are new to the practice? 

The first thing the tribe has to face is that indeed they must practice collective mindfulness, first as novices. You don’t start out really good at collective mindfulness. You practice your way there, like everytning else in life. So, most teams will need first steps of practice—sort of like playing scales or simple songs on the paino. Ok so what’s a first step in the practice of collective mindfulness? Well, welcome back to the article my colleague shared.

One first step in the practice of collective mindfulness is to think together about your work in a more reflective way (like my colleagues did). Thinking togethter about work (like reflecting on a challenging article or debriefing a difficult or positive situation) does two things: 1) it creates collective focus (we all look at the same thing at the same time), and 2) it creates conversation about the work (how are we doing?). Both those actions build the muscle of collective mindfulness. As a tribe learns to collectively focus on and evaluate their work, they lay down the pathways needed to shift that attention from “after the fact” or “outside the work” to “during the action.” They make the move from reflecting on or reflecting after to mindufulness during.

I’ll explore this movement more in the days ahead (or maybe weeks—who knows when the muse will strike).

2014-12-04T15:45:41-04:00

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Written by Dave Fleming