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Organizational Mindfulness


The field of psychology can be divided into two basic fields. The psychology of the individual and that of the group of individuals (a.k.a., the organization). Individuals and organizations consist of discretionary components that are integrated into complex, purposeful systems. As a change management analyst, one of the more interesting comparisons that I discovered has to do with an individual human’s personality disorder and an organization’s identity (cultural) dysfunction.

       In humans, we have individuals who are at opposite ends of the psychological spectrum when it comes to change. I found the discussion about the metaphoric treatment of an organizational cognitive behavior to be as useful. In this case, there are two psychological disorders to consider: bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

       The person afflicted with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) creates routines for the purpose of avoiding real or imaginary change. On the other hand, the person afflicted with bipolar disorder, is in a constant state of mental change that they are oblivious to. The so-called “normal” person is somewhere between these opposites trying to merely cope with real and perceived change.

       This of course begs the question regarding what is the normative state? It is one thing to diagnose a person or an organization with having a particular affliction based on symptoms. It is quite another to understand what is the standard for normal. The treatments prescribed for either the individual or the organization, in order to bring about a similar normative state, include a variety of education, medication, and various therapies.

       Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depression, is characterized by the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) as causing unusual shifts (changes) in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. The person afflicted with bipolar is in a state of constant mental chaotic change without realizing it.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) as causing a person to have uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts and behaviors that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over (without change).  The person afflicted with OCD creates numerous rituals in order to build a protective emotional shield around them with the specific intention to deflect any and all change.

       So let us take this analogy one step further. If we can transpose a psychological affliction from the individual to the organization, then can we do something similar with the diagnosis and the treatment regime? Can we diagnose and then treat the afflicted organizational patient to change this theoretical patient’s affliction to some standardized, normative condition?

     In psychology, the “treatment” is usually a combination of prescription medication and cognitive therapy. We can metaphorically prescribe a psychotropic drug to help moderate the affliction of an organization. This would be the often cited “silver bullet.” For the individual, medication is a prescriptive healing agent that is administered orally, topically or intravenously. For the organization, this metaphorical silver bullet is analogous to providing the much needed physical resources to achieve transformation. Prescribed resources can take the form of people, training, equipment, and facilities. In other words, what can you give people physically to accomplish change?

     For obsessive-compulsive disorder, only one form of psychotherapy has been found in multiple controlled trials to be effective. It is termed exposure and response prevention (ERP). Both components, exposure to feared situations or thoughts, and the prevention of rituals, whether physical or mental, are necessary to maximize the treatment response.[1] 

  • Exposure to feared situations or thoughts is the same as educating your staff as to “why” this is being done.

  • Prevention of rituals, whether physical or mental, are necessary to maximize the treatment response. The organizational corollary is when people say “we always did it this way before.” This can be addressed mentally through training and physically by building in computerized blocks to previous process practices. 

       For bipolar disorder, modern psychotherapy utilizes directive and symptom-focused strategies such as encouragement of medication adherence, provision of psycho-education, involvement of family members, development of strategies for relapse prevention, exploration of the reciprocal relationship between mood and either cognitions or interpersonal relationships, and establishment of regular sleep-wake cycles.[2] 

  • Encouragement of medication adherence. Do what your consultant told you.

  • Provision of psycho-education. Educate staff as to “why” this is being done.

  • Involvement of family members, in this case stakeholders in and out of the organization. Such as the oversight board, line staff, customer or constituents, vendors, and various inter- and intra-agency groups.

  • Development of strategies for relapse prevention. As in evaluate why people don’t follow through on recommendations and how to reinforce implementation.

  • Exploration of the reciprocal relationship between mood and either cognitions or interpersonal relationships. So try positive reinforcement incentives that are formal (monetary) and informal (acknowledgement).

  • Establishment of regular sleep-wake cycles is the same as don’t overwork your folks and enforce mandatory time off.

        In the human organism, scientific studies demonstrate that chronic negative thinking literally changes the neural structure of the brain, causing a cascade of impacts to the physical body, which in turn cab predetermine a person’s reality.[3] The organizational corollary is ongoing negative practices that impact the organization emotional (social) health and in turn its reality. Neural pathways[4] of repeated negative information, as in “we always did it this way,” etch negative neural pathways and mental thought loops that result in self-destructive organizational behaviors and outcomes.

        So who is responsible for treating these organizational disorders? The CEO is the organizational brain (predicts and plans for the future) and senior management team is the brain’s cerebellum which controls muscle activity or pro-actively, keeps the business moving in a way that ensures survival. From there it is a matter of the organizational components to carry out their respective functions.


       The metaphorical analysis of the individual versus organization psychological affliction is useful because it allows us to understand how organizations can be diagnosed and treated through a different lens of understanding. In this case the doctor is not one of medicine, but one of philosophy. The diagnosis and treatment have very strong corollaries that have very real applicability. Finally, the “silver bullet” in not a drug but a therapy.

      Mindfulness research shows that conscious training of your 'executive control' makes it possible to reshape the architecture of your brain and rewire the neural pathways of the mind. Interestingly, mindfulness research also shows that different brain areas are activated when you choose to regulate or suppress an emotion, compared to when someone instructs your to inhibit an emotion.

       In the emergency room, there are triage processes for dealing with high acuity patients such as an immediate intravenous medication. Similarly in organizations, it may become critical to inject a person into a situation who is the change agent carrying a new message and method. This may mean firing or sidelining the problem person with the new change agent. This creates two important changes. First, it immediately interrupts the negative locus of the problem and replaces the problem person with a new one carrying a new message and method. Second, it sends a message that change will happen needed and that the change will be quick, decisive and effective. Nothing facilitates change better than a high profile, decisive action.




[4] A neural pathway is a connection between a number of neurons (nerve cells) in different parts of the brain which are connected by and communicate with synapses. The more those certain neurons fire and communicate, the stronger the neural pathway becomes.

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