Exactly four years ago, writing on the Ebola crisis, BBC reporter Smitha Mundasad wrote: ‘but the hope is that the world will be better prepared and have learnt to pay greater attention, should Ebola, or another disease like it, strike again.’
Has it? Have we?
It was attention that was missing in Ebola; it is probably what has been missing with Coronavirus. Global public health emergencies – indeed any crisis or disaster, large or small – highlight the need for individual and institutional mindfulness.
An accumulation of mindless moments?
A Medicine Sans Frontières (MSF) report concluded: ‘For the Ebola outbreak to spiral this far out of control required many institutions to fail. And they did, with tragic and avoidable consequences.’
Complex human factors theory tell us that for disasters to happen, it usually takes an accumulation of small situations that then build into something larger. It’s not that we seek to repeat the mistakes of the past; it’s more that we are often unconscious of our behaviours or of what drives them. From overworked, stressed individuals to the cumulative unconsciousness of the institutions themselves, for me, the MSF report pointed directly to a series of mindless or less mindful behaviours that accrued over time.
Examples of less mindful behaviours:
- Being stuck in old patterns: MSF recognised that the situation was ‘something we’d never seen before’. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) objected, arguing that it was ‘not unlike those of past outbreaks, nor was the outbreak unprecedented’. It is easy to fall into a trap of not looking at the bigger picture, particularly when faced with acute stress and complexity. We remain fixed in our own beliefs, patterns and behaviours, then we filter out any evidence that contradicts our view of the world. For Ellen J Langer, our ‘premature cognitive commitments’ – seeing what we expect to see – are at the root of mindlessness.
- Pretending not to notice: MSF claimed that ‘Ebola had been stealthily spreading undetected for more than three months’. Organisational mindfulness experts Weick et al., make the point that organisations are defined by what they ignore. Sometimes we pretend not to notice things, and this may be for a multitude of reasons, though it’s usually traceable back to either fear or ego. As R. Gopalakrishnan writes: ‘the sceptre of authority and the trappings of power conspire to plug the leader’s ears’.
- Over-dominant behaviours: MSF also write that ‘there was little room to question the formal information coming from Freetown … it was like shouting into a desert.’ This echoes what Janice L Krieger found in her cockpit research, whereby over-dominant behaviours were shown to hinder the creation of shared mindfulness – even in the presence of positive reasoning. This is because such domineering behaviours stifled the other party’s full participation.
However, these behaviours are not confined to those involved in the Ebola crisis; we are seeing them now as we face Covid-19. You may also recognise them from people in your own sphere, in your own organisations, or maybe even in yourself. Recognising unmindful behaviours is the first step towards mindfulness.
Turning to mindfulness
Mindfulness can’t fix all of our challenges, but it does help us bring them into sharper focus, and respond with an open, honest and insightful mind. Attention and awareness are at the core of mindfulness. We need to be intentional about being fully present; we must be willing to turn up with a beginner’s mind, as though we have never seen the situation before. Through awareness, attention and equanimity, we can gain:
- Conceptual clarity: Being in touch with the present moment allows us to see things as they actually are, as opposed to what we imagine them to be. It allows us to break free from our mental modes and habitual thinking.
- Emotional balance: With awareness and openness, we respond with greater empathy and compassion; we listen to ourselves and to others.
- Cognitive flexibility: Increased sensitivity opens us up to new information and creates a better appreciation of context, options and perspectives.
Properly applied, mindfulness provides leaders and organisations with better decision-making capabilities. So how do we become more mindful? How will companies and public institutions become mindful organisations?
Institutional mindfulness begins with individual mindfulness. As leaders, we build organisation-wide capacity for mindfulness. We do this by:
- Signalling the importance of mindfulness to employees throughout the organisation.
- Committing to openness, continuous learning and compassion.
- Encouraging enquiry and dialogue, asking questions like: How much have we individually and collectively internalised the concept of constant change? What are its implications for our everyday practice? To what extent is the way that we are conceptualising the problem limiting our perspective and our options?
- Looking for ways of communicating that include others’ opinions, such as through the use of conditional language.
- Establishing processes to encourage error reporting, and providing opportunities for informal networking, thinking and action.
- Providing mindfulness training within the organisation.
As Fiol and O’Connor point out, having a preoccupation with failure as well as success when making decisions leads to greater mindfulness. With its courageous work in addressing the largest ever Ebola outbreak, MSF and its partners must appreciate their successes: at the start of this month, the Democratic Republic of the Congo discharged its last Ebola patient from a treatment centre. With Covid-19, WHO will already have successes to add to its learning. Fail fast and learn quick; it all begins with paying attention.
Penelope Mavor from Earth Converse collaborates with Impact as an Associate.
Her writing can be found on Earth Converse.
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