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Change to ‘Mindful’ Employees

Most people are wary of change. So often it’s “better the devil you know”. The mind focuses on the risks of change and starts thinking up ways of resisting. That’s natural, as we’re generally wired to be creatures of habit.

In 2013, economist and social scientist Christian Gärtner wrote about the concept of mindfulness in preparing people for change within an organisation. Mr Gärtner proposed that organisations requiring a large-scale change (or to be changing continuously) need to prepare their employees for it early on. He identified how the concept of mindfulness can be a key driver in this process.

Organisational change consultant Pravir Malik developed a hypothesis which proposed that by dealing with small levels of dysfunction (for example, personal unhappiness),that bigger scale patterns at higher levels would be positively affected and this will have an impact on change management. To test the hypothesis medical team members were equipped with software to keep track of emotional responses throughout the day, with a focus on how they felt before, during, and after team meetings. This meant that the individual team members were aware of the triggers to happiness or unhappiness in that context. This mindfulness exercise, together with support to deal with the workplace challenges, enabled the team members to address their responses. The results of the exercise suggested that by using mindfulness, the team members created positive dynamics, enabling them to perform better as teams in stressful circumstances.

Mindfulness in the context of change means being able to control those automatic fears of change and seeing the bigger picture. A mindful person is more likely to understand why an organisation is implementing change (necessity, a change in strategy, etc.) and also look for the opportunities in a new regime rather than just the threats. The flip-side is that mindful people may notice the more subtle negative impacts quicker than other employees, so it’s important to emphasise the underlying reasons for change. If retention during and after the change is your priority, then mindful employees recognising problems early on may be advantageous so that they can be solved before you make too many commitments.

Can businesses – particularly small businesses – use this to their advantage? In any change process or reorganisation you need to identify the champions: The people who understand that business is business and can bring other members of the workforce on board. Once you’ve done that, those who continue to resist hopefully become the minority.

The next step is to encourage a workforce of mindful employees. For some it does seem to be a character trait, or an attitude picked up from previous experience in business. In others it may be less visible– particularly in long-servers – and more strategic action is needed to achieve the goal.

Psychology Professor Ellen Langer emphasised the advantages of managers tailoring the way they talk to employees about the business (regardless of whether a reorganisation is looming or not). For example, the phrase: “This new organisational set-up could enhance effectiveness if we get X, Y and Z done” is more likely to get people thinking about the context of a situation and how they form a part of it. It still doesn’t reduce the manager’s authority – the change will happen regardless – but it gives employees a chance to think about it sensibly.

Simply saying “This is the new organisational set-up” from the beginning gives employees an order. They’ll probably follow it – they’ll have to if they want to stay – but if there are problems along the way they may not be as engaged and efficient as you require.

For change that requires the same employees performing at their peak in a new set-up though, ‘mindfulness’ is a key attribute. The more of the workforce they can win over, the fewer resistors managers have to deal with.

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