Many factors contribute to whether an organization can achieve success. I define success as an upward trajectory in responsible profitability, productivity, innovation, and competitiveness. Some of the things that determine whether an organization will succeed or not are simply out of our control. And those things that are under our control can be elusive and difficult to understand.
Every minute of every day each and every one of us is emotionally and mentally managing three related but distinct variables: change, complexity, and ambiguity. Often our processing of change, complexity, and ambiguity occurs at a level below our immediate consciousness and requires little mental and emotional energy. Driving, biking, or walking to work is a good example of where change, complexity, and ambiguity are highly present, but usually within the margins of that with which we are mentally and emotionally able to cope. Cars changing lanes, stop-and-go traffic, an accident on the road, people passing you, you passing people, horns honking, or bells ringing, someone swerving into your lane, etc. While our morning or evening commute can take a toll on us mentally and emotionally—especially if it's long and there is a lot of traffic—this routine that billions of people undertake daily generally falls within the margins of what our brains can handle without becoming compromised.
Sticking with the commute analogy, imagine if your work destination changed every week. Add to that the fact that you need to follow entirely new directions, and navigate totally unfamiliar roads, and encounter numerous unexpected obstacles. Oh, and add to that that your mode of transportation changes too (i.e., different car, bike, shoes, etc.). Now you can begin to approximate a scenario in which the change, complexity, and ambiguity associated with the task of commuting to and from work start to take a mental and emotional toll that compromises the brain's ability to function. More precisely, the part of the brain that is responsible for rational thought starts to wane—the prefrontal cortex. Evolutionarily, the prefrontal cortex is the newest part of the brain. The prefrontal cortex also takes a lot of wattage to run. The prefrontal cortex does its best work in the morning after a good night of sleep, and it helps to suppress irrational signals of danger from another part of our brain that plays a key and important role in the fear response—the amygdala.
Keeping a balance between the rational thinking of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala is important. On the one hand, the ability of the prefrontal cortex to maintain calm in the amygdala is essential to living a life not paralyzed by fear. For example, the amygdala might be sending signals not to get on a plane because it might crash. The prefrontal cortex is usually able to override these fears with rationale about how few people die flying, despite the fact that it is still a risk, albeit small. When the prefrontal cortex is unable to override the fear signaling of the amygdala distress manifests and we can develop phobias (e.g. a fear of flying). On the other hand, living a life free from fear is likely to result in our swift demise. To this end, sometimes an outburst from the amygdala, as manifest via the fight/flight/freeze response, can be involuntary and lifesaving. Swerving to avoid an oncoming vehicle, freezing if you come across a snake ready to strike on a hiking trail, or running from a would-be assailant are all examples of how rational fear and the involuntary fear response are hardwired into our genetic coding to keep us safe.
So what does the fear response have to do with how organizations operate? Let’s return to the earlier example of commuting to work. If you were forced to overuse your prefrontal cortex on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis to navigate new roads, new signage, new obstacles, and a new means of transportation to arrive at work, this task would erode your ability to deal with change complexity, and ambiguity in other areas of your life. And it would make you more susceptible to signals from your amygdala of danger. In the Information Age, of many organizations operate like the scenario I described above. The pace and change of life driven by technology create an environment filled with change, complexity, and ambiguity. These factors put weight on the prefrontal cortex and arouse the amygdala, leading to a state of distress. Sometimes this distress can be masked by the euphoria of doing something novel and exciting, especially if the organization is having success. But that euphoria soon wears off. To be clear, every organization, no matter how large or small, no matter how old or new, deals with change, complexity, and ambiguity.
The distress that change, complexity, and ambiguity can cause is inversely proportional to the amount of perceived power an individual has in an organization. In other words, while the CEO, COO, or President of an organization may feel the stress associated with making the organization a success, their position of power is a mitigating factor, because it is balanced by a real or imagined sense of control. The less power a person has, the likelier they are to experience distress from change, complexity, and ambiguity.
As the change, complexity, and ambiguity of work life lead to a state of personal distress, a chain of events is set in motion that can quite literally be the death of an organization, as I have personally witnessed from the inside and the outside on multiple occasions. The pattern is predictable, consistent, potentially fatal to the organization and, most importantly, preventable. Distress leads to low morale. Low morale leads to cynicism. Cynicism leads to disengagement. And disengagement leads to departure. Each and every stage from distress to departure take a toll on the organization's ability to succeed.
And this is where leaders in organizations can take their two, also predictable, actions that all but guarantee failure. First, they might attribute the signals of low morale, cynicism, disengagement, and departure to personal weakness on the part of employees (sometimes privately and sometimes publicly). And second, they might attempt to exercise control to reduce or remove change, complexity, and ambiguity.
The instinct to deflect responsibility by blaming others for their distress is a natural defensive mechanism with the goal of self-preservation—quite understandable, but nonetheless damaging. The instinct to control in the face of change, complexity, and ambiguity is also quite natural—if there’s a fire, douse it with water! The problem is that the fire you’re dealing with here is a grease fire, which water significantly exacerbates. In other words, the first instincts to blame and control in response to low morale, cynicism, disengagement, and departure, only serve to worsen the problem.
There is no antidote per se to this phenomenon of change, complexity, and ambiguity leading to low morale, cynicism, disengagement, and departure. But there is an effective treatment of sorts. The treatment I have in mind is something that has been practiced for centuries in Eastern culture and often comes framed as a spiritual tradition. It goes by many names, but the name most commonly associated with this practice today in the West is mindfulness.
The brain operates on three levels: the subconscious, conscious, and meta-conscious. The subconscious can influence how we feel and what we think about things to a significant degree but is mostly invisible to us. The subconscious is where many of our automatic fear responses reside in response to the external stimuli of change, complexity, and ambiguity. Our conscious mind processes rational thought. It can respond to itself (introspection). And it helps us to make sense of the data we take in. Meta-consciousness is that part of our mind that is aware of the conscious self and can bring to the fore the subconscious. Mindfulness is the act of exercising and building awareness of subconsciousness and consciousness with the purpose of learning to accept the present moment as it unfolds. An example from my personal life can clarify the relationship among the subconscious, conscious, and meta-conscious.
I’ve experienced night-time panic attacks for the past 20 years. For those who have not personally experienced a panic attack or are otherwise unfamiliar with a panic attack, it occurs when an individual either involuntarily or through fear-based cognition creates an extreme state of anxiety that manifests physically and physiologically as the hormone and neurotransmitter epinephrine and norepinephrine are released into the body and brain. Onset is rapid. And the experience is universally unpleasant. Common symptoms include a rapid heart rate, uncontrollable shaking, profuse sweating, an urge to evacuate bowels, an impulse to flee, rapid breathing, mental confusion, and even passing out.
A panic attack is a five-alarm fear response that is usually out of proportion to the real or imagined threat, making it all the more distressing. As epinephrine and norepinephrine are exhausted, the individual often returns to a state of calm, but the mental distress and anguish can have lasting adverse effects. By my mid-20s, I became used to having nocturnal panic attacks. That I was used to the panic attacks didn’t make them any less distressing; I just knew they were going to happen.
One night I was jolted from my sleep with the common manifestations of a panic attack. Usually, I would pace around the house for 30 to 45 minutes until my body had relaxed. I would often remain on edge for several days after that. But one night, for reasons still unclear to me, I was able to engage my meta-consciousness. In other words, I was able to be in the present moment—which was a panic attack outside of my control—and observe it with acceptance. This observant acceptance was not something I could do though subconscious or conscious thought. It was the ability to create a buffer by observing myself from the outside in that enabled me to experience my panic without suffering. This ability is a critical point. The panic still caused discomfort, and it still does. But learning to be accepting of what is unfolding in the present moment is what eliminated distress. Distress occurs when there is a space between what we want to be experiencing and what we are experiencing and resist or reject that space. Mathematically, is could be expressed like this: reality + (aversion x resistance) = distress.
How does this all figure into personal wellbeing and operating a successful organization? The first two lessons are for leaders and are crucial to long-term success. First, access your compassionate side when people express verbal or nonverbal distress because of the change, complexity, and ambiguity inherent in the workplace. Many people don’t have the language or introspection to understand why change, complexity, and ambiguity are causing them to feel distressed and leading to their low morale, cynicism, and disengagement. Getting rid of the “weak” from the organization will do irreparable harm. Second, face the illusion of control. In reality, we control almost nothing. When leaders feel that subordinates perceive them as lacking control, the instinct of self-preservation can kick in, often manifesting as top-down policies, procedures, systems, and structures to give the impression of control. The paradox is that the reaction often results in less control if and when individuals choose to ignore passively, dismiss, or act contrary to policies, procedures, systems, and structures, which people will do when they’re feeling squeezed from the top. This dynamic undermines your authority. I do not mean to say that policies, procedures, systems, and structures are in and of themselves bad. But be aware of your mindset when the instinct kicks in to make new policies, procedures, systems, and structures. Are you coming from a place of fear or are you coming from a place of growth?
The most important lesson is to cultivate cultures of mindfulness. But be careful of how you go about this. There is an important distinction between other activities meant to improve mental and physical wellbeing—such as exercise and healthy eating—and practicing mindfulness. I can go on a diet and eat nothing but 1000 calories of unappetizing food for a month, resist and complain every second of the way, and yet I will still gain the benefit of a loss in weight. I can run five miles on a treadmill every day for a month to lose weight, hate every second of it and not mentally give into the process, and still gain the benefit of a loss in weight. In other words, there are things you can do for your health that you mentally resist and still benefit. You cannot do this with mindfulness practices. Each must be mentally and emotionally committed to the practice of mindfulness. Resistance is the antithesis to the acceptance that mindfulness practice cultivates. All this is to say that ordering individuals to be mindful or spend 30 minutes a day meditating won’t work.
So if you can’t force people to be mindful, how do you start? You start with an invitation and let the willing lead the way, and then you create a space culturally for the practice of mindfulness to take root. Some will always resist, but a critical mass of individuals within an organization that practice mindfulness can be a powerful counterweight to low morale, cynicism, disengagement, and departure.
In practicing mindfulness, people develop the capacity to co-exist with change, complexity, and ambiguity. The brain perceives change, complexity, and ambiguity by default as threatening states. This constant arousal of the limbic system via the amygdala leads to distress and suffering, in turn leading to low morale, cynicism, disengagement, and departure. Low morale, cynicism, disengagement, and departure result in low-performing organizations. Some leaders think it is their job to extinguish change, complexity, and ambiguity. Or worse yet, some believe it is their job to banish those who exhibit distress in the face of change, complexity, and ambiguity. How liberating to know that as a leader you don’t have to anticipate every change. How freeing to know that not everything always has to be crystal clear. How emancipating to know that some things aren’t simple and don’t need to be made so. How unfettering to be able to say that, around here, in our organization, when it comes to dealing with change, complexity, and ambiguity, we accept that they exist and are free from the fog of distress so we can see collaborative and wise solutions.
Mindfulness is a practice that calms the brain, reduces distress and suffering, and opens the mind the see clearly the possible, instead of getting mired in trying to tackle the impossible. There are many ways to practice mindfulness. A common form of mindfulness practice is meditation. There are also many ways to meditate. However, meditation alone is not the only way to build mindfulness. And to be clear, that is the goal. Mindfulness isn’t a switch that can just be turned on because you want to be mindful; it’s a mental muscle that requires exercise, or else our natural mental hardwiring will dominate.
To develop a state of mindfulness, I believe it is important to focus first on being mindful at the personal level. Mindfulness practices applied at this level create an environment in which people can mindfully approach dialogue, meetings, conflict, group work, teamwork, and all the other types of work and communication that take place in an organization.
Attention to breathing awareness (also known are awareness of breathing meditation), is a powerful personal practice of mindfulness that can serve as the foundation for all its other manifestations. Attention to breath awareness is something that can be practiced in groups, individually, in solitude, and even in chaos. You don’t need to strike a particular pose. You don’t even need to close your eyes. It seems simple. But that’s the rub—it is deceptively simple. It is not easy. All you have to do is pay attention to your breath. You don’t need to change your breathing. You don’t need a mantra. You don’t need to do anything but pay attention to wherever you notice your breath in your body, be it in your nostrils, abdomen, or chest. Then you simply keep your attention on your breath. What you’ll notice right away is that the brain will resist. Within in a matter seconds, your thoughts will wander from focusing on your breath to something else. When you notice that your thoughts have wandered, return them to your breath. You're likely to find that your thoughts wonder every few seconds and require redirection to your breath. This redirection is where the second part of attention to breath awareness comes into play—compassion. Rather than getting upset with the fact that your thoughts wonder, have self-compassion. It is entirely natural for thoughts to wonder when you attempt to focus them.
Practicing this mindfulness technique daily, even for just five minutes, will profoundly change your state of mind from one of reliving the past and anticipating the future to being present in the current moment. The other effect of practicing mindfulness is growing our ability to accept whatever the present moment holds. Being in the moment by accepting awareness of whatever the unfolding moment holds brings calm, clarity, joy, and peace to our lives that serve us personally and professionally