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The Mindful Habits of Highly Reliable Organizations

Written by Dr. Kim Aikens on October 29th, 2012

Over the course of the last several months, we have examined mindfulness primarily from an individual perspective. Mindfulness, however, can also be applied to an organizational context, and to a company’s bottom line. Research suggests that organizations with mindfulness as a core value increase the reliability and quality of process performance. This reliability and quality ultimately lead to an increase in organizational competitiveness and a potentially significant reduction in costs.

Let’s get into more detail. Mindful organizations hold the belief that to sustain a reliable performance in a changing environment it depends on how employees:

Certain organizations have been characterized as highly reliable with an increased ability to adapt collectively to ongoing changes (Weick et al. 2006). You might think of an aircraft carrier or a nuclear power plant as an example of a highly reliable organization (HRO). Weick et al., from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, states that such organizations operate with highly developed levels of organizational mindfulness, making them able to perform in environments rich with the potential for error.

Additional studies show that there are many ways that mindfulness can create a highly performing organizational culture. Besides increasing organizational reliability, mindfulness has been shown to improve:

All of these are key elements to long-term organizational sustainability and performance. For example, in a 2012 study juxtaposing reliability, healthcare and marketing, Ndubisi et al. found that when healthcare service providers adopted mindfulness grounded approaches, they were able to create greater levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty.

So what exactly happens when an organization becomes more mindful? What collective skill set might develop that can give an organization that competitive edge? Potential insight in this regard comes from Ruth Baer at the University of Kentucky. In her work, Baer describes mindfulness as a multifaceted idea, which includes the ability to observe one’s experience, to act with awareness, to describe, to non-judge and to be non-reactive. Baer has found that the five mindfulness constructs are positively correlated with other behavioral elements, including openness to new experience, emotional intelligence and self-compassion. In addition, they are negatively correlated with absent-mindedness, experiential avoidance, neuroticism and difficulty with emotional regulation, among others.

It follows that we can define a a mindful organization as likely to be more open to experience, emotionally intelligent and compassionate to employees and customers alike. These are certainly criteria that may positively enhance both customer service and corporate performance. Likewise, such an organization may be more focused and emotionally regulated, with better attention to details like quality and safety. It is relatively easy to see how increased individual mindfulness, when taken on a large corporate scale, can have a potentially profound impact. For these reasons, and given the current research, it is highly likely that a more mindful organization will ultimately lead to that Holy Grail of business−an increase in shareholder value.

Kim Aikens

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