Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Who didn't pay attention? our mindfulness lessons from Ebola

Unfamiliar situation.  Apply old mistakes repeatedly.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster doesn’t it?

It is easy for me to muse on the Ebola crisis from the safety of my Rome apartment. However having run the Florence marathon to fundraise and being a leadership consultant with an interest in mindfulness, I feel compelled to do so.  From wherever we sit, whatever profession or sector,  we should take heed of the initial reflections released by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) this week, for they highlight the need for individual and institutional mindfulness. 

An accumulation of mindless moments?

“For the Ebola outbreak to spiral this far out of control required many institutions to fail. And they did, with tragic and avoidable consequences”.  So concludes the report by MSF General Director, Christopher Stokers.

For disasters to happen, complex human factors theory will tell us that it is usually an accumulation of small moments that build into something. It is not that we seek to repeat mistakes of the past. It is just that we are often unconscious of our behaviours or what drives them.  From overworked, stressed individuals to the cumulative unconsciousness of the institutions themselves, for me, the report alludes to mindless or less-mindful behaviours accruing over time.  These include:

Being stuck in old patterns: MSF recognised it was, something we’d never seen before”. However WHO objected that it was ‘”not unlike those of past outbreaks, nor was the outbreak unprecedented”. (2015:6). We can easily fall into this trap, particularly when faced with acute stress and complexity.  We remain fixed in our own beliefs, thought patterns and behaviours and filter out ‘evidence’ that contradicts our view of the world. For Langer (1989) our “premature cognitive commitments” (seeing what we expect to see) is at the root of mindlessness.

Pretending not to notice: “Ebola had been stealthily spreading undetected for more than three months” (MSF: 2015:6).   Organizational mindfulness experts Weick et al. (1999) make the point that organisations are defined by what they ignore.  Sometimes we just pretend not to notice.  It may be for a multitude of reasons, usually grounded in fear and ego.  As Gopalakrishnan highlights, “the sceptre of authority and the trappings of power conspire to plug the leader’s ears” (2009:234).

Over-dominant behaviours: there was little room to question the formal information coming from Freetown” (MSF:2015:6) and “it was like shouting into a desert.” (2015:7).  Perhaps these situations were similar to Krieger’s (2005) cockpit research, where over-dominant behaviours hindered the creation of shared mindfulness, even in the presence of positive reasoning, because these behaviours stifled the other party’s full participation.

These behaviours are not confined to those involved in the Ebola crisis.  You may recognise them in your own sphere. And when we recognise them, it is the first step towards mindfulness.

Turning to Mindfulness

The hope that BBC reporter Smitha Mundasad concluded with, that the world will “have learnt to pay greater attention”, is not so banal.  Attention is what is required.

It is at the core of mindfulness.  Not to advocate naively that mindfulness answers all of our challenges but it does help us bring those challenges into sharper focus and respond with a more open, honest and insightful mind.

To give attention, we need to be aware.  To be aware, we need to be intentional about being fully present.  We must be willing to turn up with a beginner’s mind as if we have never seen the situation before.  With this awareness, attention and equanimity, we can gain: 

Conceptual clarity: through being in touch with the present moment, we see things as they actually are, as opposed to what we imagine them to be.  We break free from our mental modes and habitual thinking. 

Emotional balance: through awareness and openness, we are more resourceful in responding with greater empathy and compassion. We listen to ourselves and others. 

Cognitive flexibility:  through increased sensitivity, we open to new information and create a more nuanced appreciation of our context. We open to options and perspectives.

Properly applied, it provides leaders and organisations with better decisions (Weick and Putnam: 2006). And indeed perhaps this led to new ways of doing for MSF, further building their organisational resilience.  Among those mentioned in the report were the “unusual call” of requesting military effort with expertise in biohazard containment and “the first-time decision to partner with research institutions, the WHO, Ministries of Health and pharmaceutical companies to trial experimental treatments and vaccines in the midst of an outbreak” (2015:18).

So how do we build up our capability to become more mindful?  How will institutions like WHO become mindful organisations?

Developing individual and institutional mindfulness
Institutional mindfulness begins with individual mindfulness. 

We start with what is here. We come into the present moment by noticing our breath, our sensations and our feelings in this moment.  We notice, observe and we train our mind to be equanimous, through meditation and mindfulness training.

And as leaders we build organisation-wide capacity in mindfulness.  Drawing from the research into organisational mindfulness and mindful organising from the likes of Weick et. al (1999), Krieger (2005) and Vogus & Sutcliffe (2012), we:

  • signal the importance of mindfulness to employees throughout the organisation
  • commit to openness, continuous learning and compassion
  • encourage enquiry and dialogue, asking questions like “how much have we – individually and collectively - really internalised the concept of impermanence and constant change, and its implications for our everyday practice?   To what extent is the way that we are conceptualising the problem limiting our perspective and closing down our options? 
  • look to ways as to how we can communicate to include other’s opinions, such as through the use of conditional language
  • set up processes to encourage the reporting of errors and provide opportunities for informal networking for rich thinking and action
  • provide mindfulness training within the organisation to encourage informal and formal practices.

As Fiol and O’Connor (2003:68) point out,  decision makers' preoccupation with failure along with a preoccupation with success leads to greater mindfulness (their emphasis).  With its courageous work in addressing the largest ever Ebola outbreak, MSF must also appreciate their successes. This evaluation is being undertaken and will undoubtedly add to the mindfulness of the organisation.  We look forward to its ongoing reflections and those of its partners.

What are your reflections so far?


This article was first posted on Linked In (25 March 2015)
Photo: own


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