Mindfulness and high reliability

Have you ever driven to a familiar destination and then wondered how you got there? This kind of automatic behavior, or mindlessness, is a common feature of our everyday lives and has a significant impact on organizational resilience and reliability.


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People are easily seduced by routine ways of doing things that worked at one time. People habitually do what they have always done, without stopping to challenge their routine. When things go wrong people often attempt to resolve the situation by doing more and more of the same old thing.

Ellen Langer, a well-respected social psychologist at Harvard University, has studied mindfulness for several decades. Her books (see below) are essential reading for anyone dealing with high hazard environments.

Mindfulness is concerned with how people gather information, how they perceive the world around them, and whether or not they are able to change their perspective to reflect the situation at hand (Langer, 1989, 1997).

Mindfulness involves focusing on the present, paying attention to operational detail, willingness to consider alternative perspectives, and an interest in investigating and understanding failures, individual and collective mindfulness are promoted (Langer, 1989).

“A great benefit of being mindful is your ability to exploit the power of uncertainty rather than being afraid of it. When you’re mindful, you’re dealing with novelty. You’re noticing new things and creating categories, rather than relying on formerly created categories and distinctions.”

Characteristics of a mindful approach:

  • the continuous creation of new categories,
  • openness to new information, and
  • an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.

“Mindfulness is a paradox of sorts: it sees problems as opportunities and views successes as problematic; it is both optimistic and skeptical.”

Characteristics of a mindless approach::

  • entrapment in old categoreis,
  • automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals, and
  • by action that operates from a single perspective.

Langer highlights the problem of premature cognitive commitment – we quickly make up our minds, jump to conclusion, discount dis-confirming evidence and close down alternative explanations.

Langer’s books challenge pervasive myths, or mindsets, that undermine the mindful practice and process of learning and offers insights into how we can avoid their debilitating effects in a wide variety of settings.


Question the basics: We are often told to learn the basics so they become second nature. But, who’s decided, for example, regarding the basics of how to do the high jump, that these even are the basics?. If American athlete Dick Fosbury, had been told to stick to the basics he may not have won 1968 Summer Olympics nor transformed the whole sport away from the Straddle technique to the now familiar ‘Fosbury Flop’.

Challenge facts: Mindless individuals regard facts to be true and generally application rather than only applying in some situations but not in others.

Avoid context confusion: People confuse the context controlling the behaviour of another with the context determining their own behaviour. People say “i wouldn’t have done that” but they can never truly put themselves in the situation faced by another individual.

Focus on process not the outcome: Mindlessness occurs when people engage in the single minded pursuit of goals at the expense of process – i.e. people are concerned with “Can I do it?” rather than “How can I do it?”.

Beware rote learning: Memorising is a strategy for taking in material that has no personal meaning. Individuals can often succeed in passing most tests, but when they want to make use of that information or skill in some new context they have a problem.

Don’t assume stability: “people confuse the stability of their mindset with the stability of the underlying phenomena.” we think it’s standing still, when actually it’s our perceptions of the world being held constant with single-minded views.

Be careful with language and instructions: Using terms like “It is” limits mindfulness, Langer says, because it implies absolute truth. Use terms such as “this could be” which requires people to think about alternatives.

One and one doesn’t always make two: Langer notes that we must ask, one of what? For instance, mix a cup of vinegar with a cup of a baking soda solution. The result will be less than 2 cups of liquid, as some molecules are transformed into carbon dioxide and released into the air as gas.

Worry about repetition: mindlessness grows out of repetition – doing the same thing over and over creates habit and automatic responses.

Question normality, triviality and expectation: many accident investigations and testimonies reveal that it “was just a normal day”, “there was nothing really unusual”, “we had a long period of successful operations”. It should be noted that 41.2% of mountaineering accidents occur on the way back of the mountain… you are less mindful when your guard is down.

Challenge rules: rules and processes bring the perception of stability, efficiency, predictability, and a general comfort that things are being done “correctly”. Achieving high-quality standards and reliable business processes are the foci of many popular routine-based quality and management initiatives (e.g. Six Sigma), which try to eliminating unnecessary variance in quality of products and services. Rule-based approaches can create a false illusion of stability – an erroneous belief that the system is under control.

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