In recent years, mindfulness has become a highly desirable quality both professionally and personally. Mindfulness gurus have emerged in popular culture, and companies have developed programs such as Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” to promote mindfulness in the workplace.
Ravi S. Kudesia, assistant professor of human resource management at the Fox School, is interested in how mindfulness is used in the workplace to develop personal agency and employee problem-solving. There’s only one problem: Mindfulness, as a term, is not easy to define. And the way we intuitively think about mindfulness as highly individualized may need to be rethought as well.
In his paper “Mindfulness as Metacognitive Practice,” Kudesia targets the ambiguity in the term mindfulness to isolate its usefulness and applicability. “We lack answers to even the most basic questions,” says Kudesia. “What is mindfulness? How does mindfulness training operate? And why might it matter for organizations?”
Moreover, without understanding what mindfulness is, how can employers hope to harness its potential in the workplace? In fact, the kind of mindfulness that companies promote may be less useful than they hope. While many have suggested that mindfulness is a kind of individual skill – and that if enough employees have this individual skill, their organizations will change for the better—Kudesia suggests that this view is naïve. Instead, he suggests that mindfulness can be best understood as what he calls a “metacognitive practice.”
“When seen as metacognitive practice,” Kudesia writes, “mindfulness entails the coming together of expertise embedded in perception and concepts, enabling beliefs about information processing, and the crucial human ability to step back and monitor one’s mental activity—all of which jointly shape how people engage with situations.”
By linking mindfulness to concepts and expertise in specific situations, Kudesia invites us to think about mindfulness at the system level. He gives the example of product engineers who, siloed off from data on customer feedback, must nonetheless figure out why a product is unexpectedly breaking in massive quantities, leading it to be returned under warranty. The default assumption is that it is an issue with the product’s structural integrity. An engineer, in this case, might practice mindfulness to gain a more nuanced view of the issues with the product, but they also remain limited by system-wide information flows—engineers simply do not have access to customer feedback.
“[W]hat if an engineer gains access to customer information and enacts metacognitive practice to doubt the structural integrity diagnosis? The engineer may introduce a new concept of ‘product aesthetics’—the product breaks not because it is weakly designed but because customers find it uninspired and, thus, take poor care of it … This new concept would cue a different routine related to product redesign: making the product beautiful rather than making it stronger.”
Yet, along with this new diagnosis and new concept may arrive new problems. If one engineer believes in the new diagnosis while another engineer insists that the issue lies with the product’s structural integrity, the original source of enlightenment may become a source of consternation.
“One person may seize upon doubt, seeking to transform situations, while others seek to reproduce established responses,” writes Kudesia. He describes this communication breakdown as fragmentation, the notion that mindfulness in an individual cannot always resolve system-level problems; in fact, sometimes it can exacerbate them. While mindfulness allowed them to diagnose a problem, their social reality determines whether they can enact a solution.
This should not dissuade companies from encouraging mindful practices, but it should encourage them to think more broadly about what mindfulness truly is. Instead of merely trying to instill mindfulness as a psychological property in individuals, Kudesia suggests that we should foster environments in which people can better practice mindfulness together. When engineers face an impasse like the one described above, how do they incorporate this new information into the fold? Do they create new processes? Do they confer with new individuals who can provide insight into the problem? If both engineers are engaged and open, they can transform the risk of fragmentation into opportunities for growth, incorporating new concepts into their routines and crafting new solutions out of them.
“You don’t instill mindfulness in individuals and call it a day,” Kudesia explains. “We engage best in mindfulness when we are in spaces that are conducive to mindfulness.”