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Mindfulness to Navigate Organizational Change

Monday, November 18, 2013
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This is the last post in the series on mindfulness. Other posts are An Introduction to Mindfulness, How Mindfulness Supports Leadership Development, The Neuroscience of Mindfulness, and Practicing Mindfulness.

“Mindfulness” is frequently used as a synonym for “awareness.” But as I mentioned in the first post, awareness is only one component of mindfulness; the other aspect is “acceptance.” While acceptance is often skipped over or misunderstood, it is a powerful part of the practice of mindfulness.

Acceptance is usually used to mean “approval.” But in the context of mindfulness, acceptance does not mean approval, resignation, or even comfort with the present moment. Instead, it means that you approach what is unfolding without judgment or intervention—you simply observe with curiosity and interest.

In other words, “acceptance” means that you are open to what is happening in the present moment. I liken it to facing the current experience with arms wide open instead of sticking your head in the sand.

What does acceptance have to do with organizational change?

During periods of change, much of what happens may be beyond our control. Sometimes the end goal of change is clearly defined, but other times the future state is less certain. Even if we are supportive of the change and know where we are headed, our brains still register change as a threat. All of these things mean that change frequently creates feelings of anxiety and distress.

Not surprisingly, our common response is to try to resist the change. We try to avoid or ignore the specific situations causing the stress, or push our uncomfortable feelings out of our minds. Or, we want to alter the current situation to lessen our discomfort, which is often not an option. 

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Here’s the interesting thing: when we are willing to stay open to the present situation exactly as it is, even if it is uncomfortable, we actually increase our ability to handle discomfort. We become more able to skillfully navigate stressful situations, a critical talent in work environments experiencing change. 

When we experience a stressful or chaotic situation, it can feel analogous to being caught in running rapids. We have no control, we are carried along in the tumult, and the waters toss us around. When we practice mindfulness, we are training ourselves to simply observe the turbulent water—the situation itself plus our response to it. In essence, we train ourselves to stand on the banks of the river. When we are standing on the riverbanks, we are no longer caught in the flow of the water. We can’t control challenging events, but we can control how we relate to them. And in doing so, we lessen the impact of these events on us. 

What can research tell us about acceptance and mindfulness? 

Acceptance is so powerful that a 2011 study at the University of Montreal showed that experienced mindfulness practitioners were able to handle higher degrees of pain than non-practitioners. 

Researchers observing the brain activity of the participants were able to tell that during the experience, the mindfulness practitioners actually had more activity in the mindful parts of their brains and less activity in the narrative parts of their brains. In other words, the mindfulness practitioners were giving greater attention to the pain sensations but had less internal commentary about them (“This is awful! The heat is unbearable!”). 

Daniel Siegal, M.D., co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, reports in his book Mindsight that “people with mindful awareness training have a shift in their brains toward an ‘approach state’ that allows them to move toward rather than away from challenging situations. This is the brain signature of resilience.” And one definition of resilience is being able to successfully navigate change. 

I hope that this series has given you a good introduction to the practice of mindfulness and how it can support and benefit you in the workplace. Please contact me with any questions you have, or to continue the conversation. 

About the Author
Michelle Somerday is an Executive Coach and Leadership Development Consultant and the Founder of Neo-Strategic, LLC. She is an experienced speaker and lecturer who has taught at the university graduate level and spoken at international conferences, and she facilitates leadership and workplace skills trainings with a particular interest in The Mindful Leader. She spoke at the 2016 ATD International Conference & Expo on Mindfulness At Work: Why Western Companies Embrace An Eastern Practice, and she has written on mindfulness in the workplace for the ATD Human Capital blog.  Michelle is a Certified Leadership Coach through Georgetown University and through the International Coach Federation (ICF).  She has practiced mindfulness since 1999 and holds a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Virginia. Michelle’s complete bio is available at www.neo-strategic.com. 
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