mindfulness and structures

Langer’s research on mindfulness has often made use of controlled experiments in the psychology lab and in ‘the field’ (for example with the elderly in nursing homes), where tasks and context would be designed differently across study participants to demonstrate the effect of these structures on people being mindful.

Instead, research on collective mindfulness has not focused on structures but on processes –collective mindfulness as a dynamic achievement emerging from people interaction. This approach countered previous research in high reliability organisations (HRO) centred on organisational characteristics (e.g. tight or loose coupling, designed redundancies).

The earliest research on high-reliability organizations (HROs, e.g., aircraft carrier flight decks, Rochlin, LaPorte, & Roberts, 1987) often emphasized their design, redundancies built into their structures, and their strong cultures. This was followed by a second wave of studies illustrating the importance of processes of collective mindfulness (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 1999).

However, there is potential in studying how organisational structures affect or shape organisational capabilities for collective mindfulness. In healthcare, safety is often achieved by moving towards standardisation (once a safer process has been identified, it is promoted or mandated across settings). However, in HRO it is also well known that there may be circumstances when it may be safer not to follow standard operating procedures (Hale and Borys 2013; Bieder and Bourrier 2013). There is a constant tension between proceduralisation and flexibility to sustain resilience.

Structures can be hard (such as rigid technology or strict standard operating procedures) or soft (e.g. guidelines to suggest safe behaviour). When processes follow rigid structures, there is closer alignment between ‘work as imagined’ and ‘work as done’. Conversely, when processes are more flexibly organised, for example around local emergent routines, there may be greater differences between these work patterns – ‘ideal’ and actual processes. Then technologies designed on ideal models of work may not be used as designers intended, as it does not reflect actual work activities.

An example of how processes and structure combine

From an individual perspective, artefacts, information technology, structures and designs are known to affect or shape cognition. They change the nature of cognitive tasks (from recognition to recall, from computation to pattern recognition (Hutchins 1995)), and more generally ‘scaffold the mind’ (Clark 1997). As Langer’s experiments suggest, they also affect the likelihood of people being mindful. (*)

From an organisational perspective, it is also well known that structures (e.g. routines, guidelines, technology), shape or affect organisational processes and outcomes. Though less is known on how structures (and in particular technology) affects processes of collective mindfulness.

(*) There is also increasing interest in studying individual mindful use of technology (Thatcher, Wright et al. forthcoming), especially in relation to personal devices. But research in this area perhaps applies a different definition of mindfulness from Langer’s).


Bieder, C. and M. Bourrier, Eds. (2013). Trapping safety into rules: how desirable or avoidable is proceduralization? Boca Raton, FL, CRC Press, Taylor and Francis.

Clark, A. (1997). Being there: putting brain, body, and world together again. Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press.

Hale, A. and D. Borys (2013). Working to rule, or working safely? Part 1: A state of the art review. Safety Science 55: 207-221.

Hutchins, E. (1995). How a cockpit remembers its speed. Cognitive Science 19: 265-288.

Thatcher, J., R. Wright, H. Sun, T. Zagenczyk and R. Klein (forthcoming). Mindfulness in Information Technology Use: Definitions, Distinctions, and a New Measure. MISQ.

Vogus, T. J. and K. M. Sutcliffe (2017). Commentary on Mindfulness in Action: Discovering How U.S. Navy SEALs Build Capacity for Mindfulness in High-Reliability Organizations (HROs), Academy of Management Discoveries 3(3): 324-326.