How to study mindfulness?

Individual or collective?

In discussing research designs and methods to study mindfulness, it is important to distinguish between individual and collective mindfulness. This distinction is often missed (*).

‘Collective mindfulness is not simply the result of having individually mindful personnel. […] Collective mindfulness requires organizations to couple the ability to quickly detect issues, problems, or opportunities with the power to make organizationally significant decisions […] [It] relates as much to the distribution of decision making rights (i.e. power) as it does to the capabilities of any particular individual.’[1].

If there were evidence that individual mindfulness directly produces collective mindfulness, it would be easier to devise solutions for organisations wishing to achieve collective mindfulness [2].

Understanding the phenomenon

The most suitable methods to understand what collective mindfulness is, how it manifests in different work contexts and its dynamics, are in-depth qualitative studies. Originally conducted to understand the activity of high reliability organisations [3, 4], similar studies have been done more recently to understand the activities of an architecture firm [5], the processes of adoption of information systems [6], or the making of financial crisis through understanding of ‘surprises’ and decision making in the banking sector [7].

These studies can explain the conditions under which collective mindfulness can be achieved. They can illuminate the differences between high reliability organisations – e.g. how ‘some organizational designs are more transgression prone than others’ [8].

“We were not seeking to design ways to improve the reliability of these organizations, but in the spirit of organizational research, to try to understand how they maintained high reliability while under time pressure in risk-laden environments  […]  In the navy case, one has to actually observe the activities in detail to appreciate how large are the risks, how complicated are the several means of managing them, and how low the rate of adverse events is compared with what one might reasonably expect […] We were not doing hands-off surveying or observation or conducting pre-designed formal interviews: we were ‘interacting’ strongly with our research subjects, questioning them, answering questions, and sharing meals, and in the navy case, accommodations, weather, and some of the risks”.[9]

Studying associations or perhaps causation

However, demonstrating that mindfulness ‘produces’ (or at least is associated with) positive outcomes, such as well-being for the individual, or reliability and safety for the organisation, requires a measurement of mindfulness and more controlled study designs.

Langerian mindfulness can be measured with Langer’s mindfulness scales [10, 11].

Collective mindfulness can be measured with the safety organising, or mindful organising scale  [12]. This is a nine-item survey rated on a 1-to-7 Likert-type scale [13]. Studies that make use of these scales suggest that individual-level responses can be aggregated to the group level (e.g. the nursing unit), giving therefore a dimension of the level of collective mindfulness or mindful organising processes for the group [13].

Through measuring association between levels of collective mindfulness and safety outcomes (e.g. patient falls) the theory has been shown to have predictive value.

‘…mindful organizing uniquely predicted the likelihood that a team would build a safe bridge that withstood testing. That is, a one-unit increase in mindful organizing (on a 1-7 scale) made a team 2.5 times more likely to build a safe bridge’ [2]

(*) For example, confusion between the two seems apparent in some mindfulness research in the field of information systems [14].


[1] Butler, B.S. and P.H. Gray, Reliability, Mindfulness, and Information Systems. MIS Quarterly, 2006. 30(2): p. 211-224.

[2] Sutcliffe, K.M. and T.J. Vogus, Organizing for Mindfulness, in The Wiley Blackwell handbook of mindfulness, A. Ie, C.T. Ngnoumen, and E. Langer, Editors. 2014. p. 407-423.

[3] Weick, K.E. and K.H. Roberts, Collective mind in organizations: Heedful interrelating on flight decks. Administrative science quarterly, 1993: p. 357-381.

[4] Schulman, P.R., The negotiated order of organizational reliability. Administration & Society, 1993. 25(3): p. 353-372.

[5] Carlo, J.L., K. Lyytinen, and R.J. Boland Jr, Dialectics of collective minding: Contradictory appropriations of information technology in a high-risk project. MIS Quarterly, 2012: p. 1081-1108.

[6] Aanestad, M. and T.B. Jensen, Collective mindfulness in post-implementation IS adaptation processes. Information and Organization, 2016. 26(1–2): p. 13-27.

[7] Eastburn, R.W., Organizational Mindfulness in Banking: A Discriminating Factor for Firm Performance. Journal of Managerial Issues, 2018. 30(1).

[8] Bourrier, M., The Legacy of the High Reliability Organization Project. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 2011. 19(1): p. 9-13.

[9] Rochlin, G.I., How to Hunt a Very Reliable Organization. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 2011. 19(1): p. 14-20.

[10] Pirson, M., et al., The development and validation of the Langer mindfulness scale-enabling a socio-cognitive perspective of mindfulness in organizational contexts. 2012.

[11] Bercovitz, K., et al., Utilizing a Creative Task to Assess Langerian Mindfulness. Creativity Research Journal, 2017. 29(2): p. 194-199.

[12] Vogus, T.J. and K.M. Sutcliffe, The Safety Organizing Scale: development and validation of a behavioral measure of safety culture in hospital nursing units. Med Care, 2007. 45(1): p. 46-54.

[13] Vogus, T.J. and D. Iacobucci, Creating Highly Reliable Health Care:How Reliability-Enhancing Work Practices Affect Patient Safety in Hospitals. ILR Review, 2016. 69(4): p. 911-938.

[14] Dernbecher, S. and R. Beck, The concept of mindfulness in information systems research: a multi-dimensional analysis. European Journal of Information Systems, 2017. 26(2): p. 121-142.