Psychology Melbourne Blog

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Mindful management: notice new things

Edited by Jill Wright,

I've been following the work of Harvard psychologist Professor Ellen Langer for some time now. I was originally interested in her work with the ageing which she outlined in Counterclockwise.

That book arose from what might best be described as an elaborate experiment in time travel. She took eight men in their 70s and 80s to a week-long retreat into the past. The surroundings, their conversation, the entertainment etc. were all designed to convince them that they had gone back 20 years.

The effect was extraordinary. It turned out that thinking of themselves as younger had a powerful influence on their facultiies. Their physical health - blood pressure, eyesight, hearing, flexibility etc - improved sharply, as did their IQs and memory.Thinking younger made them younger.

Langer is a pioneer of mindfulness, although she has always taken a different approach to it from those who see it as an extension of meditation techniques.

I was delighted to discover an interview with her in this month's Harvard Business Review, and particularly fascinated by her definition of mindfulness. She describes it as "the process of actively noticing new things".

When you do that, she says, you enter the present. "It makes you more sensitive to context and perspective. It's the essence of engagement. And it's energy-begetting, not energy-consuming."

I have spent years practising and teaching mindfulness, but like Langer, I see it as something far beyond the contemplative state that most people associate with it. For me, it's empowering, creative. Something that frees you from the constraints of the routine.

Its impact on management can be immense. I think anyone at any level of an organisation could benefit from reading the interview and thinking about how they might assimilate some of the ideas into their personal and work lives.

Her advice on how you can create a more mindful organisation is particularly insightful. Talking about the way she consults with companies, she explains that leaders "should make not knowing OK". There are far too many companies that are filled with people who pretend they know, she says, which leads to a great deal of discomfort and anxiety and a culture of lying.

The work of her Langer Mindfulness Institute has produced some fascinating results, as much as anything from changing processes and attitudes: people did better on eye tests when they worked up from large letters at the bottom to small ones at the top, for instance.

They have just begun conducting counterclockwise retreats around the world, "using research-proven techniques to help people live boldly". I think I'm going to suggest she brings one to Australia

And I'm going to adopt her remark as a personal mantra: "Notice new things."

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.