Mindfulness in the Age of Complexity : An Interview with Ellen Langer.
BY ALISON BEARD
Over nearly four decades, Ellen Langer’s research on mindfulness has greatly influenced thinking across a range of fields, from behavioral economics to positive psychology. It reveals that by paying attention to what’s going on around us, instead of operating on auto-pilot, we can reduce stress, unlock creativity, and boost performance. Her “counterclockwise” experiments, for example, demonstrated that elderly men could improve their health by simply acting as if it were 20 years earlier. In this interview with senior editor Alison Beard, Langer applies her thinking to leadership and management in an age of increasing chaos.
Q: Let’s start with the basics. What, exactly, is mindfulness? How do you define it?
Langer: Mindfulness is the process of actively noticing new things. When you do that, it puts you in 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. The mistake most people make is to assume it’s stressful and exhausting—all this thinking. But what’s stressful is all the mindless negative evaluations we make and the worry that we’ll find problems and not be able to solve them.
We all seek stability. We want to hold things still, thinking that if we do, we can control them. But since everything is always changing, that doesn’t work. Actually, it causes you to lose control.
Take work processes. When people say, “This is the way to do it,” that’s not true. There are always many ways, and the way you choose should depend on the current context. You can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. So when someone says, “Learn this so it’s second nature,” let a bell go off in your head, because that means mindlessness. The rules you were given were the rules that worked for the person who created them, and the more different you are from that person, the worse they’re going to work for you. When you’re mindful, rules, routines, and goals guide you; they don’t govern you.
Q. What are some of the specific benefits of being more mindful, according to your research?
Better performance, for one. We did a study with symphony musicians, who, it turns out, are bored to death. They’re playing the same pieces over and over again, and yet it’s a high-status job that they can’t easily walk away from. So we had groups of them perform. Some were told to replicate a previous performance they’d liked—that is, to play pretty mindlessly. Others were told to make their individual performance new in subtle ways—to play mindfully. Remember: This wasn’t jazz, so the changes were very subtle indeed. But when we played recordings of the symphonies for people who knew nothing about the study, they overwhelmingly preferred the mindfully played pieces. So here we had a group performance where everybody was doing their own thing, and it was better. There’s this view that if you let everyone do their own thing, chaos will reign. When people are doing their own thing in a rebellious way, yes, it might. But if everyone is working in the same context and is fully present, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get a superior coordinated performance.
There are many other advantages to mindfulness. It’s easier to pay attention. You remember more of what you’ve done. You’re more creative. You’re able to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. You avert the danger not yet arisen. You like people better, and people like you better, because you’re less evaluative. You’re more charismatic.
The idea of procrastination and regret can go away, because if you know why you’re doing something, you don’t take yourself to task for not doing something else. If you’re fully present when you decide to prioritize this task or work at this firm or create this product or pursue this strategy, why would you regret it?
I’ve been studying this for nearly 40 years, and for almost any measure, we find that mindfulness generates a more positive result. That makes sense when you realize it’s a superordinate variable. No matter what you’re doing—eating a sandwich, doing an interview, working on some gizmo, writing a report—you’re doing it mindfully or mindlessly. When it’s the former, it leaves an imprint on what you do. At the very highest levels of any field—Fortune 50 CEOs, the most impressive artists and musicians, the top athletes, the best teachers and mechanics—you’ll find mindful people, because that’s the only way to get there.
Q. How have you shown a link between mindfulness and innovation?
With Gabriel Hammond, a graduate student, I ran a study where we asked participants to come up with new uses for products that had failed. We primed one group for mindlessness by telling them how the product had fallen short of its original intended use—to cite a famous example from 3M, a failed glue. We primed the other for mindfulness by simply describing the product’s properties—a substance that adheres for only a short amount of time. Of course, the most creative ideas for new uses came from the second group.
I’m an artist as well as a researcher, writer, and consultant—each activity informs the others for me—and I got the idea to study mindfulness and mistakes when I was painting. I looked up and saw I was using ocher when I’d meant to use magenta, so I started trying to fix it. But then I realized I’d made the decision to use magenta only seconds before. People do this all the time. You start with uncertainty, you make a decision, and if you make a mistake, it’s a calamity. But the path you were following was just a decision. You can change it at any time, and maybe an alternative will turn out better. When you’re mindful, mistakes become friends.
Q. How does being mindful make someone more charismatic?
We’ve shown this in a few studies. An early one was with magazine salespeople: The mindful ones sold more and were rated as more likable by buyers. More recently, we’ve looked at the bind that women executives face: If they act in strong, stereotypically masculine ways, they’re seen as bitchy, but if they act feminine, they’re seen as weak and not leadership material. So we asked two groups of women to give persuasive speeches. One group was told to act masculine, the other to act feminine. Then half of each group was instructed to give their speech mindfully, and we found that audiences preferred the mindful speakers, regardless of what gender role they were playing out.
Q. And mindfulness also makes you less judgmental about others?
Yes. We all have a tendency to mindlessly pigeonhole people: He’s rigid. She’s impulsive. But when you freeze someone in that way, you don’t get the chance to enjoy a relationship with them or use their talents. Mindfulness helps you to appreciate why people behave the way they do. It makes sense to them at the time, or else they wouldn’t do it.
We did a study in which we asked people to rate their own character traits—the things they would most like to change and the things they most valued about themselves—and we found a big irony. The traits that people valued tended to be positive versions of the ones they wanted to change. So the reason I personally can’t stop being impulsive is that I value being spontaneous. That means if you want to change my behavior, you’ll have to persuade me not to like spontaneity. But chances are that when you see me from this proper perspective—spontaneous rather than impulsive—you won’t want to change me.
Q. What else can managers do to be more mindful?
One tactic is to imagine that your thoughts are totally transparent. If they were, you wouldn’t think awful things about other people. You’d find a way to understand their perspective.
And when you’re upset about something—maybe someone turned in an assignment late, or didn’t do it the way you wanted—ask yourself, “Is it a tragedy or an inconvenience?” It’s probably the latter. Most of the things that get us upset are.
I also tell people to think about work/life integration, not balance. “Balance” suggests that the two are opposite and have nothing in common. But that’s not true. They’re both mostly about people. There are stresses in both. There are schedules to be met. If you keep them separate, you don’t learn to transfer what you do successfully in one domain to the other. When we’re mindful, we realize that categories are person-constructed and don’t limit us.
Remember, too, that stress is not a function of events; it’s a function of the view you take of events. You think a particular thing is going to happen and that when it does, it’s going to be awful. But prediction is an illusion. We can’t know what’s going to happen. So give yourself five reasons you won’t lose the job. Then think of five reasons why, if you did, it would be an advantage—new opportunities, more time with family, et cetera. Now you’ve gone from thinking it’s definitely going to happen to thinking maybe it will and even if it does, you’ll be OK.
If you feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities, use the same approach. Question the belief that you’re the only one who can do it, that there’s only one way to do it, and that the company will collapse if you don’t do it. When you open your views to be mindful, the stress just dissipates.
Mindfulness helps you realize that there are no positive or negative outcomes. There’s A, B, C, D, and more, each with its challenges and opportunities.
Give me some scenarios, and I’ll explain how mindfulness helps.
Q. I’m the leader of a team in dissent. People are arguing vehemently for different strategies, and I have to decide on one.
There’s an old story about two people coming before a judge. One guy tells his side of the story, and the judge says, “That’s right.” The other guy tells his side of the story, and the judge says, “That’s right.” They say, “We can’t both be right.” And the judge says, “That’s right.” We have this mindless notion to settle disputes with a choice between this way or that way, or a compromise. But win-win solutions can almost always be sought. Instead of letting people lock into their positions, go back and open it up. Have opponents play the debate from the other side so that they realize there are good arguments either way. Then find a way for both of them to be right.
I’m an executive with lots of commitments who’s facing a personal crisis.
If I couldn’t do this interview because I was having a problem at home, I would say, “Alison, I hope you’ll forgive me, but my mind is elsewhere right now because I’m having this crisis.” And you might say, “Oh, no, I had a crisis last week. It’s OK. I understand.” And then, when the crisis was over, we could come back to what we were doing, but with a whole new relationship, which would set us up for all sorts of good things in the future.
I’m a boss giving a review to an underperforming employee.
Make clear that the evaluation is your perspective, not a universal one, which opens up the dialogue. Let’s say a student or a worker adds one and one and gets one. The teacher or employer can just say “Wrong,” or he can try to figure out how the person got to one. Then the worker says, “If you add one wad of chewing gum to another wad, one plus one equals one.” Now the boss has learned something.
As a leader, you can walk around as if you’re God and get everybody to quiver. But then you’re not going to learn anything, because they’re not going to tell you, and you’re going to be lonely and unhappy. It doesn’t have to be lonely at the top. You can be there and be open.
Q. How do you create a more mindful organization?
When I’m doing consulting work with companies, I usually start by showing everyone how mindless they are, and what they’re missing as a result. You can be mindless only if two conditions are met: You found the very best way of doing things, and nothing changes. Of course, those conditions can’t be met. So if you’re going to work, you should be there and notice things. Then I explain that there are alternative ways of getting anywhere, and in fact, you can’t even be sure that the destination you’ve chosen is ultimately where you’ll want to be. Everything looks different from different perspectives.
I tell leaders they should make not knowing OK—I don’t know, you don’t know, nobody knows—rather than acting like they know, so everyone else pretends they know, which leads to all sorts of discomfort and anxiety. Eliminate zero-accident policies. If you have a zero-accident policy, you’re going to have a maximum-lying policy. Get people to ask, “Why? What are the benefits of doing it this way versus another way?” When you do that, everyone relaxes a little, and you’re all better able to see and take advantage of opportunities.
I was working with a nursing home years ago, and a nurse walked in, complaining that one of the residents didn’t want to go to the dining room. She wanted to stay in her room and eat peanut butter. So I butted in and said, “What’s wrong with that?” Her answer was “What if everybody wants to do it?” And I said, “Well, if everybody did it, you’d save a lot of money on food. But, more seriously, it would tell you something about how the food is being prepared or served. If it’s only one person occasionally, what’s the big deal? If it happens all the time, there’s an opportunity here.”
Q. I imagine you don’t like checklists?
The first time you go through a checklist, it’s fine. But after that, most people tend to do it mindlessly. So in aviation you have flaps up, throttle open, anti-ice off. But if snow is coming and the anti-ice is off, the plane crashes.
Checklists aren’t bad if they require qualitative information to be obtained in that moment. For example, “Please note the weather conditions. Based on these conditions, should the anti-ice be on or off?” or “How is the patient’s skin color different from yesterday?” If you ask questions that encourage mindfulness, you bring people into the present and you’re more likely to avoid an accident.
Mindful, qualitative comments help in interpersonal relationships, too, by the way. If you’re giving a compliment, “You look great” is not nearly as effective as something like “Your eyes are sparkling today.” To say that, you have to be there, and people will recognize and appreciate it.
Mindfulness and Focus
The business environment has changed a lot since you began studying mindfulness. It’s more complex and uncertain. We have new data and analysis coming at us all the time. So mindfulness becomes more important for navigating the chaos—but the chaos makes it a lot harder to be mindful.
I think chaos is a perception. People say that there’s too much information, and I would say that there’s no more information now than there was before. The difference is that people believe they have to know it—that the more information they have, the better the product is going to be and the more money the company is going to make. I don’t think it depends as much on the amount of information someone has as on the way it’s taken in. And that needs to be mindfully.
Q. How has technology changed our ability to be mindful? Is it a help or a hindrance?
Again, one can bring mindfulness to anything. We’ve studied multitasking and found that if you’re open and keep the boundaries loose, it can be an advantage. The information from one thing can help you with another. I think what we should do is learn from the way technology is fun and compelling and build that into our work.
HBR recently published an article on the importance of focus in which the author, Daniel Goleman, talks about the need for both exploration and exploitation. How do you balance mindfulness—constantly looking for the new—with the ability to buckle down and get things done?
Vigilance, or very focused attention, is probably mindless. If I’m racing through the woods on horseback, watching the branches so that I don’t get hit in the face, I might miss the boulder on the ground, so then my horse stumbles and I’m thrown off. But I don’t think that’s what Dan means by focus. What you want is a soft openness—to be attentive to the things you’re doing but not single-minded, because then you’re missing other opportunities.
We hear the management community talking more about mindfulness now. When did you realize that the ideas you’ve been studying for decades had become mainstream?
I was at a party, and two different people came up to me and said, “Your mindfulness is everywhere.” Of course, I just saw a new film that starts with someone going around Harvard Square asking people what mindfulness is, and nobody knows. So there’s still a lot of work to do.
Q. What are you working on next?
The Langer Mindfulness Institute works in three arenas: health, aging, and the workplace. In health we want to see just how far we can push the mind-body notion. Years ago we did studies on chambermaids (who lost weight after being told their work was exercise) and vision (where people did better on eye tests that had them work up from large letters at the bottom to small ones at the top, creating the expectation that they would be able to read them). Now we’re trying a mindfulness cure on many diseases that people think are uncontrollable to see if we can at least ameliorate the symptoms. We’re also doing counterclockwise retreats around the world, starting in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, using research-proven techniques to help people live boldly. And we’re doing conferences and consulting on work/life integration, mindful leadership and strategy processes, stress reduction, and innovation, with companies such as Thorlo and Santander and NGOs such as CARE and Vermont’s Energy Action Network.
I’m told that I drive my students crazy because I’m always coming up with new ideas. I’m thinking about maybe a mindfulness camp for children. One exercise might be to take a group of 20 kids and keep dividing them into subsets—male/female, younger/older, dark hair/light hair, wearing black/not wearing black—until they realize that everyone is unique. As I’ve said for 30 years, the best way to decrease prejudice is to increase discrimination. We would also play games and midway through mix up the teams. Or maybe we’d give each child a chance to rewrite the rules of the game, so it becomes clear that performance is only a reflection of one’s ability under certain circumstances. You know, if they allowed three serves in tennis, I would be a much better player.
Q. What’s the one thing about mindfulness you’d like every executive to remember?
It’s going to sound corny, but I believe it fully: Life consists only of moments, nothing more than that. So if you make the moment matter, it all matters. You can be mindful, you can be mindless. You can win, you can lose. The worst case is to be mindless and lose. So when you’re doing anything, be mindful, notice new things, make it meaningful to you, and you’ll prosper.
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Harvard Business Review | Magazine - March 2014