Mindfulness and Change Management

Companies that communicate and build employee commitment to change can improve performance by as much as 29.1% [1].

In a world driven by innovation and rapid change, becoming a learning organisation provides a clear competitive advantage. Being able to adapt to changes is both critical for managers in terms of effective implementation and for employees in terms of acceptance and engagement. This requires that organizations develop new strategies, economic structures, technologies, organizational structures, and processes. But this is not all. Organisational members are also expected to quickly and flexibly adapt to the newest direction.

Over the past two decades, there has been a growing interest in applying mindfulness-based interventions to management and organizational development [2]. The argument for doing so is that workers at all levels tend to develop habitual, unthinking and difficult to change routines and ways of interpreting and responding to the world around them, which in turn leads them to respond inappropriately to changing situations [3].

These cognitive routines, which are based on what has been successful in the past either for them or others, present strong barriers to individual and organizational change and the emergence of new patterns of behaviour. This is the reason why the most prominent experts in organisational change management such as Kurt Lewin [4], Chris Argyris and Donald Schön [5] stressed the need to “unfreeze” and “unlearn” before new learning and behaviours can emerge. Mindfulness can be an effective way of promoting such unfreezing and unlearning for individuals.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is an adaptation of Buddhist meditation. Supported by over 40 years of medical and psychological research, across a number of sectors and applications; Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment and accepting it without judgement [6].

The practice of mindfulness helps people to develop their attention so that they can recognize in the moment their habitual ways of thinking, feeling and behaving and the results which flow from these. By so doing, it allows people to understand why they behave as they do, judge the appropriateness of their behaviour and to rethink and change it if necessary.

Mindfulness is said to be fully developed when there is ongoing awareness that all things are inherently transitory, and there are no entities that are unchanging or permanent, only processes [7]. Impermanence is the quality of experience that everything is changing, and that being aware of the present moment is key to enjoying life fully. By practicing mindfulness, thoughts, for example, are experienced as temporary phenomena without inherent worth or meaning, rather than as necessarily accurate reflections of reality [8].


How can Mindfulness Help to Manage Change?

Mindfulness-based approaches applied to change management hold that individuals’ and organizations’ ability to successfully manage change depends on how they think, how they gather information, how they perceive the world around them, and whether they are able to change their perspective to reflect the situation at hand. As such, mindfulness can help organisational change management in several ways such as:

Increasing the sense of urgency to change: Many organisations block learning by suppressing emotions in the workplace. It becomes unacceptable to act in an emotional way or to admit not knowing. Some employees start displaying a robot-like adherence to organisational routines which make them immune to any learning and increase the unconscious resistance to change [9]. As a result, one of the most critical barriers to change is a limited sense that the change is really needed. Mindfulness can help to knock this barrier down and raise awareness. Individuals who are mindfully engaged in change are both motivated and able to explore a broader range of viewpoints, and make more relevant and precise distinctions, enabling them to quickly adapt to changes in their organisations [10].

Reducing resistance to change: Employee resistance to change is a primary obstacle for effective organisational change processes [11]. Organisational situations continuously generate emotional responses depending on the ways in which they are read and managed. Particularly when change is poorly managed, it tends to bring negative emotions of loss and threat, fear and anger, anxiety and insecurity. Under these conditions, employees protect themselves from this stressful situation and resist as much as they can the possibility to change. Mindfulness can help by supporting individuals at managing these negative emotions. For example, if an employee becomes more aware of a pessimistic thinking pattern regarding changes at work, potentially through practicing greater mindfulness, this employee can use self-monitoring to identify unproductive thinking habits and choose more positive interpretations, thus reducing negative emotions over time. This reduction happens as mindfulness moves the individual from being embedded in their thinking to being able to step outside and observe it.

Building a positive environment for change: Some employees may welcome the introduction of a new technology, because they understand the need for it and feel confident in using it. However, some others may not have previous experience in using technology and may think that there is no need for it, so they are more likely to feel anxious about its introduction. In every case, existing knowledge, assumptions and interpretations may lead to positive or negative emotions that would result in a different response. Mindfulness can help to enable positive emotions at the workplace. For example, a study with 132 working adults found that mindful employees have a greater opportunity to become aware of thinking patterns that challenge their ability to be hopeful, efficacious, optimistic, and resilient at work, especially during times of organizational change. Such awareness may lead employees to intentionally choose more optimistic and resilient ways of dealing with stress and resistance to change [12].

How to Manage Change Mindfully

It is possible to implement mindfulness-based interventions for change management in a number of ways ranging from customized courses to the application of mindfulness principles within organisational systems [13]:

Organisational mindfulness: Let’s practice mindfulness: It is possible to build a mindful organisation introducing mindfulness to individuals through formal and informal mindfulness exercises [14]. The informal approach consists of practicing mindfulness in daily work activities or during routine activities such as eating, walking, etc. Any pause between tasks becomes an opportunity to practice mindfulness. The purpose is to notice how the mind and body feel throughout the day in various work circumstances. Furthermore, it can be helpful to set aside time for a more formal mindfulness practice. Formal practice is cultivated by a variety of mindfulness awareness exercises   which all share common procedures. Yoga and sitting-meditation are the most common methods taught. The meditator sits in an erect posture, either on the floor cross-legged or in a chair, and places attention on the in and out flow of the breath, focusing on either the out breath at the nostrils or on the rise and fall of the abdomen. When attention wanders, the meditator simply notes the distraction and returns to the breath. This is repeated throughout the meditation session. 

Mindful organising: Let’s build a ready-for-change organisation: Mindfulness has been acknowledged as an effective tool for change when its principles are integrated within the organisation systems, policies, and practices. Mindfulness principles integrated to organisational systems can assist employees at all levels to “unlearn”. By doing so, individuals are enabled to recognise when organisational processes are no longer appropriate and to accept the need to change them, no matter how valuable they have been in the past. This virtuous cycle has been observed in successful High Reliability Organizations (HROs) such as nuclear plants and air-traffic control towers where the need of change and avoidance of mistakes is fundamental. It has been observed that these organisations organise themselves around “failure” rather than “success” in ways that induce an ongoing state of mindful awareness. Mindfulness, in turn, facilitates the discovery and correction of anomalies that could cumulate with other anomalies and grow into a catastrophe. Mindfulness, with its rich awareness of discriminatory detail, enables people to manage events they have never seen before and adapt accordingly [15,16]. Organisations are then always prepared to face changes at any level and of any size.


1 CLC (2015a). Communicate to Overcome Employee Resistance. Boston: CEB Corporate Leadership Council.

2 Purser, R. & Milillo, J. (2015). Mindfulness revisited: A Buddhist-based conceptualization. Journal of Management Inquiry, 24(1), 3–24.

3 Hunter, J. & Chaskalson, M. (2013). Making the mindful leader: Cultivating skills for facing adaptive challenges. In H. Leonard, R. Lewis, A. Freedman, & J. Passmore (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of the psychology of leadership, change and organizational development (pp. 195–219). New York: Wiley- Blackwell.

4 Burnes, B. (2004). Kurt Lewin and the planned approach to change: a re‐appraisal. Journal of Management Studies, 41(6), 977-1002.

5 Argyris, C. & Schön, D. (1996). Organizational learning II: Theory method and practice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley

6 Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144–156.

7 Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144–156.

8 Gunaratana, B. (2002). Mindfulness in plain English. Boston: Wisdom.

9 Antonacopoulou, E. & Gabriel, Y. (2001). Emotion, learning & organizational change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 14(5), 435–451.

10 Ndubisi, N. (2012). Mindfulness, quality and reliability in small and large firms. International Journal of Quality & Reliability Management, 29(6), 600–606.

11 Waddell, D. & Sohal, A. (1998). Resistance: A constructive tool for change management. Management Decision, 36(8), 543–548.

12 Avey, J., Wernsing, T. & Luthans, F. (2008). Can positive employees help positive organizational change? Impact of psychological capital and emotions on relevant attitudes and behaviors. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 44, 48–70.

13 Vogus, T. & Sutcliffe, K. (2012). Organizational mindfulness and mindful organizing: A reconciliation and path forward. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 11(4), 722–735.

14 Weiss, A. (2004). Beginning Mindfulness: Learning the Way of Awareness. Novato, CA. New World Library.

15 Weick, K., Sutcliffe, K. & Obstfeld, D. (1999). Organizing for high reliability: Processes of collective mindfulness. Research in Organisational Behaviour, 21, 81–123.

16 Weick, K. (2006). Organizing for mindfulness: Eastern wisdom and Western knowledge. Journal of Management Inquiry, 15(3), 275–287.

Mindfulness & Change Management

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