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The OCR Glossary

Mindful Learning

Timothy L. Sellnow

Being attentive to irregularities, inconsistencies, or other forms of subtle failure is the essence of mindful learning in organizations. One view of organizational crisis is that crises are the manifestation of risk. In other words, crises are precipitated by risks that are recognized, ignored, or undetected. Thus, every crisis is preceded by a series of risks that are often apparent through retrospective assessment. Mindful learning occurs when organizations recognize these minor indicators of failure and strategically respond to them with the goal of avoiding major events such as crises.

The only point at which mindful learning is unnecessary is when two unlikely characteristics occur simultaneously: (1) an organization has found the absolute best way to accomplish its goals and (2) nothing changes in the organization’s environment. This entry establishes the context of mindful learning from an organizational perspective, identifies the attributes of mindful learning, and discusses the impact of mindful learning on organizational change.

The key principle of mindful learning is mindfulness. Mindfulness provides a strategic process for detecting the subtle risks of impending crises. From an organizational perspective, mindful employees constantly monitor their workplace environment to detect and draw attention to nonroutine events or a series of events that could evolve into major failures. Monitoring one’s environment is not akin to living in a constant state of worry. Doing so would assuredly foster emotional exhaustion. Rather, mindful learning requires employees to notice when something unexpected, out of balance, or unnatural occurs. In short, mindfulness occurs when one notices and acts on an outcome that is nonroutine.

Mindful learning is not antithetical to routine procedures. Routines are valuable to many organizations. They allow for consistency among employees, foster efficiency, and are often the basis for measuring productivity. Rather than negating routines, mindful learning is a means for employees to be attentive to those occurrences that disrupt the routine or create unexpected outcomes. These nonroutine events may be of little consequence, or they may be the sign of a latent risk that may soon spiral into a crisis. Thus, the ultimate objective of mindful learning is to correctly distinguish between consequential and inconsequential nonroutine events.

Organizations operate in an environment that is constantly changing. This dynamism requires organizations to constantly consider the adequacy of their routines and account for environmental changes. The goal for organizations is to determine when subtle failures or inconsistencies in their environment should trigger a change process. If organizations are resistant to change, they risk mindlessly preserving routines that steadily deteriorate in their capacity for managing risk. An organization’s disdain for mindful learning or strategic adaptation is often confronted by severe losses caused by a serious failure or crisis event. Such negative events naturally result in a heightened sense of awareness and facilitate a learning opportunity. These learning opportunities may be experienced directly through an organization’s failures or indirectly through the observation of dramatic failures experienced by similar organizations.

Attributes of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is not restricted to the work setting. Those who choose a mindful approach to life display enhanced sensitivity, a willingness to seek out novel information, and better problem-solving skills. Mindfulness is distinguished from mindlessness by three key attributes:

    Mindfulness encourages the continuous creation of new categories. Mindlessness fosters an entrapment of old categories.

    Mindfulness provides openness to new information. Mindlessness produces routine behavior that precludes attending to new signals.

    Mindfulness requires implicit awareness of more than one perspective. Mindlessness produces action that is derived from a single perspective.

Mindful learning is an application of recategorization, openness, and multiple perspectives. When organizations are entrenched in outmoded routines, they are likely engaged in mindlessness. The attributes of mindfulness provide a succinct means of distinguishing between mindfulness and mindlessness. In short, the presence or absence of these attributes reflects an organization’s capacity for addressing subtle failures before they evolve into crises.


By their nature, novel changes in an organization’s environment cannot be addressed through routine behaviors. Rather, environmental changes require innovative responses by organizations. Recategorization requires organizations to recognize and respond when events do not fit into an existing routine, typology, agenda, or mind-set. Rather than introducing frustration, these inconsistencies with expectations stimulate sensitivity and creativity for mindful employees. Innovations derived through recategorization create opportunities for organizations to expand their vocabularies to account for nuances in their environment. Doing so creates a more precise and accurate means for addressing potential problems or opportunities. Discarding old categories or categorical systems and replacing them with an advanced understanding of the organization’s dynamic environment empowers organizations to engage in mindful learning.


From the perspective of mindful learning, openness requires organizations to embrace, rather than shun, uncertainty. All circumstances impose some degree of uncertainty on the organizational process. No organization can fully account for all the variables that could influence an outcome. Naturally, some circumstances introduce less uncertainty than others. When organizations discount uncertainty, they create the possibility of missing subtle changes in the environment. One form of openness is based on recognizing or seeking new or alternative information sources. Being open to new sources of information stimulates sensitivity to uncertainty and creates opportunities for new discoveries. When organizations fail to recognize the complexity and uncertainty of their environments, they become insensitive and unresponsive to new information that questions the accuracy of their assumptions. Such apathy can cause organizations to be indifferent to subtle warning signs in their environments.

Multiple Perspectives

Any situation can be viewed from multiple perspectives. When all other perspectives are silenced in favor of one dominant perspective, organizations are much more likely to engage in mindless decision making. Similarly, a single perspective is unlikely to attend to information that conflicts with or contrasts with this myopic view. Organizations engaged in mindful learning seek out and welcome a variety of perspectives when reviewing operations, making decisions, or responding to problems. By doing so, organizations are better able to account for events that violate routine expectations and predict future difficulties. Inviting and considering multiple perspectives is a more time-consuming and potentially frustrating process than operating with a single perspective. These limitations, however, are balanced by the advantages of more accurately anticipating future problems and making fewer errors by considering multiple perspectives.

Organizational Change Based on Mindful Learning

Mindful learning can stimulate structural changes within an organization. Such structural change, however, must be preceded by attitudinal change. In many cases, attitudinal change requires not just learning but unlearning as well. Organizational stakeholders such as employees often take comfort in routines. Enacting routines brings consistency and a degree of comfort to the workplace. When mindful learning reveals a flaw in the existing routines, employees must unlearn that routine and adopt a new response strategy.

The comfort and convention of routines can diminish an individual’s enthusiasm for change. Thus, a commitment to attitudinal change, including both learning and unlearning, is essential for mindful learning to occur. Organizations can encourage attitudinal changes in many ways. For example, organizations that are constantly adapting to their environments are less likely to have long-standing routines in place that must be altered or dissolved. Involving stakeholders at all levels and from multiple perspectives can also inspire a habitual commitment to the change process. Without attitudinal change, little progress toward mindful learning can occur.

In many cases, an organization’s reputation depends on its willingness and capacity to change. Specifically, organizations facing serious failures, such as crises, cannot repair damage to their corporate images without a public commitment to positive change. Mindful learning enables organizations to learn the appropriate lessons that are essential for such change.

Application of Mindful Learning

Mindful learning is applied in a variety of organizational settings ranging from strategic planning to crisis communication. One increasingly popular application of mindful learning involves international and intercultural communication. As many organizations become increasingly globalized in their business interactions, they must adjust their routines to account for the diverse perspectives of their collaborators and customers. Simply adjusting routines to manage differences in language and currency does not achieve mindful learning. Rather, organizations must fully account for the diverse perspectives by sincerely considering all recommendations and by unlearning any stereotypes or potentially offensive routines. Recategorization is also likely as employees discover that their first language cannot fully account for some phenomenon observed and expressed by global partners. Being open to these novel points of view is an essential step toward the attitudinal changed needed for mindful learning.


Mindful learning is fitting for organizations of all types. All organizations exist in a dynamic environment that necessitates adaptation. When routines become deeply entrenched within an organization, subtle cues signaling a major failure are less likely to be noticed and to inspire change. If mindful learning is applied superficially, it can appear overwhelming. Rather than attending to all information all the time, mindful learning is a means for recognizing, reporting, and acting on subtle changes in the environment that notably violate routine expectations. To reach the level of mindful learning, stakeholders at every level of the organization must be willing to engage in recategorization, approach new information with openness, and welcome multiple perspectives. Attempts at mindful learning will fail, however, if employees do not embrace attitudinal change that includes both learning and unlearning.

Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Langer, E. J. (1997). The power of mindful learning. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Langer. E. J. (2009). Counterclockwise. New York: Ballantine Books.

Langer, E. J., & Moldoveanu, M. (2000). The contrast of mindfulness. Journal of social issues, 56(1), 1–9.

Langer, E. J., & Piper, A. I. (1987). Prevention of mindlessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(2), 280–287.

Levinthal, D., & Rerup, C. (2006). Crossing an apparent chasm: Bridging mindful and less-mindful perspectives on organizational learning. Organization Science, 17, 502–513.

Veil, S. R. (2011). Mindful learning in crisis management. Journal of Business Communication, 48(2), 116–147. doi:

See Also

Organizational Learning; Organizational Renewal

See Also

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