• joe@jhanderson.biz   
    (206) 351-5607   

  • This week at a client site I witnessed a great example of the way mindfulness practice can expose a problematic organizational power dynamic. A Finance group was using the Taming the Elephant method to explore a business process that was not functioning properly. The process progressively uncovers layers of resistance and misunderstanding, and was proceeding beautifully. The group was drawing closer to an accountable shared understanding of the nature of the problem and the steps they need to take together to address it. We could all see the momentum of possibilities emerging…yes! But then, as we approached the end of the session…retreat: into platitudes, into deflecting, into blaming. It seemed that everyone–leaders and staff alike–could sense some danger, a sort of third rail of energy and felt compelled to step back into conventional practices of denial and avoidance.

    As is so often the case, the process problem on the table was not the real issue. Talking with one of the staff members afterward, it seemed that the issue boiled down to the power dynamic between managers and line staff. It’s not that the manager group held all the power and the line staff held none. But both groups felt powerless. From the staff side, when push came to shove they did not feel empowered to take ownership of addressing the issue. And the leaders in the room felt equally powerless. It seemed that, for everyone present, it was always someone else out there somewhere who held the power cards.

    It was frustrating for all! But frustration can be a productive outcome–if the group can continue to observe their wheel-spinning with curiosity. There is work ahead to explore this “powerlessness” dynamic more deeply, to look more closely at this elephant underneath the elephant, so that the causes and implications of the power vacuum can be better understood and, I hope, addressed with energy and courage.

    The practice that underlies the Taming the Elephant process–mindful awareness of the present moment without judgments–is a powerful tool for generating insight. It’s the crucial first step, enabling all to see clearly what is happening right now and then gaining clarity about what needs to be done. But the next step–moving from insight to action–requires a sense of one’s own power, and a willingness to take risks.

    Mindfulness is essential for bringing a group’s power within its grasp–as I saw in the workshop this week. But it’s not quite enough, either. Sooner or later, the mindfulness needs to get out loud: using your power demands that you speak your mind. Mindfulness surrounds that choice: it’s the essential tool for making it clear what needs to be said, noting that flutter in your stomach when you contemplate speaking up, paying attention to how others are responding when you speak and then in turn how you respond to their response. But mindfulness won’t force your mouth open: that takes an act of courage.