The number one reason people make mistakes at work is because they’re not really ‘there’. Or, as psychologist Dr Ellen Langer describes it, people are not being ‘mindful’. Not being mindful happens when you are on automatic pilot and not noticing the – often quite subtle – signs that cause accidents.

People are frequently in this mindless mode without catastrophic results. For instance, I’ve driven home after a hard day and been surprised to find myself turning the corner into my drive, having got absolutely no recollection of the 20-minute trip. I’ve frequently been taken a back when the chairperson announces the end of a meeting and I’ve been mentally switched off for the previous hour.

In terms of learning, there is a huge difference between practising mindfully and practising automatically. For example, when learning to play the piano and concentrating fully you’ll learn far more than just going mindlessly through the scales. In effect it’s the quality of practise that makes the real difference rather than the quantity.

Sadly in the workplace too often management decisions are carried out ‘by the numbers’ – if it’s condition A and condition B the answer must be C. It becomes a mindless exercise.

Head in the clouds

Dr. Langer tells the story of a plane that was in Washington DC leaving for Florida. The pilot and co-pilot went through the checklist – “flap open, flap up, anti ice off…” and so on, as they always did. Unfortunately on this occasion, the fact that the anti ice was off was a serious problem and resulted in the plane crashing. They’d become so accustomed to reciting the words that they missed that it needed to be on as there was snow in Washington.

There is another tragic aircraft story of a plane losing power and heading for the Potomac, while the pilot and cabin crew desperately searched for the manual that would explain what they should do in the event of an emergency such as this. Now, I would quite like my airline pilot to follow standard procedure for most of the time. However, I might appreciate the fact that the training he had would involve some element of creative, lateral thinking, in case of an emergency.

In the workplace a phrase I tend to hear a lot is, “You can’t teach me anything about that”. Quickly followed by, “I’ve got 20 years experience”. This may well be physically true but for a number of people they seem to have one year’s experience 20 times over. Some people find it impossible to listen to new ideas or new approaches. I’ve even heard: “No, we can’t do it. We tried it six years ago. It was a disaster so we went back to the old way of doing it.” This thinking leads to disasters, unnecessary cost and low motivation.

"Some people find it impossible to listen to new ideas or new approaches"

Byron Kalies

There’s the case of a work process where three copies of an invoice form were produced in different colours. All these forms were neatly stapled together and sent downstairs to the dispatch area where they were carefully separated. One sent to the customer, one filed and the other binned. Perhaps the cost of the extra work isn’t a great deal on this occasion but I would imagine this happens a fair amount and it’s only when someone new comes in to look at the process that it’s picked up.

New people are good at spotting these things – the ‘dead body in the study’ syndrome. Unfortunately even when the ‘dead body’ is pointed out it can lead to some defensive behaviour.

There is the story of a manager trying to introduce new processes in a large bank and the response was always: “I don’t think you can do that. Mr McTavish wouldn’t like it.”

After a few abortive attempts the manager gives up. A few months later he discovers that Mr McTavish left five years ago, but obviously his legacy still remained.

People can become more ‘mindful’ by being more aware of things. It is all too easy to slip into a zombie-like state at work and just go through the motions of whatever task you’re involved in.

If you make a conscious effort to stay focused and look for differences and new things, it should pay dividends. Life and work should also become more interesting and motivating.