Thinking of organizations and meditating might not recall very similar pictures to most minds. When thinking of organizations, many people will probably dream of process diagrams and move along in an engineering school of thought. Whereas meditation seems to be the epitome of non-thinking, let alone rational thinking (sometimes, cynically, that is attributed to organizations too). However considering the underlying mechanisms both methods show striking similarities. To take this even further: Meditation does to your mind what a good strategist does to an organization because both imply modifying loops of mutual causation.
There are many ways to think of organizations. One familiar method involves imagining some form of structure, an organization chart, for example, and then sorting member elements of the organization within that structure. These images tend to be static, whereas organizational behavior is (hopefully) highly dynamic. Those dynamics are of interest when talking about organizational change. I have seen people draw up dozens of versions of the same organization, that were all mutually agreed upon through many levels of management, stating that this is what our organization is now. Throughout all of these layers of documentation that stated what could or should have been, daily affairs did not seem to change much from version to version. According to Weick, real-world counterparts of organization even do not exist. What changed in this example was the perspective and understanding of some players about what had already happened. (1995, p. 129)
Changing organizations implies modifying loops of causation in interactions of its members. What counts is interaction between people, particularly double interacts where people mutually cause each other’s changes in behavior. Following Maruyama such loops can be either deviation-counteracting (regaining equilibrium) or deviation-amplifying (giving rise to emergent phenomena). Interactions of people in organizations can be modeled using mutual causal processes. Whenever deviation-amplifying loops are prevailing, equilibrium is lost creating either wanted or unwanted, emergent behavior. Weick proposes several strategies to remedy such unwanted products of morphogenesis. All imply taking a meta-perspective and creating causal maps of relevant variables (elements) together with their promoting or inhibiting characteristics. By reflecting on dominant loops the dynamics of these maps, whether drafted on paper or just mentally observed, can be understood and interventions be found. Intervening could be done, for example, by introducing additional, corrective relationships, by changing the coupling between existing variables, or by eliminating parts altogether. (Maruyama, 1963, p. 164; Weick, 1995, p.125)
Actors in this organizational network receive altered feedback from their environment once these changes are in effect. In turn, the expression of their behavior changes accordingly, influencing the equilibrium of the system as a whole. Attempts to change the behavior of single actors directly (as by steering) are doomed to fail due to the actors’ complex nature. What changes is the quality of feedback between those actors so the system as a whole drifts toward an altered set point. This meta-analysis requires a wide perspective on awareness of mutually causal relationships in an organization, its environments, and their combined effects. Also, the effectiveness of any change applied to a complex system is never predictable, but can only be assessed ex-post. Thus, patience and a number of attempts will usually be required.
Meditation implies modifying loops of causation in the brain’s neural network. In their brilliant book on emotions and their underlying neural circuits Davidson & Begley summarize a life history of research leading to six dimensions of emotional style. These styles are firmly founded in research on the brain, their relevant neural structures, and their connectivity. The levels of activity in our hippocampus, for example, contribute to emotional sensitivity to context by recognizing familiar patterns in our environment and enabling us to react to emotional cues of our peers. Exceedingly high activation levels however may lead to social anxiety. High activation of the insula correlates with high self-awareness. However, these emotional styles are not fixed in us once and for all; they are alterable. (Davidson & Begley, 2012)
After mapping the brain activity of several long-time meditators, Davidson et. al. draft up recipes for altering our emotional styles by different kinds of meditation. Among these explanations, the importance of our prefrontal cortex along with the effectivity of mindfulness meditation is eye-catching. Mindfulness meditation, in a form practiced as open awareness, produces many different changes along different dimensions of emotional style (sometimes in in opposite directions!), dependent on what individual configuration of style the practicing individual started at. The prefrontal cortex “displays remarkable structural and functional plasticity over the life course.” (McEwen, Morrison, 2013, p. 1) Our prefrontal cortex plays a special role in many different aspects. For one, it is the latest evolutionary addition to our brain circuitry. Consciousness seems to emerge upon such evolutionary levels in different shades of gray, that are tightly tied to emotions. Thus, the prefrontal cortex seems to be our best chance to change brain processes that are tied to emotion. (Davidson et. al., 2012; Greenfield, 2000, p. 20-21)
Our prefrontal cortex seems to enable us to do things that animals with less evolutionary add-ons within their central nervous systems cannot: observe observation. This meta-observation means becoming aware of awareness, which implies being aware of thoughts, or as Heinz von Foerster expressed it: understanding understanding. (von Foerster, 2003) However, to change our behavioral tendencies we do not only need to become aware of thoughts, but also analyze their relationship to emotions. In this context it is sufficient to consider emotion as awareness and expression of the mutual, causal relationships between thoughts and the organs of our body. Once our mental causal map is complete, we can try to change our habits. Since there is no manual for our individual brains, this process requires persistent attempts to catch the arising of behavioral slips and repeated volitional acts to avoid their continuity. Open awareness combined with a volitional act and proper practice will change brain circuitry so the volitional act can be carried out with less effort, within the physical limits of the system as a whole. For this change to happen, establishing a process of observation that is not tightly coupled to the observed causal loops is indispensable. This loosely coupled observation is exactly what mindfulness meditation is all about: non-reactive observation to break the feedback loop between thoughts and bodily reactions. On those reactions phenomena like moods or higher level emotions that are tied to cognitive functions emerge.
As Davidson points out, this process leaves a footprint in our brains: It alters the connectivity between our prefrontal cortex and other centers involved in awareness and emotion. Thus making use of the plasticity of our prefrontal cortices that we can influence with our volition. We can make up for lower level imbalances in brain systems that have been added at an earlier stage in evolution and do not yield the same amount of plasticity. By meditation, we are actively rewiring loops of causation like the reward circuitry of our brains. If we successfully increase the connections between our prefrontal cortex and our nucleus accumbens (more white matter), we will be able to maintain a more positive outlook. In this case the elements of our causal map consist of the relevant nuclei in our brain and their connections in-between (axons and synapses). So working on the behavior of our brain in meditation and reflecting on the behavior of an organization boils down to the same operation: meta-observation of mutual causal processes and intervening effectively in a complex, dynamic network. Interestingly for both to work loose coupling of the observer is required. (Davidson et. al., 2012; Weick, 1995, p.121)
Of course, there are issues. Maruyama’s model only takes into account that elements in a recurrent network mutually cause complex behavior. Using it simplifies the behavior of human beings as actors behind these elements, which are complex by themselves. People are not as simple as Maruyama’s elements or Weick’s variables. Today many business strategists still fall for that trap when trying to model organizational processes. Using techniques that have been created to illustrate algorithms that are executed by simple Turing machines, they try to model behavior of human beings. Disappointment is big if human behavior does not follow their suggested, simple rules, and sometimes trying to simplify people to fit the model in an attempt to justify the idea wreaks havoc on the organization. Behavior can never be wrong; it could be useless for a specific purpose at most. Also, models are either appropriate to predict behavior or they are not. It is up to the reader, which one of the two to adjust, or whether they want to work with strategy as a fixed plan or as an emergent process by itself. (Mintzberg, 1989, p. 25-32)
Although neuropsychology has made big progress in understanding the working of our brains during the last decades, many parts of its underlying operation still have to be understood. Increasing the level of detail, following Bonini’s paradox, will likely also increase the complexity of our descriptions thereof. But maybe the level of abstraction we are at right now is exactly suitable to compare processes in our mind to other processes, without being distracted by details.
By comparing changes to the constructing circuitry, we were able to map both organizational intervention and meditation to mutual causal processes and the modification of their equilibrium. This comparison highly suggests that thinking of meditation provides an appropriate metaphor when thinking of organizational change. It may replace the still widely prevailing military metaphor, which is not only keeping organizations from living up to their full potential, but also wreaking havoc on society as a whole.
Davidson, R. J., & Begley, S. (2012). The emotional life of your brain: How its unique patterns affect the way you think, feel, and live—and how you can change them. New York: Hudson Street Press. Retrieved from: amazon.de.
Greenfield, S. (2000). The private life of the brain. London: Allen Lane/The Penguin Press.
Maruyama, M. (1963). The second cybernetics: Deviation-amplifying mutual causal processes. American Scientist 51(2). 164-179.
Mintzberg, H. (1989). Mintzberg on management: Inside our strange world of organizations. New York: The Free Press.
McEwen B.S., Morrison J.H. (2013). The brain on stress: Vulnerability and plasticity of the prefrontal cortex over the life course. Neuron. 79(1) 16-29. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2013.06.028.
von Foerster, H. (2003). Understanding understanding: Essays on cybernetics and cognition. New York: Springer.
Weick, K. E. (1995). Der Prozeß des Organisierens [Social Psychology of Organizing]. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.