Building a mindful infrastructure

Building a mindful infrastructure

These notes come from a conference about ‘Mindful Change in Times of Permanent Reorganization’ held in Germany in 2012.

These notes come from a conference about ‘Mindful Change in Times of Permanent Reorganization’ held in Germany in 2012.

​Unintended negative side-effects of reorganisation

  1. Letting people go erodes trust, to the point of traumatic break down in established organisational culture.
  2. Change communication is an Achilles heel, and rarely works to maintain trust. Obscure management goals, lack of transparency, and the reluctance at the top to address vague decision making leads to the spread of rumours in the vacuum that is created.
  3. Employees don't often get to play a continuous role in change initiatives, and are often blocked by managers even when they try to.
  4. It often feels like an unfair deal. Cutting out layers and letting people go increase work stress and destabilise but gains for the workforce are often 'scarcely visible' after the restructuring. This imbalance is seen as a violation of the psychological contract at work, further eroding trust.

A mindful infrastructure

The conference probed the concept of 'Mindful Change' drawing heavily from the work of Karl Weick in the early 2000's on managing the unexpected and on work on trust of the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann and explored concepts of organisational mindfulness.  It took as its working definition 'organisations’ capacity..  to develop and regenerate dynamic stability' and  'anticipate and constructively deal with unintended effects of permanent reorganisation regarding environmental adaptability, social integration and ‘decent work’'

It suggests that the leaders of change consciously facilitate what they call a 'mindful infrastructure' that involves

  • organisational routines
  • spaces of dialogue
  • key principles and processes for mindful organising.

The paper suggests two areas of mindfulness that an organisation can develop, inside and outside events.

  1. Interactive routines:  active reflection which allows employees and managers at team level to anticipate and deal with unintended consequences then and there, and so contain damage.  For this to be effective mutual recognition is vital.
  2. 'Spaces of dialogue' outside work processes: for example  steering committees of reorganisation involving all the players, giving plenty of time and space over to collective reflection on (unnoticed) innovation potential and un-anticipated effects of reorganisation.  The language of the conference describes this as a way to  facilitate 'the development and regeneration of organisations' social-resources base by creating spaces of dialogue which make room for reflection outside action.

"Spaces of dialogue can be regarded as social spaces of direct participation, collective inquiry  and exchange between employees or between employees and managers, thereby facilitating  collective and organizational learning in respect to mindful organizing. In spaces of dialogue,  reciprocity between management and employees can be balanced."

The conference proceedings promote six key principles of mindful change:

  1. Organising perspective diversity
  2. Promoting negotiation and conflict resolution
  3. Developing and establishing trust anchors
  4. Promoting sustainable work systems
  5. Facilitating experimental change
  6. Developing and regenerating organisational stability anchors

This attention to trust and stability and to the idea that key activities, role and networks, can sharpen the focus on both at times of upheaval, by making the organisation constantly pay more attention to what is going on now in the present, and place it in the history ('the long shadows of change history') and future of change in a  more thoughtful way.

Preserving professional identity

In particular the proceedings are illuminating about the importance of preserving professional identities as a 'core stability anchor' in a reorganisation. They offer the example of social service providers who object to centralisation, which they feel contradicts their own professional understanding of social work and so leads to resistance to change. Once the change was rebalanced to give them more autonomy, and clients a voice, they were able to adapt to the change while holding on to their sense of their own professional identities.

Realising mindful dialogue

So how do you realise mindful dialogue, as the proceedings term it, in organisations?

  • There needs to be a steering committee with all groups involved and all members of that committee need to be on an equal footing.
  • It must be authorised.
  • It must be visible.
  • It must be firmly established in the communication systems of the organisation.
  • The different communications tools that mutually build on each other.
  • Communication loops should be set up in such a way that "sender" and "recipient" regularly change positions.

The role of the social institutions and spaces in the workplace is of great significance in anchoring change. Organisations with well established work council and an open approach to dialogue embedded into their culture and practices are far more likely to take change on board than those where the organisational routines are 'rejected as sources of inertia' by the top management. Building a mindfulness infrastructure is a fragile project if top managers see dialogue as a threat to power and authority but without social trust, there is no mindfulness and the room to adapt is seriously compromised.

Theories of trust

Among the many different theories on trust in organisations, the conference proceedings are mainly concerned with an understanding of trust as developed by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. According to Luhmann (1989, 23), trust “reduces the problem of complexity by risking confidence in another”.

Luhrman makes a distinction between trust in people and trust in systems.

“Personal trust needs a direct partner. It develops by face-to-face communication, relies on the principle of small steps and is based on the human  need for orientation through persons as well as ‘socially relevant roles’. “

To create the conditions for personal trust there needs to be ‘deceleration’ to make room for social processes, which create what Luhmann calls ‘personal trust routines’ which accumulate to build ‘system trust’. This takes time and cannot be rushed.

System trust is more generalised, and conveys lasting stability underneath the short term uncertainty of change. As well as ‘structures at work which enable an assumed genuine trust’ authorities (leaders) are representatives of the system trust. They bridge between personal and system trust. The converse is true. If people doubt the system trust, they project this double into people in leadership position.

The role of leaders as intermediaries between trust systems

In order to maintain an effective role as intermediary between personal and system trust, leaders need to acknowledge, and respect, all doubts and questions, even if they cannot provide answers. The very act of acknowledging and respecting protects and grows system trust.

So mindful reorganisation must actively include ways to build a trustworthy climate, both at the personal level, and at the system level, actively maintained by authorised leaders.

Trust only exists in the present

“In short: Trust is an asset. It can only be constituted and secured in the present. Trust  is not an overcoming of time – instead it is based on the creation of a present as an ongoing.”

If it’s true that trust can only be secured, and strengthened, in the present, then every conversation, every action, every inaction, every interaction, is a small proof of the absence or presence of systemic trust, founded on personal trust. So trust cannot be neglected.

Rather, a continuum in which every encounter builds trust, anchors stability in uncertainty, as events unfold.

And it cannot be an instrument of control, or results driven.


Guido Becks, Miriam Behrens, Peter Bleses, Sylke Meyerhuber, Eva Senghaas-Knobloch ‘Organizational and Political Mindfulness as Approaches to Promote Social Sustainability’ consolidates proceedings of the  International Workshop ‘Mindful Change in Times of Permanent Reorganization’ The whole paper is available here

Karl Weick  Weick, K.E.; Sutcliffe, K.M. (2007): Managing the Unexpected, 2 nd Edition, San Francisco: Wiley

Luhmann (1968/1989). Vertrauen. Ein Mechanismus der Reduktion sozialer Komplexität. Stuttgart: Enke

Photo by Fiona Smallwood on Unsplash