Mindlessness: Fighting the urge to be an HR zombie

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Bring some mindfulness into your workday.

“Mindfulness” is definitely a buzzword these days, so much so that many of us probably don’t take the time to understand what it really means. Even though the term is overused and has been co-opted by rich yuppies at retreats in Santa Monica, psychologist Ellen Langer has come up with a framework for mindfulness that really brings it down to earth.

In an effort to help illustrate what mindfulness is, I want to look at what mindfulness is not. Langer’s definition of mindlessness is: an inactive state of mind characterized by reliance on distinctions and categories drawn in the past. So basically, you’re just allowing your brain to use the same perspective over and over again until you stop seeing things in their true, unique context(s). Some characteristics of a mindless person, according to Langer:

  1. Insensitive to context;
  2. Rule and routine governed (not just guided, governed);
  3. Trapped in a single perspective.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve met a lot of HR professionals who are mindless. Examples of things that I myself have said in a state of mindlessness are:

  • What does the employee handbook say?
  • How much does this open us up to legal risk?
  • What have we done in this situation in the past?

That’s not to say those are bad questions, but let’s be real: HR professionals are stereotyped as blind rule-followers who care more about compliance than compassion. That stereotype is just that: a stereotype, but I do think it has some truth to it. I’ve seen myself gravitate toward becoming “that HR person” before, and I hate it. It’s challenging, but I’m going to try to fight the urge to be cognitively lazy and mindless. I’m going to try harder to see new perspectives, notice nuance, and rely less on “the rules”. Here are some questions I’m ready to incorporate into my work:

  • What actions are in line with the company’s culture?
  • What’s unique about this issue?
  • How would I want to be treated if I were the employee in this situation?

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