Posted by: healingtheworkplace | February 22, 2010

The Cost of Mindlessness at Work

Hi there,

Mindlessness is costly both to individuals (how many lives are lost due to mindless behaviors?) and to the places that we work in. 

We’ve all had the experience of driving from “A” to “B” without being aware of how we got to our destination. In fact we spend a huge part of each and every day not being present and aware of what we are doing. We may be day dreaming in a meeting, surfing the net or acting on assumptions that we are not even aware of.

Ellen Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, has spent the past two decades studying mindfulness and its opposite state–mindlessness.

  Langer notes that,

“rigidly following set rules and being mindful are, by definition, incompatible.”

As humans we create categories in order to make sense of the world. Without these categories we would become overwhelmed with the deluge of information that our senses take in.

Categories are ok. What is not ok is something Dr. Langer and others have called “hardening of the categories”. In other words rigidly following a set of rules.

 These rules can be inherent in the workplace: policies, procedures, and processes that are “set in stone” and never questioned.

Mindlessness sets in when we rely too rigidly on these categories–leading to automatic thinking and automatic behavior.

Or, in the case of individuals these rules may “belong” to one individual. For example, the boss who wants things done his/her way. Each of us have rules that influence our behavior and go unquestioned. We make assumptions about our colleagues and about our customers, and even ourselves.

Conflict occurs when there is a clash between these different sets of “rules”.

In addition to conflict at work, Langer has also observed that fatigue and burnout also result from being mired in old categories and trapped in old mindsets.

Have you ever started a new job eager to share your knowledge and experience only to be told “that’s not how we do things around here”? 

I once met a young nurse who had just returned to work after taking a course. She worked in a long term care facility that experienced numerous complaints from families and staff as well as ongoing conflicts, low moral, burnout etc. etc.

The course had provided her with new ideas and she was eager to start implementing them. I don’t have to tell you what happened. There was no “appetite” for her new ideas. People were stuck in their old “categories” and couldn’t see past them.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is the ability to be present and to see with new eyes. According to Langer, mindfulness may…

  • increase flexibility
  • increase productivity
  • increase innovation
  • increase leadership ability
  • increase satisfaction

Ellen J. Langer’s book is called Mindfulness and it is a great read.





  1. Hi Leslie,

    I came across your blog tag surfing on “Mindfulness”, a favorite topic of mine.

    I have read through your last few entries and I wanted to comment to say I enjoy the topics and themes in your blog. My blog,, covers similar topics with a slightly different focus. Or so I tell myself. 😉

    I look forward to following your blog in the future!


  2. Hi, I like your post.

    I stumbled on this blog with key word: ‘mindlessness’ – like Leslie, I like the topic too – it has significant impact on our daily lives.

    I have a post on this topic:

    Share your ideas!
    cheers, Ravi

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