Mindfulness for a VUCA Healthcare World

I am cautiously optimistic and also skeptical about the McMindfulness movement (Hyland, 2017; Purser & Loy, 2013).  Critics of proliferating mindfulness training in organizations point to challenges to the ethics (Wolverman, Schwartz, & Schoenberg, 2018) and over-capitalization of the movement (Hyland, 2017).  Plus, the tips provided by popular organizational gurus (e.g., Hougaard & Carter, 2018) sometimes strike me as simplistic, e.g. offer healthy food and drinks, control digital distractions, encourage boundary setting.  Perhaps each small change is meant to be a pebble in the pond towards shifting organizational culture.  Yet none of these tactics are novel, making me wonder why they have not worked up to this point to stem the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) tide.

I teach a course in Reflective Leadership in Mindful Leadership in Healthcare at Saybrook University.  This course is experiential in that we are all doing the Mindful Leader app (Hougaard & Carter, 2018), practicing mindfulness meditation each day in addition to textbook readings and assessing original research.  As an educator and advocate of integrative healthcare, I am committed to integrative healthcare and envision myself as a “pebble in the pond”, creating large changes with small actions (Perlman, Horrigan, Goldblatt, Maizes, & Kligler, 2014). While our Mindful Leadership curriculum focuses on integrative healthcare and mind-body medicine, we have to do this in a VUCA world, where instability is the norm in fields and settings beyond healthcare.  Perlman et al.’s (2014) called for unique leadership to lead integrative healthcare systems, where mindfulness can serve as the connector between self-awareness, self-regulation, and the educated decision making needed to succeed.  They are not alone in suggesting that mindfulness is the answer, as evidenced by the volumes of readings, conferences, and apps readily available.

I admit to a slight mistrust of the panacea of mindful leadership tactics to reform VUCA environments. Turns out that my distrust is at least organic, a reflection of typical norms in the U.S.

Globalization of Trust

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, n.d.), the U.S. is lower than all but one of the European countries in the survey on trust and on a downward slide.  Generalized trust has declined steadily in the U.S. from 1972 to 2014.  More strikingly, trust in U.S government institutions declined from a rating near 80% trust in 1964 to <20% respondents expressing trust in 2015 (OECD, 2017). Based on this data, the U.S. is a global leader in the diminishment of trust in our institutions.

So, what is going on in the U.S.?  Deteriorating healthcare aside, was not the late 20th century a time of great solidarity, prosperity, and innovation lead by the U.S.?   I suspect a shadow side, the metaphor of the allegory of Plato’s Cave, and possible psychodynamics at play. “Human beings have a knack for getting trapped in webs of their own creation” (Morgan, 2006, p. 207).

Psychodynamics of Organizations and Mindfulness

We remember the Socratic teaching moment drawn in an ancient cave with three prisoners. They were shackled and tied so they could only see the outside world represented in shadows cast by firelight on a wall before them (Plato, VII, 514 a, 2 to 517 a, 7).  They never saw the world outside.  When one prisoner escaped and saw the other side of the cave wall, he was at first shocked but eventually realized that his former reality was false.  He returned to the cave and told his fellow prisoners.  But when he tried to set them free, they threatened to kill him.  Some philosophers argue this allegory shows the dangers of believing empirical evidence ensures knowledge, others claim it shows that people are afraid of higher truths, and others that we are psycho-dynamically predisposed to keeping ourselves trapped (Morgan, 2006).

Mindfulness consultants Hougaard and Carter (2018) admitted that organizational change is not easy and that influencing culture “goes deeper than articulating a set of values and posting them on the wall” (p. 163).  There are multiple practical and observable obstacles to implementing wide-spread change in any organization.  In addition, even in apparently well-functioning organizations, members experience normal psychological injuries, expected and normal hurts that people feel when collaborating with others to reach organizational goals in uncertain environments (Hirschhorn, 1999).

Hirschhorn is a global leader in training organizational consultants in psychodynamic structures (CFAR, n.d.).  I consulted Hirschhorn about his opinions on the current mindfulness movement and its potential to reach to the shadows of organizational prisons.  He positioned mindfulness as a useful tool, a “framework for knowing yourself and for being attuned to the tacit dimensions of organizational life around you.  A kind of tuning in to what is below the surface in yourself and in your setting” (L. Hirschhorn, personal communication, November 12, 2019).  Hirschhorn also pointed me to his blog site and a recent psychodynamic assessment of President Trump (Hirschhorn, 2019). In his post that examines psychological traits for larger organizational manifestations, one point involves the importance of considering how the role one occupies in an organization will describe potential contributions as well as the ability to successfully influence organizational change.  So, in affecting change, we need to remember our place.  In addition, Hirschhorn highlighted the importance of an effective leader marrying basic ideas to the entourage of organizational membership.  In a reframing of this consideration, I return to the challenge of shifting values and a recent personal experience (Donaldson-Feilder, Lewis, & Yarker, 2019).

Saga of an Orthopedic Surgeon: What Can and Cannot be Changed

I recently witnessed an illustration of the personal costs of unresponsive, unmindful leadership in a healthcare organization.  I share this story with the endorsement of the physician involved.  On Thanksgiving Day, I was visiting a hospitalized friend.  Overall, in her many weeks there, I observed the hospital operation was not entirely responsive, and I knew they had no competition in this community for the level of trauma care provided.  But I had several opportunities to observe the surgeon and his staff in this setting.  I was impressed by the level of patient-centered, compassionate care they provided my friend, and her level of trust in them.  On that morning, her surgeon visited her and delivered very unfortunate news.  This news was not about her condition, which improved steadily with his expert and abundant care. Rather, he came to tell her he had quit the hospital system, no longer able to work with inconsistent, unreliable, and inexpert support.

During the next minutes, he calmly explained to us the multiple issues with the organization, and the myriad issues tied to quality patient care that he repeatedly reported to administrators.  He explained he was hampered by so many incompetent systems and unresponsive management that he could not be the effective surgeon and healer he aspired to be.  He repeatedly said he was not burned out, at least not yet, but suffered on a moral level.  I suggested to him, “moral injury” and he concurred:  that was it.  Very soon, he would be returning to his place of residency, a nationally recognized leader in integrative healthcare, to pursue his surgery practice in a more compassionate, like-minded, supportive environment.  He hoped he could someday come back, when the climate of the organization had shifted to a more patient-centered and practitioner-supporting organization and system.

But he was not optimistic about changing the embedded mindset that was generating toxicity in this large, unmalleable organization.  This demonstrates the embeddedness of resistant thinking:  replacing a physician entails hundreds of thousands of dollars cost to an organization, plus loss of quality of care, safety, and patient satisfaction.  Yet this physician was aware of the larger risks of not leaving:  costs associated with burnout are escalating each day, physician suicide incidence is over three times the national average, and the associated costs are deep due to loss of skills, care quality, and sustainability (West, Dyrbye, & Shanafelt, 2018).

I propose that one possible strategy is decentralize, to diminish the size and power of the mega-organizations to smaller, collaborative entities.  Shifting the operations off the mothership onto smaller, innovative operations could be grounded in mindful-selfless-compassionate (MSC) principles, practices, and values.  By de-centralizing control, change makers can introduce the practices touted by Hougaard and Carter (2018) and cultivate MSC cultures.  Further, this could create a fertile ground for adopting integrative medicine models and components.

In an argument I never expected to make, for-profit healthcare does have advantages:  it could benefit from innovation if it leads to improved outcomes.  This approach should ultimately make for more satisfied customers, measurable outcomes, and provide competitive edge.  As I have seen in my association with IM4US (n.d.), we can also include the under-served.

According to Hirschhorn, there will always be psychodynamics to overcome:  These can be better overcome with awareness.  There will also be nay-sayers who prefer Plato’s Cave: leaving them behind requires decisive and hard actions.  At the heart of my proposed evacuate-and-rebuilt strategy are MSC-oriented leaders able to garner support and willing to take risks.  Even my sense of mistrust is optimistic.

Perlman et al. (2014) concluded in their argument for mindful, integrative leadership that each leader and each member should do what they can in the present moment and wait until the foundational support is stronger to do more.  In the meantime, we build up each other, which we can do with MSC practices. Donaldson-Feilder, Lewis, and Yarker (2019) found that mindfulness practices enhanced the leader’s well-being, resilience, leadership capabilities, and possibly their innovation.  The analysis failed to identify which type of mindfulness practice was most effective.  Also, the researchers found little evidence of benefits to the leaders’ direct reports.  Hence, the evidence indicates the leaders should first attend to self, in whatever mode best builds individual self-efficacy.  If we are each attending to self, we need to be less worried about bringing along the other:  they will bring along themselves and also become empowered in the process.

In conclusion, I argue for continuing our individual practices and sharing with members of our organizations and communities and the people we serve.  By cultivating our awareness and also our fortitude, we are preparing for the opportunity of each moment, as it unfolds.  MSC practices are endeavors that remind us we are solitary and concurrently interconnected.  We simultaneously operate at the systems level, joined by our underlying intention to transform healthcare based on shared values.  By taking an MSC approach, we have added tools to achieve sustainable transformation, and in the process, transform ourselves.

I welcome your comments here as we all continue with this important work.


CFAR. (n.d.). Dynamics of Consulting.  Retrieved from https://www.dynamicsofconsulting.net

Donaldson-Feilder, E., Lewis, R., & Yarker, J. (2019). What outcomes have mindfulness and meditation interventions for managers and leaders achieved? A systematic review. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology28(1), 11-29.

IM4US. (n.d.).  Mission and philosophy.  Retrieved from https://im4us.org/about/mission-philosophy/

Hirschhorn, L. (1999). The workplace within: Psychodynamics of organizational life (Vol. 8). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hirschhorn, L. (2019, July 22).  Trump’s style of executive functioning. Learning from experience: Larry Hirschhorn.  Retrieved from http://learningfromexperiencelarryhirschhorn.blogspot.com

Hougaard, R., & Carter, J. (2018). The mind of the leader: How to lead yourself, your people, and your organization for extraordinary results. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Hyland, T. (2017). McDonaldizing spirituality: Mindfulness, education, and consumerism. Journal of Transformative Education15(4), 334-356.

Morgan, G. (2006). Exploring Plato’s Cave: Organizations as psychic prisons. In Images of organzations (pp. 207-240). Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage.

OECD. (2019) About. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/about/

OECD. (2017).  Guidelines on measuring trust. Paris: OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264278219-en

Perlman, A., Horrigan, B., Goldblatt, E., Maizes, V., & Kligler, B. (2014). The pebble in the pond: How integrative leadership can bring about transformation. EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing10(5), S1-S14.

Plato. Allegory of the cave.  Republic, VII, 514 a, 2 to 517 a, 7. (T. Sheehan, Trans.).  Retrieved from https://web.stanford.edu/class/ihum40/cave.pdf

Purser, R., & Loy, D. (2013). Beyond mcmindfulness. Huffington post1(7), 13.

West, C. P., Dyrbye, L. N., & Shanafelt, T. D. (2018). Physician burnout: contributors, consequences and solutions. Journal of internal medicine, 283(6), 516-529.

Wolever, R. Q., Schwartz, E. R., & Schoenberg, P. L. (2018). Mindfulness in corporate America: Is the Trojan Horse ethical?  The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine,  24(5), 403-406.






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