MEASURING COLLECTIVE MINDFULNESS AND EXPLORING ITS NOMOLOGICAL NETWORK

Postgraduate

ABSTRACT

Collective mindfulness was conceptualized as a prerequisite to achieving organizational reliability in the face of complexity and tight coupling.  However, researchers have yet to measure collective mindfulness, precluding an assessment of its construct validity.  In the current study I atetmpted to fill this gap by quantitatively measuring collective mindfulness and relating it to a number of characteristics and outcomes.  I hypothesized that collective mindfulness can predict organizational reliability, with respect to safety and customer service quality.  I also investigated the relationship between collective mindfulness and a number of constructs to begin assessing construct validity.  

The results of survey data collected from 182 employees, 570 customers, and 330 supervisor reports of 51 community swimming pools suggested that collective mindfulness can be measured in an organizational context and used to predict safety and customer service quality.  Further, I found collective mindfulness to be related in expected ways with a number of constructs. 

INTRODUCTION

Contemporary organizations face a myriad of challenges in accomplishing their goals.  To succeed, organizations must now contend with complex global markets, largescale systems, and a hyperdynamic economic context, all which require organizational members to detect and manage unexpected events in a rapidly changing environment (Perrow, 1984; Roberts & Libuser, 1993; Turner, 1978; Brown & Eisenhardt, 1997; Weick et al., 1999).  And, success is seemingly more important for organizations now than in the past.  The potential severity and widespread consequences of failure in contemporary organizations, as evidenced recently by Enron and Worldcom, impose upon organizations an immense responsibility to operate reliably. 

Two specific challenges that make reliable operation, or consistent avoidance of failure, difficult are organizational complexity and tight coupling (Perrow, 1984, 1999; Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 1999).  A complex organization is one in which there is a high degree of interrelation among organizational components (Perrow, 1984).  A tightly coupled organization is one in which components are directly linked, in a causal fashion, to one another (Perrow, 1984).

Some organizational researchers, such as Roberts (1993) and Weick (1987), have identified a set of organizations, known as “high reliability organizations” (HROs), that consistently avoid failure despite complexity and tight coupling.  Weick and his colleagues (Weick et al., 1999; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001) suggested that a plausible strategy for mitigating the risks of complexity and tight coupling is for organizations to create an organizational state of collective mindfulness.  In an organization characterized by collective mindfulness, employees pay active, vigilant attention to their workplace and communicate with each other about what they perceive (Weick et al., 1999).  Employees in collectively mindful organizations scrutinize work situations and interrelate with other employees in heedful ways (Wecik et al., 1999; Weick & Roberts, 1993).  They attend to potential errors and accidents and resist becoming complacent with work strategies.  Rather than being content with existing strategies, employees continuously reevaluate and renegotiate ways of perceiving and managing complexity and tight coupling (Weick et al., 1999).  Weick and his colleagues (Weick et al., 1999; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001) hypothesized that collective mindfulness generates an enhanced organizational ability to detect and manage unexpected events, such as accidents or errors that threaten reliable operation.   

Since its inception, the construct of collective mindfulness has garnered a considerable amount of scholarly attention.  In conceptual analyses, organizational theorists have employed the construct to comment on a diverse range of topics, such as

CEO bandwagon behavior (Fiol & O’Connor, 2003), innovation (Vogus & Welbourne, 2003), and organization change (Ramanujam, 2003).  And yet, since its inception, collective mindfulness has been the focus of surprisingly little empirical research.  Thus, very little is known about how collective mindfulness is actually manifest in everyday organizations.  Moreover, very little is known about how the construct integrates with broader organizational theory.

In this thesis I attempt to add to the literature on collective mindfulness in four ways.  First, I seek to address the lack of empirical research on collective mindfulness by quantitatively measuring it among lifeguards of community swimming pools, which I argue are environments characterized by complexity and tight coupling.  Second, I test Weick and his colleagues’ (Weick et al., 1999; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001) proposal that collective mindfulness is the result of five organizational processes:  preoccupation with failure, sensitivity to operations, reluctance to simplify interpretations, deference to expertise, and commitment to resilience.  To do so, I create survey measures of collective mindfulness and each of the five processes.  Third, I investigate the relationship between collective mindfulness and organizational reliability, which I operationalize in terms of customer satisfaction, safety, and overall performance.  Fourth, I begin to map the nomological network of collective mindfulness by exploring how it relates to a number of organizational constructs:  climate for safety (Zohar, 1980, 2000), climate for service

(Schneider, White, & Paul, 1998), climate for psychological safety (Edmondson, 1999; Baer & Frese, 2003), climate for initiative (Baer & Frese, 2003), loafing, and efficiency orientation.  Measuring collective mindfulness and associating it with these constructs will help clarify its place in broader organizational theory.    

In the sections that follow I discuss HROs and review theory and research on collective mindfulness.  I then describe my research and results and, finally, discuss implications for future mindfulness theory and research.  

High Reliability Organizations

In a seminal work, Perrow (1984) concluded from an investigation of the failure of Three Mile Island’s nuclear power plant that organizations that operate high-risk technologies will inevitably suffer system-wide failure.  He based this conclusion on the interdependent risks created by two characteristics inherent in these organizations:  complexity and tight coupling.