Ellen Langer

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  • May 4, 04:54 PM

Speaking Monkeyese

I recently lectured in Kuala Lumpur and am now spending a glorious few days at the Datai resort in Lawkgawi in the middle of the rain forest. As I sit on the porch, watching the monkeys converse with each other, I decide to join in. I mimic their sounds and try to anticipate the next one in what may be a logical sequence. But to no avail. When I walk down to the beach, more monkeys and more attempts at their language. When I walk to the spa, more monkeys and more vocalizations, but still I fail. Monkeys, monkeys everywhere and not a word to speak.

If as caught in Gulliver’s Travels, I become the Lilliputian instead of the mighty. I see that they are communicating with each other, but I am left out of the conversation. If they took me to their labs and gave me a chance to communicate in exchange for chocolates, I’d continue to try and probably would continue to fail. Would they then conclude that I’m incapable of advanced forms of communication? Perhaps if I really needed to learn monkeyese I eventually could. Why should the monkeys have any greater interest in learning our symbol systems?

We take other species and even people from other cultures and expose them to our ways of being. When they don’t cooperate we invent theories about their lack of capabilities. Chocolates and bananas are nice, but possibly not as important to us as they think. Besides, we’re probably going to get them later any way.

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  • Apr 29, 10:24 AM

A Call for Mindful Leadership

Mindlessness — not a good quality for any organization — has led to some questionable assumptions about the need for leaders; namely that 1) those who lead have privileged and reliable abilities and knowledge — what are often described as “leadership competencies” ; and 2) people need to be led to achieve their goals.

If organizations were mindful — referring to the simple act of noticing new things — leadership would be quite a different matter. They would not only be mindful themselves; their most important responsibility would be to enable their followers to be mindful as well. One might argue that in an increasingly complex world — where work cuts across all types of institutional boundaries — the leader’s only task may be to promote and harness “distributed” mindfulness.

Noticing puts us in the present, makes us sensitive to context, and aware of change and uncertainty. When we are mindless we hold our perspective still, allowing us to confuse the stability of our mindsets with the stability of the underlying phenomena. Hold it still if you want but it’s changing nonetheless.

However visionary we consider our leaders, they cannot predict the future any more than anyone else. They may be able to predict what might happen much of the time if the situation stays constant — which of course is questionable — but can never predict individual occurrences, which is where we should be most concerned. If, most of the time, when someone does “x” the result is “y” it doesn’t guarantee that the next time you do “x,” “y” will follow. (Do you believe Mercedes makes a great car? Would you bet all of your money that any particular Mercedes will start with one try?)

Those in positions of power often keep quiet about what they don’t know. Instead of making a personal attribution for not knowing — “I don’t know but it’s knowable and I probably should know,” which sounds defensive — leaders should make universal attributions for uncertainty — “I don’t know and you don’t know because it is unknowable.” When we acknowledge these universal limits, we can be less distracted by the need to appear to know, which would allow us to get on to the problem at hand. Being awake in the moment allows us learn better what we need to know now.

Leaders can’t know and that’s fine.

What about those being led? Mindlessless can lead you to assumptions about their behavior. Once you understand the actor’s perspective, you can be less judgmental. If I see you as rigid, I want to ignore you. If I see you from your perspective, as someone I can count on, I’ll value you. We can turn around every judgment in this way (e.g. impulsive/spontaneous, grim/serious, conforming/eager to have everyone get along) and when we do we’ll find we have a less rigid view of people (some bad, some good). Once we free ourselves from our misplaced superiority, we may find talent and ability to provide solutions in those we prematurely cast in an unflattering light.

Regardless, the larger issue is that, if everyone is awake, you don’t have to lead as if everyone else needs to be led. You may find that people will see what the situation demands, and the surprising result may be superior performance.

In a study I conducted with Timothy Russell and Noah Eisenkraft, orchestra musicians were instructed to be either mindless or mindful. In this case, being mindless meant replicating a previous performance with which they were very satisfied. The mindful instructions directed them to make the piece new in very subtle ways that only they would know. (They were playing classical music and not jazz so the novel distinctions were indeed subtle.) Their performance was taped and then played for audiences unaware of our instructions. We found that not only did the musicians much prefer playing mindfully, the mindfully played pieces were judged as superior. Everyone was in a sense mindfully doing their own thing and the result was a better coordinated outcome.

In more than 30 years of research, we’ve found that increasing mindfulness increases charisma and productivity, decreases burnout and accidents, and increases creativity, memory, attention, positive affect, health, and even longevity. When mindful we can take advantages of opportunities and avert the dangers that don’t yet exist. This is true for the leader and the led.

In sum, there is no best way to do anything independent of context, so the leader cannot have privileged information. When leaders keep everyone in their place with the illusion of knowability and possession of this privileged knowledge the benefit to them is that we “obey” and leaders feel superior. The cost is that they create lemmings. Their mindlessness promotes our own mindlessness which costs us our well being and health. Net result, the leader, the led, and the company all lose.

It’s nice to imagine a company where everyone is mindful. But it will take some time to achieve the ideal even if possible. Meanwhile, we need leaders whose major, perhaps only task is to promote mindfulness in those around them. By learning how to exploit the power of uncertainty maybe all of us will wake up.

(This post is part of a six-week blog series on how leadership might look in the future which you can find here.)

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  • Apr 8, 09:52 AM

Relationship illusions

Jane can’t understand how her spouse has changed. When she first met Charles, he was wonderfully generous and now he’s become a tightwad. Every time he lets their friend Richard pick up the check without a fight, she gets angry and starts telling herself how stingy he is.

When couples first come together, the implicit comparisons they make are about this person compared with the world of other possible mates. It’s unlikely that if I value a particular way of being, say generosity, that I’ll choose to be with someone who is stingy. If being smart matters to me, my choice is not likely to be someone I’d consider stupid.

Although they come together because of our similarities, couples argue about their differences. We all know how unkind we can be in the way we think about the person we fell in love with. How could I have gotten involved with someone so petty, stupid, sloppy, irresponsible, etc? No matter what the characteristic is that leads us to now think ill of someone we used to adore, there is a kinder, simpler explanation for the differences that lead to arguments.

Once Jane choose to be with Charles, she become the person to whom she now most often compares him. Being oblivious to how the range of her comparisons has narrowed—from everyone out there to just the two of them—leads her to forget how similar she once thought they were. With just a single point of comparison, one of them has to lose. Maybe she needs to take a closer look at how she’s magnified a very small difference.

Once we recognize that no two people are going to ever be exactly the same on any characteristic, we are able to realize that one of the two will always be more generous, wiser, neater, better with handling financial matters, and the like. It has to be so.

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  • Mar 15, 06:13 PM

Bad Advice or a Mindless Decision?

I was once advised to take a calculus class in college that turned out to be the wrong one to pursue the chemistry major I had already embarked on. I became a psychologist instead.

There may really be no such thing as bad advice. What is good from one perspective may be bad from another. I’ve never been given bad advice although I have on occasion made a choice that seemed not to turn out to be to my advantage. When I’ve made it work out anyway, the so-called bad advice became good. Moreover, we never know what the alternatives not taken would have felt like.

Regret is mindless. If we make our decisions—to follow any particular path—mindfully, we’ll have no regrets, and thus will have not taken bad advice.

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  • Feb 27, 04:21 PM

Blaming the Victim

When I give lectures around my book, Counterclockwise, not infrequently someone will ask whether the idea I’m espousing—that we have far more control over our illnesses than most of us realize—inevitably leads to blaming the victim. Their reasoning must be that if we can control either the severity of our symptoms or the entire disease process, than those who suffer are suffering by their own hands since they did nothing to help themselves. This understanding couldn’t be further from the truth.

We have been explicitly and implicitly taught by our culture to be mindless. We have been taught absolutes when none really exist independent of context. When we think we know something absolutely, we have learned that it is reasonable never to question it, nor to pay attention to how it may be otherwise. Beliefs and behavior always make some kind of sense from the actor’s perspective or else the actor would have done otherwise. Blame suggests mindlessness on the part of the blamer who does not recognize this. We are not at fault for what we do not know just because someone else can see a way we could have known it.

If we can avoid blaming the victim, we won’t waste time lost in the past, Instead we can learn to know now. Greater health and well being will follow if we do.