The Benefits of Mindfulness in Leading Transformational Change

Managing Ambiguity

2016 Volume 19 Issue 1

Conditions such as globalization, rapidly accelerating technological advancement, and economic turmoil have rocked the business world in recent years, driving a corresponding shift in both the pace and nature of organizational change. As a consequence, organizations find themselves undergoing transformational change more frequently than in the past.

transformation shutterstock_293450465 smTransformational change requires “a radical shift of strategy, structure, systems, processes or technology.”[1] In contrast to developmental change, which improves existing ways of operating,[1, 24, 25] and transitional change, which replaces something (e.g., a process) that already exists,[1, 22] transformational change involves profound shifts in the way a company operates in relationship to its environment and necessitates a corresponding shift in culture, behavior and mindset for the change to be successful and sustained over time.[1, 4, 17, 22, 24]

Moreover, transformational change is emergent. While the desired future state has certainly been defined, it is not possible at the beginning of the transformational change to precisely know the scale of the impact to the organization or the path necessary to achieve the desired outcome. Consequently, transformational organizational change co-occurs with substantial ambiguity for organization members participating in the change effort [4]. Situations can be completely new and often don’t resemble anything seen or experienced previously, with complex patterns that are difficult to process.[37] Generally, the more ambiguous the circumstances, the more fearful participants become.[1] This is partly why other types of change (e.g., developmental or transitional) can be easier for people to handle, as the direction and magnitude of the change are often known at the outset, whereas the end point is unclear during the transformative process of transformational change.

This experience of ambiguity can be unsettling and anxiety provoking for all concerned, thereby impairing organization members’ willingness and ability to change. Often, ambiguity provokes employees’ uncertainty, stress and discomfort, prompting exaggerated negative expectations regarding what the change will mean for them.[5, 6] Operating in a state of ambiguity can cause poor productivity, poor decision-making, employee turnover, the change effort to fail, and the organization to fail to reach its stated or desired goals.

This article examines how 19 change leaders manage and cope with ambiguity during transformational organizational change and how mindfulness helps them do that. These change leaders, who are experienced in leading transformational organizational change, include a mix of professionals, both male and female, ranging from 30 to 69 years of age. Some of the change leaders have led as many as 11 transformational change projects. Company sizes ranged from small (1–99 employees) to large (50,000 or more employees) and most of the transformational change initiatives lasted from 1 to 2 years, with some extending to 3 to 5 years in duration.


Mindfulness, the state of “being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present,”[7] can be a powerful way for change leaders to manage ambiguity and promote positive outcomes.[8] Interest in mindfulness has accelerated over the past 20 to 30 years based on studies that have demonstrated the benefits of mindfulness as a way to reduce stress and create positive outcomes.[28, 29] By 2005, there were upward of 100 scientific papers on mindfulness, a number that increased to more than 1,500 by 2013.[29] These studies have shown that mindfulness has many positive effects on the human body and mind, including “our genes and chromosomes, on our cells and tissues, on specialized regions of our brain and the neural networks that link those regions, as well as on our thoughts and emotions and our social networks.”[29]

Mindfulness is a “universal human capacity”[10] involving three basic skills: “focus, awareness and living in the moment.”[18] In the literature, mindfulness is almost universally described as being focused on reality[30] in the present moment in a state of non-judgment[30, 31, 32] with acceptance and acknowledgement of what is.[30] This produces a state of increased and ongoing awareness.[30, 32]

mindfulness shutterstock_310940804 smAt its heart, mindfulness is a way of paying attention.[30, 31, 33] When in a mindful state, a person is aware of his or her internal experience, thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, processes and states, as well as external stimuli and events,[30, 31, 32] and yet is not identified with any of them.[30] There is an ability to notice everything that is happening in the moment[31] without reacting, either positively or negatively, to what is occurring.[32] This means that we stop reacting out of our habitual patterns and reactions and instead see what is occurring as it really is, in that moment.[30] At its most basic level, mindfulness is a way to avoid responding to what is happening in familiar and automatic ways.[34]

“Mindfulness is both a process (mindfulness practice) and an outcome (mindful awareness).”[30] Mindfulness has also been described both as a trait (an innate quality of present moment awareness that endures over time) and a state (a transitory frame of mind).[35] Any given individual will experience both trait and state mindfulness. They are not mutually exclusive.

Impact of Ambiguity on Transformational Organizational Change Participants

The change leaders in our study had various reactions to ambiguity, including high anxiety, no strong reaction, and invigoration. One leader explained, “It was the hardest year of my life. . .We were changing so much all at once. . .That made me spin a lot.” In contrast, another shared, “Honestly, I don’t remember having a lot of fear. . .I didn’t have an emotional reaction to it.” Regarding effects on employees, however, change leaders in our study added that their employees almost universally experienced high anxiety and uncertainty during ambiguity. One leader shared that employees exhibited: “Mistrust. Cliques. Tribalism. Just a lot of fear-based behaviors. . .It was threatening their livelihoods. It was a pretty big deal.” Another shared that “there were all these employees that up until the week before [the acquisition] thought the company was doing OK. . .You had 20 or 30 employees that had the rug pulled out from underneath them.” These results suggest that the anxiety, distress, and sense of uncertainty that employees feel during transformational change can make it difficult for them to take productive action that supports the change strategy.

Uses of Mindfulness for Managing Ambiguity During Transformational Organizational Change

All 19 change leaders agreed that mindfulness is or would be helpful to deal with ambiguity and transformational change. Most change leaders in our study reportedly use mindfulness (albeit under various names) to manage and deal with ambiguity during transformational organizational change. They reported three primary effects from their use of mindfulness: enhancing their ability to interact with others, helping them to maintain perspective, and attuning with others’ emotional states (Table 1). They also reported that their own mindfulness makes them a better resource and advisor to the people involved in the change process. It gave them a balanced perspective between the big picture and the details, and helped them to remain calm and focused in the face of ambiguity.

Table 1

The Effects of Leaders’ Mindfulness on Others

When asked how they felt that their mindfulness affects others involved in the transformational organizational change, the leaders involved in this study identified two primary ways: bolstering others confidence and enhancing perceptions of their trustworthiness and integrity (Table 2).

Table 2

Given our findings, efforts to develop or improve change leaders’ levels of mindfulness will positively impact their ability to lead transformational change. Accordingly, 18 participants reported that mindfulness training would be useful for change leaders and should be offered.


Ambiguity is a natural but often distressing part of transformational change. It is therefore important for change leaders to find ways to relieve stress and anxiety. Also, as leaders enhance their own ability to thrive during ambiguity, they can help other participants do the same.

Our study found that there are basic business actions that change leaders can take to help mitigate ambiguity, such as clarifying the goals and direction for the change project, securing guidance and support from executives and other professionals, and seeking to learn as much as possible about situations in order to drive the right actions. Beyond these basic business fundamentals, personal mindfulness practices may be the easiest for change leaders to implement and perhaps the most effective for developing resilience and a sense of calm during change.

Mindfulness practices can be learned through workplace training or self-study. Many companies are seeing the value of cultivating mindfulness within their employee bases, including Raytheon, Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, Nortel Networks, and Comcast—all of which have offered their employees classes in mindfulness meditation.[36] Since 2007, thousands of Google employees have participated in a class called “Search Inside Yourself” (SIY), one of about a dozen courses Google offers on mindfulness meditation.

For individuals seeking to develop mindfulness, there are a number of avenues to explore. One of the classic mindfulness training programs whose efficacy has been demonstrated is Mindfulness Based Stress Reaction (MBSR). An online search will likely reveal a training course offered nearby. The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, created by the employee who developed the course offered at Google, offers public courses as well as customized courses for organizations. Finally, for those who want to practice mindfulness there are many meditation applications, such as Headspace, that can aid in the development of a mindfulness practice.



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About the Author(s)

Avonlie Wylson, MSOD, has a Masters of Science in Organization Development from the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University. She is an Organization Effectiveness Consultant focused on business strategy, executive coaching, individual and team development, and working with companies experiencing transformational change, especially high growth early stage tech companies. Avonlie’s professional background encompasses a variety of experiences, including sales, contingent recruiting, retained executive search, post-sales customer account management, program management, customer experience improvement, technology migrations, change management, and post-acquisition integration. Her industry experience is primarily in the software industry including 14 years with several cloud computing/software-as-a-service companies including Adobe Systems.

Julie A. Chesley, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Organization Theory at Pepperdine University where she is the Director of Pepperdine’s Masters of Science in Organizational Development (MSOD) program. Julie has also been on the faculty at the United States Air Force Academy and at Colorado College. In addition to her academic practice, Julie has over thirty years experience implementing, teaching, and consulting on strategic change efforts—completing 20 years of service to the United States Air Force. Julie has numerous publications and presentations including articles in California Management Review, Journal of Business Research, and the Journal of Leadership Studies, as well two texts: Applied Project Management for Space Systems and Strategic Thinking: Today’s Business Imperative. She holds a BS in Management from the United States Air Force Academy, and an MBA and PhD in Organization Theory and Management from the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado.


Anna Weber

June 10, 2016 at 5:22 am

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