• Friedhelm Boschert

Mindfulness in university programmes at the Vienna University of Economics and Business

The course "Mindful ManagementMindful Organisations" has approached mindfulness to teaching at traditional universities. Chaired by Prof. Müller-Camen, the Management Department at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, special field of HR, attempts to offer new perspectives with respect to management and organisations to students in the summer semester. After a first successful course already offered in the previous semester (with Dr. Ulrike Pastner). Courageous and brilliant, and recommended to follow, in my opinion.

It didn't take a long time to convince me, when Prof. Müller-Camen asked me, if I wanted to take on the course. At his institute at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, the professor, who comes from Germany originally, conducts research with respect to "sustainable HR management" and ranks among the pioneers, who have attached importance to the mindfulness concept for management and organisations just at an early stage.

"First of all, focus on the breath ..."

Mindfulness for students, thus, already working in companies or being about to assume first functions there. Who already know operational reality. So where to start? It became clear very quickly that mindfulness exercises would be an essential part of the course. Without direct experience and introspection, it isn't possible either to understand mindfulness, or to deal with the mindfulness concepts. This has been my conviction, and I’ve been right. "I wasn't aware of the importance of mindfulness before the course, therefore I didn't know, what to expect. So, I find it even more amazing, how mindfulness practice has impact on one's own condition and everyday life," a student describes her access.

Two practical benefits of the mindfulness exercises done at the beginning of each unit quickly become apparent. The students have been present, "totally", from the very beginning, and not yet with their minds at break or at breakfast. And when concentration starts to decrease time and again, a focused 5-minutes’ walk, a breathing exercise or a focused physical exercise can help to regain attentive awareness fast. In this way, even longer courses can be tackled productively without any cognitive and physical deficits - to the pleasure of all. And no lecturer worldwide should endure tired eyes in tired faces any longer. Simply remember: There is always the "Mindful Solution"approach as well.

From old India to MBSR

From the content-related perspective, we initially examined the mindfulness concepts and their backgrounds from the sources in Buddhism 2,500 years ago all the way through to the modern MBSR concept by Jon Kabat-Zinn. But soon the spotlight was put on what should be in our focus all the time. The MIND. "What do you actually know about it? Do you know, how you tick? Have you ever observed your brain at work?" These were the questions during the perceptive exercises, where our perception plays tricks on us. And this shows us, how low our ability is to control our brain in everyday life. But this is exactly, what is material when being mindful: the control of our awareness. In order to be able to leave this automatism that too often takes us away from reality, that too often avoids us from being effective.

Increasing effectiveness

The course focuses on examining management and executive functions in terms of of mindfulness. How does the manager or the executive become more effective, when learning how to control their awareness in a better way? The individual mindfulness concept by Ellen Langer and the organisational mindfulness approach by Karl Weick are starting points for analyses and discussions. "What does decision-making mean?" This is one of the questions, when dealing with breadth and depth of perception and its control. "What are the consequences for human resources development?" This is another question, when analysing the Empathy Triad by Daniel Goleman. "How can team communication be improved by means of mindfulness?" For this purpose, we do not only refer to the "Humble Inquiry" by Edgar Schein, but also to the Levels of Listening by Otto Scharmer.

And the students immediately train in practice mindful listening by means of the so-called "dialogue walks".

"Is it possible that organisations become mindful, too?" This is probably one of the key questions during the course. Early studies about High Reliability Organisationsby Karl Weick and later works such as those by Annette Gebauer "Learning from Crises and Disasters"are used to examine these aspects beyond the human individual. Here, the transformative potential of mindfulness in organisations becomes clear: from improving individual self-effectiveness to designing organisational culture. In the course of a guest lecture, ex-manager Dr. Martina Esberger-Chowdhurytells about her experience with mindfulness in large companies.

"Reflective and generative learning"

Self-perception and ability to self-reflection are not only key elements of applied mindfulness in the organisation. Even during the course, the following questions emerge frequently: "What is the effect on me? What comes into my mind, while doing so? What kind of emotions?" One of the learning objectives of every mindfulness practice is a better understanding of oneself. At the end of the course, a student said, "Therefore I tried to integrate just this mindfulness into my everyday life during the past weeks. Acting and reflecting consciously has not only made me stronger but also more productive and at the same time more balanced."

In the course of workshops and individual tasks, the students also reflected about the implementation into the operational routine in their respective companies. And without being under any illusions, "During the exercise, I was first subject to some ridicule and smile, because I participated in this strange practice. Now, almost two weeks later, three people have joined me yet and we do the exercise together." And another student added, "At work, at my employer "xxx", I can really imagine that they would take a minute to arrive before a meeting. ... The time spent in meetings would also decrease in this way, which in turn would create more time for more concentrated work." And a further student reflected about the enormous diversion in the organisation and concluded, "Perspectives have to be changed as well - so that e.g. emails are no longer answered immediately."

For me it is pleasure to work on this "new" issue with the students, who are open, curious and highly able to reflecting. The interest and the quality of contributions shows that mindfulness should become an integral part of every university programme, in particular in economic and social sciences.

And today, the companies' need of "Mindful Solutions"is as enormous as that of business and society as a whole.

I wish you mindful days.

Kindest regards,

Friedhelm Boschert

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