Our ancient ancestors lived in small groups where hierarchy was absent. Individuals were completely autonomous and it was taboo to tell others what to do. We built strong relationships with each other. We willingly made individual contributions to the survival of the group and survived as we had a place in it.
Hierarchy emerged to organise society when populations grew. Coming together into tribes enabled us to outcompete small bands of wandering hunter gatherers and protect our territory from other tribes. Then came agriculture, increasing food production, advances in technology and urban living.
Living in larger groups gave us many advantages, however, organising society came with new challenges. We had to work out new ways of sharing power and resources. We defined our self-worth in terms of social status.
We will accept some loss of autonomy when we believe in the group, however, we need more than food and shelter. Resilience comes from making a meaningful contribution. We need to identify with the group. We need to feel we are being fairly treated. We need relationships built on trust and a shared sense of purpose.
Without a sense of purpose and relatedness to others, life becomes a ‘rat race’ and we only find meaning in our own success. Winners become increasingly skilled. Some push themselves to the limit. Others fail and become disengaged.
How do we balance peoples need for meaning and connection and still organise ourselves in ways that drive innovation? How do we make the workplace a more ‘human centred’ environment? Since scientific studies found that mindfulness meditation could reduce depression, it has colonised all walks of life. Some argue that mindfulness will lead to change because it helps us to better understand ourselves and others.
As mindfulness makes individuals responsible for their own mental health, some are critical: Mindfulness may help us to feel more at ease but we, collectively, need to wake up and face the challenges of our times. Mindfulness may help some, but others will be left behind because they are just too busy and stressed. Things will just get worse.
There are no simple answers, however, the philosophy behind ‘social mindfulness’ is different. It recognises that stress is a natural response to modern working life. It applies mindfulness to see how we respond to social threat and then uses mindfulness to regulate this natural response. It gives us the language to diffuse difference and build a common sense of purpose. It is explicitly about empowering employees to take the lead in driving change.