Organizational Self-Awareness

April 2, 2021

“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”

— Brené Brown

Sitting around a large conference table, all those in attendance could see it and sense it:  A mid-level manager was frustrated.  She had just attended another meeting headed by several members of senior leadership.  At this meeting, senior leadership was reviewing the results of an employee engagement survey.  Several months before, upon the completion of the surveys conducted by the Human Resources Department, the results were extremely encouraging. There were very complaints. There were no ‘red flags’.  Engagement appeared high and employee satisfaction was quite high. 

Human Resources and Senior Leadership were particularly pleased with how low the scores were with regard to the question pertaining to the likelihood of leaving the organization.   There was a degree of being impressed with how different this was from the general climate of the area’s workforce.

Several major employers had recently announced WARN notices.  This refers to the Workforce Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act.  It is an attempt at a nice way of say to everyone, “hey, we are getting rid of a whole bunch of people…and soon.”  The WARN Act requires employers to give 60 days-notice of the intention to lay-off more than 50 employers during any 30-day period.  The WARN notices were significant in both the number of organizations making this announcement and the number of employees affected.  Senior Leadership commented that it was fortunate to be in a different industry than the volatile one undergoing layoffs.

All signs from Senior Leadership’s perspective were positive and encouraging.  So back to the beginning of the story: why was the mid-level manager frustrated?

They had recently asked for volunteers for a couple of high visibility (and high risk/high reward) projects.  There were very few who stepped forward.  Why with such a highly engaged organization were so few stepping up to be involved in these new initiatives?  Senior Leadership was puzzled and put pressure on their mid-level managers to convince their top people to step forward.  I was sitting down for coffee with this frustrated mid-level manager as she expressed her frustration and related this information to me.  As an Organization Development consultant, I was sensing more to the organization’s climate than she was seeing.  I didn’t believe the culture was quite what senior leadership believed it to be.  I offered the possibility that her organization was not being very self-aware.  She looked puzzled and inquired, “What do you mean?”  I said it might be possible for an organization to have blind spots, just like individuals sometimes do (individual self-awareness and organizational self-awareness).  I asked about the possibility of there being a connection to the overall employment climate in the community.  “No, Why?” She responded.  I asked how many of her employees had spouses, relatives, friends, or neighbors employed by the three major companies that had just issued WARN notices? And I pointed out that this industry had been having economic challenges and hardships for a while – going back to about the time the engagement survey was administered. Her eyes grew wide as she realized how many of her staff were married and/or partnered with these employees.  Below the surface of what senior leadership was “seeing” was actually fear, mistrust, and a strong unwillingness to express any negative opinions or to take any unnecessary risks.  We might even say that the organization, in this instance at least, was clueless.

This real occurrence is a great example of a low-level of organizational self-awareness.

So, what lessons can be gleaned from this experience?

  • Organizations can have blind-spots just like individuals
  • An organization does not know what it does not know
  • Only a fish does not know what water looks like
  • Value of outside perspective (such as an organization development consultant)
  • Organizations can develop self-awareness and a culture of self-awareness
  • When this awareness becomes intentional, we can begin to develop a mindful organization
  • Lack of organizational self-awareness can have significant negative effects on the performance and sustainability of the enterprise.


I am defining organizational self-awareness (a definition you won’t find in any textbooks) as a collective conscious knowledge and understanding of the organization’s unique culture, its own character, it’s collective feelings/moods, its motives, and its strengths as well as short comings.  I am expanding what is typically thought of in terms of individual behavior and applying it to a collective group.

Daniel Goleman, in his ground breaking book, Emotional Intelligence, defines self-awareness as knowing one’s internal states, preferences, resources, and intuitions.  I would like to apply this concept to the organizational level; a type of collective consciousness, a collective awareness.  It is much deeper than merely just “knowing” what is happening, such as knowing what competitors are doing and what is referred to as knowledge management.  While being aware of what other companies are doing is valuable, I am referring to a genuine sense of what is going on within the organization at an emotional, psychological level.  While knowledge management is invaluable, organizational self-awareness transcends merely sharing ideas and collecting information.  It is understanding how the information reflects the culture of the organization, how it matters.  I am basically talking about how well does an organization really know itself.


Is organizational self-awareness achievable?  Yes, because I can think of organizations that I have observed or been a part of, that exhibited these characteristics.  A better question is, is it sustainable?  It is a journey, a journey of collective discovery.  Just like our own personal development where we are constantly challenged to grow and reflect, and learn more about ourselves, organizations are likewise faced with this opportunity.  It is not so much a destination but rather a way of being.  It is about having a certain organizational culture.  It is about humanizing the workplace.  It is about creating a healthy, life-giving place where individuals feel valued and heard.  Creating a mindful organization is about creating a distinct and strong culture.  A mindful organization is not for everyone; this culture is not for everyone.  It is not compatible with certain leadership types.  It requires leaders (and all organizational members) to show empathy, compassion, and a willingness to be vulnerable and open.


It is about co-creating a culture of mindfulness.  A mindful organization requires more than a team effort.  It requires shared control; it requires not just lip-service around empowerment and engagement.  It requires a genuine sense of co-creating.  Co-creating is at the heart of a culture of mindfulness.

A mindful organization is much deeper than being smart or making good decisions or being aware of market conditions and trends.  These are all important, however it is a deeper collective internal state of being.  Of being authentically present.

So, what might a mindful organization look like?  While each organization is unique, I feel there are some common characteristics embodied by a mindful organization.  As I mentioned before, not all leadership styles are supportive or compatible with these characteristics.  Not all organizational members are either.

Here are the characteristics of a Mindful Organization. Mindful organizations are living in the present moment.  They do not live in the past with regrets or blame, or gloating.  The organization is living in the present, in real-time; while honoring and learning from the past.  This living in the present is characterized by patience and kindness.  At the same time, the organization anticipates and plans flexibly for the future.  The culture is warm and friendly.  There is genuine concern for individual’s needs.  There is open communication.  There is a sense of shared compassion. Conflict is handled in healthy ways and forgiveness is common.  At the same time, trust is constantly being built and reinforced.  The organization is empathetic.  There is a shared awareness of what feelings are present.  Feelings and emotions are understood and dissenting views are welcomed.  Assumptions are questioned.  All this is to say that a mindful organization is authentically self-aware.  Mental models are understood and challenged.  The organization embraces setting and honoring healthy boundaries while sharing information appropriately.  A mindful organization is growth oriented in terms of a collective self-discovery – gaining insights and uncovering organizational blind-spots.


This is what I think of as a macro-view of mindfulness.  It is helpful to think about the connection to social psychology and group dynamics. 

Several years ago, David Foster Wallace, the professor and writer, gave a university commencement address titled, “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life”.  He told the story about these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

This is a powerful story of how we can exist in an environment that we are not even fully aware of.  It is the opposite of being conscious and aware of what is going on inside us as well as among us.  It is choosing to pay attention, in a specific way. It is pay attention with intention.  In giving our attention, we then construct meaning from our experiences and insights, and thoughts.

David Foster Wallace goes on to describe the opposite of this type of self-awareness.  It is what he called our default setting, of being caught up on the rat race, and “the constant, gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” 

Does this sound familiar?  Have you been in an organization that had this default setting?  Maybe it did but like the fish, you did not recognize it (especially at the time).  All the characteristics I have described are what comprise what I think of as the culture of the organization.  Organizational culture plays a major role in guiding and shaping the success of an organization.  At the same time, understanding the culture of an organization is a complex and challenging process.  Just as complex and even more challenging is attempting to change an organization’s culture.  Gaining insight into an organization’s culture is invaluable.  For a leader, self-awareness is the first step to becoming an effective leader.  In the same way, the collective organization truly knowing itself is the first step in guiding its success.  I am referring to this as organizational self-awareness.  This self-awareness is at the heart of a Mindful Organization.  We can better understand the co-creating of a mindful organizational culture through the lens of social constructionism.  This is a theory from the fields of sociology and communication that proposes that knowledge is jointly constructed and we construct meaning from our shared assumptions.

“Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how & what you think. It means being conscious & aware enough to choose what you pay attention to & to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

― David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life

Many of us have probably experienced what we refer to as a distraction filled organizational culture.  Like the example at the beginning of the chapter, we are familiar with organizations that are filled with worry, blame, lack of focus, and an overall unhealthy climate.

Mindfulness is a type of transformation, a perpetual movement towards the center, towards the present, towards the core of what matters most, the here and now.  Does this sound to pie-in-the-sky?  I don’t think so.

Have a nice weekend!




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