When was the last time you were rewarded at work for playing around? Quite a while ago, or maybe even never? I attended a session the other night on setting goals using a value-based approach. It was hosted by NAWIC, which is the National Association of Women in Construction. This sprang to mind as I opened my laptop on the eve of International Women’s Day. I was the token ‘bloke’. Where some of the guys might have been a bit threatened is that the session started with some meditation and focused a lot on mindfulness. More enlightened managers embrace new ideas like mindfulness in the workplace for the many benefits it accrues not only for the individual but also for the workplace.


The simplest definition I can find for mindfulness is ‘the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something’. So it’s essentially about presence. Another way of putting it, as my father used to say, is ‘having your wits about you’. Those who know my work, know of my interest in the various quotients required to be a successful manager. IQ everyone knows about and even those with just a cursory understanding of management practice now know of EQ. I discussed DQ (Diplomacy Quotient) in a recent blog with particular reference to Donald Trump. I now want to talk about SQ (Situational Quotient). SQ is presence, or putting it another way, mindfulness breeds situational awareness. Being present makes you hyper-aware of your surroundings enabling you to spot when things are not right.


I travelled to Sydney recently and my bag got pulled aside by the security team for checking because, of all things, I had left a set of Allen keys in there. I placed them in there on the weekend to put them in the garage but forgot to take them out. A fine example of lack of presence. They were spotted by the woman operating the carry-on luggage bag scanner at the airport. A fine example of presence. In fact the job of looking at a security scanner all day is a classic example of where you really want someone to be working mindfully in their job. Their job is to sort out what doesn’t look right – so they are looking at patterns that don’t look quite right. This is a very complex task on the face of it, given our technology today requires a myriad of chargers and headphones and emergency battery storage devices, hard drives USB sticks etc. all of which get thrown in at the last minute into your carry on bag. How they achieve their degree of focus, in what is essentially a fairly low paid job, always amazes me.


What I have observed in those security areas, almost without exception everywhere in the world I have travelled, is a certain level of banter between the staff. They have no requirement to be customer focused. Their customer is the Government or airport operator so interactions and in-jokes etc. while rude elsewhere – in a retail setting for example – are not inappropriate. What I recall from my mindfulness training, so well delivered by The Potential Project, is the notion of beginner’s mind. Bringing the questioning or critical (as in critical thinking) mind to play in such situations enables the staff to sort chaff from wheat as it were. Beginner’s minds are best represented by the curiosity of children who have not had the life experience to build up patterns of normalized behavior and are therefore less likely to take things for granted. The adult brain is much more sophisticated, or so we think. We know from experience, don’t we, what feels right and what feels out of place. It is a basic function of the reticular activation system part of our brain. That is the part of our brain that when we are looking to buy a particular new car we start to see lots of them on the road. A child’s brain does not work in this way.


Our brain is tricky though in its search for pattern. While we think it’s rational it can be anything but. As the landscape of neuroscience understanding expands so does our understanding of the power and weakness of our brain. Neuroplasticity blows my mind but I am underwhelmed when I realize just how we let emotions and other unconscious bias affect what we believe to be rational decision-making.


Cordelia Fine writing in A Mind of Its Own points to experiments done at an elite US university where a lecturer was plotting points on a graph displayed on a screen. The screen then went blank and students were asked to locate exactly on the graph where the last plot point was. Almost without exception the students identified a point beyond the last plot point of the lecturer. Why? Well the brain seeks out patterns as a basic survival and psycho-motor instinct. You couldn’t drive a car or walk across the road without it. But it can mislead. Our accumulated experience makes this worse. Our perception of our ability to make sensible predictions and the degree of belief in our decisions is known as the illusion of control. Once again children do not build such a concrete control illusion exhibiting a much greater cognitive elasticity over the situations they encounter.


And that’s precisely where I need my team to be. I need that beginner’s mind to stay critical such that each and every situation is assessed and not taken for granted. It is essentially how we stay safe. The world of safety at work in Australia and other developed nations has become overwhelmed and bogged down in complex systems that very few (apart from the consultants and managers who advise on and manage the systems) can understand or effectively manage to deliver the required outcome – safety. But the conundrum is how we engender situational awareness at work when there are so many other distractions.


We live in a VUCA world and our brains, trying to process much more information than previously, need a way to stay present and situationally aware at the same time. It’s just not about safety though it’s about how we present our business to the world. Is our website up to date or do we still display one of our team members on there who left two weeks ago? Are all the lights working in the toilets? Have the security lights automatic timer been changed to reflect that the nights are drawing in? Is that trailing lead a trip hazard? Should that Coke can be placed in the recycling bin – the one I walked past today twice on the way to the toilet? Has anyone claimed that bag that has been left in the courtyard for the last couple of hours?


I think I may have an answer to that but it’s controversial and counter-intuitive. Play! Play is what children do to explore boundaries and rules are developed as they go along. The system of play is essentially without pre-set rules or probabilistic calibration which makes it so powerful. Eric Zimmerman a Professor at NYU’s Game Centre theorises that we have entered what he calls the ‘Ludic Century’. What he means by this is that given the times in which we live games and play are central in a way that, for example, information and the moving image were central to the 20th century. Perhaps through the embrace of play we can re-imagine the beginner’s mind and build the situational awareness that seems to be lacking due to the complexity of modern living and working. With the advent of the micro nap at work becoming more commonplace, maybe it’s time we stole another concept from day care – playtime! Maybe we should change our mindset as workplace leaders and rephrase ‘stop mucking around and get back to work, to stop working and get back to mucking around’. Our workplaces just might be safer for it!