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Organisational Learning and Mindfulness – Relational Frame Theory (RFT)

In our search for a relationship between organisational and individual learning and mindfulness, we now take a look at mindfulness from the perspective of a psychologist trained in the western tradition. Relational Frame Theory (RFT) attempts to explain the variety of human behaviour as the basis for therapeutic interventions. This introduction to RFT will place in a better position to understand how the different forms of learning can address ineffective behaviour in individuals and organisations.

The search for a relationship between learning (organisational and individual) and mindfulness was prompted by the observation of several conversational threads that on the surface appear to be independent but have some aspects in common . Exploring this commonality could lead us to useful insights. You may recall from previous posts (e.g. here and here) that engaging in different modes of learning is one way, possibly the only way, to deal with the unpredictability of behaviour that arises from its complex and human nature of organisations. A second thread is the evidence from research that the practice of mindfulness has a beneficial effect on the ability of individuals to deal with difficult personal and social circumstances. The third thread is the growing interest in applying the practice of mindfulness in organisational environments. Is there some way we can connect these dots to form a more coherent picture?

Last week we looked at how engaging in single-, double– and triple-loop learning can help individuals and groups to operate more effectively.  This week we explore mindfulness, specifically at an explanation for mindfulness that is grounded in western psychology.

The evolution of our understanding of human behaviour over the past century has been described as having taken place in three waves. The first wave, a move away from the Freudian archetype-based theories started with Skinner’s experiments that demonstrated the flexibility of, and our ability to control, relationships between stimuli and responses. Dogs can be trained to salivate when they hear a sound because the association with an expectation of food. The discovery initiated a search for a neurological basis for all behaviour. But neurological explanations for some observations, such as the acquisition of language, were slow to emerge and so psychologists looked at alternative explanations.

The second wave dispensed with the requirement of a stimulus for a response viewed the brain as a thought-machine, i.e. a computing mechanism that determines behaviour in the absence of a stimulus. The cognitive school used associations between thoughts, scripts and frames to explain, and devise therapeutic interventions to change, behaviour. The implication is that to change our behaviour we need to change the way we think. The ‘black box’ neuro-linguistic programming approach was part of this wave. The therapeutic implementation of this theory is cognitive behavioural therapy.

The third wave originated in the observation that we are able to respond effectively in situations that are completely new to us. We seem to be able to assemble, from a number of separate segments, a conceptual framework that we then use to act appropriately in such situations. These conceptual building blocks are related to each other in a variety of ways. For example, if we were to see an orange, we would activate frames relating to its shape, its colour, its purpose and so on. The nature and strength of the relationships between these building blocks or frames shapes the overall conceptual framework based on which we respond to situations, hence the name Relational Frame Theory or RFT. The therapeutic application of RFT is contextual behavioural therapy, better known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT.

There is a parallel between Pepper’s world hypotheses and the evolution of theory in psychology. Freud’s fanciful theories were based on archetypes or loose associations between concepts, reminiscent of formist thinking. Skinner’s stimulus-response explanation was based on cause and effect, very similar to mechanistic thinking. Cognitive theory was based on patterns of memories (scripts and frames) that could be invoked in unpredictable ways, representing an approach close to organicism. Contextual behavioural theory explains behaviour based on the subject’s unique history and perception of the situation, much like Pepper’s contextualism.

Another interesting parallel can be seen between the creative assembling of a conceptual framework that drives behaviour in RFT and the abductive, also creative, process of assembling a conceptual framework to derive a hypothesis to best explanation in the Logic of Scientific Inquiry.

Here’s how the process works according to RFT. As we go through each life experience we make changes to our inventory of frames. There are several types of changes involved, e.g. changes to the cues or triggers that activate the frames, the content of the frames and the relationships between the frames. So for example if a frame is triggered by the sight of a certain make of cars, we might adjust this so the range of the cue becomes narrower or wider. If we widen the range of cues that activate the frame, the frame will tend to get activated more often. You may have experienced the yellow jeep syndrome. As soon as you decide to buy a jeep you begin to see more jeeps on the road. If your favourite colour is yellow, you tend to see more yellow jeeps. In the same way, we make adjustments to the contents of the frames and to the relationships between the frames. For example, we may adjust the frame triggered by a tennis ball to include the possibility of being struck on the head by one and we may associate the frame invoked by a tennis ball with another frame for an orange because of the shared size and approximate shape.

When we come across the cue, or one of the related cues, we begin assembling the set of the related frames and then act from within that frame. Since the assembly of the conceptual framework takes place very quickly and often without us being aware of it, it is easy to fall into habitual patterns of behaviour that are triggered when we are in a certain situation.

The practice of mindfulness promises improved awareness of the process by which thoughts arise and how we respond to them. With increasing clarity of the thought process, we become more aware of how certain cues trigger the ways in which we perceive situations and how we respond to them. This awareness allows us to subject the relationships between cues, the content of the frames and relationships between frames. This gives us the ability, over a period of time, to make changes to these relationships that allow us to respond to situations in a more effective way.

Next week we’ll look at the similarities between the practice of mindfulness and the process of learning, particularly double- and triple-loop learning.


If you are interested in learning more about organisational alignment, how misalignment can arise and what you can do about it join the community. Along the way, I’ll share some tools and frameworks that might help you improve alignment in your organisation.