Education professor to receive national organization development award

William Brendel, assistant professor of education  (organization development and change) in the Department of Learning and Performance Systems, will receive the Organization Development (OD) Award for Evolving OD by Connecting People and Ideas during a virtual ceremony on Nov. 12.

The OD Network consists of leading scholars and practitioners who guide the practice of organization development and serve as change agents by creating a global community for meaningful connections and exchanging best practices.

“One of the more famous folks in our field, Lisa Kimball, was renowned for connecting people and ideas, and not just connecting people so they can talk to each other and share ideas but connecting them so that they could co-create ideas. This meant bringing people who are diverse and quite different together, and also pushing the boundaries of what we currently do in the field. This (award) is in honor of her. And I was very lucky to be nominated for the same reasons,” Brendel said.

Brendel’s research investigates how mindfulness theories and practices can be integrated with organization development to improve conditions for strategic innovation, healthy organizational cultures, leadership effectiveness and a workforce capable of navigating complex change, managing stress and relating to others with greater compassion.

“Mindfulness is integrated in leadership training in over 60% of Fortune 500 companies; that's a big number,” Brendel said. “I was around when it was very experimental. And I'm cited as a pioneer in the field of what has become known as mindful leadership.” 

A Google search on mindful leadership will turn up millions of entries, but Brendel was the first one to run an empirical study with actual business leaders, comparing a leadership development course to leaders who practiced mindfulness for 45 minutes a week instead of taking a leadership development course.

Brendel said the group who practiced mindfulness had an increase in creativity, resilience and tolerance for ambiguity.

“This does show the distinction between traditional education, which is focused on putting knowledge in someone's head, and these consciousness skills of metacognition and letting go of your ego and letting go of your expertise and welcoming in diverse perspectives. That's the way of the future, I'm convinced,” Brendel said.

Brendel, who has been teaching and giving workshops and conducting research for 22 years, said the genesis of his mindfulness research occurred when his sister died at age 30. He said he possessed no tools that would allow him to feel well and think clearly after her death. 

“I just felt so locked down and constricted so I went to Google and I typed in ‘What do you do to stop thinking about things … to just create distance,’ and up pops this guy named Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the mindfulness-based stress reduction at the University of Massachusetts. He is probably single-handedly the person responsible for making mindfulness popular in the United States,” Brendel said. “I sought him out, and I learned from him directly and I immediately saw applications in the business world, not just from reducing stress, but meditation — the type that he uses is secular so there's no religion in it.”

He said he focuses on innovation and inclusion. “I remember walking through a supermarket, the day after I learned my sister passed away, and walking past strangers and thinking, ‘any one of these people can be suffering at the same degree that I am and I would never know it,’” Brendel said. “I felt a real connection with people, and I thought how good would that be for business and schools and any organization? Isn't that just what we need right about now? So that's kind of the genesis for this whole thing that I'm toying with.”

Organization development continues to evolve to meet the new needs of organizations and communities, such as a growing investment in understanding and enacting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

Brendel cited two false positives currently occurring within DEI. “One is that organizations are creating checkbox lists. If we do A-B-C-D-E-F and G, we can officially say that we're diverse and inclusive and equitable,” he said.  “While that's partly true it's not the whole picture because you could check every box and it can still feel like it's the least inclusive and equitable place, that there’s false sense. As human beings, we pick up on that; we can tell when an apology is false, there's tons of studies on this.

“The other false positive is just feeling inclusive and not doing anything about it, not actually taking the action but thinking that you are inclusive. That opens a floodgate for good people to suffer from their own unconscious biases.” 

He said the question he is interested in asking is how to integrate the two, and he believes the answer is establishing an integrated consciousness. Behavioral science consciousness studies say human beings experience the world through access consciousness, or making sense of language and thinking, and phenomenal consciousness, or the intuitive experience of being.

“You can’t think or feel your way into inclusion,” Brendel said. “Integrating those two is totally possible through mindfulness practice. I developed the theory of conscious OD. And that approach is all about expanding where people spend most of their day — which is in that thinking place — and stretching it into phenomenal consciousness so that we can both think and feel simultaneously this thing we call inclusion. “It's just opening our minds to how we feel and what we sense and integrating those two instead of favoring either one.”

From that work came award nomination letters from peers, and Brendel said it “meant everything to me” to be nominated by his peers. “And not just any peers but some really very prominent people in the field. This award was reviewed by people that I've admired for decades, and to hear what the comments were, I was just like, ‘oh my gosh, this is great,’” Brendel said. 

“I just feel really happy and fortunate to be part of this crowd, however I fell into it. It's nice; it's encouraging that you feel like someone's saying ‘atta boy, keep going, you're on the right track.’”

William Brendel Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated October 25, 2021