Communication Currents

The human cost of chronic mindfulness in U.S. law enforcement: Toward a more nuanced understanding of HRO theory

October 20, 2023
Organizational Communication

New Series Vol. 1, No. 1

One definition of mindfulness, a concept rooted in Buddhism, Christianity, transcendentalism, and other traditions, is an individual’s ability to maintain focused attention, make appropriate decisions when facing uncertainty, and effectively communicate knowledge about one’s environment. Mindfulness principles have been widely applied in medicine and psychology and later in business and law, among other sites. Mindfulness’s antithesis, mindlessness, is dangerous for high-reliability organizations (HROs) operating in high-risk environments, such as nuclear power plants, firefighting, air traffic control, and militaries. Michael Ault and Benjamin Brandley researched the human costs of persistent mindfulness in U.S. law enforcement.

Background/Theory: Research on HROs has primarily focused on the direct effects of implementing HRO principles, such as mindfulness, to avoid disasters and improve resiliency. Research on organizations implementing HRO principles explains how they cope with uncertainty, create shared knowledge, and use communication to limit the frequency and magnitude of mistakes. Mindfulness has positive outcomes, experts endorse it, and many organizations conduct mindfulness training. But research also shows that mindlessness—acting on superficial cues and routines—is humans’ natural state because mindfulness requires effort; persistent mindfulness causes fatigue and stress.

Mindfulness has both inwardly focused and externally focused manifestations. External mindfulness calls for increased awareness of, and adapting to, changing environments, with attention to unique experiences and how they sync with larger patterns. Sensemaking is critical, as mindful individuals construct plausible narratives for new experiences that, in turn, shape how they adapt in the future. Sensemaking is not always accurate or even beneficial, as Ault and Brandley’s study shows long-term harms.

HRO extends mindfulness and sensemaking from individuals to organizations. In turn, organization members communicate their individual sensemaking to create shared knowledge. HRO theory was originally descriptive but later became prescriptive. An earlier study (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2015) identified five components of mindfulness in HROs: “(1) preoccupation with failure, the chronic concern for reducing error through explaining explicitly the mistakes that should not be made; (2) reluctance to simplify, the avoidance of shortcuts and crude labels that hide nuance and detail; (3) sensitivity to operations, the ongoing monitoring of processes to detect trouble; (4) commitment to resilience, the implementation of processes that absorb strain caused by unexpected error; and (5) deference to expertise, empowering the individuals who are most informed and qualified to make decisions.” Weick and Sutcliffe recommended mindfulness at all times. HROs may try to set protocols for any and every situation, but that is impossible. As a result, HROs must be adaptable, and individuals must decide when to use and not use established protocols. Some workers, sooner or later, deal with this uncertainty by mindlessly following rules. Police, in particular, disproportionately experience personal costs of stress from uncertain and dangerous situations: illness, divorce, substance abuse, absenteeism, job dissatisfaction and turnover, psychological distress, and suicide.

Research Methods: Ault and Brandley originally intended to study organizational theory and practices manifested in a Western United States sheriff’s department—90 hours of participant observation with 12 participants (11 men, 11 Whites, one Hispanic, ages 25 to 55 [mean 33] and job tenures from one year to 15 [mean 5]). This netted 66 single-spaced typed pages of notes, in which the authors discovered HRO principles and norms. Evidence of mindfulness in particular emerged inductively through the preliminary data analysis, and they decided to focus on it. They then conducted in-depth interviews (45-75 minutes each) with 19 law enforcement officers (16 officers, one deputy, and two highway patrol) throughout the USA (17 men, 17 Whites, 1 Hispanic, 1 North African, ages 25 to 63 [mean 37] and job tenures from one year to 43 [mean 14]) in 2018 and 2019. This netted 266 single-spaced typed pages of notes. All 332 pages were analyzed using the phronetic iterative approach (Tracy, 2020), with the evidence constantly compared to theory, and evidence coded (and codes refined) for how it meshed or did not mesh with theory. The authors established validity through prolonged time in the field, triangulation between data sets, thick descriptions (from participant observation and interviews), and checking interpretations with subjects.

Results: In the law enforcement officers, Ault and Brandley identified “protective distortion,” manifested in five ways, resulting from persistent mindfulness. One, compulsive hypervigilance meant police involuntarily and repeatedly socially constructed a reality in which danger and crime can be everywhere. Two, complexity avoidance meant avoiding thoughts, tasks, or experiences that they considered too complicated, including sloughing off work (such as not going to back up other officers at crime scenes). Three, mental fatigue occurred, especially after traumatic or other intense experiences. Four, jadedness meant emotionally distancing themselves from citizens they are serving. Five, pathological assumption of responsibility means police taking blame for negative incidents that they cannot or could not control.

Ault and Brandley observed police, as a result of persistent mindfulness, using four communicative mechanisms to cope with the protective distortion effects: avoidance (not talking about trauma), reframing (turning negative into positive), seeking professional therapy, and cathartic expressing (talking through events, but also dark humor). They recommend “meta-mindfulness,” a comprehensive understanding of mindfulness’s effects, to deter these outcomes. Structural changes also would help by changing social discourses of power, social standing, masculinity norms, and citizens’ expectations about police. They also suggest that police could seek professional therapy more often, and police administrators could better manage officers’ mindfulness and stress.

This study did not analyze effects of race and gender, control for years of police experience, or seek data on law enforcement officers’ initial or ongoing training, or their knowledge of mindfulness, so there is an opportunity for future research on how HRO theory impacts U.S. police departments.


Communication Currents Discussion Questions:


  1. How and why might additional initial and ongoing training about mindfulness, instead of only better supervision, change outcomes of mindfulness in police departments or other HROs?
  2. U.S. police receive anywhere from 10 weeks to 36 hours of initial training, an average of 840 hours. Police in England receive almost three time as much, while police in Germany receive five times as much and in Finland six and a half times as much. Could that make a difference in the role of mindfulness in police departments?
  3. Can you think of other companies, nonprofit organizations or government agencies that are or could be HROs, and what might the effects of mindfulness training be for them—and why?


For additional suggestions about how to use this and other Communication Currents in classrooms, see:



Michael Ault, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Communication, Weber State University.

Benjamin Brandley is a Graduate Teaching Associate, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University.



This essay, by Dane S. Claussen, translates the scholarly journal article, Michael Ault & Benjamin Brandley (2023): The human cost of chronic mindfulness in U.S. law enforcement: toward a more nuanced understanding of HRO theory, in Journal of Applied Communication Research, 51(1): 18-36. DOI: 10.1080/00909882.2022.2118547

 2023 National Communication Association

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