What Mindfulness Can Do for a Team

What happens when you take a team of people from a range of backgrounds and skillsets and ask them to perform a challenging task on a tight deadline? Often, conflicts arise.

Sometimes conflicts can be productive: When teams are hammering out ideas and striving to find the most effective route to a shared goal, people will often express concerns and offer differing perspectives. That process can lead to stronger outcomes as well as a sense of shared accomplishment — even if not everyone agrees.

Those benefits can quickly evaporate, however, if that healthier “task conflict” turns personal, and team members begin to resent their coworkers’ comments or actions, or treat disagreements as attacks. What’s more, if left unchecked that personal friction — known as “relationship conflict” — can lead to social undermining, which happens when people retaliate against coworkers and actively attempt to undercut them by spreading gossip, giving them the cold shoulder, or mistreating them in other ways.

These more damaging forms of discord have been shown to be highly detrimental in teams, and organizations spend significant time and money on efforts to reduce them — but too often use unproven strategies that fail to produce results. Ultimately, this type of chronic conflict can negatively affect employee effectiveness, motivation and well-being, workforce retention, and ultimately, the bottom line.

How can leaders help teams before they get to this stage? One possibility might be mindfulness. Mindfulness, defined as “a receptive attention to and awareness of present events and experience,” has been shown to help individuals stay on task, approach problems with an open mind, and avoid taking disagreements personally. The trend is so strong, in fact, that many major corporations have begun instituting mindfulness programs: Google, Aetna, LinkedIn, and Ford have all employed it in hopes of boosting productivity and employee satisfaction.

Team mindfulness, however, is distinct from individual mindfulness in that it applies to the group as a whole, and to the interaction between its members, as opposed to employees’ individual thought patterns. In other words, it’s the collective awareness of what a team is experiencing at a given moment, without the prejudgements that come at the individual level.

There is anecdotal evidence that mindfulness can work for teams. In 1989, more than a decade before mindfulness became a buzzword in Western society, Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson famously introduced the idea to his team.  He believed the practice would pull the players together, buffer them against tensions, and ultimately, win them championships. Many players — including NBA legend Michael Jordan — were skeptical, but when they went on to win six NBA titles, that uncertainty evaporated. When Jackson brought the same methods to the Los Angeles Lakers, they won five championships.

Jackson’s results in the NBA are encouraging, but until now, the scientific literature has almost exclusively examined the benefits of mindfulness on an individual level; without a thorough understanding of team mindfulness, managers could risk instituting practices that are little more than ineffective and costly fads — or potentially even counterproductive. What’s more, without evidence of the structure and function of team mindfulness, its risks or benefits cannot be effectively evaluated.

Our research introduces the concept of team mindfulness and offers an empirical investigation of its application within organizations, as well as a psychometrically sound scale — that is, a scale that is tested and validated using multiple samples — for its measurement. We also show that team mindfulness can directly safeguard against the more detrimental aspects of conflict.

In one of the field studies we administered the questionnaire to 224 MBA students within 44 project teams at a large Midwest university. In the other, the questionnaire was distributed to 318 employees on 50 teams at a Chinese health care organization, in a range of departments — among them technical support, pharmacy, marketing, and customer service. To ensure that team mindfulness is distinct from individual mindfulness, we also accounted for individual mindfulness as a control variable in our models.

Across both studies, we found the higher the level of team mindfulness, the lower the level of relationship conflict. What’s more, in the more mindful teams, the shift from the project-based task conflict to the more damaging relationship conflict was significantly diminished; the tendency for relationship conflict to devolve into destructive undermining was also notably reduced.

In other words, our findings support the idea that team-level mindfulness is distinct, and offers distinct benefits from individual mindfulness.


Putting this type of mindfulness into practice can be challenging, however. Workplaces have become increasingly rife with distraction, with employees scrolling through their cell phones during meetings rather than listening and participating. Add to that the fact that more people are working remotely, and that more companies are employing people with a diverse range of languages, cultural backgrounds, and working styles, where miscommunications and misinterpretations can easily occur.

The most important thing organizations can do to increase team mindfulness is to encourage present-focussed attention, non-judgmental processing, and respectful communication, as well as an openness to collecting and understanding information before processing it. This helps reduce emotional or reflexive responses, leaving room for teams with diverse knowledge and different functional backgrounds to reach a greater potential.

That doesn’t mean that difficult decisions don’t get made, or that the focus on the present prevents employees from analyzing the past or planning for the future; rather, it allows people and teams to better control when and how critical analysis and crucial judgements take place.

Currently, there is no formal prescription for how to achieve team mindfulness, and how the concept is applied will necessarily vary according to the type of organization. A growing number of major corporations are instituting individual mindfulness programs, which may lead to greater team mindfulness; some are taking that approach a step further, and getting entire teams to sit down for group-based sessions that encourage employees to focus on themselves, the group, and the tasks they need to complete.

However it’s important to note that, in order to achieve a high level of team mindfulness, not every team member must have mindfulness training; in fact, even if only the team leader or a handful of team members are mindful, it is possible the team as a whole will also be more mindful. This is because team processes involve ongoing interactions, and employees with a high level of mindfulness influence the behaviors of their coworkers; when a leader models a more mindful approach, employees are also more likely to follow suit.

At the business level, leaders can set cultural expectations, and lead meetings and other interactions with team mindfulness as a central cornerstone; they can also step in when discussion is being shut down before potentially invaluable ideas have been properly heard and considered. For example, if a leader sees tensions morphing from a potentially productive task conflict to the more destructive relationship conflict, they might step in and encourage employees to shift their focus back to the task at hand.

The benefits of embracing team mindfulness are becoming clearer. Imagine two teams: On one, members interact on the side, with some members unaware that the participation has shifted or that the team has lost its task focus, so discussions have to be repeated and work redone. Members might be critical and defensive, and quick to judge, or simply check out and watch the clock. On another team, members stay focused and reunite the team if they sense that actions and communications have veered off course; the discussions focus on exploring facts, ideas and options, and avoid impulsive judgements.

Which team is more likely to win? Whether it’s an NBA franchise or a department in a health care organization, the more mindful team will almost certainly have the upper hand.

Lingtao Yu is an assistant professor in the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. He received his PhD in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from the University of Minnesota. His current research interests include leadership and ethics, abusive supervision, workplace deviance, emotions, and mindfulness.

Mary Zellmer-Bruhn is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. She completed her PhD in Organizational Behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Zellmer-Bruhn’s current research focuses on context and teaming, team diversity, and knowledge processes and learning in teams.


Don’t Be the Boss Who Talks Too Much

As head of a startup, I always want to make sure everyone on my team understands the vision for what we’re trying to achieve. I also want to make sure we’re hearing, considering, and incorporating everyone’s ideas, and acting quickly to iron out problems along the way. So we have a lot of group conversations. A lot.

We discuss our mission, goals, and the steps it will take to achieve them. Every time, I look for new ways to say things, in hopes of making the vision crystal clear and discovering even slight differences in how various team members understand our goals.

In short, I over-communicate.

I don’t just do this now, with a relatively small staff. I’ve done the same throughout my career, including when I spent several years as vice president of a large company in Newton, Massachusetts.

So I’ve had to ask myself: At what point am I communicating too much? When should I give it a rest?

The answer isn’t simple. On one hand, HBR has reported on complaints from people about the kind of boss who “over-communicates with everyone on a project,” creating “a huge time suck.” On the other hand some research from Harvard finds that “persistent, redundant communication” from managers helps get projects completed quickly.

To toe the line, I’ve developed rules for myself to follow, aimed at mitigating the downsides (like wasted time and lost productivity) while still using frequent communication to clear any hurdles in our path.

Make it two-way

When you’re trying to communicate your vision and organize the work ahead, it’s easy to start speechifying. You have so much to say, so many thoughts on your mind, that you can get carried away. And since you’re “the boss,” other team members may feel a duty to listen and nod along. You can lose track of time.

So leaders should make sure to listen every bit as much as — if not more than — they talk. “Effective leaders don’t just talk, they listen,” Northeastern University reported. An HBR piece described listening as “an overlooked leadership tool.”

As you hold meetings, keep tabs on how much time you spend talking, and how much listening. And when you get a question, sometimes invite other team members to weigh in as part of the answer. That way everyone is included, and feels that their input is valued.

Never interrupt “the zone”

When your employees are busy designing a solution or banging through tasks, it’s not the right time to strike up a conversation with them. Short of an emergency, you shouldn’t pull them out of “the zone,” in which they’re focused on crucial tasks. You also need to make sure there are sufficient uninterrupted periods of working time to allow people to find that focus. Breaking the work day up into multiple chunks by scheduling meetings is a sure way to kill productivity in any creative work environment.

That’s why, as a rule, the ideal time for conversations is at the beginning of a work session or close to the end of the day  though not when they’re supposed to leave. It’s only worth having these sessions when everyone needed for them is available at the same time.


Monthly one-on-ones

To ensure that ideas and concerns are teased out and raised, every team member should have a one-on-one session with a leader once a month. In these meetings, the team members can voice anything.

To be sure they don’t hold back, I ask employees to bring at least one “bad” issue to these meetings. It can be a concern about the product we’re creating or the way our business is running. It can also include an idea for how to improve.

Of course, employees are also welcome to bring positive issues  things they’re excited about and want us to do more of. But addressing problems takes precedence.

Beyond the open-door policy

I expect all leaders and managers to welcome any team member to discuss issues large or small. But as many experts have written, simply announcing that you have an open-door policy isn’t enough. It’s important to empower employees to speak up by showing them that when they bring concerns your way, you act on them.

One way to achieve this is through a “feedback loop.” After a concern is raised, whether in a group meeting or one-on-one, follow up on it. Track progress, identify obstacles, and keep moving the effort forward. The more you do this, the more people will see the practical value of bringing up an issue  and they’ll see what all the communication you’re engaging in can achieve.

In general, avoiding lots of scheduled meetings and instead engaging in ad hoc conversations is better. And when meetings are necessary, bring good food, since meetings on low-blood sugar are an especially bad idea.

As a manager, you want to make sure everyone on your team understands the vision for what you’re trying to achieve. But at what point are you communicating too much? When should you give it a rest? There are rules you can follow to mitigate the downsides of overcommunication (like wasted time and lost productivity). For one, listen as much, if not more, than you talk. And never interrupt “the zone.” When your employees are busy designing a solution or banging through tasks, it’s not the right time to strike up a conversation with them. Encourage your employees to have a one-on-one session with a leader once a month and ask them to bring at least one “bad” issue to these meetings. And finally, empower employees to speak up by showing them that when they bring concerns your way, you act on them. With all these efforts in place, and an atmosphere of psychological safety, it becomes much more likely that you’ll do a good job of communicating frequently without annoying your team.

After all, in that environment they’ll also feel much more comfortable to say: “You know what boss? I really think we’ve got it.”

Hjalmar Gislason is founder and CEO of GRID.