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.


Without Emotional Intelligence, Mindfulness Doesn’t Work

Mindfulness has become the corporate fad du jour, a practice widely touted as a fast-track to better leadership. But we suspect that not all the benefits laid at its feet actually belong there. Our research and analysis has revealed a complicated relationship between mindfulness and executive performance—one that is important for leaders to understand as they seek to develop in their careers.

Mindfulness is a method of shifting your attention inward to observe your thoughts, feelings, and actions without interpretation or judgment. A mindfulness practice often begins simply by focusing on your breath, noticing when your mind wanders, and then bringing it back to your breath. As you strengthen your ability to concentrate, you can then shift to simply noting your inner experience without getting lost in it at any point in your day. The benefits attributed to this kind of practice range from stronger relationships with others to higher levels of leadership performance.

Take, for example, Sean, a senior leader at a Fortune 100 corporation.  He will tell you that mindfulness played a critical role in transforming his career. He had been experiencing a serious performance plateau that was, he learned, an effect of his micromanaging and intimidating his direct reports. Obsessed with hitting his quarterly targets, he had pushed his people as much as they could stand and his team’s output was at a standstill. He feared being fired, or having to quit because of burnout from anxiety overload.

And mindfulness, Sean says, saved him. After an intensive training in the practice, he was better able to stop himself when his impulse was to jump in and control, and instead adopt a more supportive style, letting subordinates take on more responsibility. As he got better at managing his own anxious impulses, the resulting atmosphere dropped the gauge on stress for everyone. His direct reports trusted him more and did better quality work. Instead of quitting or being fired, he was promoted.

Sean was one of 42 senior leaders from organizations throughout the world who practice mindfulness and whom one of us (Matt Lippincott) studied at the University of Pennsylvania. They too attributed a wide array of benefits to their practice, including:

  • Stronger relationships with superiors, peers, and subordinates
  • Heightened output
  • Better project outcomes
  • Improved crisis management
  • Increased budgets and team headcount
  • Being trusted with sensitive organizational information
  • Positive performance reviews
  • Promotions

One executive even reported that as a result of his mindfulness practice his co-workers stopped turning around and walking in the other direction when they saw him coming!

But mindfulness isn’t magic; what was the mechanism at work in these executives’ transformations? One tipoff: several executives in the study reported getting feedback from colleagues that described improvements in areas like empathy, conflict management, and persuasive communication. These, it turns out, are what one of us (Dan) has described as core emotional intelligence competencies.

This connection with emotional intelligence was underscored in the interviews Matt conducted with the study participants themselves. Rather than describing a direct correlation between their mindfulness practice and increased performance, the leaders talked about increased self-awareness that led them to change certain behaviors. Those behaviors tracked with those Dan describes in the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI), an established rubric for gauging emotional intelligence. It is through improvement in competencies related to emotional intelligence, in fact, that mindfulness makes executives more effective leaders.

In Sean’s case, his mindfulness practice made him more aware of his own high levels of anxiety, and how that tended to impair his thinking. He realized that he had harshly high standards for himself at work, and held everyone else to these same rigid, perfectionistic expectations — for instance, that people, including himself, should be able to endure extreme workplace demands. By becoming aware of these tendencies, he also saw that while his workaholic ethic had gotten him his position, as a leadership strategy it no longer worked for him. Because it was well-nigh impossible for anyone to meet his unrealistic performance expectations — and he would berate them when they didn’t — there was a quiet rebellion brewing on his team and progress was at a standstill. With this understanding, he was able to identify two competencies where he could improve: self-awareness and self-management.

As a result, he adjusted his expectations to be more realistic, and sought his team’s input in setting their goals. These shifts led him to improve in other emotional competence areas as well. Sean began to listen attentively to his team members rather than just dictating what to do — ratcheting up his empathy. He adopted a more positive view of his direct reports and their abilities to reach targets, seeing them as allies rather than problems, an upgrade of the positivity in his outlook. He built trust by speaking of his own fears and vulnerabilities more openly, and spoke from his heart more, which inspired his team. We’ve seen in past research that improvement in these competency areas — achievement, conflict management, empathy, positive outlook, and inspiration — improve a leader’s effectiveness, and Sean’s case bore that out.

The exercise of mindfulness started Sean down the path of improvement as a leader; it allowed him to see where he needed to improve and allowed him to become self-aware enough to modify his actions. But the improvements themselves were in the realm of emotional intelligence.

We believe that by focusing on mindfulness-as-corporate-fad, leaders run the risk of missing other opportunities to develop their critical emotional skills. Instead, executives would be better served by deliberately assessing and improving their full range of emotional intelligence capabilities. Some of that work may well involve mindfulness training and practice, but it can also include formal EQ assessment and coaching. Other tools and approaches include role-playing, modeling other leaders you admire, and rehearsing in your mind how you might handle emotional situations differently. By understanding that the mechanism behind mindfulness is the improvement of broader emotional intelligence competencies, leaders can more intentionally work on all of the areas that will have the strongest impact on their leadership.

Daniel Goleman is Co-Director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University, co-author of Primal Leadership: Leading with Emotional Intelligence, and author of The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New InsightsLeadership: Selected Writings, and A Force For Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World. His latest book is Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.

Matthew Lippincott is a business owner, researcher, and author involved in the creation of new leadership development solutions. He holds a doctoral degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and has previously held leadership positions at two of the world’s largest software companies.


40 Years of Research Proves Women Are Better Managers Than Men Because They Tend to Have This Crucial Skill

To create highly engaged workforces you'll have to focus on these four keys areas:

In a Gallup report based on over four decades of research, including the analysis of 27 million employees' responses, female managers outperform their male counterparts when it comes to driving employee engagement. Gallup defines engaged employeesas those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.
Regarding the day-to-day practical evidence, the study found that if you reported to a female manager, you were more likely to reply "yes" to the following statements:
  • "There is someone at work who encourages my development."
  • "In the last six months, someone has talked to me about my progress," and,
  • "In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work."

Why is this such a big deal? The main reason is that 87 percent of employees worldwide report being disengaged at work. On the flip side, companies that have engaged employees outperform their peers by 147 percent in earnings per share. That's a lot of uncapitalized potential.

Let's take a look at the four components of employee engagement that gave women an advantage over their male colleagues.


One of the quickest ways to create confusion and stifle productivity is to be ambiguous about expectations. A major indicator of an engaged employee is ownership over one's role, and it's awfully difficult to take control without baseline responsibilities. To ensure that your employee is crystal clear about their position, make sure you:

  1. Have a job description review and discuss areas of importance, key contributions (what tasks affect others), the potential for impact and areas of accountability.
  2. Lay out the consequences, in a friendly manner, and be consistent. This includes both the positive and negative side-effects of your employee's performance.
  3. Establish clear metrics, key performance indicators, and behavior standards. Everyone wants to understand how they will be evaluated.
  4. Clarify areas where your employee can be autonomous.
  5. Ensure all process based capabilities are handed down. AKA, department "know-how", training and standard operating procedures.

Word to the wise, be careful about assigning accountability without authority. It's frustrating, as an employee, to be held accountable for something that you can't manage or make a decision on.


Great managers understand that engagement is an outcome of meaningful relationships. What constitutes a meaningful relationship? Here are five characteristics from the Mind Tools Editorial Team.

  1. Trust --If you could pick a cornerstone for a good relationship, trust would definitely be the best option. It enables employees to be open, honest and transparent. You'd be surprised how much energy new employees can conserve (and redeploy) by not having to constantly watch their back and question everything they say/do.
  2. Mutual Respect -- You can't expect respect without giving it first. We must value everyone's thoughts, ideas, and input. Then, it will be much easier to develop solutions based on collective insight -- a key to engaging your employees in your vision/mission. People don't take direction and learn from those whom they don't respect.
  3. Mindfulness -- We must take responsibility for our own actions, words, emotions (or lack thereof) and the effects that they can have on those around us. Employees are products of their environments. Make sure that you're mindful of the one you're creating.
  4. Welcoming Diversity -- "People with good relationships not only accept diverse people and opinions, but they welcome them. For instance, when your friends and colleagues offer different opinions from yours, you take the time to consider what they have to say, and factor their insights into your decision-making." (Mind Tools)
  5. Open Communication -- This one is pretty simple: the more we communicate with our employees, the richer our relationships will be.


In efforts to automate and systematize our work, we've become obsessed with computing outcomes and collecting data to drive decisions. Don't get me wrong, data is necessary and there is definitely a place for it, but it does not replace the need for leadership.

Unfortunately, this obsession with measuring throughput and efficiency has created mechanistic management crutches. News flash, people don't thrive in standardized environments. Our employees are naturally different and diverse. Forcing them to conform stifles creativity and limits leaders to the role of a delivery system. Instead, focus on creating a human system. One that is characterized by team harmony, respect and caring for employees' welfare. Then, watch as these humanistic conditions unearth your employee's engagement.


The feeling of stagnation is terrifying. Help your employees stay relevant and challenged by investing in their development. If you don't, others will.

It may seem like engagement is just another buzz word that HR departments throw around to create more work for managers. However, this Gallup report proves that higher levels of engagement produce higher-performing teams. Gentlemen, if we want to even the odds, then we must focus on creating a culture within our teams that breeds engagement. 

Michael Schneider/Apr 19, 2017


Mindfulness May Rival Talk Therapy For A Variety Of Mental Health Issues

There’s a lot of debate about which form of therapy is the most psychologically effective, the most cost-effective, the quickest working and the longest lasting. They all have their benefits and drawbacks, depending on the individual and the kind of mental health problem he or she is dealing with. A new study reports that an eight-week course of group mindfulness training has a similar efficacy to usual care—in the this case, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which in recent years has been thought of as the gold standard in psychotherapy for a range of mental health issues. But a key point to keep in mind here is the study was done only over the course of eight weeks, so it’s not totally clear—from this study, at least—whether the results would last over the long-term. Luckily, others suggest that they very well may be.

The researchers, who published their work in European Psychiatry, had 215 people who were diagnosed with depression, anxiety and/or stress and adjustment disorders come in to different treatment centers around Sweden. They were randomly assigned to a control group or mindfulness-based group therapy (MGT) for a period of eight weeks. In this particular study, MGT was based on both mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), the program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts’ Medical School, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which itself is a combination of mindfulness training and cognitive therapy. In the control group, participants received “usual care,” which typically included talk therapy (in most cases, CBT) and medication.

The participants filled out questionnaires before and after the intervention, which measured symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress and somatization (feeling symptoms in one’s body), obsessive-compulsive disorder, interpersonal sensitivity, aggression, phobic anxiety, paranoid thoughts and psychoticism.

At the end of the eight weeks, the participants’ symptoms had significantly decreased in both groups—in fact, there was no difference between the two groups, meaning the one treatment was as effective as the other.

"Our new research shows that mindfulness group therapy has the equivalent effect as individual CBT for a wide range of psychiatric symptoms that are common among this patient group," said study author Jan Sundquist in a statement. "We have shown in a previous study that mindfulness group therapy is just as effective as individual CBT for the treatment of typical depression and anxiety symptoms; something we also observed in the new study."

In fact, a number of earlier studies have found that mindfulness training can address a range of mental health issues, from depression to anxiety to intrusive thoughts. And even more studies have shown the efficacy of talk therapy—of many varieties—in treating mental health disorders, even significant ones, and reducing the risk of relapse. And both practices have been shown to help rewire the brain: A study last month, for instance, found that for people with schizophrenia, CBT was linked to fewer psychiatric symptoms down the road, but also to changes in brain connectivity that are themselves linked to better emotional control. Many studies on meditation have found that over time it can alter both the structure and the function of the brain.

The authors point out that one of the greatest benefits coming from the study is the cost issue: Individual treatment is expensive, so the fact that a group-based therapy was so effective is encouraging, especially since mental health care is often cost-prohibitive for many.

Alice G. Walton: health, medicine, psychology and neuroscience.


Mindfulness & Depression – A Story Shared

Through my work I’ve been made aware that mental illness is of growing concern to many across the world. My wife, Ailys, has experienced endogenous depression (currently incurable) for over 30 years. For the past 12 months Ailys has used mindfulness and various neuroscience practices to supplement treatment of her depression. The results – through hard work – have been significant and I asked her to write a short article on some of her experiences in the hope that it may prove of benefit to others. Over to Ailys … 

I am what I like to call a "functioning" depressive, i.e. managed with anti-depressants.

Just over a year ago I discovered mindfulness meditation. It has been of enormous benefit to me in many areas of my life. Not least of which has been to build up resilience to the onslaught of negative thoughts / emotions that a depressive has to contend with. The way I do this is to notice the thought / emotion as it invades my consciousness (aka trapping the thought / emotion) and saying to myself something like: "I recognise you depression, negativity, blaming or whatever it may be and then say, for example: "I choose joy, or peace, or equanimity, etc." Almost as soon as I give the thought a name it dissipates. 

While on the subject of thoughts I also remind myself that thoughts aren’t facts. This often helps in judging the validity of what I’m thinking.

Another benefit has been to pay attention to the present moment experience, or living in the moment, as some people call it. Instead of staying in and ruminating about the past or worrying about the future, I remind myself of the date, for example I will say in my mind: today is the 27th of January. It even helps if I remind myself of the time, if I should leap ahead and worry about what might or might not happen in two hours' time. 

I am by no means suggesting that anyone goes off medication because of the benefits of mindfulness meditation or neuroscience. That is something that needs to be addressed with your health care provider. 

I hope my experience will be of benefit to others. Thank you for listening.

Published on

By Peter Moss