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.