Mindfulness As a Team Sport

Though mindfulness is typically considered something one learns as an individual, entire groups can collectively step back to reduce conflict, says emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

I recently spoke with a marketing manager who was struggling with getting ideas implemented by his team. The business was going through a rapid change, and there were many distractions. This resulted in disjointed work, confusion about key decisions, and a lack of engagement. This leader just couldn’t unite the team. Mounting frustration was met with increased pressure from the CEO to perform.

The entire team needed greater focus.

Nearly all scientific research on meditation—and mindfulness more broadly—focuses on an individual level. This makes sense: meditation is largely a personal practice. But mindfulness among groups are also important, especially at work. That’s why I was so intrigued by new research on team mindfulness by Lingtao Yu and Mary Zellmer-Bruhnin published in the Academy of Management Journal.  And by the way, this study offers a much sounder design that the one trumpeted recently that dissed mindfulness.

The Yu-Zellmer-Bruhin study defines team mindfulness as “a shared belief among team members that their interactions are characterized by awareness and attention to present events,” without negatively judging what happens. This definition implicitly emphasizes how team members can share strengths in emotional intelligence. Mutual competencies in self-awareness and empathy–as well as team-wide acknowledgement of the importance of these norms–yield a mindful team, especially when the leader is also on board.

This research had three parts. The first developed and tested a scale of team mindfulness. The second tracked team mindfulness among 224 U.S. MBA students on 44 teams. And the third analyzed data from 318 employees in healthcare organizations in China who made up 50 teams.

Bottom line: that team mindfulness reduces conflict and increases focus.

It's no surprise– University of New Hampshire psychologist Vanessa Druskat's work on teams shows that top-performing teams follow norms that enhance collective self-awareness. This could include surfacing simmering disagreements and settling them before they boil over or being present and sharing when you’re struggling. Despite its tremendous payoff, this norm is the least common of those that Druskat studies. Only the highest-performing teams tend to achieve team mindfulness through collective self-awareness.

Teams that effectively manage conflict create far more opportunities for focused work.  There are three types of focus: inner, other, and outer. Focus is crucial for developing EI, for top job performance, and for living a fulfilling life. Inner focus attunes us to our intuitions and guiding values with self-awareness, which helps us make better decisions. Other focus guides our connections to people, utilizing empathy and the relationship management competencies. And outer focus enables us to navigate the larger world.

So, training teams in mindfulness should reduce conflict and increase focus, which in turn notches up performance. Such training could include a combination of EI coaching, mindfulness instruction, and implementing productive team norms. Several large organizations, including Google and LinkedIn, already utilize team mindfulness. After all, the increased productivity and engagement mindful teams offer are highly desirable for any organization. By actively attuning ourselves to the people around us and the goals we share, we can achieve greater things together and make a larger difference in the larger world.

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification.