Practicing Team Mindfulness May Ease Conflict

Team mindfulness in the workplace may lead to happier–and more productive–workers, according to new research.

Mindfulness–or the practice of actively focusing on being “in the moment”–is a common goal of meditation and yoga, both of which have become common offerings in workplace-wellness programs. While mindfulness has often been approached as an individual practice, a new study out of the University of British Columbia found that applying mindfulness techniques to a team atmosphere can help workers avoid or reduce conflict.

Researchers used two pools of nearly 400 American MBA students to develop a working definition of team mindfulness and test its effects. UBC assistant professor and lead researcher Lingtao Yu says there are two primary components to team mindfulness: Everyone working together is committed to paying attention to only the present moment–excluding recall of past interactions and predictions about future situations–and to refraining from making predictions.

No matter what happens around their team in an organizational setting, they focus just on the task itself and not on any kind of prejudgment based on past experiences,” Yu says.

The researchers found that when team members in the test groups employed these principles, interpersonal conflict decreased. Participants practicing team mindfulness were less likely than those not following this strategy to transform a task conflict, or a disagreement about a particular element of a joint project, into an interpersonal conflict, or one rooted in emotions and manifesting itself as a personal attack against another team member.

Researchers also tested the concept with a group of nearly 300 healthcare workers in China, to explore potential cultural differences, and found very similar results.

“When teams have task conflict, previous studies have shown it’s easy for them to transfer task conflict to this relationship or emotional conflict, but if team members are mindful and focus on the task itself, they’re less likely to make that transfer,” Yu says. He notes that individual mindfulness has been linked to higher job satisfaction and productivity, and that the UBC study is the first of its kind to suggest similar outcomes from practicing mindfulness as a group.

The research is timely, says Christa Manning, vice president of solution provider research at Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP, as more companies are moving toward team- and project-based tasks. Deloitte’s 2018 Global Talent Trends Study found that 85 percent of workers surveyed said flexible teams are important to company success–yet less than half of workers said their companies are ready to fully implement flexible teamwork.

Mindfulness can be a step toward that goal, she adds, especially as more organizations incorporate contingent and remote workers into their workforce and compete to keep employees in the face of low unemployment.

“Companies need to address the need to build trust between people who may not have worked together before, or for very long,” Manning says. “Being more mindful can be a response to this new reality. We can’t be on auto pilot; we have to literally be more mindful about who we’re interacting with to get things done.”

Implementing team-based mindfulness in the workplace could certainly be a challenge, says Sharlyn Lauby, HR consultant and president of ITM Group Inc. Lauby notes that individual mindfulness practices have increasingly been incorporated into corporate wellness programs, and employers may face some resistance trying to convince their workers that mindfulness strategies can also be applied on a team level.

“Think of it like learning styles–we each have a preference,” Lauby says. “But also like learning styles, we have to make sure we don’t get too attached to one way of thinking. I definitely think that, if individuals are willing to be a little curious, the benefits [of team mindfulness] could outweigh the challenges.”

One benefit of team mindfulness is that workers can practice enhancing their soft skills, Manning says.

As automation transforms the skill sets workers of tomorrow will need, there will be a need for stronger communication, negotiation and cooperation capabilities in the workplace.

“Workers need to develop better people skills to react to this change,” she says. “Meditation and yoga physically slow down the mind and body to be more observant of what’s going on, so on a team level it can make you slow down and think about the human across the desk–or even the planet, if you’re working virtually–and make sure you’re respecting them to build trust and drive results.”

The UBC study lays the foundation, Yu says, for future research to develop an evidence-based team mindfulness model to assist companies in developing such programs.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected]