It’s safe to say mindfulness has gone mainstream in the U.S. Millions of Americans now use the technique—essentially a form of nonjudgmental awareness—to help relieve stress, manage chronic pain, and more. In perhaps the surest sign of its acceptance, the business world has embraced variations on “mindfulness at work” programs.
Several past studies have focused on how such programs affect the workplace. New research from Associate Professor Mary Zellmer-Bruhn adds to that body of research by zeroing-in on mindfulness’ impact on business teams.
As Zellmer-Bruhn explains, the theory behind mindfulness is that it helps individuals improve their focus and interrupt automatic reactions. “I realized those benefits could certainly help teams,” she says. “So the question became: What would mindfulness look like in a team environment?”
She already knew what it wouldn’t look like, however. “People often confuse meditation with mindfulness,” she says. “They’re not the same. Meditation is a technique you might use to improve mindfulness. Our research was not about team meditation.”
With that distinction firmly in place, Zellmer-Bruhn conducted large-scale field studies, concentrating on the links between mindfulness and interpersonal team conflict. Why that focus? For starters, conflict is inevitable with teams. Some of it can be productive, as when members respectfully disagree on, say, what features to include in a product. But when those disagreements turn into personal attacks, productivity can wilt.
The research confirmed Zellmer-Bruhn’s initial hunch. “More mindful teams reported greater focus, and they had an openness to hear each other out,” she says. “There were also less cases of people feeling like they were being addressed negatively.”
Given that teams are a corporate staple, it makes sense to explore how to optimize their behavior. In that sense, mindfulness can help. “Positive, productive conflict is essential to high-performing teams,” Zellmer-Bruhn says. “If enough people have an open, present-focused attitude, the team will develop along those lines. But that’s not something you’d want to leave to chance, because you could end with poor performance as a result.”
Mindfulness seems to offer a safeguard function—it appears to prevent bad things from happening on teams.