The Inner Game of Mindful Teams

By October 10, 2018Leadership, Mindfulness, Teams

Without trying hard, mindfulness has made it to the short list of conspicuous buzzwords. The mere mention of mindfulness can divide any group into fans and skeptics.

Even though business is all about psychology, talk about the mind seems at best esoteric and irrelevant to the numbers.

In many organizational cultures, it’s still not apparent that the mind is the root cause of performance. There continues to be an inordinate belief that performance is caused by factors outside the mind.

Those of us who have been practicing and teaching mindfulness are clear that like any area of human performance, it’s the “inner game” that makes the difference, especially in times of challenge and stretch. The inner game of work is about how mindful or mindless we are as we go about our everyday work. The critical difference between higher and lower performing teams is not necessarily about differences in personalities, resources, external conditions or constraints. It’s about the difference in their inner game.

Harvard’s Ellen Langer, considered the “mother of mindfulness” from her extensive research and practice, talks about mindfulness as “the simple act of noticing new things.” The spirit of mindfulness is continuous curiosity. Always looking for what’s new in our world and experience inspires rich and agile curiosity. Higher performing teams tend to be more mindful. Lower performing teams tend to be more mindless.

In mindless teams, people work primarily from assumption based expectations.

They assume what peers and leaders should be doing based on existing roles and goals. They assume what people do and don’t need when it comes to help and feedback. They assume what other people need to know from their reports. They assume who needs to be included and excluded in emails, conversations and texts. They assume to know the impacts they’re having on others. They assume the strengths and passions of others. They assume to know how realistic their plans and goals are. They assume obedience to systems and processes will result in rewarded and uncriticized outcomes.

Assumption is the essence of mindless performance and interaction. Mindless team cultures are abundant in tensions, disconnects and missed opportunities. Not necessarily because of team member or leader deficiencies. All it takes is a fairly robust culture of mindlessness.

Mindful teams work from curiosity. They leave none of these assumptions unchecked. They work, interact, plan, lead and learn from questions. They expect that in a world where change is life’s constant, intelligent work is work from continuous, agile, caring curiosity.

They clarify together what’s everyone’s best use of time and talent. They clarify what kinds of feedback others find useful and clarify the kinds they find most useful. They clarify what others want from their reports. They work out loud in transparent shared text and document spaces so everyone can know whatever they want to know about the rhythms of everyday work. They clarify the impacts of everything they try and do. They take time to know the strengths and passions of others so they can engage them continuously. They use questions to keep goals and plans always realistic. They clear that only mindful habits have the power to create rewarding and satisfying outcomes.

Until teams become more self-organizing, their leaders have an inordinate influence on the team’s culture. Mindful leaders will enjoy more mindful teams. Mindless leaders will struggle with more mindless teams. As leaders become more mindful and coach their teams into more mindful work, the team thrives.

The good news is that everyone has what it takes to be mindful in work and life. Each of us is born with the endless gift of curiosity. It doesn’t take any exotic rituals or vocabularies. It doesn’t require taking time away from work. It’s an infinite possibility awaiting us in every conversation, project and task. It’s the inner game of mindful teams.


About Jack

In my late twenties I had the good fortune to have mentors who were practice leaders in what was then called the Human Potentials Movement. They inspired me to help organizations and communities realize their potential in ways they never imagined. It became clear this was the core gift that would shape the past 40 years.