Keep Your Team Mindfully Centered – Just Breathe

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When the going gets tough, teams often forget Benjamin Franklin’s advice on collaboration: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” In business as in revolution, that advice is as sound as any – yet not always followed. A study from the American Psychological Association formally concluded about team failure something most leaders have known, “It’s because stress brings on a loss of team perspective – the sense of “we-ness” that helps team members connect and coordinate to get the job done.”

The increasing pace of change, increasing ambient stress, and demands of business and life are reasons “mindfulness” has become so popular. Magazines like Forbes and HBR now regularly post articles on meditation and mindfulness practices. Mindfulness resources are increasingly found in the workplace through benefits and on-site classes. And, as with all new things, there’s healthy debate about what it is and who it’s for, as read in Amy Jen Su’s article “If Mindfulness Makes you Uncomfortable, It’s Working.” If you’re one still wondering about if it’s a religion or cult or otherwise just weird, read Seth Gillihan’s mindfulness myth-buster in Psychology Today.


So, how does mindfulness contribute to that sense of “we-ness” that fails under stress?


We have written about the mindfulness benefits for teams that share an eating practice and fitnesspractice. But articles on “Centering” practices like Fast Company’s “The Business Case for Meditation” almost always show a picture of one centered person seated amidst the chaos. Since work and life happens mostly in teams, here are two of our five mindfully centered practices for teams.


Intention Setting – Not Just for Buddhists Anymore

Setting intentions is increasingly a means to realize how you want to live or the impact you want to have. It’s an essential aspect of Buddhism and yoga and expands on goal setting to include a sense of why and the greater value. But anyone can set an intention for a day, a meeting, a debate, or sharing feedback. In his book, “The Buddha Walks Into The Office,” Lodro Rinzler gives a simple example, “My intention is to be a bit more patient with my co-workers.” Intentions can be of deep resolve and they can be of simple steps – for individuals and teams.


Intentions can be of deep resolve and they can be of simple steps – for individuals and teams


Setting intentions can also be a powerfully guiding group effort. Mindfully centered teams don’t have meetings where people ask, “Why are we here?” Starting a meeting with a stated intention provides focus and makes plain the intent behind the goal. When a person sharing feedback states their intention in sharing it, it can open the ears of the receiver. Simpler than Mission, Purpose, Vision or Values, a consistent intention-setting practice can optimize a team’s efficiency and effectiveness on a daily basis.


Breathing – calming, energizing, balancing


We breath every day – and on more stressful days we breath with shallow, rapid breathe and with deep sighs to catch up. Angela Wilson outlines the physiology of pranayama (breathing) and how breathing drives the body’s nervous system. Mindfully centered teams prompt each other to breath intentionally during the day to calm when stressed, energize when down and balance when off center. These three techniques work well, in our experience:

The three-part yogic breath is a simple practice that grounds attention at the base and expands to fill both body and mind. The three-part breath fills the lungs to capacity – something people just don’t do. We teach it as a brief group exercise suitable to begin any meeting.

Bhastrika Pranayama, or “bellows breath” is energizing practice that opens the flow of internal energy upward and stimulates the body in many ways. Bhastrika is especially valuable during the challenging hours of mid-afternoon, and when following a sub-energizing lunch.

Alternate nostril breathing, or “Nadi Sodhana” is a near silent technique of alternating breaths between the nostrils. Nadi Sodhana creates a greater sense of physical and mental balance – particularly useful after a brisk debate or difficult decision.

While it might seem odd for a group of people in a room or conference call to take a 2 minute breathing break, groups that adopt the practice are stunned at the effect and at the subtle increase in positive team dynamic that builds over time.

APP offers personal and group training in these practice areas as well as on-going support and coaching. Click here for free tools!

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3 (More) Strategies to Help Your Team Increase Resilience and Avoid Burnout

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While “balance” is a mindset and a practice rather than a goal or a condition, there are some solid, practical things in a HBR article to increase resilience and reduce burnout – and a few things to watch for. If you want to increase your own and your team’s ability to manage challenge over time, try what’s in that article, but also practice these three things.

1. Mindfulness Meditation

Yes, meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the buzz these days because of its proven effects of reducing stress levels and improving health outcomes – but not just sitting with crossed legs, closed eyes, and mudra-hands (though that, too). Meditation practices come in many forms – the pause before the meeting starts, the undisturbed walk around the building, paying attention to what’s for lunch, and also sitting at a desk, back to the glass door, following a 7 minute guided meditation from your smart phone. Having taught meditation to employees and executives alike, I’m certain that no one practice works for everyone. But I’m also certain that there is at least one practice for anyone.

Strategy 1: Develop your own mindfulness meditation practice that works at work and practice it. Bring in someone who can teach some simple practices to your team and, more than anything else, practice the practice.

2. Work Hard, Recover Hard

I was amazed and aghast at a recent HBR article. 54% of American employees didn’t take all of their earned time off last year. Why not? Fear for one reason. Fear of being seen as replaceable or not necessary. Another reason? Being the “ideal worker.” Ideal workers consistently put the company ahead of themselves – and do get benefits from it. Ideal workers are relied on and tasked more than others, meaning they get more opportunities and rewards than others. This can apply to vacations or off-hours availability. To some degree, this is a matter of wiring more than programming, but whether it’s fear or ambition, most people who don’t recharge – however they would choose to – inevitably burn out. The irony is that the failure to be present to life outside of work makes it impossible to be present to life inside of work – presence doesn’t do “boundaries.”

presence doesn’t do “boundaries”

However, insisting that team members be present to their non-work activities can be tricky. The keystone to that arch is you. If you are always available, always call-in from the soccer match, always promptly reply to emails from vacation, your expectation is clear, even if your message says otherwise.

Strategy 2: The first HBR article title above includes the words, “Even when you can’t.” Make no mistake – if you can’t, they won’t. This is the discipline of no – and it begins with you. Practice being present to whom you’re with and to what you’re doing away from work.

3. Breathe

One of the most valuable leadership lessons I learned from martial arts and yoga was how to breathe – it has stood me well in situations worthy of (and sometimes actually in) business magazines. While we’re not teaching our CEO or business clients punching or headstands, we are focusing on breath practices for focusing, energizing, and relaxing. Developing individual and group breath practices are one of the simplest yet most grounding things a team can do to manage debates, decisions, and even discipline. “Let’s all just take a breath,” is something we say when the going gets rough, but ironically it’s not something we do – at least not well. Learning a practice like breathing together is a great way to increase familiarity and empathy – proven building blocks for effective teams.

Strategy 3: You’re breathing anyway – optimize it. Learn and practice up to three classic yoga breathes, share them with your team, and practice them together to settle into meetings, manage tension, and build energy.

Yes, You Can

Even if what’s in this article is medical science (it is), it’s not rocket science. What you need to learn about these three practices you either already know or can easily learn. If you are concerned that you or your team are` at or above capacity and it’s all on you to deal with it, the good news is yes, you can. Get some help if you need it, but do it.

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Minding Mindfulness

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It’s About Performance (and Wellness)

You can’t open an edition of HBR or Forbes without reading an article on it. Arianna Huffington’s gone and crafted an entire business based on it – what’s the deal?

In short, the increasing change pace, information volume, and attention demands have combined to increase our ambient stress level, which increases the frequency of how often we feel we have to “get away.” And since, thanks to technology and competitiveness, we can’t or won’t “get away,” our ability to effectively manage our reactions to stress is reduced – suboptimizing ourselves not only in the moment of highest stress but also in the chronically higher ambient stress level. These higher stress levels mean our natural de-railing tendencies surface more frequently and with little warning – so it’s a team and leadership performance issue and not just a wellness issue.

 it’s a .. performance issue not just a wellness issue.

If you require research to prove that stress is costing you, simply ask yourself how true it is for you and the people around you. But if you need some ammunition, note that the research on the value of mindfulness for individuals is extensive and some research on ROI for companies goes back about fifteen years. One such study found over five years that mindfulness practitioners had lower overall healthcare costs ($4,300 each) despite higher pharmacy utilization, “potentially indicating greater self-management of care” as noted by the study abstract. So, mindful people are more aware of how they feel, take their medicine like they should, and drive lower healthcare costs.

lower overall healthcare costs ($4,300 each)

If you are responsible for others as well as yourself, all this means you can and should begin converting the bright, shiny object of mindfulness into a solid, fit-for-use, building block that grounds your company’s performance and wellness strategies, including leadership development, team effectiveness, and employee productivity.

What’s It Good For?

Pioneers as diverse as Google, General Mills, Intel, Target, and Aetna have each taken different paths to arrive at the intended benefits of mindfulness and, by some estimates, up to 20% of large companies had some form of mindfulness initiative underway in 2016. Some do it for wellness, but it sticks where it’s done for both performance and wellness and is better measured when it’s introduced to solve a specific challenge.

Leadership Performance

Beyond the abundant clinical research on the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of mindfulness, there’s also recent research showing mindfulness also improves collaboration, resilience, and leading in complexity when practiced at least ten minutes a day. For leaders, formal and informal, mindfulness not only improves self-awareness, but also awareness of others, and, critically, awareness of self-on-others. As Sun Tzu famously wrote in The Art of War, if you know both yourself and your enemy, you will win every battle. Specifically, leaders with a particular behavioral or attitudinal blind spot can benefit from a mindfulness practice and some coaching.

Leaders at risk of burning out – physically, mentally, or emotionally – can also benefit from a mindfulness practice. It may be meditation, but it may also be a breath or intention-setting practice that makes the difference. The introduction of mindfulness for leaders is best done as part of a development experience that might include 360 feedback or personality assessment.

Team Performance

Google’s well-known Aristotle project highlighted the tangible value of empathy and shared talking time for team performance. As mindfulness practitioners know, we’re not sitting eyes-closed, cross-legged, and chanting Aum waiting for something to happen. Group meditation is a bridge too far for many people, but mindfulness practices for teams include simple practices like pausing and sharing air time and deeper practices of purpose and intentionality in chartering and decision-making.

The most-often-talked-about-most-often-ignored team practice is also a mindfulness practice – establishing and keeping norms. A less-obvious but equally effective mindfulness practice for teams is increasing self- and other-awareness through a personality inventory like Hogan or MBTI. It’s in increasing and maintaining the balance of awareness and attention, in the moment, and without judgment that mindfulness improves and sustains team performance.

So How?

I was talking with a CHRO the other day, “We tried this mindfulness thing last year – total flop. No one showed up for the sessions!” After nearly 30 years in HR and chasing many a bright, shiny object, I know how that happens. So here are three bits of advice:

  1. Ask yourself – what (or whose) specific problem do you intend mindfulness to help solve? How will you know it’s gotten better? Know before you go.
  2. Out of sensitivity, some companies have introduced “quiet rooms” and breath training, as well as meeting norms of “intentions” and “pausing” without using the world “mindfulness.” Call it what works for you, or, as we say in yoga, “You do you.”
  3. If you build it, “they” (who need it most) will not come. Yoga sessions, meditation groups, and even healthy food options are attended by those who were doing it anyway. It’s all good – but you won’t be moving the needle with open access. Focus on a specific issue.

In my past life, I led or was responsible for more “change” and “culture” initiatives than I can count at companies like Allstate, Pfizer, and Aetna. I learned more about what not to do that what to do, but when it comes to mindfulness, there’s some good news and bad news.

The good news – mindfulness has great potential and you can be as successful as you are introducing any other initiative.

The bad news? See the good news…

Altizer Performance Partners works with leaders and teams to mindfully integrate performance and wellness at work and in life. Check out our 2017 International Book Award Finalist book Mindfully Mobile on Amazon or The Way of the Road Warrior at

Second image credit:  image: shutterstock/Kawin Ounprasertsuk

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