Have you ever been part of a team where two opposing points of view emerged and the individuals on both sides just stopped listening to each other because they knew they were “right?” Much like the recent health care debate, individuals who assert that their positions are ‘right’ are exhibiting a mindless way of thinking. Dr. Ellen Langer, professor of Psychology at Harvard University and author of Mindfulness, defines mindlessness as the tendency to operate on autopilot. They are not open to new ideas or categories, and they tend to hold onto stereotypes for too long.
The danger of mindlessness, of course, is that a debate gets stuck in a stalemate and one side eventually ‘wins’ while the other ‘loses.’ In reality, the team loses out on an opportunity to be creative. The antidote? Being mindful – basically, paying attention and being open to new information. As a leader, try the following to break out of ‘sides’ and create a team that is open, aware, and focused on what really matters.
- Challenge Assumptions: Sometimes, it takes one step back to move forward. If you’re at an impasse, have your team list the assumptions about a project or issue. Doing so can sometimes open the team to see new opportunities and points of view. (Try this at the start of a big decision to create an atmosphere of mindfulness.)
- Avoid Absolutes: Studies show that by simply defining regular household items with the words “could be” create a mindful atmosphere where people think more creatively. (For example, a fork can be seen as a tool, a toy, or some other useful device as opposed to something used just for eating.) So, when defining and issue or a solution, make sure that the team recognizes that this is one way to look at it.
- Switch Sides: If you find your team at a standstill, try having team members argue the opposite side. If an individual has been arguing for solution A, ask her to create a coherent argument for solution B. Even if she does not change her mind, the tactic can help her understand the other position and recognize there is some merit to thinking mindfully.
No team worth its salt agrees all the time. Debate is good. There should always be a creative tension that moves your team forward. Try these techniques, over time, and see your team become more mindful and productive.