Teams in Turbulence: How meta-cognition and compassion have emerged as foundations for collaborative leaders in an era of systems shift

A Conversation with Michael Chaskalson and Helen Sieroda – December 2020


In December 2020 Michael and Helen hosted a webinar for leaders interested in the application of collaborative meta-cognition, compassion and curiosity in today’s organisational life. This online event attracted participants from across commercial, government, NGO and health organisations in the UK, EU and beyond.  Michael and Helen introduced their new online process – a five-session development process for teams. The session covered the 3 Foundations at the heart of the practice which led to some fascinating conversations about the application of the work.

This blog is a conversational summary of some of the main themes.


“Mindfulness” is in danger of becoming a “fad”.  It is suffering the fate of any 2,500 year old life practice that has, over a few years, become a bit of a panacea.  We counsel against fad-surfing. There is a serious practice here with real benefits. The practice of meta-cognition, being both aware of our own thinking and compassionately sceptical about the certainties our minds often create, is the heart of scientific rigour and wise purposeful action. But securing such outcomes requires the adoption of a practice over time. That’s why this process has been created.

With decades of experience behind them, GameShift Partners Michael Chaskalson and Helen Sieroda hosted an interested group to share experiences and find out more about their new 3 Foundations approach.


Going beyond individual practice: the “team” as the unit of work in collaborative metacognition

“Mindfulness has been a huge part of my life,” Michael says, “From my years as an ordained Buddhist, and through all my years of secular work, teaching and applying mindfulness in organisational practice. From all of that it has become crystal clear to me that it is simply not enough to use mindfulness as a way of merely regulating emotions. That’s useful, but it’s not enough.”

He pauses, before going on. “It’s all too easy to make mindfulness a sticking plaster. It just isn’t enough to apply this to a toxic organisational situation so that people survive their work conditions. It isn’t enough to apply these techniques simply to make that toxicity bearable. We’re interested in creating mindfulness work that contributes to more effective, healthier teams, delivering better work and nourishing the people doing the work.

“What we’ve created with this approach is a collective form of the work. Not a team of people who individually have mindfulness practices, but the creation of a collective ability of a team to see itself as a coherent group during their work together. Mindfulness for teams involves the team seeing itself, its members, its collective purpose, and its environment – and working to improve these.

“In team mindfulness it is the team that is the fundamental unit of the work.”


Teams, tough times and having the psychological safety to deliver

Helen nods, adding, that in her coaching practice with teams, she’s noticed how teams are currently more stretched than ever. She describes today’s teams as increasingly dispersed, digital, diverse and dynamic. This makes massive demands of everybody in the team – to be a good team, across time zones – whilst perhaps never meeting in person. “Good work rests on psychological safety,” Helen says, and when that safety fails, or isn’t built, the consequences for team members can be devastating.

Helen draws out from the group stories about times in teams when participants have felt unheard, when they’ve been disrespected or felt excluded or unseen. The stories flow fast, with a lot of feeling. People talk about the pain they felt during these times: of being sad and angry, of withdrawing, losing hope, of feeling powerless to add value to the team.

“This is why it matters so much,” says Helen. And it’s a wonderful experience, as we all know, when it all comes together and a team flourishes.  It’s not an accident when this comes about. And there are some core practices that can help.


The “3 Foundations” approach

Michael talks about some of these practices, first stressing that this isn’t just about getting people to practice mindfulness, although some mindful techniques are helpful. It’s about curiosity, and awareness, about a team asking of itself: how are we doing? How much do we all feel able to contribute our best work here? It’s not about creating a self-absorbed vortex of introspection. It’s more about creating an interest in action and in making that action more effective.

The approach rests on three foundations – allowing, inquiry & meta-awareness – Michael says, before going on to speak about each of them.

Allowing is recognising reality for what it is. We spend so much time living in a “what if” world. But it’s fruitless to spend all our time wishing the world were different. Allowing is about acknowledging that this is how this situation, this team is right now.  There’s nothing in this about passivity. Instead it’s about recognising that it’s only once we grasp what actually is that we can decide what to do about it. Allowing is a solid foundation for purposeful action. From a position of allowing what is, choices for action open up.

Inquiry is the practice of disciplined interest in opening things up. When a team grasps inquiry it becomes more interested. Interested in each team member. Interested in the team and its purpose and function. Interested in the patterns and connection, the flows and stories that make up the life of work in this team. Interested in the world view of others – in the team and beyond – and being more able to appreciate other positions, thereby becoming more creative in its response.

Meta-awareness is the ability to look at the team from the outsider perspective, much the same as looking down at the swirling patterns of people moving around a busy railway station from a high up balcony. In developing this capacity the team becomes able to see itself in action. It sees what is going on its own collective mind. The teams sees its patterns – it sees what it is doing while it is actually doing it. The team becomes aware of the dynamics of itself, and so can change its dynamics in its work.


Getting started

A great way to start is to make sure you establish the link between team mindfulness and performance. Nothing in this is about “nice to have” fluff. It’s about doing the work effectively, safely and about becoming the best team possible in your circumstances.

Next steps? Send Michael and Helen any questions you have to our email below. Or fix up a one to one to talk about how to introduce this in your team practice.


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