I recently returned from a nine-day silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Societyin western Massachusetts. This was the longest time I was going to spend on retreat and I was a little unsure about what to expect from such an extended time of quietude and reflection. At the same time, I was not exactly alone, as I was sharing this journey with 95 other retreatants. As part of the experience, each person is expected to work a 45-60 minute job each day to help keep the costs lower and to explore how to apply mindfulness to work and daily life. I was assigned to wash pots with two other retreatants every day after the midday meal. What happened next was completely unexpected!

Although the three of us met briefly on the first night and exchanged introductions, by the time of our first shift, I could not remember their names (and as it turned out, they could not remember mine either.) So, here we were, three people who didn’t know each other (or our names), who had each taken a vow of silence, and we had to work together in a very tight, very wet and very warm space. What emerged were key lessons that could make any team more successful.

Lesson 1: Clarity of purpose

While we were unable to direct each other’s work, ask questions or even make small talk—we knew what we there to do. We had 45 minutes to wash pots, pans, pitchers, utensils and other miscellaneous kitchen equipment from the day’s lunch preparation and service. Everything needed to be soaped, scrubbed, sanitized, dried and put away. And the entire work area had to be cleaned and reset for the next work crew who would replace us at the end of our shift.

How many times do we find ourselves adrift in our normal work? or debating as a team (halfway through a project) what we are actually trying to accomplish? Consider the impact of that confusion on productivity, team relationships and individual job satisfaction. When that happens pause and take time to explore, agree, and document your team’s purpose and outcomes; it will make everything easier.

Lesson 2: Well-defined roles, responsibilities and processes

To facilitate efficient work without talking, we were trained on arrival day on the three roles in the pot washing team. We each selected one for the duration of the retreat. For me, it meant washing all of the smaller items in one of the sinks, placing them in a plastic rack, and sliding that rack into the sanitizing machine. Benizio scrubbed (and scrubbed) all the larger items and hand sanitized them. And, Rebecca took all of the sanitized items, dried them and put them away. Easy—we knew what each had to do, we knew what each other was doing, and we had access to job aids if we had any questions. As a result, without speaking, we worked efficiently and effectively towards our desired outcome—everything clean and reset for the next crew.

Even if our day-to-day jobs are more complex than washing pots, this lesson still applies. How many times have you heard in your office, “I don’t even know what he does!” So ask yourself, what can you do this week to better define your team’s work?

Lesson 3: Awareness and generosity

Yet, of course, just like in your work and mine, the flow and scope of the tasks in our workspace was uneven and unpredicatbale from minute to minute and day to day. Depending on the meal, or on the work pace of others in the kitchen or dining room, work would pile up for one of us. Meanwhile the others might have an empty work station. Without a word, we would pitch in and help. Aware of the backlog (this was a meditation retreat after all!), motivated by a generosity of spirit and effort, and supported by a well defined work process, any one of us could help each other out. I often started drying the multitude of salad dressing ladles and water pitchers that had piled up in Rebecca’s work station. Or Benizio would start washing some of the smaller items in his sink while waiting for more baked on stainless steel pans to show up.

How does that work in your team? What is preventing people from lending a hand when needed? When the work is buried in our laptops and phones, sometimes what needs to be done is not so obvious as a pile of messy pots. Agile project management is great for making the backlog of work transparent—so anyone can see what needs to get done, pull the next item and get started—without even speaking!

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

Lesson 4: Appreciation

At 1:15 each day, the next crew would arrive. The three of us would finish the last few items—keen to leave the work station clean and ready for our nameless and silent replacements. When the work was done, we’d hang our aprons and gloves to dry. Then, we would turn to each other, and with a slight smile, gently bow to each other; a slient and implicit “see you tomorrow.” A simple gesture that meant so much and sustained the team.

Do it—today—send a simple thank you email or Slack message, or take 5 minutes at the end of your next meeting to reflect on what you accomplished in that hour. It will feel good—and might even become a habit.

Lesson 5: Patience

This last lesson did not come from my potwashing shift but was shared by our traditional yet radical retreat leaders, Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santachitta. They are western-trained Buddhist nuns who have been working together for over twenty years. They and a few colleagues have recently partnered to start one of the few all-women monasteries. Their insight about working relationships was that even when you have a clear purpose, well-defined roles, are generous with your time and energy and appreciate each other—working together is hard—especially over a long period of time! Yet, the benefits are powerful. These working relationships can be compared to the effect of rocks tumbing against each other in a mountain stream. What starts out as rough and gnarly pieces of earth, become, after years of rubbing against each other, smooth, glossy and beautifully rounded stones.

We all know that when the going gets tough, it is easy to lash out, or worse move on to the next project or the next team. This image of the stones is an inspiration to stay with it and let the turbulence of the project help the team to shine.

(Photo by Wil Stewart on Unsplash)

So, give it a shot. If your team is working through a conflict or facing a tough time, pause—and speak less. Take time as a team to clarify what you are trying to accomplish. Assess the work and make sure the roles and process are well defined. Be aware of when the workload is unbalanced and help re-balance it. And create regular times and rituals to appreciate each other. Then see what happens, maybe your team will also be a little shinier today than it was yesterday.

Originally Published on LinkedIn on April 22, 2018