Depression and the Loss of Connection To Meaningful Work

Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, was concerned about the extraordinary rise in the use of antidepressant drugs in America and the associated total focus on biological causes of depression.  He set about doing worldwide research on the social factors contributing to depression.  He was particularly interested in precursor events or situations that led to a person experiencing depression.  His research led him to identify nine social factors that were contributing to the alarming rise in the incidence of depression and suicide.  As the title of his book indicates, each of these social factors related to a “lost connection.”  He describes the first of these causal factors as “disconnection from meaningful work”.

Loss of connection to meaningful work

Johann’s research (and that of his colleagues) covered a range of people engaged in different kinds of work, usually at lower levels in organisations.  They found that certain job characteristics contributed to a loss of meaning for the worker.  This disconnection with meaningful work resonates with the Job Characteristics Model developed by Hackman and Oldham in the 1970s as a basis for the design of jobs that generated positive psychological states such as the experience of meaningfulness and personal responsibility.

Johann, drawing on his own research and that of his colleagues, identified several job characteristics in different contexts that contributed to the loss of connection to meaningful work and resulted in people experiencing depression:

  • Lack of control over work – research into the high incidence of suicide amongst staff investigating tax returns in the Taxation Office in Britain found that a key contributing factor was the lack of control over their work.  No matter how hard they worked, the pile of work kept growing and they could never get on top of it.  The ability to control the work environment and how work is done, known as “agency”, has been the subject of much research into what constitutes a psychologically healthy work environment.
  • Lack of feedback – in the previous research, another factor identified as contributing to psychological illness was the lack of feedback about performance of the job.  No matter how well or how poorly the work was done, there was no feedback received from supervisors or managers.  This led to a sense of the work and the worker being devalued.  The disconnection between effort and “reward” in terms of positive feedback contributed to people feeling “irrelevant” – they felt that they were not important or relevant to what the organisation valued.
  • Lack of discretion – research into the experience of depression amongst typists in a typing pool demonstrated that a causal factor of depression was the lack of the ability to make decisions affecting the work and the typists’ output.  The typists were totally disempowered because work was given to them with instructions on how it was to be done by people they did not know; they lacked understanding of what the documents involved or meant; demand was endless; and they were unable to speak to each other.  The work was thus experienced as meaningless and “soul-destroying”.  This research, along with other studies, highlighted the fact that people lower in organisations experience greater stress than those at higher levels who have a lot of responsibility because the latter have more discretion over what they do and how they do it.
  • Lack of ability to make a difference – the example given by Johann related to a worker in a paint shop who spent all day adding tint to base paint and using a machine to mix the contents to provide paint with the colour requested by a customer.  The repetitious nature of this task and the associated boredom contributed to the worker experiencing a lack of meaning because he did not make a real difference in people’s lives.  Hackman and Oldham had previously identified “significance” of a job as a key element for a psychologically satisfying job.  Associated with that was the degree to which a job provided what they termed “task variety” and “skill variety”.  Work without variation and with no perceived impact, can be experienced as mind-numbing and deadening and lead to depression.

The loss of connection to meaningful work can be addressed at two levels.  Organisations can develop greater awareness about what constitutes unhealthy work design and remedy deficiencies in the design of jobs.  Action learning interventions can be helpful in this regard and, in the process, build employee’s self-awareness and sense of agency.

Workers, too, can develop inner awareness about what in their work is impacting their mental health and causing depression. They can explore this awareness through meditation and reflection and identify ways to remedy the situation.  As they grow in mindfulness, they may be able to identify why they are procrastinating and not removing themselves from a harmful work situation.  Johann found, for example, that the worker in the paint shop really wanted to change jobs and had already identified what job would give more meaning and joy for him.  However, he was held back by his perceived need to achieve the external rewards of life – better income and a good car.  Through meditation and reflection, it is possible to become more acutely aware of the cost of “staying’ versus changing and to be able to cope with the vulnerability involved in changing jobs.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Being Mindful of Mental Health in the Workplace

There are at least five pieces of legislation in Australia that require directors, executives and managers to be mindful of mental health in the workplace.  These pieces of legislation highlight the duty of care responsibility of organisation office holders and managers to be mindful and proactive in developing a mentally healthy workplace.

The Portner Press publication,  Mental Health at Work Guide 2018,  identifies the following pieces of legislation that are relevant and reinforcing of this responsibility:

  • Fair Work Act
  • Common Law
  • Workplace Health & Safety legislation
  • Anti-discrimination legislation
  • Worker’s Compensation legislation

Despite this legislative responsibility very few managers are adequately trained to be aware of mental health in the workplace or to know how to take appropriate, compassionate action.  The Heads Up organisation, a mentally healthy workplace alliance, identifies awareness and responsiveness of managers and staff as one of the nine attributes of a mentally healthy workplace:

Ensure that managers and staff are responsive to employees’ mental health conditions, regardless of cause and that adjustments to work and counselling support are available.

There are numerous video resources available to help managers and staff become more aware of, and responsive to, mental health issues in the workplace.  One such resource is the video of the webinar conducted by Belinda Winter, partner  of law firm Cooper Grace Ward, where she explores managing mental illness in the workplace.

A toolkit for a mentally healthy workplace

WorkSafe Queensland provides a superb and comprehensive Mentally Healthy Workplaces Toolkit which is accessible online to help managers exercise their responsibility to be mindful of mental health in the workplace.  The toolkit is built around the four pillars of awareness and responsiveness, namely:

  1. Promote positive mental health at work
  2. Prevent psychological harm
  3. Intervene early
  4. Support recovery

Each of these steps requires managers and staff to be mindful about the state of mental health in the workplace and to be proactive in pursuing processes, policies, systems, leadership style and an organisational culture that are conducive to positive mental health.

Mindfulness training supports managers in their duty of care

Mindfulness training, along with appropriate action learning interventions, can help build the requisite culture and assist managers and staff in exercising  their duty of care and maintaining their own self-care.

As managers and staff grow in mindfulness through meditation practice and training they can become more mindful of mental health issues in the workplace and more responsive to the needs of individuals.  The managers will be better equipped to exercise their duty of care and related responsibility for creating a mentally healthy workplace.

 

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Action Learning Challenges the Values of Narcissistic Managers

In a previous post, I highlighted the role that self-awareness and agency (control over one’s work environment) play in developing and sustaining mental health in the workplace.  Narcissistic managers undermine self-awareness and block the achievement of agency by managers and staff.

The negative impact of narcissistic managers on self-awareness and agency in the workplace

Narcissistic managers through their distorted self-belief, words and behaviour undermine genuine self-awareness of subordinates by modelling an inflated view of themselves, seeking scapegoats to assign blame even when it is not warranted (and they are to blame) and causing subordinates to doubt their own competence and sanity.

Narcissistic managers also block the development of agency amongst subordinate managers and staff by their micromanagement, unpredictability, unrealistic and unreasonable workplace demands and dishonesty.

The result of this frustration of agency and the underpinning self-awareness, is a toxic workplace that is injurious to the mental health of subordinates and the narcissistic managers themselves.  Action learning interventions challenge the values of narcissistic managers and work to reduce their negative impact on the mental health of subordinate managers and staff in a workplace.

Action learning: a challenge to the values of narcissistic managers

Action learning interventions in toxic work environments can help to reduce the negative impact of narcissistic managers through the development of self-awareness amongst subordinate managers and staff and the growth of managerial and employee agency within the organizational unit involved.   I have previously described an action learning intervention, undertaken by Rod Waddington in an educational institution, designed to reduce the negative impacts of a toxic work environment.

If we examine the characteristics of narcissistic managers, we can readily see that the underpinning values of such a manager are in direct opposition to those of action learning – the former involves destruction of agency, abuse, divisiveness, exclusiveness, resistance to ideas from managers and staff and an autocratic style of management.  Action learning, in contrast, involves increased agency, mutual respect, collaboration, inclusiveness, openness to ideas from managers and staff and a participative style of management.

While the narcissistic manager creates divisiveness through blaming, favouritism and exclusiveness, action learning overcomes this ‘divide and conquer’ approach through the power of collaboration built through mutual respect and inclusiveness.  The contrast in values described above reinforces the need to undertake an organization intervention designed to embed a new set of values where a toxic work environment exists.  In Rod’s action learning intervention, the participant managers undertook a “values advocacy campaign” – designed to replace the existing demeaning value set with values that enrich the working environment and nurture engagement, creativity and commitment.

When you enable agency through action learning, managers must take up the responsibility that goes with it, including the need to let go of control and create opportunities for staff growth and development through delegation of authority.  This grows the manager’sown positive influence while contributing to the sense of agency of staff and the mental health of all concerned.

As people develop self-awareness and agency in their workplace through action learning, they grow in mindfulness and the capacity to act constructively on their environment in the present moment, rather than being focused on the uncertainty, doubt and instability that arises in a toxic work environment.

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Emotional Intelligence Competency – Adaptability

Daniel Goleman, in his interview for the online 2018 Mindfulness at Work Summit identified “adaptability” as the one of the emotional intelligence competencies that fall under the self-management group of competencies.

Adaptability is often assessed during job interviews for manager positions because the pace of social change, the convergence of technological innovations and economic discontinuities demand adaption by managers who have responsibility for people, infrastructure and financial resources.

As Reg Revans, the father of action learning, pointed out very early, “The past is no precedent for the future”.  This is especially true in turbulent times.  The maxim also applies to employees other than managers as they are frequently required to adapt to structural change, job redesign, system innovations and procedural improvements.  A lack of adaptability can be manifested in people who are focused on the past rather than embracing the opportunities presented by organisational changes.

Goleman suggests that resilience is different to adaptability in the sense that it is more about a person’s capacity to bounce back from setbacks or personal difficulties.  The time required to restore equilibrium after a major upset or source of distress is a measure of a person’s resilience and, in that sense, is considered by Goleman as more an aspect of another emotional intelligence competency that he terms, “emotional self-control”.

Adaptability, in his view, is more about being agile, being able to move with the times rather than becoming fixated with the way things are now.  According to Goleman, research conducted by Richard Boyatzis confirms the view that high adaptability is not only a good predictor of career success but also of overall life satisfaction and happiness.

If you are lost in resentment or anxiety, it is very difficult to be adaptable because you are preoccupied with other time scenarios in the past or the future.

As people grow in mindfulness through meditation, they can gain the self-awareness to identify their own thoughts and emotions that block their adaptability and impede their progress in life.

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Emotional Self-Awareness

Daniel Goleman, in his interview for the online Mindfulness at Work Summit in June 2018, introduced what he calls the 12 competencies of emotional intelligence.  He has recently rethought the emotional intelligence framework and now has four main groups of competencies (instead of the original five) – (1) self-awareness, (2) self-management, (3) social awareness and (4) relationship management – and 12 competencies that sit under the various groupings.  Emotional self-awareness is the sole competency listed under the first grouping.

Understanding “emotional intelligence”

In the interview with Mo Edjlali, President of Mindful Leader, Daniel explained that the term, “emotional intelligence”, challenges people to think about dealing with emotions intelligently, not being under their control nor ignoring them.  He maintained that emotions are “part and parcel” of life and that whatever we do, even if we think we are being rational or analytical, emotions underpin our choices – our thoughts and actions.

This was brought home to me in a recent conversation with a colleague who was describing a number of actions she had taken to help a homeless person she met when interstate.  She had spoken to this person and got to know their domestic violence situation and decided to provide the person with a meal.  This led to helping her in other ways including providing a particular style of footwear required for a job the person was applying for.  After sharing the story, my colleague then identified the emotions she was feeling as a result of her decision and her compassionate actions.  She was asking herself, “For whose benefit am I doing this?”(uncertainty), “Am I doing this because it makes me feel good?”(doubt), and “What expectations am I creating in this person and can I meet them?”(fear/anxiety).

So, to achieve anything, whether improved productivity or compassionate action, we need to be able to intelligently manage the emotions involved.  Daniel mentioned that in recent workshops in Nashville and Romania, different organisations and different countries, participants realised that when they talk about the characteristics of their best and worst bosses, they are talking about dimensions of emotional intelligence.  My colleague and I have undertaken this exercise with over two thousand managers over more than a decade in our Confident People Management Program, and we have found that people intuitively know what are the characteristics of the best and worst managers and can identify their own feelings when working for either category of manager.  There is remarkable unanimity across multiple groups in multiple locations.  The characteristics could be readily matched to Daniel’s 4 groupings and the 12 competencies of emotional intelligence. Emotional self-awareness is the first and foundational competency described by him.

What is “emotional self-awareness”?

If you have “emotional self-awareness” you have developed  awareness about some personal aspects such as:

  • what you do well and what you do not do well
  • what you are feeling and why you are feeling that way
  • how your feelings impact your thoughts
  • how your feelings and thoughts impact your performance
  • why you are doing what you are doing or being able to answer, what am I doing this for? – your purpose/meaning.

Emotional self-awareness underpins everything because it is the gateway to self-improvement – in all its mutliple aspects, including acquiring the other emotional intelligence competencies.

Daniel suggests that you may not achieve complete emotional self-awareness if you rely on mindfulness alone.  He argues that because of the internal and individual focus of mindfulness, you may be unaware of blind spots.  He suggests that mindfulness in combination with 360-degree feedback can help you to identify and act on these blind spots or hidden gaps in emotional intelligence competencies.  He has developed, with his colleague Richard Boyatzis, an Emotional and Social Competence Inventory (ESCI 360) as a 360-degree feedback instrument to measure the twelve emotional intelligence competencies and to enable identification of blind spots in relation to the competencies.

As Daniel acknowledges, a competent coach can also help in this area of developing accurate emotional self-awareness.  I recall coaching a manager where his blind spot was defensiveness and it was only after providing persistent and constant feedback over a few months that he finally accepted that he was being defensive.  He was then able to demonstrate emotional self-awareness by pulling himself up whenever he started to get defensive and, in the process, name his feelings.   Mindfulness can also help us to accept feedback that is uncomfortable but accurate.

Another route to developing emotional self-awareness and overcoming blind spots is participation in an action learning group where the group norm is “supportive challenge” and feedback is designed to help you be the best you can be and to achieve the best outcomes for your project and yourself.   The action learning set may be less contaminated by political considerations (such as fear of repercussions) or revengeful action, than a 360-degree feedback process.  The honesty norm underpinning action learning may also help to ensure that the feedback is uncontaminated.

As we grow in mindfulness and engage with others through feedback we can develop increased emotional self-awareness and be able to act on the feedback given.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Action Learning, Mindfulness and Mental Health in the Workplace

Over the past few months I have been exploring the linkages amongst action learning, mindfulness and mental health.  I have found that action learning and mindfulness are complementary and enable the development of an organisational culture that is conducive to mental health. The image above represents my current conceptualisation of the relationships amongst action learning, mindfulness and mental health.

Mental illness in the workplace

The pressures of modern life have led to the increasing incidence of people in the workplace suffering from mental illness.  This is compounded by the increase in the number of narcissistic managers.  My own experience of consulting to organisations over many years has highlighted for me the urgency of taking action in the area of mental health in the workplace.

One particular consulting experience involved helping a manager and their group to become more effective.  The senior manager exhibited high levels of narcissistic behaviours and the middle manager –  while sincere and very conscientious – lacked self-awareness and interpersonal skills.  This workplace environment was toxic for the mental health of all involved, including myself as a consultant.

Action learning and toxic work environments

In the course of my research and work as an organisational consultant and academic, I came across an action learning intervention in an educational context in South Africa that addressed the mental health issues resulting from a toxic workplace.  This doctoral study has been published in article form and is described in my post on overcoming a toxic work environment through action learning.

Around the same time, I had the good fortune to study another doctorate that addressed the trauma experienced by midwives in a hospital in New Zealand.  This research used action learning to change the culture from a punitive one to a culture that supported health professionals suffering trauma, reduced the impact of the traumatic event and enabled them to be more resilient in the face of the trauma experience. I discussed this case in my blog post on agency through action learning.

Creating a mentally healthy workplace through action learning

Reflecting on these two studies about action learning and toxic workplaces raised my awareness of the positive mental health implications of the action learning-based, manager development that I had been conducting with my colleague, Julie Cork, over more than a decade.  I came to conceptualise that manager development program as creating a mentally healthy workplace through action learning.  The perception of this program as developing a culture conducive to mental health in the workplace was reinforced by a report by two lawyers titled, Mental Health at Work.

When facilitating the Confident People Management (CPM) Program with Julie, we have the participating managers identify the characteristics of their worst and best managers.  Then we ask them to identify their feelings when working for the best managers and then when working for the worst managers.  Over more than a decade there has been almost unanimity over more than 80 programs in terms of the relevant managerial characteristics and the resultant feelings of subordinate staff.  This is independent of whether the participants are from the capital city or regional areas and does not differ substantially amongst participants of different occupations and professions – whether the participants are police officers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, mental health professionals, nurses, hospital managers or public servants engaged in child safety, accounting or marketing roles. Participant managers know intuitively what managerial behaviours are conducive to mental health and what are injurious.  We set about in the CPM to develop the characteristics of “good managers” in the program.

Mindfulness and mental health in the workplace

The research supporting the positive impact of mindfulness on mental health and its role in overcoming mental illness is growing exponentially.  The ever-growing research base in this area led to The Mindfulness Initiative in the UK and the creation of the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG).

The benefits of mindfulness for mental health in the workplace were then documented in two very significant reports, Mindful Nation UK and Building the Business Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace.  I have discussed this proactivity in the UK and the associated reports in a post, The Mindfulness Initiative: Mindfulness in the Workplace.

The Mindful Nation UK report incorporates feedback from the Trade Union Congress (TUC) which argues strongly that mindfulness alone will not solve the problems of toxic work environments.  They contend that organisations need proactive interventions (not just isolated mindfulness training) to ensure that organisational culture is conducive to employee well-being.  I have argued that action learning is an intervention that can develop a culture conducive to mental health.

In my discussions I take this conclusion one step further by contending that action learning and mindfulness are complementary and contribute to mental health through the development of agency and self-awareness.

Action learning and mindfulness as complementary interventions.

Reflection is integral to action learning and some mindfulness practices rely on reflection on events and personal responses to build awareness.  I have discussed the similarities and differences in these reflective practices within the two approaches in a post titled, Mindfulness, Action Learning and Reflection.

Elsewhere, I have shown  how action learning can contribute to the development of mindfulness through “supportive challenge”, mutual respect, equality and “non-judgmental feedback”.  This discussion is available in a blog post, titled Developing Mindfulness Through Action Learning.

After discussing the complementarity between action learning and mindfulness, I wrote a reflection on the previously mentioned action learning intervention designed to change a toxic work environment in an educational setting.  In this reflection, I discussed how mindfulness training could have helped the participants to exercise more fully the responsibility that came with agency.  In a subsequent post, I looked at how mindfulness expands our response ability.

In a further reflection on both the doctoral studies mentioned above, I highlighted the capacity of mindfulness to break through the “conspiracy of silence” about mental health in organisations and to strengthen both self-awareness and resilience.

The complementarity betwen action learning and mindfulness in terms of developing a culture conducive to mental health comes into sharper focus when we consider the contribution of each to “agency” and “self-awareness” in the workplace.

Action learning and mindfulness develop agency in the workplace

Drawing on the work of Tali Sharot, author of The Influential Mind, I have shown how agency is a necessary prerequisite for mental health in the workplace.  I have also explained how action learning can contribute to both employee agency and managerial agency.  One of the things that stop managers from providing employees with agency (control over their work environment and the way their work is done) is fear of loss of control.  Mindfulness enables a manager to overcome this fear, provide agency to employees and grow their own influence in the process.

I contend further that mindfulness enables agency to be sustained in the workplace for both managers and employees.  Managers are better able to realise their potential by “letting go” and enabling employee agency.  Employees, in turn, build their capacity to take up the agency provided through their own pursuit of mindfulness.  “Sustainable agency” is an organisational condition that provides a nurturing environment for managerial and employee growth and for the mental health of all concerned.

Action learning and mindfulness develop self-awareness in the workplace

When you look at the underpinning philosophy of both action learning and mindfulness you find that both actively work towards achieving self-awareness by removing the blindness of false assumptions, unconscious bias, prejudice, and self-limiting “narratives”.

Action learning and mindfulness can thus act together to build self-awareness, a precondition for mental health.  In the process, they provide the payoff from self-awareness in terms of increased responsiveness, creativity and self-management.  Action learning and mindfulness also enhance self-awareness by encouraging us to admit what we do not know.

As managers grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practices they are better able to contribute to action learning and to build a culture that is conducive to mental health.  Mindfulness helps both managers and employees to develop deeper self-awareness and to build their capacity to take up the agency provided, thus leading to a more sustainable organisational capacity for agency.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Training for Mindfulness Meditation Trainers

When discussing what is required to be a mindfulness meditation trainer, Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach spoke about what they have incorporated in their Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program to help build the requisite qualities.

They explained that fundamentally it is a relationship-based program through interaction with peer groups and individual/group mentors, as well as with the program teachers.  This interaction is built around the central online video teaching and meditation practices.

The Practicum

The meditation teacher program incorporates a practicum in the second year which involves teaching an introductory 4 or 6 weeks course.  The practicum can cover any related area such as teaching neuroscience, valuing diversity or the principles and practice of positive psychology.

Design and implementation of the practicum is supported through the mentoring groups.  This aspect of the mindfulness teacher training program is aligned with the principles of action learning which involves people learning through planning and action and reflecting on the outcomes, intended and unintended.

Content areas of the meditation teacher program

Jack and Tara identified a number of aspects of meditation training covered in the program including:

  • mindful movement practices
  • pedagogy – principles and practice
  • different models of teaching
  • the role of the teacher
  • the ethics of meditation training
  • multicultural sensitivity
  • fear and trauma
  • social activism

Handling difficult questions is an aspect that is discussed in the mentoring groups as a way of building trust and relationships and drawing on the wisdom of the group.    Dyads are also employed as a mode of sharing and learning.

The program emphasises what mindfulness involves in the modern era and incorporates personal reflection, journaling and discussion with other international participants.  It is designed to fully equip participants to conduct meditation training with different groups of people while sharing their own in-depth meditation experience and employing a wide range of meditation practices.

After completing the program, participants may choose not to undertake meditation training for others.  However, through their mindful presence in their day-to-day roles, such as management educators or nurses, they can impact the lives of others in a positive way.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can positively influence the lives of others through our calmness, understanding, clarity, kindness and compassion.

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Our Thoughts Can Affect Our Performance

In the previous post, I discussed how nervousness can affect your mind and body and impact your performance.  I also looked at two strategies – naming your feelings and accessing your success anchor – to gain control over your nervousness.  In this post, I want to focus on how our thoughts can affect our performance.

Our negative thoughts

When we are nervous or anxious about our performance before some public activity, our minds tend to race, and we lose control over our thinking. We can be bombarded with a whole host of negative thoughts – “What if I forget what I was going to say?”, “What will people think of me?”, “How will I ever recover if I embarrass myself in front of my colleagues?”,  “Will I cope if they reject me?”, or “What if I do not meet their expectations?”

These negative thoughts often lead to procrastination.  I have found many times that people fail to start something because of these kinds of negative thoughts.  Sometimes, these disabling thoughts are not at a conscious level – they may just manifest as nervousness or anxiety.  This is where an exercise to name your feelings and the thoughts that create them can be very helpful.

Reframing with positive thoughts

I was recently following up people by phone who had participated in one of my courses – effectively a coaching session.  I was wondering what was causing me to procrastinate.  I have facilitated hundreds of courses and the people I was ringing were participants on my most recent course and yet I was nervous about the phone activity.  I started to follow the suggested step of naming my emotions and identifying the thoughts that gave rise to them.  The thoughts predominantly related to, “Would I live up to their expectations?”, and “Could I actually provide them with some help with their practice or project?”.  Sometimes, our doubts are not rational, but they persist.

Getting in touch with my feelings and negative thoughts enabled me to move on and actually conduct the phone coaching discussions.  What I found was that by controlling my negative thoughts through mindfulness, I was able to change my mindset and view the phone coaching differently.  I came to appreciate the very positive aspects of this exercise and this helped me to reframe the activity as relationship building.  I found that the participants were actually putting into practice in their workplaces the skills we covered in the course and they were having a positive impact on their workplace and the people in their team (intrinsically rewarding feedback!).

I came to the realisation yet again (somewhat blocked by my current anxiety), that my major role was to listen and ask questions for clarification and understanding (mine and theirs).  The experience then was very reaffirming.  Reframing the activity in positive terms, rather than focusing on possible (but not probable) negative outcomes, freed me up to perform better in the coaching interviews.  However, I have a long way to go to be free of “ego” concerns.

Becoming free of ego concerns

When we revisit our concerns or negative thoughts, we often have in advance of some public activity, we begin to realise how much “ego” is involved.  We are concerned about our image – how we will be viewed or assessed, what impact our performance will have on us or our future, what impression we will make or how embarrassed will we be if we “fail”.

These issues constitute ego concerns.  Tom Cronin (The Stillness Project) in his blog post, How to Find the Confidence to Speak in Front of 300 People, suggests that controlling your ego is a key aspect of gaining that confidence.  The less ego plays in determining how you feel about your forthcoming performance, the better you are able to just be present and appreciate the moment. Your presence and sense of calm can be very effective in helping you access your creative abilities and best performance.  He recommends daily meditation as a way to dissolve the ego and gain peaceful presence, no matter what we are doing:

… meditation plays a HUGE role. In the stillness of meditation we connect with that unbounded state of peaceful presence, beyond the limits of the ego. The work is to put aside time to meditate, and then outside of meditation, to observe the difference between that which is ego and that which is not. 

To remove all ego from our thoughts and activities requires a very advanced state of mindfulness.  As Tom indicates, this is a lifetime pursuit, because ego often gets in the road of our performance and our ability to have a positive impact.  However, we cannot wait until we are cleansed of all ego before we perform.

I have successfully addressed 1,800 people at a World Congress in Cartagena, Colombia in South America.  The topic was on action learning and I was doing the opening address as President of the Action Learning and Action Research Association.  My luggage had not arrived by the start of the Congress, so I had to present in my jeans that I wore on the flight over and a colourful Cartegena t-shirt I bought in the street outside the Congress.

I had to let go of any ego concerns about my standard of dress (the other dignitaries were in suits) if I was to actually get up on the stage.  I think this need and the casualness of my dress helped me in my address – it was particularly well received by the Colombians who were present amongst the representatives from 61 countries.  I certainly had ego concerns but the momentousness of the occasion and the potential contribution of the Congress to global cooperation, helped me to get through and manage my nerves.  But you can see I still have ego concerns that are alive and active when I undertake a relatively simple phone coaching activity (as described above) – lots more meditation to do!!

As we grow in mindfulness, we can clear anticipatory, negative thoughts about our performance, identify and control our emotions and progressively remove our ego concerns.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Further Reflections on an Action Learning Intervention

This post represents a further reflection on the action learning intervention undertaken by Dr. Rod Waddington in South Africa.  It follows on from my previous reflections on the values differences between narcissism and action learning.

In another earlier post, I highlighted the need to support mindfulness training with organisational interventions designed to address things like over-work, lack of agency, managerial style and toxicity.  This was the perspective of the union body in the UK and the Mindful UK Report.   Now I turn to ways that mindfulness could strengthen an action learning intervention that did address these identified issues.

In the current reflection, I want to highlight the role that mindfulness could play in enhancing the outcomes of the action learning intervention by focusing on self-awareness and resilience.

Mindfulness strengthening self-awareness

One of the outcomes that Rod’s intervention in an education setting in South Africa had in common with Dr. Diana Austin’s intervention in a health setting in New Zealand, is the personal disclosure by participants of what they were experiencing and feeling and what contributed to their pain and suffering.  In the case of the college, the disclosure related to the style of management and the toxicity of the workplace; in the health setting, midwives identified the lack of support that they received following a critical incident.

In both cases, participants had suffered in silence and not shared with others what was happening for them – they were engaged in a “conspiracy of silence”.  The collaborative environment provided by action learning enabled them to feel safe and to be open about what they really thought and felt.

If mindfulness training had preceded these interventions, participants could be more aware of themselves and more willing to share at a deeper level. Mindfulness brings with it self-awareness and increased insight into factors impacting thoughts, feelings and reactions.  Participants would also be better placed to support each other through the disclosure experience.

Mindfulness strengthening resilience

If participants in an action learning program had been exposed to mindfulness over a reasonable period and had undertaken regular practice, they would have brought a higher level of resilience to the action learning intervention.  This, in turn, would contribute to the ability to sustain the outcomes of the intervention as participants would be better able to manage setbacks and difficulties.

The potential contribution of mindfulness for an action learning intervention

As potential participants in an action learning intervention grow in mindfulness through meditation training, they bring to the intervention a greater capacity to contribute openness and honesty, make the most of the opportunities for increased agency and contribute to the sustainability of the intervention through their enhanced resilience.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Quangpraha on Pixabay

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Reflections on an Action Learning Intervention

In my previous post I described an action learning intervention undertaken by Dr. Rod Waddington to overcome a toxic workplace within the education sector in South Africa.   What I would like to do now is share some reflections on this discussion.

Action learning intervention – overcoming narcissism

If we look at narcissistic managers, we can readily see that the underpinning values of such a manager are in direct opposition to those of action learning – the former involves destruction of agency, abuse, divisiveness, exclusiveness, resistance to ideas from managers and staff and an autocratic style of management.  Action learning, in contrast, involves increased agency,  mutual respect, collaboration, inclusiveness, openness to ideas from managers and staff and a participative style of management.

While the narcissistic manager creates divisiveness through blaming, favouritism and exclusiveness, action learning overcomes this “divide and conquer” approach through the power of collaboration built through mutual respect and inclusiveness.

The contrast in values described above reinforces the need to undertake an organisation intervention designed to embed a new set of values.  In the action learning intervention discussed previously, the participant managers undertook a “values advocacy campaign” – designed to replace the existing demeaning value set with values that enrich the working environment and nurture engagement, creativity and commitment.

Agency and responsibility

In an earlier discussion, I emphasised how agency supports mental health by giving people a sense of control over their work environment and how their work is done.  In a toxic environment, agency is destroyed through micromanagement and the pursuit of control over managers and their staff. Action learning, on the other hand, builds agency 

However, when you enable agency, managers have to take up the responsibility that goes with it and this requires conscious effort to build managerial confidence.  Action learning is one way to do this.  Evaluations of action learning programs consistently demonstrate that managers grow in confidence about their authority and their capacity to exercise their responsibility and to be accountable.

In the action learning intervention discussed previously managers moved from a state of helplessness to being more assertive and proactive – thus demonstrating their increased sense of responsibility and empowerment.

In these reflections, I have focused on the need to address the differences in values between action learning and narcissistic managers who create a toxic environment.  In the next post, I will explore how mindful meditation could be integrated into the action learning intervention to grow mindfulness and enhance the outcomes from the organisational intervention.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Ippicture on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.