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, the middle manager –  while sincere and very conscientious – lacked self-awareness and interpersonal skills and one of the team leaders was suffering from Asperger Syndrome.  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)

Image source: Ron Passfield, Copyright. 2018

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Overcoming a Toxic Work Environment through Action Learning

Dr. Rod Waddington, PhD, recently published an article about his doctoral research which incorporated action learning as a central intervention.  His article, Improving the work climate in a TVET [Technical & Vocational Education} college through changing conversations, tracks his intervention as Human Resource Development (HRD) Manager in a college in South Africa that had five campuses.

Organisational toxicity and its impacts

The college was characterised by a toxic workplace that resulted in both physical and psychological problems for employees, both managers and staff.  Rod discussed the toxicity of the organisation in terms of the “toxic triangle” described in the article by Padilla, Hogan & Kaiser, The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments.

Rod was then able to address the three elements that contributed to toxicity in the college – toxic leaders, toxic followers and a toxic organisational context (systems, processes and procedures that enabled toxicity to develop and grow).  Toxic leaders were identified as displaying narcissistic tendencies and traits in that they micromanaged, abused and bullied staff, failed to address poor behaviour (in part, because of favouritism), threw tantrums and undermined engagement, productivity and wellness of managers and staff.

The Action Learning Group

Rod was able to create an action learning group (action learning set) comprising a representative group of nine managers who managed campuses and reported to the Corporate Centre where the HRD manager worked.   His description of this approach to organisational intervention was in terms of engaging people who were directly impacted by, and were contributeding to, the toxic organisational environment:

I had to learn to adopt an inclusive, participative, democratic paradigm to guide a bottom-up approach.  I thus recruited other managers as participants, co-researchers and change agents to constitute an action learning set. (p.9)

The Action Learning Process

Rod chose to use a process of drawing and story telling to capture the experiences and feelings of the managers who formed the action learning group.  He provided a large calico sheet for them to draw on and space around a central drawing of a river which symbolised the flow of events and the connectedness and interdependence of the group members.

In the first instance, the managers in the participating group were invited to identify events that contributed to their experience of trauma and stress.  The invitation to draw and use colours and shapes engaged their right brain and moved them away from their usual mode of thinking – thus providing some sense of safety in exchanging information that was self-disclosing and uncomfortable, leaving them vulnerable.

The story telling or narrative that followed the drawings enabled the managers to articulate what they each had been feeling for a long time but that they had denied, submerged and kept hidden from others.  The process gave them permission to be honest in their communication with each other because it helped them to realise that they were not alone in their experience of personal hurt and dissatisfaction.

The participating managers identified different feelings – a strong sense of abandonment through lack of support, devalued because they were not listened to, dehumanised because they were verbally abused and hopelessness because there was no positivity or direction provided.

In a second round of drawings, the managers were asked to develop a picture of a changed workplace which incorporated the values that had been denied through the toxicity of the work environment.  This second drawing enabled the managers to tap into a sense of empowerment and hope that they could create an environment conductive to improved personal physical and mental health and to the development of an organisation characterised by wellness and mutual respect.

Outcomes of the Action Learning Process

Participants started to admit their own feelings as well as the part they themselves played in perpetuating the toxic environment.  This growth in self-awareness enabled them to move from helplessness and self-blame to take up the “agency and responsibility” offered to them through the action learning process.  In this way, they developed skills in self-management.  Hence, the intervention overall enabled the development of managerial agency for the participant managers.

The focus of conversation amongst the managers moved from negative thoughts and stories to discussion focused on hope and aspiration.  A key outcome was the development of a sense of responsibility, not only for their own area of responsibility but also for the organisation as a whole.   This was reflected in the managers’ agreement to initiate a “values campaign” in their areas of responsibility based on five core values –  inclusiveness, participation, trust, empowerment and consultation.  They developed an agreed format for posters to be used as part of this “values advocacy”.

Through the processes of drawing, sharing and reflecting, participants built trust in each other, changed their mind-sets, developed better coping skills and increased resilience as proactive change managers.

The action learning process and the development of mindfulness

The action learning process enabled the participant managers to grow in mindfulness – becoming increasingly aware of themselves and the impact of their thoughts, feelings and behaviour on their organisational environment.  Along with this increased self-awareness, they developed enhanced self-management skills, taking up responsibility for shaping their work environment and becoming more assertive in communicating and pursuing their own needs and those of their staff.

The participant managers were able to develop awareness through a clear focus on improving a toxic work environment and doing so in a non-judgmental way, moving from self-blame and blaming others to acting to improve the situation for all who were experiencing the pain and suffering resulting from organisational toxicity.  So, they were motivated not only to remove their own pain and suffering but also that of others affected by the work environment. This then reflects compassion , a key feature of emotional intelligence and mindful leadership.

[Note: Dr. Rod Waddington published the abovementioned article with co-author, Leslie Wood, Research Professor, Faculty of Education Sciences, North-West University, South Africa.]

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

Image source: courtesy of acky24 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.

Mindfulness, Action Learning and Reflection

In a previous post, I discussed how action learning and mindfulness can be mutually reinforcing in terms of building self-awareness.  With action learning, the catalyst for self-awareness and redefinition of self and role are the external challenges that confront the limitations of your own sense of self.  For mindfulness, the pursuit of awareness leads to the exploration of your own thoughts and emotions in everyday life and particularly in relationships and interactions.

Reflection in action learning moves from the outside to the inside, while reflection in mindfulness moves from the inside to the outside.  Hence, action learning and mindfulness are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

In this post, I want to explore how action learning and mindfulness are mutually reinforcing in relation to development of the art of reflection.

Reflection

Reflection is a process of exploring our understandings and feelings we have identified as part of a review of our actions and their outcomes, intended and unintended, or a process of exploring both our understandings and feelings that we are experiencing during the course of some action or inaction.

Donald Schön (1983), author of The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, argues that reflection defines the professional and he differentiates between reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action, the former occurring after we have taken some action, the latter involving reflection in the course of taking action.

Reflection-on-action

Reflection-on-action is often referred to as “reflective practice” which can be defined in the following way:

Reflective practice occurs when you explore an experience you have had to identify what happened, and what your role in the experience was – including your behaviour and thinking, and related emotions.

We reflect on our experiences to understand what we and others have contributed to a situation and its outcomes, so that we can improve our contribution and the outcomes in future situations.

Mindfulness prepares us for the reflective practice involved in action learning.  If we are mindful, we are more aware of our environment, our thoughts, emotions and actions.  Hence, we are more present to the situation and better able to notice and recall what transpired when we planned and took action.  This leads to a clearer perception of our role in the planning and action.  We also have a clearer understanding of what happened, consequences intended and unintended, and why those occurred.

Mindfulness also builds self-management so that we are better able to reflect on what transpired because our reflections are not clouded by unresolved feelings or distorted recall that is influenced by “confirmatory bias” – in other words, we can avoid “reading into’ an experience an assumption that we confirm by selectively revisiting what happened.  Without effective self-management, we can delude ourselves that our reflections on our experiences are accurate when, in fact, they are clouded by our biased perceptions and assumptions (some of which we have developed to protect our self-esteem).

Mindfulness, then helps us to better reflect on action because we are more present when we undertake the action.  We are more tuned to our senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell – more perceptive as a result.  Our recollection of what happened, both in terms of ourselves and others, is more accurate because we are more aware when the action is taking place and less biased when reflecting on what took place.

Reflection-in-action

Donald Schön (1983) describes reflection-in-action as a process whereby we stop ourselves in the course of taking action and change our approach to improve our outcomes:

The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation. (p.68)

Mindfulness also makes us better able to reflect-in-action because we are more aware of ourselves and our environment.  It can help us to stop and reflect in the course of planning or taking action based on our plans (or actions taken spontaneously or reactively).

Our improved self-management achieved through mindfulness helps us to retain our balance while taking action and gives us the capacity to effectively manage negative triggers.

Mindfulness, Action Learning and Reflection

Mindfulness enriches both reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action, while action learning acts as a catalyst to mindful reflection on our actions and their consequences.  We need to be mindful to be able to reflect-in-action – being present with full awareness.  So mindfulness and action learning enrich each other.  The more we practice reflection on our actions, the more we are able to spontaneously reflect-in-action.

Action learning typically involves working, and reflecting, in a group so that we can be open to “supportive challenge” by others in the group, resulting in challenge to our assumptions and perspectives.  Adelle Bish and Bob Dick, in their conference paper, Reflection for everyone, highlight the fact that reflection in an action learning context can be “seen as having two dimensions, one individual and intrapersonal and the other interpersonal and interactive” (p.11).  These different dimensions are considered to “reinforce and build on each other” (p.12)  Mindfulness enhances the individual/ intrapersonal dimension by virtue of the distinct personal benefits that accrue through mindfulness practice, and also enhances interpersonal relationships.

As we grow in mindfulness, our awareness of ourselves, our interactions and our environment grow and enable us to engage more effectively in action learning – we become more perceptive, more present, more creative and bring calmness and clarity to the situation.  Mindfulness and action learning, acting in concert, are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

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

Image source: courtesy of pasja1000  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.