Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Providing A Choice of Anchors

David Treleaven recently published a book on Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness. The book enables mindfulness trainers to recognise a trauma-affected individual, provide appropriate modifications to their mindfulness processes and avoid aggravating the individual’s trauma experience.

David argues that two factors are foundational to trauma-sensitive mindfulness, (1) choice and (2) anchors.  He observes that people who are trauma-affected have experienced an unwanted negative event that endangered them, a total loss of control over the situation and a lack of agency (capacity to influence the outcomes).  Providing choice, especially in relation to anchors, is critical for the welfare of the trauma-affected individual – it avoids reactivating the sense of helplessness associated with the traumatic event and reduces the likelihood of triggering a painful “body memory”.

Providing a choice of anchors – internal sensations

An anchor enables an individual to become grounded in the present moment despite being buffeted by distractions, negative self-stories or endless thoughts.  The choice of an anchor is a very personal aspect of mindfulness – it relates to an individual’s preferences, physical capacity and emotional state.  An anchor enables a person to experience ease and emotional stability.

Jessica Morey, an experienced teacher of trauma-sensitive meditation, begins a meditation training session by offering participants a choice of three internally-focused anchors – a bodily sensation, attention to sound within their immediate environment (e.g. the “room tone”) or a breath sensation (air moving through the nostrils, abdomen rising and falling or movement of the chest).

Participants are given the opportunity to try out these different anchors over a five-minute period and to make a choice of an anchor for practice over a further period.  Providing this choice of anchors avoids locking individuals into a mindfulness process that can act as a trigger for reexperiencing trauma, e.g. sustained focus on breathing.

Alternative anchors – external sensing

David notes that the five senses offer further choices of anchors – in addition to the internally focused anchors suggested by Jessica.  The senses enable a participant in meditation training to focus on some aspect of their external environment:

  • Hearing – tuning in to the external sounds such as birds singing, the wind blowing or traffic flowing past.  The downside of this approach is that it may trigger our innate tendency to interpret sounds and this may lead to focusing on a particular sound – trying to identify it and its potential source. So, this may serve as a distraction pulling us away from experiencing (the “being” mode) to explaining (the “thinking” mode).  The aim here is to pay attention to the experience of hearing, not to focus on a single sound. Sam Himelstein has found that listening to music can be a very effective anchor for a person who is in a highly traumatised state – choosing music that aligns with the individual’s musical preferences can serve as a powerful anchor.
  • Touch – a trauma-affected person could have an object, e.g. a crystal or a stone, that provides comfort and reassurance and enables them to become grounded in the present moment through the sensation of touch.
  • Seeing – taking in the natural surroundings, e.g. by observing closely the foliage of a tree – its colours, shape and texture or observing the patterns in the clouds.

Other options include sensations of smell or taste.  However, in my view, these tend to be less neutral in character and can re-traumatise a trauma-affected person.

David Treleaven offers a wide range of resources to help meditation trainers build their awareness, skills and options in the area of trauma-sensitive mindfulness (TSM).  These include an online training course, interview podcasts, a TSM Starter Kit (incorporating an introductory video and a comprehensive “TSM Solutions Checklist”) and a live meetup of the TSM Community (registered members of a community of TSM-aware practitioners).

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, research and reflection, we can become more flexible about how we offer mindfulness training.  A trauma-sensitive approach to mindfulness requires an awareness of the manifestations of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), identification of different sources of anchors and the willingness and capacity to offer participants the choice of an anchor and an approach to mindfulness.  This means that we need to move beyond our own fixation with “meditation logistics” and be flexible enough to offer trauma-informed mindfulness practices.

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Image – Trees on the foreshore, Wynnum, Brisbane

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

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Understanding Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

David Treleaven, through his doctoral dissertation and subsequent book, has raised awareness globally about the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  His book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, identifies three myths about mindfulness and trauma, discusses research-based case studies and offers clear options for the way forward.  His work is so critical to the teaching of mindfulness that Brown University has sought to integrate his work and findings into their Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute is exploring integration of David’s approach into their Mindful Leadership program.

Trauma and mindfulness

Trauma is described as “the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event”.  Many organisations and trainers/consultants/psychologists offer services, strategies and programs for trauma sufferers. Beyond Blue, for example, offers coping strategies and ways that friends and relatives can help someone close to them who is suffering from a traumatic event.

Mindfulness has become acknowledged as an effective way to deal with trauma.  For example, Boyd, Lanius and McKinnon (2018) concluded from a review of the relevant literature that mindfulness-based therapeutic approaches are effective in reducing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   They suggested that reduction in shame and self-blame could be key explanations of the efficacy of mindfulness-based approaches to PTSD.

David, however, warns that there are potential difficulties in using a mindfulness approach if practitioners are not sensitive to the interplay between mindfulness practices, beliefs about the universal efficacy of mindfulness and related messaging.  He points out that most people will experience at least one traumatic event in their life. So, in any one room of meditation participants, there is likely to be one or more people who are experiencing trauma in their lives.

David dedicates his life to making people aware of the need for trauma-sensitive mindfulness through his book, videos, podcasts and workshops. He articulates his concerns about a lack of sensitivity to this issue amongst meditation teachers by identifying three “myths” about mindfulness and trauma that can potentially create harm for trauma sufferers.

Three myths about mindfulness and trauma

David’s research with trauma sufferers and practitioners in the field working with people who have experienced trauma, has led him to identify three “myths” (widely held false beliefs) that impede effective and safe use of mindfulness approaches. The myths are powerful determinants of the behaviour of mindfulness teachers:

  • Universality – David describes this myth as “one size fits all”.  However, David’s experience is that for some people who have experienced trauma, meditation can activate trauma stimuli so that the person re-experiences trauma.  As Peter Devine comments, “The nervous system can’t tell the difference between that [reliving the trauma] and the original trauma”.
  • Certainty – this myth relates to the assumption by meditation teachers that they will know when a person has experienced (or is currently experiencing) trauma.  David cites a case of a very experienced meditation teacher who failed to pick up the cues that some of his trainees were trauma sufferers.  He maintains that there are some very subtle non-verbal cues that can signal the existence of trauma, but it requires sensitised awareness to detect them.  He suggests that two major impediments that get in the road of someone openly disclosing their experience of trauma are (1) feelings of shame and (2) compliance (felt need to conform to an authority figure).
  • Neutrality – the myth that breath is always neutral, with no emotive content.  David recounts the experience of one person who was traumatised by a violent parent when a child.  Focusing on his breath “reconnected with the need to hide”, caused him to re-live his trauma and led to increased anxiety.  So, instead of being a calming anchor, mindful breathing acted as a trauma stimulus.

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: some strategies

David provides considerable detail, explanation and case illustrations of these myths in his book on Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness and in a video presentation on The Truth About Mindfulness and Trauma, which was a promotional webinar for his course for practitioners on recognising trauma, responding to trauma and preventing the re-living of trauma during mindfulness practice.

In the video mentioned above, David suggests a range of strategies that address the limitations and potential damaging effects of the three myths:

  • Develop awareness about possible difficulties for people during mindfulness practices
  • Increase knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the signs of trauma
  • Provide space for people to experience different aspects of mindfulness practice and be ready to make modifications after asking, “What would work for you?”
  • Acknowledge at the outset that some people may have a very different experience to the calming effects of mindfulness meditation
  • Offer the opportunity for participants to approach you privately to have a conversation about their experience
  • Don’t reinforce the “shoulds” of mindfulness experience, e.g. avoid saying, “you should experience calm and peace”
  • Avoid “close and sustained attention to breath” as this may be a stimulus for re-experiencing trauma
  • Offer a range of options for people to practice mindfulness so that they can choose their own anchor for paying attention, e.g. breath, sounds, the sensation of the feet on the floor, feeling of the body on the chair or fingers touching each other.  According to David, Paula Ramirez, a Director of Breathe International, maintains that this choice of options gives participants a sense of agency (the opposite of a loss of control).

As we grow in mindfulness through our own meditation, research and reflection, we can become more sensitive to the needs of people who have suffered (or are suffering) trauma; be better able to respond to their needs; and also learn to adopt strategies that avoid re-traumatising participants in mindfulness training groups.

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

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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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Creating a Journal to Declutter Your Mind

Ryder Carroll in a TEDx Yale Talk titled, How to declutter your mind – keep a journal, highlighted the role a journal can play in helping you to overcome the busyness in your life and lead what he calls an “intentional life” – a life lived with intent, focus and purpose. He maintained that we cause ourselves stress and anxiety by cluttering our minds with things that are not important and as a result lose sight of things that matter to us.

Our thoughts are discursive – one thought follows another in an endless stream. These thoughts and our busyness are often driven by expectations – our own and those of others in our life. As discussed previously, expectations can hold us captive and erode our freedom of choice. In some organisations, busyness has become a sign of importance – where the expectation is to be “seen-to-be-doing”, rather than being and achieving.

Ryder states in his presentation that today we suffer from “decision fatigue” resulting from “choice fatigue”. At every moment of the day we are confronted with choices and decisions – you only have to try to buy a simple product at a supermarket to experience this at a micro level. Decisions take time and energy and time is a non-renewable resource – the very words, “take time”, indicate that we consume time in our lives as we live out our choice-making and act on our decisions.

Create a journal to declutter your mind

Journalling has been shown to be beneficial for many reasons – not the least of these being to improve our overall well-being. Ryder, however, emphasises the necessity of a journal to help declutter our minds and free our thinking to focus on the things that are important to us. He suggests that a journal can serve the purpose of a “mental inventory”, where you record your tasks, events and notes as a way to better manage the present, track what has happened in the past and plan your future.

He provides a simple approach to journalling that he calls a “bullet journal” and provides a very brief video to explain this approach. The name derives from the methodology of creating different forms of bullet points to identify tasks, events and notes.

Ryder highlights the importance of reflection to underpin his approach to mind management. He suggests that it is not enough just to record the relevant information but also to review what has been written. He offers three considerations that can form the basis of a daily, weekly or monthly review of your individual journal entries:

  • does it really matter?
  • is it important to achieve or realise?
  • is it merely a distraction?

Recording without reflection is just reinforcing busy behaviour – without review there is little development of self-awareness and self-management. The review can be strengthened by consciously developing a focus for our time and energies.

Developing focus and productivity through small projects

Ryder’s approach to developing focus is to identify things that are important to us to achieve and to frame them as small projects (breaking down larger projects into smaller parts or milestones). He then suggests that these are incorporated in the monthly plan of your bullet journal, while the relevant tasks that make up an individual project can be collected in a project plan or what he describes as a “collection”.

The small projects act as a point of focus in any given month, serve as a way to channel time and energy, engage your curiosity and build a sense of self-efficacy through achieving identified milestones and project outcomes. Breaking goals down into achievable parts is a proven approach to increasing your productivity. Ryder suggests that the small projects should be something that is within your control – they are free from externally imposed barriers, they are expressed as achievable tasks/outcomes and can be done in the limited timeframe of a month (which lines up with the monthly planning cycle that he recommends). These small projects give us a sense of control and increased agency which serve as a foil to the sense of losing control which comes with endless busyness.

As we develop our journal to declutter our mind and manage our time and energy, we can free ourselves to grow in mindfulness through reflection and meditation and open our lives to less stress and more creative opportunities.

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

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Developing as a Mindful Leader

Bill George presented at the recent Encore of the 5th Mindful Leadership Summit.  Bill is a co-author of The Discover Your True North Fieldbook which explores ways to become an authentic leader.  He was formerly Professor of Management Practice (now Senior Fellow) at the Harvard Business School and Chairman & CEO of Medtronic.

Bill highlighted the fact that we are all leaders in whatever context we operate in – whether in work, family, community or in a nursing home.  We each have the capacity to positively influence others by our presence, our words and our actions.  Science confirms that even our smile can create a positive vibe in those we interact with throughout the day through the processes of mimicry and “emotional contagion”.

What is mindful leadership?

When explaining mindful leadership, Bill drew on the explanation of Janice Marturano, formerly Vice-President of General Mills and founder and executive director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership:

A mindful leader embodies leadership presence by cultivating four things – focus, creativity, clarity and compassion.

Bill stresses that these traits are employed by mindful leaders in the service of others through sharing clarity, modelling self-compassion and compassion for others and bringing focus and creativity to their endeavours to enable collaboration, inclusion and the achievement of desired outcomes.

Developing as a mindful leader

Janice Marturano, author of Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership details mindfulness practices that can be embedded into every aspect of our daily life to improve our overall wellness and enhance our performance in all our endeavours.

Bill argues that in this day and age the emphasis in leadership is on inclusion and empowerment of people to enable them to be the best they can be.  This approach of power with, and through, people engages their commitment and energy, supports mental wellness and achieves results far beyond that of the traditional approach of “power over” people which induces compliance and disengagement.  People need a sense of agency as a precondition for mental health and wellness – they need to know that they can influence their environment and the way things are done.

The mindful leader brings to any situation self-awareness (how they impact people and the situation) and self-regulation (the capacity to monitor their cognitive, physical and emotional reactions and to exercise flexibility in their responses).

Bill mentioned that he has been meditating daily for 40 years and that this has been transformational.  He argued that mindfulness meditation builds self-awareness and self-regulation and the traits that differentiate a mindful leader.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can develop self-awareness and self-regulation along with the traits required for mindful leadership – focus, clarity, compassion and creativity.

 

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

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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.

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)

Image source: Ron Passfield, Copyright. 2018

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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)

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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)

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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)

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