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

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Payoff from Self-Awareness

Daniel Goleman, in a recent LinkedIn article, discussed How Self-Awareness Pays Off.  In the article, he reiterated the fact that self-awareness underpins the other skills of emotional intelligence, such as self-management.

Self-awareness in this context relates to recognising and understanding your own emotions and what triggers them. The payoff for a developed sense of self-awareness is multi-faceted.  Here are a number of payoffs identified by Goleman and others:

Space to develop creative options

Goleman discussed the situation of a woman working in a high-powered job that was causing her stress. The result of her lack of self-awareness was that she became increasingly unable to cope.  Unfortunately, the effects of stress are cumulative.  Work stress, too, leads to poor relations with colleagues and the effects can invade family life.  The net result was that the woman decided to seek out a less-stressful but lower-paid job, an action which also had the effect of limiting her opportunities for promotion.

If she had worked at developing self-awareness, she would have been able to break the stress cycle, understood what was creating stress for her and been in a position to have sufficient space in her working life to develop some creative solutions such as delegating some work, exploring ways to reduce her reactions to the things that triggered stress for her or negotiating a change in the allocation of duties or responsibilities.

More effective communication of your needs

People who develop their self-awareness are better able to communicate their emotions and their needs to others. They can thus facilitate an accurate exchange of information with others which, in turn, enables better decision making.   Accurate exchange of information, both in terms of content and feelings, is an essential precondition for quality decision making.  If you are unaware of your own emotions and what is contributing to your disappointment, anger or frustration, you are unable to communicate in a way that enables others to assist you to address your problems.

More responsive to the needs of others

Judith Glasser contends, following her research with executives, that we often have “conversational blind spots“.  These arise as a result of our tendency in conversation to assume that others think and feel what we think and feel – we project onto others our own thinking and emotional responses.  This usually arises because we fail to engage in active listening – we end up talking over the other person or interrupting their sentences. We have a strong emotional inducement to prove we are right at the expense of really understanding the other person’s perspective or feelings. These “conversation blind spots” result in parallel conversations and damage, rather than build, relationships.

Glasser suggests that we should get in touch with our own feelings and needs in these conversations and understand what is happening for us – in other words, we need to develop self-awareness to prevent damage to our relationships, both at work and at home. She recommends that once you become aware of your tendency to dominate conversations, you can learn to slow down the process, develop your curiosity about the other person and explore what is the significance, meaning and implication of an issue for them. In this way, you can be more responsive to the needs of others and enrich your relationships.

Goleman suggests that you can build self-awareness by daily meditation practice and/ or by the occasional “personal check-in” (to see how you are faring emotionally). He argues that as we grow in mindfulness, we increase our capacity to see ourselves more clearly and to understand the impact of our words and behaviours on others.

The payoff from self-awareness is a greater capacity to develop creative solutions to our own needs and feelings, improved ability to communicate these needs and feelings to others and an enhanced capacity to be responsive to the needs of others.

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

Image source: courtesy of Bess-Hamiti on Pixabay

Mindfulness and The Art of Conversation

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, in his presentation provided as part of the  Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, focused on the theme, Mindfulness and the Art of Conversation.  Sakyong is the author of a number of books, including, The Lost Art of Conversation: A Mindful Way to Connect with Others and Enrich Everyday Life.

Sakyong emphasised the need for meditation in these troubled times, both locally and globally.  He identified that there is a lot of fear and uncertainty around threats to world peace and environmental deterioration.  He stressed the importance of not only meditating but also engaging with others in conversation.

The one thing we can do in times of such uncertainty and anxiety is connecting with others through communication.  In Sakyong’s view, transformation at a personal and social level have come about when people connect with each other and share.

Communication is a basic need, it is available to us all at any time and is a natural activity of being human.   Sometimes, we experience difficulty in our conversations and at other times it seems so easy and rewarding.

Despite being connected technologically like never before, a lot of our connections are superficial, as are our “conversations”.   We have tended to lose real connection with people around us, who are with us on a daily basis.

Despite experiencing a great sense of warmth and happiness from our good conversations, we tend not to properly engage with people because of our busy lives.  Despite our development on a global basis, we seem to have lost the art of conversation – which can connect us at a time when so many things have the effect of keeping us apart from each other.

Even just acknowledging another person can be empowering for them, just as ignoring them can make them feel demeaned and disempowered.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can more readily connect with others, engage in active listening and communicate empathy – all of which values the other person and empowers them to be their real self.

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

Image source: courtesy of klimkin on Pixabay