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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Mindful Connection

Sharon Salzberg, in her presentation provided as part of the  Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, focused on the theme, The Art of Mindful Connection.  Sharon is the author of ten books, including Real Love.

Sharon made the point that real love is not a commodity to be exchanged, it is not simply about reciprocation -“I’ll do something for you, if you do something I want in return.”  In her view, love does not mean unwillingness to express your own needs or feelings or coming from a place of neediness.

At times, real love is “tough love”, expressed as a readiness to say “no”, when the context, situation or your needs require that response.  It does not mean just agreeing with the other person for the sake of peace or a false sense of making them happy.

Sharon spoke of love as a capacity – a capacity for real connection which flows out of being mindful.  Real love creates real connection and is developed through mindfulness practice and being mindful in the situation when we encounter people.

The problem is that we all bring our conditioning and assumptions to every interaction – some being more negatively impactful than others.  We each have our own conditioning and assumptions developed as a result of our family environment, our work experience and/or life events.

Our conditioning may mean that we are wary of dissenting, reticent to express our feelings and needs or have difficulty trusting others.  Adverse events in our life may contribute to a tendency to look for, and see, only the negatives we experience, e.g. when reviewing our day, we may only focus on what we did wrong, our lack of achievement and/or our disappointments.

Our assumptions play a major role in how we relate to others.  We can show interest in people (who we assess as interesting), look right past others or consider others to be not worth talking to.

Sharon told the story of a writer friend of hers who, on first sight of a woman who had approached him, assumed that she was not intelligent or not “with it”.  It turned out that the woman was very intelligent and was actually a professional proof-reader for a publisher.

This example resonated strongly with my experience of my own unfounded assumptions which I described in my previous post about removing blockages to learning and performance.

Sharon encourages us to engage in meditation practice and honestly confront ourselves – to look squarely at the impact of our conditioning and assumptions on our relations with others.

She suggests, for instance, that in conversations with ourselves that we ask penetrating questions.   We could ask, for example, “What groups do we think do not count?”, “Which of our assumptions were at play in a recent interaction with someone else that did not work out as we expected?” or “Who have we been avoiding and why?”

Sharon urges us to be honest with ourselves in these conversations and not let negative emotions such as shame or embarrassment get in the road of a genuine exploration of how our conditioning and assumptions play out in our daily interactions.

She suggests that unearthing these impediments creates a new freedom – a liberation from the constraints that prevent us from achieving mindful connection with others.  Mindfulness, in her view, is the gift of liberation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and conversations with ourselves, we can free ourselves from the conditioning and assumptions that hold us back from genuine engagement with others.  By becoming progressively unfettered in the way we relate and being able to give our full attention to the other person, we can create meaningful and mindful connections.

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

Image source: courtesy of sasint 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

You Will Have Fewer Regrets

Invariably, our regrets flow from times when we have not been mindful.  There are many situations in life where this can occur.  Our regrets typically have to do with things we should not have said, actions we should not have taken, or things that we omitted to say or do that we should have said or done.

Situation: The job interview

When going for a job interview, for example, you may have been so nervous and panicky, that you did not present yourself in the best light.  You may have been “not with it” or unfocused.  Without a clear mind, you would not have understood the interviewer’s questions or responded in an appropriate manner.  You probably had not worked out “where they were  coming from” or what they intended by their questions.

Nor would have you picked up any emotions behind the interviewer’s questions such as concern, anxiety or even fear.  You could have come away thinking, “I just blew it” and realising that you left important things unsaid and did not “put your best foot forward” in terms of demonstrating your expertise.  In failing to remain calm, you missed the opportunity to convince the interviewer that you could handle stress well.  Mindful practice, in contrast, enables you to display calmness and clarify of mind.

Situation: Interaction with your partner

You may have had a recent interaction with your partner where you came away thinking, “I did not handle that well”.  Your partner may have complained that you were not listening or that your mind was elsewhere.  You may have become defensive, interrupted their sentences and talked over them – leading to frustration and anger on their part. In short, you may have failed to engage in active listening.  Mindful practice helps you to be fully present to the other person and listen for understanding, rather than to mount a self-defence.

Situation: Coversation with a friend or colleague

Your friend could have engaged you in conversation only to find that you were just interested in talking about yourself and your accomplishments – in other words not being present to them.  Alternatively, a colleague or staff member may have started talking about an issue or concern they had, and you quickly diverted or terminated the conversation because of your unease with the emotional content of their information.  You were not able to listen empathetically to what they had to say, because you were so preoccupied with your own emotions.   Mindful practice enables us to be empathetic listeners and to show people and their emotions the respect they deserve.

Situation: Conflict with a colleague, partner or friend  

You may have “lost your cool” or over-reacted in a conflict situation when you encountered a negative trigger – something that was said or done (your pet hate) that set you off.   You may not have developed self-management through mindful practice or learned to employ the SBNRR approach discussed previously.  This approach enables you to stop, breathe, notice, reflect and respond – in that sequence.

As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able manage the stressors in different situations – to listen effectively and empathetically and to self-manage by keeping our emotions and reactions under control.  If we achieve this, we will have fewer regrets about our words, actions or omissions.

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

Image source: courtesy of quinntheislander on Pixabay

Mindful Leadership: Social Skills – Communicating with Insight

Chade-Meng Tan (affectionately known as “Meng”), is the author of the book, Search Inside Yourself, a developer of the related Google course and one of the founders of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute.

Meng maintains that as we grow in mindfulness we develop calmness of mind and clarity of thought.  So whatever the stressful situation we are in, we are able to remain in control of our emotions – instead of being held captive by the primitive part of our brain, the amygdala. (Meng’s Google Talk)

We are able to notice our emotions as they occur and to choose how we respond, e.g communicate with compassion, instead of with anger.  We are no longer controlled by our emotions.

The insight we gain is not only insight into ourselves but also understanding and insight into others’ emotions, motivations and behaviour.  So we are better able to communicate from this position of increased understanding and insight, a position of increased clarity of mind not confounded by emotions.  We also gain a greater understanding and appreciation of our environment, both the natural environment and also the micro and macro work context.

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute’s two day program on mindful leadership and emotional intelligence offers a process to help leaders communicate with insight in the context of difficult conversations.  The process involves reflection on a conflicted conversation that you have been involved in with another person.  It aims to help you to gain insight into your own perceptions, emotions and motivation and those of the other person.

The two step process starts with an analysis of your involvement in the conflict.   Firstly you are asked to identify the content of the conflict (what happened from your perspective) and secondly, your feelings at the time (your emotions). The process then helps you to gain a deep insight into your own motivations.

The third step, then, is the critical one. The assumption is that both parties in the conflict are ultimately trying to deal with identity issues  – a fundamental motivation behind the conflict for each party.  These identity issues are expressed as three  questions:

  • am I competent?
  • am I a good person?
  • am I worthy of love?

Once you answer these identity issues questions for yourself, you put yourself in the position of the other person and repeat the three step process with respect to the other person in the conflict (the what, the feelings and the identity issues for them).

This then puts you in a position to communicate with renewed insight into the other person in the conflict  You should undertake the follow-up conversation only after you have first reflected on your intention on having the subsequent conversation.  You may actually decide not to pursue a further conversation at this point, but resolve to approach the next interaction with greater care and insight.

Communicating with insight comes with growth in mindfulness.  As Meng points out, if you have developed mindfulness, you are able to approach any situation, whatever it involves, with clarity of mind and  calmness (free from from the influence of uncontrolled emotions).

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

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay