Mindful Leadership: Being Present

One of the core skills of leadership is the ability to be fully present when interacting with others – whether with managers, non-managerial employees or other stakeholders.  Being present underpins the capacity to influence.  It is the precondition for effective listening, providing feedback and generating the engagement of employees.

Effective listening

To actively listen, you have to be really present to the person you are attempting to engage with.  It means being able to focus on the person speaking and tuning in to their words, nonverbal behaviour and the emotions underlying their communication.  It also requires the ability to reflect back to the other person not only what they are saying but also the emotions behind the words and the intensity of those emotions.  This enables the speaker to feel truly heard.  Being present in such interactions means effectively that you are open to the influence of the speaker – not shut off from their desire to engender some change in what is happening.

To tune into another person requires you to tune out of your own thoughts and to control your own preconceptions and assumptions.  Reflection following an interaction can help you to identify what got in the road of effective listening.

Providing feedback

Being present is an essential requirement for providing effective feedback – whether positive feedback or corrective feedback.  To be able to give positive feedback that is specific, genuine and timely, you need to be able to observe behaviour that should be acknowledged and rewarded with praise.  You need to be present to notice the desired behaviour in the first place.

Providing corrective feedback for inappropriate behaviour or inadequate performance also requires you to be fully present and to manage your own feelings in the situation.  Once you have spelt out the core behavioural or performance issue, you need to be able to actively listen to understand what is going on for the other person – what is impacting their behaviour/performance.  You may even find, in the process, that you have contributed to the problem through lack of clarity of instructions/expectations or inadequate training.   Openness to these possibilities requires being present and attentive to the person you are providing corrective feedback to.

Engagement of employees

Employees, whether managers or non-managerial employees, respect a leader who can actively listen and provided accurate feedback, whether positive or corrective.  They understand and appreciate that by your being present and attentive, you are demonstrating respect for them, their skills and their contributions – the foundation for true employee engagement.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we are better able to be fully present to provide effective listening and feedback to engender commitment and contribution of our followers, whether managers or non-managerial employees.  Being present is the outcome of continuous meditation practice and reflection undertaken on a regular basis.

 

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

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

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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)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

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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

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.

Agency and Mental Health

Trade Union Congress (TUC), in their 2015 document, Work and Wellbeing: A Trade Union Resource, included concern about the management style adopted in some dysfunctional organisations and the negative impact that this had on “worker involvement, and the level of control a worker has over their work” (p.5).

Agency and Worker Participation

What the TUC is referring to here in terms of worker involvement and control over work, is often referred to as “agency” – the capacity of a worker to influence their workplace environment and to have a degree of power over the way things are done.

As discussed in an earlier post, Grow Your Influence by Letting Go, many managers are reluctant to delegate authority and responsibility for a wide range of reasons.  As pointed out in the previous blog post, most of these reasons for not delegating and sharing power are not valid and come from a fear of loss of control.  Mindfulness practices can help a manager to get in touch with, and overcome, these often-baseless fears.

The narcissistic manager represents the extreme case of not letting go because they need to be “in control” and will micro-manage to achieve a sense of total control, which is an illusory goal.  Narcissistic managers, then, work directly against this goal of agency and deprive workers of the mental health benefits that accrue to those who experience a strong sense of agency.  The behaviour of these managers in denying agency, leads to frustration, anger and mental illness.

Agency and Mental Health

The TUC report on wellbeing in the workplace, contrasts four worker situations (pp.3-5):

  1. unemployed people – substantially higher rates of mental health illness and suicide than those employed
  2. not employed in paid work – but who have access to a reasonable income level, and achieve lots of social interaction through community or other voluntary work – do not have increased physical or mental health risks
  3. employed in low pay work – with long working hours or little agency (control over their work environment and how the work is done) – “suffer the same health problems as those who are unemployed”.
  4. employed in productive workplaces – where there is a high level of agency for workers, effective people management policies and trust between managers and employees – a healthy workplace with low risk of mental health issues arising from the workplace.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, author of The Influential Mind, reinforces the strong relationship between the sense of agency and mental health when she stated that research shows that being able to control our environment “helps us thrive and survive”.

As managers grow in mindfulness they are able to increase their level of self-awareness, address their fears such as fear of loss of control and develop healthy workplaces where trust abounds, employees experience real agency and people management policies support the full engagement of employees.

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

Image source: courtesy of kalhh on Pixabay

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Being present: Key to Effective leadership

Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, in their Harvard Business Review article, If You Aspire to be a Great Leader, be Present,  reinforce the necessity for a leader to be present, especially when they are engaged in conversation.   They demonstrate how being present contributes to effective leadership and draw examples from the experience of leaders.  Rasmus and Jacqueline are the co-authors of the recently released book, The Mind of the Leader.

Rasmus and Jacqueline in doing research for their book, surveyed in excess of 1,000 leaders “who indicated that a more mindful presence is the optimal strategy to engage their people, create better connections, and improve performance”.

Being grounded

The authors explain how Loren Shuster, Chief People Officer at the Lego group, grounds himself before an important meeting or a presentation that he has to give.

His grounding is achieved by focusing on his body and imagining every part being alive with energy.  This enables him to listen effectively, show respect for the views and opinions of others and access his own creative ideas and solutions to problems.   This practice only takes five minutes but if affects the way he stands, sits and addresses people – his posture demonstrate that he is present and “with” the people with whom he is conversing.  He automatically adopts a posture that is seen as respectful, attentive and engaged – characteristics that build connections and improve performance.

Silence the inner voice

The authors argue strongly that a key element of being fully present is to silence the inner voice – and this takes discipline.  We cannot be actively present when we are saying to ourselves things like, “Oh no, here he comes again!”; “I wish she would ask someone else!”  What have I done to deserve this?’; “I wish he would not get so emotional about things”.  If our inner voice takes over, it is impossible for us to “tune in” to the other person.  People easily sense that you are thinking your private thoughts and are not present – in consequence they feel unheard, devalued and frustrated that they cannot get their message across.

Be open to the needs of others

Our influence as leaders is very much determined by our capacity to meet the needs of others – whether they are sad, in pain, need more challenge, feel letdown, experiencing grief, or are fearful of pending changes to their role. A leader who is present and attentive to others’ needs will be well received and be very influential.

Mindfulness develops our capacity to be present, to be grounded in the moment and to acknowledge and act on the needs of others.  As we grow in mindfulness through the stillness and silence of meditation we can access our creativity and bring that to bear in the present moment in our daily encounters with people and challenging issues.

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

Image source: courtesy of johnhain 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.

 

Grow Your Influence by Letting Go

In a previous post, we discussed how mindfulness helps us to increase our sense of control over our internal environment and responses to external stimuli.  However, there are times when we have to give up control over our external environment to enable others to gain a sense of control over their work or environment.

A fundamental dilemma in life is that to grow our influence we need to let go.  If we become too controlling, we get compliance from others but lose their commitment and energy – ultimately things get out of control.

If you are a manager or someone who has the power to delegate tasks to others, it is very difficult to let go.  However, if you fail to do so, your influence contracts, rather than grows.

We are afraid to let go because:

  • things might get out of hand
  • the other person does not have the knowledge or skills to do the task
  • other people may not have our level of knowledge or skill
  • we do not want to be embarrassed by the mistakes or failures of others
  • other people cannot do the task as well as us
  • we get a buzz from achieving things ourselves
  • we like to do things within our comfort zone, rather than things that challenge us.

All of these reasons for not letting go can be challenged but they often serve as barriers to delegating to others – in the final analysis, they can be seen as excuses.  The net result is that we end up overworked and other people are deprived of the opportunity to grow and develop, to achieve outcomes that are valued, to experience satisfaction for a job well done – importantly, if we retain control we limit their sense of agency and capacity to contribute.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot maintains that “control is tightly related to influence” and influence expands when we provide others with a sense of agency – the capacity to control their environment, power over the way things are done.  She argues:

The message, perhaps ironically, is that to influence actions, you need to give people a sense of control.  Eliminate the sense of agency and you get anger, frustration, and resistance.  Expand people’s sense of influence over their world and you increase their motivation and compliance.  (The Influential Mind, 2017, p. 87)

To give up control, however, we have to be in control of our own emotions and responses.  We have to manage our fear of loss of control over our immediate external environment by managing our internal environment. As explained in the previous post, as we grow in mindfulness, we grow in the capacity to develop control over our own emotions and responses.

Tali Sharot suggests that “there is nothing more terrifying than giving away control to another human being” and “this is why many managers feel the need to micromanage their teams”.  She offers advice to managers that resonates with developing mindfulness and awareness:

It is difficult to let go, but awarness can help.  Understanding why we are the way we are, and being conscious of our deeply rooted drive to make decisions, may help us hand over the wheel once in a while.  With awareness comes the understanding that giving away control…is a simple but largely effective way to increase people’s well-being and motivation. (The Influential Mind, 2017, p. 103)

She discusses examples of research projects in different contexts that provide evidence of the effectiveness of the fundamental principle of letting go to empower others by giving them a sense of agency.  One particular research project that resonated strongly with me was one involving the elderly in a nursing home where the fundamental questions framed by the researchers, Rodin and Langer, were:

What if the residents of a nursing home were given more choices, more responsibility, and a greater sense of agency?  Would they become healthier and happier?

To test these questions, the researchers set up an “agency floor” and a “no agency floor” where the former were given control over a range of decisions – a sense of agency not provided to the latter floor. The results are described by Tali Sharot as follows:

Three weeks later, when Rodin and Langer assessed the nursing home residents, they discovered that those individuals who’d been encouraged to take more control over their environments were the happiest and participated in the greatest number of activities.  Their mental alertness improved, and eighteen months later they were healthier than the residents on the “no agency” floor. (The Influential Mind, 2017, p. 97)

This research project has a personal interest for me because it reminds me of the activity of my brother, Pat Passfield, who provided other residents of his nursing home with a strong sense of agency.  He was recently nominated for a philanthropic award for his efforts to raise funds and improve conditions for other residents of the Jacobs Court aged care community at Sinnamon Village (80 years of Care – Wesley Mission, A joint Photojournalism Project between the Wesley Mission Queensland and Griffith University Queensland College of Art, p.22)

So if we learn to let go through developing mindfuless and awareness, we will be able to grow our influence by giving others a sense of agency and control over their environment – and contribute substantially to their health, well-being and happiness.

 

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