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 narcissistic managers who 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 Leadership: Goldie Hawn

In sharing her life story in abbreviated form at a technology conference, Goldie Hawn manifested what we have described as mindful leadership.

Goldie was participating in the final day of the conference which was devoted to how mindfulness practices can develop a person’s potential.  She certainly epitomised what can happen when we grow in mindfulness.

At the age of 8, Goldie experienced a panic attack related to the fear of war with Russia.  She experienced another severe panic attack following the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York.  In between, Goldie had experienced the benefits of transcendental meditation to calm her body and mind.

It was through recalling the benefits of this mindful practice that she was able to regain her balance and display the resilience that was reflected in her life story.

Goldie set about understanding herself, her emotional reactions and her brain. She explored the most recent insights into brain functioning offered by neuroscience and came to understand herself better. She progressively grew in self-awareness and awareness of others.

Through increased self-awareness, she was able to learn self-management, both of which were enhanced by her mindful practices.

Through her own experience as a child and her growth in mindfulness, Goldie developed a very strong empathy for children suffering emotional stress, unhappiness and depression. She could strongly relate to how children were suffering through fear and anxiety and the pressures of modern life and study.

This empathy provided the motivation and a goal to work towards – world peace through developing mindfulness in children who will be future leaders.  She wanted to equip children with an understanding of the mind, how it works and how to use the resources of the mind and mindfulness to manage pain and stress and develop strong self-esteem, joy and competence.

Goldie did not stop at feeling empathetic and formulating a motivating goal, in true compassion for the mental health of children she decided to act and draw on her own experience, her knowledge of mindfulness and neuroscience, her financial position and her visibility as an actress, to  help children in schools.  This active intent led to the formation of the Hart Foundation and the development of the MindUP program.

Goldie’s presentation at the technology conference was clear evidence of her communicating with insight. Her communication would surely inspire followers who were moved by her story, her passion and her results.  They  could see clear evidence of how mindfulness has helped her grow into the wonderful human being that she is.

Goldie Hawn’s life journey is a story of growth in mindful leadership – an achievement that is open to all of us as we grow in mindfulness through mindful practice.

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

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

 

Kindness Grows

Kindness is any act of thoughtfulness, service or generosity that is a response to the need of another person.  A positive aspect of kindness is that it is contagious – its positive influence grows of its own momentum.

Seth Godin alludes to this growth feature of kindness when he wrote in his blog:

Kindness ratchets up. It leads to more kindness.  It can create trust and openness and truth and enthusiasm and patience and possibility.

You might be able to recall when this happened for you. I can recall my own positive feelings yesterday when a waitress helped my wife and I to put on our heavy coats to protect against the cold as we left the restaurant to step out into what felt like 4 degrees.  We were visiting Ravenna in northern Italy for the day and this was our first visit.

The waitress, who was in the process of closing up after lunch on Boxing Day, went out of her way to ask where we were from. When we answered that we were from Australia, she shared her story of 9 months in Australia, including visiting our home town in Brisbane. She also disclosed that she was originally from Sweden.  This kindness of engaging us in conversation at the end of the meal served to cap off a wonderful meal and was one of a number of acts of kindness we experienced during our lunch at the restaurant.  She may not have realised that this was the first real conversation we had experienced in 4 weeks in Italy.  We could not speak Italian but the waitress spoke English fluently.

On Christmas night, we encountered another kind act by a group of about 10 young singers and a guitarist who were travelling the streets in 3 degrees temperature and singing to individual homeless people in the streets.  They sang the song, “We wish you a Merry Christmas” in a number of languages and left a gift for the homeless person.

I was pleased to learn that my son and his girlfriend, both in their twenties, spent time on Christmas Day helping a charity to serve meals to homeless people.

You can engage in kindness at any time and in any way – you can be really creative about how you show kindness to others. Kindness.org offers suggestions on how to be kind and shares stories of other peoples’ acts of kindness by way of inspiration.

In my discussion of empathy as part of emotional intelligence and mindful leadership, I highlighted the fact that kindness is one manifestation of empathetic behaviour.  People who are self-absorbed are unable to perceive the needs of others or respond to those needs in a kind way.  As you grow in mindfulness, your capacity for kindness grows and you are able to be more of a positive influence in the lives of others.

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

Image source: courtesy of skeeze on Pixabay

Mindful Leadership: Inspiring Followers

What do you think it would be like to follow a mindful leader, someone with advanced emotional intelligence skills?  As we have discussed, mindful leadership entails self-awareness, self-management, motivation, empathy and social skills (compassion and communicating with insight).  The mindful leader attracts and inspires  followers because of these characteristics.

They have a highly developed level of self-awareness, acknowledge their limitations, admit when they make a mistake and are tolerant of others’ mistakes.  When someone else makes a mistake they do not look for an individual to blame but undertake a system-based analysis to learn from what happened.

A mindful leader inspires confidence and trust – they are in control of their emotions.  They do not lose their temper when something happens that embarrasses them or their organisation/community.  Their high level of self-management enables them to stay calm in any situation they confront, even in what appears to be a crisis. This level of self-composure reassures followers that the situation is under control and models calmness and self-control.

Mindful leaders are highly motivated – they have a clear vision that is aligned to their values. In turn, they are able to effectively communicate their vision and reinforce their values by their congruence – aligning their actions with their words.  This alignment means that their communications are believable and inspiring.

The mindful leader understands others’ pain and suffering and genuinely feels with and for them.  They are empathetic listeners, able to reflect and clarify feelings as well as content.  They are not so self-absorbed that they are oblivious to others’ feelings – they are empathetic and inspire a willingness to be open about and deal with emotions. They themselves show vulnerability by being open about their own emotions – whether that means having felt anger, disappointment, distress, pride or any other emotion.

The mindful leader is compassionate – they not only notice others’ suffering and express empathy but also act to alleviate that suffering where possible.  Their compassion is an inspiration to others and gives followers permission to be compassionate to others in the organisation or the community. They talk about the organisation/ community in terms of a family – they do not employ the aggressiveness of the sport/war metaphor.

Mindful leaders communicate with insight gained through clarity of mind and a calm demeanour.  They see beyond appearances and have a depth of understanding that encourges and inspires followers.  Their communications are clear, meaningful and accessible – they inspire engagement.

They are fundamentally happy – they are doing something meaningful, engaging their core skills and contributing wholeheartedly to a vision that extends beyond themselves.

Chade-Meng Tan, author of Search Inside Yourself, is the epitomy of mindful leadership.  His effusiveness and happiness is contagious, his vision engaging and his clarity and acuity are inspiring. Meng, in his Google Talk, explains the foundations of the Search Inside Youself program, the benefits that accrue and why he chose to embed it in a prominent, global organisation such as Google.

Meng explains that his vision is to contribute to world peace by developing, on a global scale, leaders who are compassionate.  He sees that helping leaders to grow in mindfulness will achieve this goal.  The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute is a vehicle to bring his philosophy and training to the world through conduct of workshops, seminars and intensive training on a global basis.  In pursuit of this vision, Meng and his collaborators are developing trainers who can work globally.

Meng is one example of a mindful leader and his passion, humour, insight and humility are inspiring.

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

Image source: courtesy of  johnhain 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

Mindful Leadership: Social Skills – Compassion

Compassion is recognising a person’s pain and suffering and having an active desire to alleviate that pain and suffering.

Dr. James Doty, in his Ted Talk on The Science of Compassion, identifies three components of compassion:

  1. noticing another suffering (realise)
  2. showing empathetic concern (relate)
  3. taking some action to mitigate the pain (relieve)

Hence, compassion differs from empathy in that the emphasis is placed on taking action to redress suffering, not just feeling with and/or for another person.

James Doty suggests that many organisational leaders who seek power and control, lose their capacity to empathise and their willingness to be compassionate.

However, he points out the research in a book by Jane Dutton and Monica  Worline, Awakening Compassion at Work, where the authors show that compassion positively impacts the bottom line.  They contend that the benefits are two-dimensional.  Firstly, trust, cooperation and satisfaction increase; secondly, burnout, turnover and absence decrease.

Shari Storm, in her TED Talk, Building a Compassionate Workplace, maintains that one of the major impediments to developing compassionate organisational leaders and a compassionate workplace, is the metaphors we use to describe work – which become embedded in our language, influences our thinking and shapes our behaviour.  She identifies both the war and sports metaphors as problematic because they promote competition and winning over care and concern.  She suggests that the family as a metaphor for work would open up increased possibilities for nurturing in the workplace.  It would also enable women to flourish and thrive because women would be better able to relate to such a metaphor.

Unfortunately, the sports/ war metaphors tend to be male-centric and feed the desire of men to be seen as “macho”.   What is not easily recognised is that compassion requires courage as well as concern – particularly where you have to break out of the leader stereotypes encapsulated in the sports/war metaphors.

Mo Cheeks, head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, broke the stereotype at the start of the NBA playoff with Dallas Mavericks.  When 13 year old Natalie Gilbert, through nerves, forgot the words when singing the national anthem, Mo came to her aid, put his arm around her shoulder and gave her a helping hand by singing with her (despite not being a very good singer).  The crowd joined in and Mo has been universally praised for his courageous, compassionate action.  This event shows too that compassion is contagious – if only leaders would realise its power to transform organisations.

How can leaders show compassion?

There are multiple ways leaders can demonstrate compassion – what it takes is a compassionate mindset and the courage to act on it.  Here are just a few examples of compassion in action:

  • providing time off to people who experience trauma in the workplace
  • supporting middle level managers who have to lay off staff to deal with the anger and grief involved, as well as the rupture to the social fabric of the organisation
  • educating managers how to deal with mental health issues in the workplace, for the sake of the managers as well as for those staff experiencing mental illness
  • providing independent expert support to managers and staff who are experiencing difficulties
  • conducting rituals to express grief at the closure of an organisation or a major transition to a new structure
  • allowing staff time to deal with their negative emotions during major organisational change
  • publicly acknowledging the contribution of long- serving organisational members who are retiring – recognising that they will be experiencing mixed emotions including a sense of loss as well as excitement about their future.

As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to notice when people are suffering, to show empathetic concern and act courageously to alleviate their suffering.

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

Image source: courtesy of WerbeFabrik on Pixabay

 

Mindful Leadership: Empathy

 

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute draws on Evan Thompson’s (2001) explanation of the nature of empathy that identifies two key aspects:

(a) The ability to experience and understand what others feel

(b) while maintaining a clear discernment about your own and the other person’s feeling and perspectives.

(Empathy and Consciousness, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, 1-32)

So the first aspect of empathy is the capacity to experience what the other person is experiencing from their perspective.  It is like, metaphorically, standing in their place, realising and understanding what they are thinking and feeling.  It is not trying to provide a psychological solution or judging the emotion of the other person.  At the heart of empathy is understanding both intellectually and emotionally what is involved for the other person.

Secondly, it is the discernment ability to separate the other person’s emotion from your own.  It is not owning the other person’s feelings as if they were your own. This ability to differentiate yourself and your feelings from the other person and their feelings is critical.  An inability to do this means that you will eventually suffer from empathy overload, which can be harmful to you and reduces your capacity to help the other person.  Total identification with the other person is not the goal of a healthy approach to empathy.

There are a number of ways to enhance your empathy.  Here I will discuss three strategies:

1.Understanding and appreciating similarities

Foundational to empathy is self-awareness and the ability to recognise similarities between ourself and other people.  When we focus on differences, we are less able to empathise with others and are more inclined to make assumptions about others.  It is interesting, too, that we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions and judge others by their presumed motivation.  We all know that there can be a huge gap between intention and action.

2. Empathetic listening

Empathetic listening involves not only attending to what someone’s is saying (the words), but also the feelings (the emotions) behind the words. It includes the capacity to not only reflect back the content of the other person’s communication, but also the ability to reflect back the emotion and depth of emotion  involved.  This is often very difficult to do, given our busy lives and our tendency to run away from emotional encounters – either withdrawing physically or psychologically by tuning out.  As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to stay present to the other person and listen empathetically.

3 Kindness

Simple acts of kindness, helping another in difficulty, builds empathy as it relies on awareness of another’s predicament and a willingness to take some action towards assisting that person.  If you are looking for inspiration for your own acts of kindness, here are some websites that may help:

Random Acts of Kindness

Kindness.org

103 Random Acts of Kindness

As you grow in mindfulness you develop your capacity to be empathetic, as empathy requires you to be present on purpose and non-judgementally.

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

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Mindful Leadership: Self-Awareness

Self-awareness can be developed in many ways and it underpins much of what is involved in effective leadership.

I will discuss a few ways to develop self-awareness but this is a lifetime pursuit!

1. 3 Minute Journaling

I discussed this process in more detail in a previous post on journaling.  This free form of writing and reflecting is a very powerful tool for developing self-awareness.  You can build the practice of 3 minute journaling into each day at a set time, e.g. at the end of a day, or use the process more spontaneously when the inclination and opportunity arises.  In reading through what you have written, free of ongoing editing, you will achieve a closer insight into yourself and your reactions to people and events.

2. Somatic Meditation

This is an approach to increased body awareness. In previous posts, I discussed two approaches to this form of meditation – lower belly breathing and whole body breathing.

3. Progressive Relaxation

This involves progressively focusing on all parts of your body starting with your feet.  You can very quickly identify points of stress in your body and focus on those points to relieve the tension.  By reflecting on your day, you may be able to realise what was the catalyst for the tension in your body, e.g. an argument with your partner or colleague; conflict with your boss; or doing work you do not really enjoy or value.

4. Monitoring Your Thoughts and Language

Are you living in the future, not in the present? Are you “wishing it was Friday”; “Saying, I can’t wait for the weekend/holidays”?  This is living in the future, not in the moment.  If you monitor your thoughts and actions, you can become increasingly aware of when you are not focusing on the present moment.

5.  Catching Negative Thoughts

We discussed earlier how negative thoughts can harm your self-esteem and negatively impact on others you come in contact with. If you monitor your thoughts, particularly when you are getting agitated, you will be able to notice your negative thoughts and address them.

As you grow in mindfulness you will develop self-awareness; in turn, focusing on developing self-awareness will contribute to your growth in mindfulness.

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

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

 

Mindful Leadership and Emotional Intelligence

Daniel Goleman, who popularised the idea of emotional intelligence (EI) in his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, maintains that EI underpins mindfulness.

In fact, in his earlier book, The Meditative Mind, he shares his experience of different traditions of meditation.  Thus meditation and mindfulness were part of the framework shaping his popular later work on EI.

Goleman acknowledges that he was not the first to use the phrase, emotional intelligence.  Many other authors had written about this concept before him. Two of these researchers, Salovey & Mayer (1990) describe EI as follows:

The ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use that information to guide one’s thinking and action.

Based on this definition, the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute identifies the five elements of emotional intelligence as follows:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-management
  3. Motivation
  4. Empathy
  5. Social skills

(Source: 2 Day workshop on Mindfulness-Based Emotional Intelligence for Leaders)

Both the definition and identified elements of emotional intelligence call for action, not just awareness and thinking.  As discussed previously in relation to lifelong learning, understanding is a necessary aspect but there is no sustainable learning without action.

The relationship between emotional intelligence and mindfulness is bidirectional – as we grow in mindfulness we are better able to exercise emotional intelligence; building emotional intelligence concurrently develops mindfulness.  Both involve being present in the moment.

In future posts, I will discuss each of the elements of emotional intelligence individually.

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

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay