Reflections on an Action Learning Intervention

In my previous post I described an action learning intervention undertaken by Dr. Rod Waddington to overcome a toxic workplace within the education sector in South Africa.   What I would like to do now is share some reflections on this discussion.

Action learning intervention – overcoming narcissism

If we look at narcissistic managers, we can readily see that the underpinning values of such a manager are in direct opposition to those of action learning – the former involves destruction of agency, abuse, divisiveness, exclusiveness, resistance to ideas from managers and staff and an autocratic style of management.  Action learning, in contrast, involves increased agency,  mutual respect, collaboration, inclusiveness, openness to ideas from managers and staff and a participative style of management.

While the narcissistic manager creates divisiveness through blaming, favouritism and exclusiveness, action learning overcomes this “divide and conquer” approach through the power of collaboration built through mutual respect and inclusiveness.

The contrast in values described above reinforces the need to undertake an organisation intervention designed to embed a new set of values.  In the action learning intervention discussed previously, the participant managers undertook a “values advocacy campaign” – designed to replace the existing demeaning value set with values that enrich the working environment and nurture engagement, creativity and commitment.

Agency and responsibility

In an earlier discussion, I emphasised how agency supports mental health by giving people a sense of control over their work environment and how their work is done.  In a toxic environment, agency is destroyed through micromanagement and the pursuit of control over managers and their staff. Action learning, on the other hand, builds agency 

However, when you enable agency, managers have to take up the responsibility that goes with it and this requires conscious effort to build managerial confidence.  Action learning is one way to do this.  Evaluations of action learning programs consistently demonstrate that managers grow in confidence about their authority and their capacity to exercise their responsibility and to be accountable.

In the action learning intervention discussed previously managers moved from a state of helplessness to being more assertive and proactive – thus demonstrating their increased sense of responsibility and empowerment.

In these reflections, I have focused on the need to address the differences in values between action learning and narcissistic managers who create a toxic environment.  In the next post, I will explore how mindful meditation could be integrated into the action learning intervention to grow mindfulness and enhance the outcomes from the organisational intervention.

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

Image source: courtesy of Ippicture 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.

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

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

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.

Mental Illness in the Workplace

There are two compounding trends that, in concert, are beginning to increase the issues associated with mental illness in the workplace.  They are the incidence of narcissistic managers and the growth in the number of people in the workforce who have a mental illness.  I will deal with each of these trends in turn and link the issues to the offsetting influence of mindfulness.

The Incidence of Narcissistic Managers

Many significant publications such as Psychology Today, Harvard Business Review, Inc.com, Health.com and Time.com, have recently discussed the incidence of narcissistic bosses and ways to self-manage in the workplace to protect yourself from psychological damage caused by these bosses.  It is suggested that most people will encounter at least one narcissistic manager in their working life – I have experienced three that I can recall.

What are the characteristics of narcissistic managers that contribute to mental illness in the workplace?  Well the characteristics of these managers have been summarised by the underlying philosophy of “me, myself, I” – that is  I “first and foremost”.

Characteristics of Narcissistic Managers

There are many characteristics of narcissistic managers described in the articles and in research. Some of the more common traits described (and confirmed by my own experience) are:

  • Self-aggrandisement – believe they are more capable, competent or efficient than they actually are (believe they create high performance teams when the reverse is true)
  • Obsession with self advancement – their careers come before anything or anybody else
  • Over-concern with visibility and being seen in a good light
  • Blame others when mistakes occur (to deflect blame from themselves) – always looking for a “scapegoat”
  • Will lie to save their projected image
  • Take credit for other’s work if it advances their own positive visibility
  • Insensitive to the needs of others, especially their own staff
  • Will constantly change priorities depending on what advantages them, without regard for the impact of such constant change on others
  • Will have an in-group, but any member can become part of the out-group at anytime if they cause embarrassment
  • Create unrealistic time pressures for staff to try to show that their area is highly productive
  • Will publically criticise their own managers in front of the manager’s own staff
  •  Will micromanage to try to ensure that mistakes do not occur and that what they want to occur will actually happen.

The Impact of Narcissistic Managers on Mental Health

The reality is that these managers do not achieve control. In fact, their situation becomes progressively out of control  and they experience high levels of stress as a result, on top of their self-induced stress caused by self-obsession.  They may gain compliance through fear, but lose commitment because people physically or psychologically withdraw to protect themselves – no longer caring about the work, unwilling to offer suggestions for improvement, avoiding contact with the manager or engaging in covert sabotage (to get back at the narcissistic manager). They also lose confidence and begin to question their own competence.

The narcissistic manager, then, not only creates an environment conducive to the development of mental illness in staff, they also potentially aggravate  the condition of staff who already have a mental illness before joining the narcissistic manager’s workgroup.  The compounding issue is that the narcissistic manager lacks the insight to see how they contribute to the conditions creating, or aggravating, mental illness; nor are they overly concerned about the individuals negatively impacted by the highly stressful workplaces they create.

People in the Workplace with a Mental Illness

Beyond Blue, an organisation dedicated to improving the mental health of all Australians, estimates that there are 3 million people in Australia suffering from anxiety or depression and eight people die each day from suicide.  This suggests that anxiety and depression are an issue in the workplace.  Beyond Blue funds an extensive research program covering anxiety and suicide for all categories, including young people, women, men, aged people and the LGBT community.

The Black  Dog Institute also supports the development of mental health in the community.   They draw extensively on research to support their role.  From this research, they are able to maintain that:

Mental illness is very common. One in five (20%) Australians age 16-65 experience a mental illness in any year.  The most common mental illnesses are depressive, anxiety and substance  use disorders.

What is particularly concerning is that they report that suicide “is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 25-44 and second leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24”.

This means that suicide is potentially prevalent among people who are in early-career or mid-career as well as those entering or about to enter the workforce.

The role of Mindfulness 

The narcissistic manager exhibits the characteristics that are the opposite of the mindful manager.  They particularly lack self-awareness and hence self-management. They are by nature lacking in empathy and compassion and are unable to communicate with insight as they are blinded by their own emotions and selfish-obsession.  Their only motivation is to advance themselves – they have no source of motivation beyond themselves and  are thus unable to engage committed individuals.

As we mentioned in recent posts, emotional intelligence skills can be learned through mindfulness.  The challenge is finding ways to engage narcissistic managers in mindfulness training when they have a “keep busy” mindset.  Offering mindfulness training as a means of stress reduction may provide the motivation for them to be involved – because it focuses on “where they are hurting”.

Hence, mindfulness has the potential to help narcissistic managers to manage their stress levels, change their management style and assist other individuals experiencing mental illness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has demonstrated over more than 30 years that his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training has very substantial benefits for people suffering different levels of stress and forms of mental illness.  His findings through his practice have been confirmed by neuroscience research.

As individuals in either group grow in mindfulness, they will experience the benefits, and contribute to the development of a more humane workplace.

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

Image source: courtesy of Maialisa on Pixabay