Building Resilience

Resilience in a work context does not mean being able to endure a toxic work environment or unfair situation – it is not the equivalent of endurance.  Resilience is about our capacity to rebound or “bounce back” from a negative or personally challenging experience.

In a work situation, the negative experience could be the loss of a job, failure to gain a promotion, a conflict with a colleague or supervisor or an adverse experience with a customer or client.

Our life experiences, both positive and negative, shape who we are as does our responses to these experiences.  We can see negative experiences as learning opportunities or wallow in resentment that things did not turn out as we expected them to.

Building resilience

Through reflection and developing acceptance and self-compassion, we can change our perceptions and beliefs about ourselves and undesirable events. I have often found that not achieving the promotion I really wanted at the time, created the opportunity to move onto much more engaging and challenging work elsewhere – new work that took me out of my comfort zone but provided rich rewards.

We can learn to accept the things we cannot change but grow in insight about the things that we can change – including our own learned behaviour and fixed beliefs.  Matthew Johnstone in his short, illustrated book, The Big Little Book of Resilience, argues that we are capable of improving, evolving and developing after the “scar of life-altering events”.

Matthew also reinforces the fact that positive life experiences that we undertake voluntarily (e.g. studying a degree or engaging in a long “fun run” for charity) often involve challenges and setbacks and can serve to build resilience as we overcome the difficulties along the way.

Two mindfulness researchers in India maintain from their research that “mindfulness breeds resilience“:

Mindful people … can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down (emotionally).

As we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation (such as forgiveness meditation and gratitude meditation), we can  build resilience because mindfulness increases our “response ability” – our ability to extend the gap between stimulus and response and to develop a response that is constructive rather than destructive.  It also helps us to gain insight into our own biases, false assumptions and distorted perceptions that could otherwise lead to lingering discontent.

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

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Randy Pausch on Resilience

Randy Pausch in his last lecture and in his book, The Last Lecture, had a lot to say about resilience.  His lecture at Carnegie Mellon University, designed to leave a life skills legacy for his children, focused on the realisation of childhood dreams.  Randy maintained that nothing should stop you from realising your childhood dreams and he illustrated this from his own life history.

He urged people to “never give up”.  He had wanted to go to Brown University, but they would not accept his application until he hounded them so much that they finally let him in.  His mentor, Andy van Dam, then urged Randy to do a PhD even though he himself wanted to get a job.  When Randy applied to Carnegie Mellon University to do a PhD, he was able to lodge his application with a letter of referral from his mentor.  However, he was still refused entry.

After exploring other options, he went back to his mentor who made a personal call to a colleague at Carnegie Mellon and arranged for Randy to be interviewed – which led to his admission to the PhD Program at the University.  Randy conceded that the advice to do a PhD was one of the best bits of advice he received – it enabled him to pursue his passion for “building virtual worlds”.

I had initially refused to undertake a PhD myself when I was working at Griffith University but my mentor, Professor Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt, encouraged me with the comment that, “You have a PhD inside you, if you don’t get it out, you will suffer for it”.  This also proved to be sound advice.  I did not have trouble with admission, being on the staff of the University, but I had great difficulty agreeing a focal topic and obtaining a supervisor.  I persisted for 18 months, with ongoing encouragement from my mentor, and then enrolled and received my PhD six years later.  The lesson, once again, was persistence pays and resilience enables you to overcome obstacles and brick walls to achieve your goals.

Brick walls and how to deal with them

Randy prided himself in his ability to break through “brick walls” – seemingly impregnable roadblocks – in his professional and academic life:

The brick walls are there to stop people who don’t want it badly enough.  They’re there to stop other people.

Randy stressed the importance of having specific dreams to pursue in life.  However, he had many obstacles along the way when pursuing his own childhood dreams:

  • He wanted to experience weightlessness but was initially refused permission by NASA to join his competition-winning students to experience this sensation.  So he talked NASA into allowing him to be a reporter to accompany his students and provide positive publicity for NASA.
  • As discussed above, his persistence got him into Brown University after an intiail knockback and resilience enabled him to pursue a PhD through Carnegie Mellon University
  • He also wanted to be a Disney Imagineer and went around the formal application process (which knocked him back), by arranging lunch with a key player in Disney who enabled him to take a sabbatical with Disney Imagineering   He had initially to bypass his Dean to obtain permission to pursue what was considered a crazy idea.
  • On entry to Disney, he found that he was not accepted at first by the designers who queried what useful skills an academic could have.  However, he worked very hard at gaining acceptance and used his academic skills to demonstrate how the process for a virtual ride could be made more efficient – this gained credibility and acceptance.  He was eventually offered a fulltime job at Disney Imagineering but negotiated a one day-a- week contract as a consultant instead, so that he could continue to teach at the University.  As Randy commented, “If you can find your footing between two cultures, sometimes you can have the best of both worlds”.
  • As a child he wanted to be Captain Kirk from Star Wars but this proved to be unrealistic.  What he did achieve through creativity, persistence and hard work, was a meeting from William Shatner (Kirk in the movie) who visited Randy’s virtual reality lab to see what technology, foreshadowed on Star Wars, had been realised in practice.  Despite scoffing from his colleagues about his passion for the movie, Randy was able to prove that this passion stood him in good stead during his career.

Throughout his life and career, Randy demonstrated time and again the true nature of resilience – the ability to bounce back quickly from setbacks and the willingness to persist over time with a goal despite roadblocks and “brick walls”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can strengthen our resilience and persistence in pursuit of our goals.  We will find ways around, over or through “brick walls” to enable us to achieve our meaningful life and career goals.  Mindfulness helps us to find creative ways to achieve our goals despite setbacks and blockages.

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Emotional Intelligence Competency – Adaptability

Daniel Goleman, in his interview for the online 2018 Mindfulness at Work Summit identified “adaptability” as the one of the emotional intelligence competencies that fall under the self-management group of competencies.

Adaptability is often assessed during job interviews for manager positions because the pace of social change, the convergence of technological innovations and economic discontinuities demand adaption by managers who have responsibility for people, infrastructure and financial resources.

As Reg Revans, the father of action learning, pointed out very early, “The past is no precedent for the future”.  This is especially true in turbulent times.  The maxim also applies to employees other than managers as they are frequently required to adapt to structural change, job redesign, system innovations and procedural improvements.  A lack of adaptability can be manifested in people who are focused on the past rather than embracing the opportunities presented by organisational changes.

Goleman suggests that resilience is different to adaptability in the sense that it is more about a person’s capacity to bounce back from setbacks or personal difficulties.  The time required to restore equilibrium after a major upset or source of distress is a measure of a person’s resilience and, in that sense, is considered by Goleman as more an aspect of another emotional intelligence competency that he terms, “emotional self-control”.

Adaptability, in his view, is more about being agile, being able to move with the times rather than becoming fixated with the way things are now.  According to Goleman, research conducted by Richard Boyatzis confirms the view that high adaptability is not only a good predictor of career success but also of overall life satisfaction and happiness.

If you are lost in resentment or anxiety, it is very difficult to be adaptable because you are preoccupied with other time scenarios in the past or the future.

As people grow in mindfulness through meditation, they can gain the self-awareness to identify their own thoughts and emotions that block their adaptability and impede their progress in life.

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

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Grow Mindfulness through Humility

I have been discussing being mindful at work.  It seems appropriate to draw on the lessons from superb leaders who turned their companies into great companies that enjoyed longevity as well as success.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins identified what characterised these highly successful leaders.  It was not, as you might surmise, their outgoing nature, their capacity to “sing their own praises” or their readiness to boast about the achievements of their companies.  These great leaders were characterised by two key qualities, “personal humility and professional will” reflected in their quiet, almost shy, demeanour together with their determination and resilience

I want to concentrate on the “personal humility” quality here.  Humility is closely linked to mindfulness in that genuine humility requires a level of self-awareness that is realistic and accurate and not based on negative self-evaluation.

Developing mindfulness through personal humility

Personal humility is a “road less travelled”.  Most people are either boastful of their achievements (a habit cultivated by our competitive society) or dishonestly “modest”.  The middle road is difficult to achieve but beckons when you want to grow in mindfulness and achieve its attendant benefits.

Shamash Alidina, author of The Mindful Way Through Stress, provides some strategies to develop personal humility in his insightful and comprehensive article on how to be mindful at work:

  1. Develop mindfulness practices  – as we have seen through the blog posts on this site, mindfulness meditations and activities help you to develop a genuine self-awareness that is neither boastful nor involves “beating up on yourself”.  These practices enable you to move from self-absorption (talking about your own achievements all the time in conversations with others) to recognition of what others have contributed to your present success.
  2. Being conscious of who has helped you – at any point in time, you can take a few minutes to focus on who has helped you to be where you are.  Being conscious of what you have it terms of work, colleagues and professional networks, can help you to develop a fine-grained awareness of those who have contributed to making you who you are and what you have achieved.
  3. Show appreciation to those who have helped you – this can be expressed towards people who have done even the smallest thing to help you, e.g. finding a resource for you or linking you to another person or idea.  If you develop the habit of showing appreciation in your everyday life, then it becomes a spontaneous act to do so in your work situation/ professional life.  Often we appreciate someone’s words or actions but fail to communicate this to them – we assume they know.  Expression of appreciation is an act of gratitude that builds mindfulness.
  4. Value the opinion of others – it is so easy to quickly dismiss the perspective, opinions or  views of others as if our stance is the right one all the time. However, being humble demands a recognition of the limitations of our own perceptions, knowledge and skills and an openness to others through respectful listening for understanding.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practices, being conscious of who has helped us and showing appreciation and respect for their help and alternative opinions, we can progressively develop a true personal humility.

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

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Gratitude in Times of Difficulty

Having gratitude in times of difficulty can increase resilience and overcome depression, anxiety and despair.  Gratitude changes the quality of life that we are living as we gain better control over our thoughts and feelings and learn to accept what is.

As you develop this practice, you start to see things that you had not noticed before, the taken-for-granted things in your life.  Diana Winston recalls noticing the way sunlight reflects on a plant and the assorted colours that were in a painting on her wall.  She attributes this increased awareness and associated thankfulness to taking the time to slow down and meditate on the place where she was – very much a form of open awareness meditation.

So, mindfulness and gratitude go hand-in-hand, in a two-way reinforcement.  As you meditate, you become more aware of what you are grateful for and your growing gratitude, in turn, helps you to be more aware of positive experiences and people in your life.

Gratitude in times of difficulty

We so often miss the simple things of life that are before us and can act as a stimulus for gratitude.  In times of difficulty, it can be very hard to look beyond what we are experiencing and suffering from and, yet, the simple things in our life can be easily noticed and employed to pull us out of our self-absorption.   When we are experiencing difficulties, we often can’t see beyond what is challenging our equanimity.

Somatic meditation can be very helpful in times of challenge, whether the challenge relates to health of our body, our mental state or an external negative stimulus.  Adopting a meditative position, in the first instance, enables us to get in touch with our breathing and provides the stillness to observe our own body as we undertake a body scan and progressively release the tension within.

This physical grounding and release provides the foundation to turn our minds to what we are grateful for.  A recent experience may become the focus of your appreciation.  For example, in a recent meditation, the focus of my gratitude was a conversation I had the day before with a long-standing colleague and close friend.  I recalled the ease of the conversation as we were “shooting the breeze”, the deep connection through shared experiences and convictions, the exploration of new terrain, the supportive challenge to perspectives, the mutual respect and admiration and the challenge to identify what gives me a “buzz” at a time of semi-retirement.

Reflecting on this recent experience made me realize the warmth of the interaction and the things that I value about the friendship which lie below my consciousness because I have never attempted to express my gratitude for this profound connection.  Our meeting was not only a face-to-face conversation, but also a meeting of minds – a source of mutual enrichment.

As we grow in mindfulness through gratitude meditations, we start to see things that we have taken for granted, appreciate more deeply and explicitly what we value in our experiences and friendships and  strengthen our inner resources to deal with the challenges that confront us.

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Being Grateful

In the previous post, I discussed how savoring the moment and the experience of pleasantness nurtures the seeds of happiness.  This savoring of the many things in our life that generate positive feelings, leads naturally to a sense of gratitude.

Being grateful

Rachel Naomi Remen who suffered unbelievably from Crohn’s disease learned how her inner strength grew with appreciating the many things in her life that she took for granted.  Rachel writes in her best-selling book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, that appreciating the small things in life can make us strong enough to deal with the big things, such as cancer and chronic illness.  She encourages us to be grateful for “the grace of a hot cup of coffee, the presence of a friend, the blessing of having a new cake or soap or an hour without pain”.

These small things are so much a part of our daily life that we overlook them until we lose them.  The same applies to our health which we so often take for granted.  Tara Brach urges us to go beyond the “to-do list”, focused on doing things, to creating a “to-be list” that focuses on being.  Whether we call it “soul” or “life force” or “consciousness”, our inner resources develop as we nourish the sense of gratitude for what is a normal part of our daily life.

Cultivating gratitude

Tara suggests a number of ways to cultivate gratitude including engaging a “gratitude buddy” (who you email every day with your gratitude list), savoring moments of pleasantness, developing a gratitude journal and/or regularly undertaking a gratitude meditation.   As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, “we become what we pay attention to” – we become grateful by paying attention to the things that we are grateful for.

Gratitude enables us to deal with the challenges of daily life that would otherwise disturb our tranquility and calmness.  It opens us up  to appreciating and serving others through empathy and compassion.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become much more aware of what we value in our life, develop gratitude and build our inner resources and resilience.

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

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Creativity through Mindfulness

Over several blog posts I have explored the relationship between mindfulness and creativity.  In this post, I want to bring these ideas together to provide a more complete picture of how to develop creativity through mindfulness.

Mindfulness creates the internal environment for creativity through the following:

Stillness and silence

We discussed previously how creative people use stillness and silence to access their inner resources including their imagination.  The busyness of life and constant thinking means we are rarely still or silent.  In the process, we cut ourselves off from creative insight.  Jon Kabat-Zinn and Reg Revans also remind us that exploring what we do not know or understand is the beginning of learning and creative solutions.   As we practice mindfulness through meditation, we engage in stillness and silence and open ourselves up to what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as “deep interior capacities” that lie within the “spaciousness” of our minds.

Turning down negative thoughts

Mindfulness can make us aware of the negative thoughts that often block creativity and constitute self-sabotage.  Creative people like David Lynch, Amanda Sinclair, Elizabeth Gilbert and Seth Godin report the importance of turning down, or turning off, thoughts about potential failure or deemed personal inadequacy.  Seth even ascribes this self-sabotage to the “Lizard Brain”.  Sam Smith, singer-songwriter, during a recent interview while performing in London, spoke of the internal demons that beset him and almost prevented him from pursuing his highly successful songwriting and singing career.

Mindfulness enables us to address negative thoughts and stories and defuse their strength to release creativity.  Boy George in a recent coaching session with a very nervous performer on the TV show, The Voice, encouraged the singer to let go of preoccupation with what others might think of their performance:

I think you are someone who really thinks about what people think about you.  We do that as performers – it’s just one of those things, it’s like a default setting in out make-up.  We worry too much about what other people think of us and that can get in the way of what we do.  Don’t think about it too much is the key.

Positive anticipation instead of disabling fear

In a previous post, I discussed the research of Anna Steinhenge and her demonstration of how positive anticipation can overcome the disabling effects of fear and enable us to access clear thinking and creativity.  In this discussion, I explored the R.A.I.N. meditation process that enables us to face the fear within and conquer it so that we free ourselves for new insights and creative endeavour.   Through mindfulness meditation we learn to name our feelings in order to tame them.

Calming the busyness of our minds

Mindfulness enables us to calm our minds and free us from mental busyness or what Haruki Murakami describes as “convoluted waterways of my consciousness” that result in a “restless aquatic organism” .   Even experienced meditation practitioners will sometimes find their mind racing and being invaded with endless thoughts.  Kabat-Zin reminds us that this is part of the human condition and we will not be able to stop the thoughts.  He suggests that instead of entertaining these thoughts, we view them as bubbles in boiling water floating to the surface and bursting on reaching the extremities of the container – our minds.

Being present and grounded

Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, co-authors of The Mind of the Leader, stress the importance of leaders being present and grounded.   They argue that being present in conversations gains respect and facilitates open sharing of ideas.  Being grounded before beginning a conversation or meeting can enhance a leader’s capacity to listen, take in ideas and access their own creative potential.   Practicising somatic meditation, which incorporates many approaches to being grounded in our body, will strengthen our capacity to be present in the moment, stay grounded in the conversation and be open to creative ideas.

Acting on creative ideas with boldness and bravery

It is one thing to have creative ideas, it is another to have the necessary  boldness and bravery to implement creative ideas.  Amanda Sinclair points out in her book, Leading Mindfully, that creativity involves breaking with tradition, taking risks, trying out something new and having the self-esteem and resilience to be able to persist in the face of opposition – especially from those who have a vested interest in maintaining things the way they are.

Mindfulness helps us to maintain focus, to remain calm, build resilience in the face of opposition and setbacks, and to become braver and less fearful of the difficulties, dangers and risks involved in implementing creative ideas.

As we grow in mindfulness, we are able to access our inner resources through stillness and silence of meditation, overcome our fears, stay present and grounded, remain calm in the face of difficulties and develop boldness, bravery and resilience as we venture beyond “the tried and true”.

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

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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

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Further Reflections on an Action Learning Intervention

This post represents a further reflection on the action learning intervention undertaken by Dr. Rod Waddington in South Africa.  It follows on from my previous reflections on the values differences between narcissism and action learning.

In another earlier post, I highlighted the need to support mindfulness training with organisational interventions designed to address things like over-work, lack of agency, managerial style and toxicity.  This was the perspective of the union body in the UK and the Mindful UK Report.   Now I turn to ways that mindfulness could strengthen an action learning intervention that did address these identified issues.

In the current reflection, I want to highlight the role that mindfulness could play in enhancing the outcomes of the action learning intervention by focusing on self-awareness and resilience.

Mindfulness strengthening self-awareness

One of the outcomes that Rod’s intervention in an education setting in South Africa had in common with Dr. Diana Austin’s intervention in a health setting in New Zealand, is the personal disclosure by participants of what they were experiencing and feeling and what contributed to their pain and suffering.  In the case of the college, the disclosure related to the style of management and the toxicity of the workplace; in the health setting, midwives identified the lack of support that they received following a critical incident.

In both cases, participants had suffered in silence and not shared with others what was happening for them – they were engaged in a “conspiracy of silence”.  The collaborative environment provided by action learning enabled them to feel safe and to be open about what they really thought and felt.

If mindfulness training had preceded these interventions, participants could be more aware of themselves and more willing to share at a deeper level. Mindfulness brings with it self-awareness and increased insight into factors impacting thoughts, feelings and reactions.  Participants would also be better placed to support each other through the disclosure experience.

Mindfulness strengthening resilience

If participants in an action learning program had been exposed to mindfulness over a reasonable period and had undertaken regular practice, they would have brought a higher level of resilience to the action learning intervention.  This, in turn, would contribute to the ability to sustain the outcomes of the intervention as participants would be better able to manage setbacks and difficulties.

The potential contribution of mindfulness for an action learning intervention

As potential participants in an action learning intervention grow in mindfulness through meditation training, they bring to the intervention a greater capacity to contribute openness and honesty, make the most of the opportunities for increased agency and contribute to the sustainability of the intervention through their enhanced resilience.

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

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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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