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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Break the Vicious Cycle of Destructuve Criticism with Mindfulness

The movie, “Loveless” depicts the escalating costs of the vicious cycle of destructive criticism in a graphic manner.  The movie is set in Russia and was directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev and co-written with Oleg Negi.

The couple involved in the movie are separated and in the process of divorce but are consumed by anger, frustration and hatred for each, despite each having established a relationship with a new partner.  The movie brings into stark relief the impact of their vehemence on the life of their 12-year-old son, who is seen as cowering and crying when the parents verbally abuse each other in a escalating tirade of insults and name-calling.  The son is invisible to them as they pursue their mindless criticisms of each other.

The climax of the movie comes when the son disappears, and the parents are forced through police inaction to join in the volunteers’ search for their son.  In summary, not only is their son’s life impacted negatively but so also are their new relationships as the toxicity of unresolved resentment eats away at them.

We can be caught up in a cycle of destructive criticism when relationships go bad, when we are frustrated that our expectations are not realised or when we become absorbed in the pain of hurts from another by replaying them in our mind.  Sometimes, our criticism is a projection of our own sense of inadequacy or ineffectiveness.  The cycle of negative criticism, and its costs, are compounded when each party attempts to inflict ever greater pain on the other by caustic and demeaning remarks.

Breaking the cycle of destructive criticism by mindfulness

The cycle of negative criticism is difficult to break as each party is mindlessly attacking the other without any thought of the long-term consequences for themselves or the other person.

Margaret Cullen suggests a three-step mindfulness process to wind back resentment and hurt and break the cycle of destructive criticism:

  1. Get in touch with your thoughts and name your feelings and their intensity.  Take advantage of the space between stimulus (the other person’s words and/or actions) and your own response.  Avoid reactivity that will have you saying something you later regret and add to the destructive cycle of abusive criticism.
  2. Undertake and honest and open conversation – explain what happened and how it made you feel.  Avoid blaming and name-calling in this conversation and use empathetic listening to rebuild trust.  You have to take this step to break out of the cycle or you will be consumed by resentment, as portrayed in the movie, “Loveless”.  If you want a relationship to improve, you have to change your response, not deepen the hurt experienced by the other person.
  3. You can let go of disappointment and bitterness by undertaking a forgiveness meditation – which can be directed to yourself and/or the other person.  Holding onto resentment can only harm you both in the short term and the long term.  It will contaminate your relationships at home and at work.  Forgiveness, on the other hand, creates freedom.

As we grow in mindfulness through regular meditation, we increase our response ability and develop ways to handle personal criticism.  This enables us to avoid the cycle of destructive criticism which is so injurious to ourselves and our relationships.

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

Image source: courtesy of KERBSTONE on Pixabay

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Beyond R.A.I.N. – Remembering Self-Compasssion

In an earlier post, I discussed the R.A.I.N. meditation process – recognise, accept, investigate, nurture – as a way to address situations, including interactions with another, that generate strong negative feelings.  What happens, though, when your ineffective behaviour and negative feelings continue to recur after using the R.A.I.N. process?

We can be the captive of addiction, trapped in habituated responses to adverse stimuli, or stressed to the point that we have little control over our response when we are aggravated by an event or another person.  We may have lost our response ability through a lack of consciousness of our words and actions and their injurious impact on others, often unintended.

Tara Brach likens our daily life and its challenges to the waves of the ocean – we can’t stop the waves, but we can learn how to surf them so that we do not get “dumped” by them.  If we persist in blaming ourselves for falling off the surfboard of life occasionally, we can become paralysed by fear of failure.  This, in turn, can be compounded by our endless self-judging.

Self-judging imprisons us

We all have some form of negative self-evaluation – it may be stimulated by an event, adverse experience or over-reaction to a person we find annoying or critical of our behaviour.  We regularly blame ourselves or undervalue who we are or what we have contributed.  We might think that we do not “measure up” to our own standards, values or expectations or those of our family or significant other.

Our assessment of our response to a situation may be accurate in terms of inappropriateness, but the continual self-judging and self-denigrating disempowers us and detracts from our happiness and joy in life.  We become reluctant to engage effectively with our work colleagues, withdrawn in our conversations with our life partner or reticent to raise issues that affect us in other situations.   The way to regain our freedom and joy is through self-compassion.

Self-compassion frees us from the imprisonment of self-judging

Self-compassion enables us to break the trap of self-judging and be open to new responses to adverse situations.  It requires a radical self-acceptance and acknowledgement of what is human – our depth of suffering from previous experiences that manifests itself in our daily response to what is experienced as adverse events.  The perception of the impact of these events on us and our self-esteem is coloured by our recollections and interpretations of prior experiences.

As we grow in mindfulness through self-compassion meditation, we can break out of the cycle of self-judging and become open to different responses and to the freedom realised when we can break free of negative self-evaluations.

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

Image source: courtesy of cocoparisienne 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.

 

Mindfulness and Response Ability

Mitra Manesh, in her podcast on Mindfulness and Responsibility, noted that the word “responsibility” has two components – “response” and “ability”.  Her discussion and guided meditation are aimed at expanding our ability to respond rather than react.

Mitra maintains that mindfulness meditation, encompassing mindful breathing and body scan, can increase our response options so that our life is not governed by reactivity.  To this end, she leads us in a guided meditation on two occasions throughout the podcast.

During her podcast, Mitra Manesh defines mindfulness as ‘kind awareness and acceptance of our present moment”.  She notes that mindfulness has three essential elements – kindness, acceptance and the present moment. As we grow in mindfulness, we increase our response choices so that we are not held captive to our habituated, reactive responses.

We can more readily accept the present moment with kindness towards ourselves and others.  Kindness towards ourselves requires self-compassion and self-acceptance.  Kindness towards others involves consideration and compassion – being thoughtful and empathetic towards others and their needs.

Reactivity

Typically, in a wide range of situations, we react without thinking or being aware of the consequences of our words or actions for ourselves or others.  If someone “steels” our parking space during busy Christmas shopping, we may have some choice words to say and/or gestures to make.  If someone’s behaviour sets off a trigger for us, we will often react in an inappropriate way, usually with a response whose intensity does not match the seemingly, insignificant word or action that triggered the response – we are in a heightened reactive mode.

Reactivity taps into habituated behaviour that we have developed over time in response to various stimuli in our lives – stimuli such as disturbing situations, annoying  people or frustrated expectations.

Mindfulness and response ability

Mindfulness enables us to identify the negative triggers, isolate our reactive response, name our feelings and provide us with a choice space between stimulus and response.  We are able to expand our choice of responses and maintain calmness and clarity despite the disturbing nature of the situation.

Mindfulness helps us to show up differently in our relationships.  Instead of reacting to conflict with our life partner or colleague by our habit of withdrawal, sullenness or hurtful words, we can have the presence of mind to avoid inflaming the situation and, instead, show consideration and kindness.  Habituated reactivity fractures relationships, mindful responsiveness enriches them.

Our response ability develops with meditation practice because it helps us to grow in self-awareness and self-management.   Mindfulness practice expands our response choices as we “walk the streets of life”.

Note: Mitra Manesh’s podcast is provided as one of the weekly mindfulness podcasts provided by the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA.

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

Image source: courtesy of Curriculum_Photografia 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.

What Sets You Off? – Managing Negative Triggers

There are many things in life that can trigger a negative reaction in us.  What triggers you, may have no effect on me.  A part of mindfulness practice is getting to know our triggers and working out ways to manage our negative responses.

As we learn about our triggers and better understand them, we are able to manage our reponses more effectively.  So one way to grow in mindfulness is to identify your triggers and use a process to help you deal with them mindfully.

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) teaches a way to manage triggers, called SBNRR, as part of their mindful leadership program.  The steps in this process are as follows:

STOP – stop yourself from reacting automatically

BREATHE – take a deep breath to relax yourself and help you to manage your reaction

NOTICE – notice your bodily sensations, see what is going on in your body (e.g. becoming red faced, tightening of your muscles, strong sense of unease and agitation)

REFLECT – think about what is going on for you, what is triggering this reaction in you.  Go beyond the words and think about what you are perceiving (e.g. are you interpreting the words as criticism and do you have a sensitivity to criticism?).

RESPOND – now that you are more aware of what is going on for you, choose an appropriate response that does not aggravate you, your friend/colleague or the situation.

The SBNRR processs is a great way to improve your self-management, a key element in emotional intelligence.  When you first start to use this technique, you might have to rely on reflection after the event – “What could I have done differently?”

However, as you grow in mindfulness, you will be able to reflect-in-action and stop youself from the outset.  In this way, you can better manage your response to the triggers that would normally set off a negative reaction in you.

Image Source: Courtesy of Robin Higgins on Pixabay