Mindfulness: Enabling Sustainable Agency in the Workplace

In a previous post on agency and mental health, I stressed the need to create healthy workplace environments where employees had a sense of control over their workplace environment and the authority and responsibility to decide how the work is done.

Mindfulness enables worker agency by impacting positively on both the manager and the employee and thus enabling the development of employee agency – which is conducive to mental health.

Mindfulness and the Manager: Enabling Agency

Managers need to cope with their own thoughts and emotions when providing agency (some control and power) to employees.  There is a natural fear of loss of control which can impede the delegation of authority and responsibility to employees.  There is also the ongoing concern when things do not turn out as hoped for or mistakes are made.  Managers need the self-awareness and self-management skills developed through mindfulness, if they are to remain calm and to resist the temptation to curtail employee agency to prevent any reoccurrence.

The more positive and healthy perspective is to encourage honesty when mistakes are made, to undertake a systemic analysis of what went wrong (rather than an inquisition of the individual involved) and enable all concerned to learn from what happened.  This requires robust self-esteem on the part of the manager and a willingness to trust employees – a trust that helps to develop a constructive, mentally healthy environment.  This does not preclude the manager from ensuring that adequate training is provided to employees to undertake the tasks assigned to them.

The manager’s calmness, self-control and empathy in an apparent crisis (developed through mindfulness practices), will inspire employees and build their trust, confidence and risk-taking as they move outside their comfort zone and take up the opportunities presented by increased agency – increased authority and responsibility over their work environment and how work is done.

Mindfulness and the Employee: Building Capacity for Agency

Mindfulness builds the capacity of employees to contribute effectively in an organisation by taking up the authority, responsibility and opportunity provided by increased agency.

Like the manager, employees need to develop self-awareness (understanding their own thoughts and emotions) and self-management (keeping their thoughts and emotions under control).  It is natural for employees to feel fearful as they move outside their comfort zone (typically based on dependence) to exercise more independence and judgment.

Some employees are reluctant to agree outcomes and outputs in advance, even while having control over how they are achieved, because this freedom of choice and agency brings with it a new level of responsibility.  Self-awareness and self-management developed through mindfulness, and support of an empathetic manager, can help employees to take on the responsibility associated with increased agency.

Mindfulness, too, enables employees to develop clarity in relation to their role and responsibilities while enabling them to develop creative solutions.  It also helps them to build resilience, not in the sense of endurance of unreasonable demands, but in the sense of being able to bounce back from difficulties and setbacks when pursuing specific goals and outcomes in the workplace.

Relationships in the workplace are enhanced as employees develop social skills through mindfulness training and become better able to contribute to the team effort and collaborative endeavours.

Mindfulness: Enabling Managers and Employees to Build Sustainable Agency 

Mindfulness, then, enables managers to offer increased agency to employees and, in turn, assists employees to take up the opportunities and responsibility that come with increased agency.  These mutually reinforcing outcomes of mindfulness training, not only enhance productivity in the workplace but also employee wellness.

As Tali Sharot points out in her research-based book, The Influential Mind:

Just giving people a little responsibility, and reminding them that they had a choice, enhanced their well-being (p.98).

As managers grow in mindfulness, they are better equipped to provide the psychological and productivity benefits of giving increased agency to employees; on the other hand, employees trained in mindfulness are more able to take up the responsibilities and opportunities entailed in increased agency and to enjoy the satisfaction and well-being that results.

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

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

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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.

Being Mindful of Social Learning and its Impact on Our Behaviour

Social learning is learned behaviour that results from observing, modelling and imitating others.  We observe what others have done and note the consequences – this, in turn, influences our own behaviour.

We constantly seek to learn from others’ experiences through reviews on social media such as Facebook, Yelp, eBay and TripAdvisor.  We want to know what people thought of a movie, a restaurant, a seller or an overseas destination.

The problem arises when we follow others behaviour uncritically.  As Tali Sharot observes:

Our instinct is to imitate the choices of others, because we assume that others have information we do not.  However, other people’s decisions can stem from considerations that are irrelevant to us.  We need to be careful when following other’s choices, mindful that they may not be right for us.  (Tali Sharot – The Influential Mind, 2017, p. 160; emphasis added)

As we grow in mindfulness we can become more discerning and better able to evaluate social learning and its impact on our own behaviour.  Being mindful in this way enables us to reflect-in-action and change our behaviour when we are engaging in learned behaviour that we perceive may have undesirable outcomes.

 

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Grow Your Influence by Letting Go

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

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

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

We are afraid to let go because:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Mindfulness – Control, Health and Happiness

One of the benefits of mindfulness is that it develops our sense of control. To use an analogy, we begin to realise that we are the one pushing the buttons – our buttons are not being pushed by others, events or the environment.

As we grow in mindfulness, we begin to experience control over our emotions and our responses. We are less at the mercy of our triggers, panic attacks and other sources of stress.  We develop a growing sense of control over ourselves and our environment.

Mindful breathing, for example, is just one practice that enables us to gain control – control over our breathing which is essential to life.

In her 2017 book, The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Tali Sharot argues that:

The brain has evolved to control our bodies so that our bodies can manipulate our environments…Our biology is set up so that we are driven to be causal agents; we are internally rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction when we are in control, and internally punished with anxiety when we are not. (p.102)

Tali Sharot demonstrates through research findings that we have a very high need for control.  She maintains, for example, that aerophobia – the fear of flying – is essentially about the loss of control, we are in the “hands” of the pilot and the plane.  She suggests that suicide is an extreme response to the sense of being out of control, unable to control anything in one’s internal or external environment.

Tali Sharot draws on further research to argue that “people who feel in control are happier and healthier” (p. 95).  As you practice mindfulness, you increase your sense of control over your internal and external environments and enhance your health and happiness.

The more you practice mindfulness, the more you experience the sense of being in control and realise the positive benefits of mindful practice.

 

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