Recognising Our Emotions and Our Feelings

In the previous post, I explored the benefits of mindful breathing in terms of increased self-awareness and self-management and the capacity to become more in touch with our breathing.  As we develop our mindfulness practice, we are able to move beyond breathing mindfully to recognise our emotions and feeling states.

The emotional roller-coaster of life

Feelings are “part and parcel” of being human.   If we ignore them or suppress how we feel, emotions will take over our lives – we will be controlled and overwhelmed by them.  Previously, we saw the physical and psychological damage caused by suppressed feelings in a toxic work environment and when midwives suffered trauma in silence following a critical incident.

We can allow emotions to work for us or against us – we can learn to recognise them and treat them with loving awareness and kindness.  Too often we attempt to deny or ignore our painful feelings because they cause discomfort and upset our expectation of a pleasant life.  Jack Kornfield, in the Power of Awareness Course, reminds us that we seek to make our life comfortable in so many ways – we seek the comfort of air conditioning or a soft pillow or mattress.  He points our that we try to deny the conflicting reality of being human – lives that engender joy and pain; praise and blame; elation and depression; happiness and sadness; gain and loss.

We assume that things will go along as expected – until we are confronted with a serious illness or a substantial loss or defeat.  Jon Kabat-Zin suggests that it is “certifiably absurd” to assume that things will always go on the way they are now.  He argues that “stress really has to do with wanting things to stay the same when they are inevitably going to change” – the fundamental “law of impermanence”.

Mindfulness and recognising our emotions

Mindfulness meditation can give us the capacity to handle the wide range of emotions that we will have to deal with in life.  This is not to say that we will not experience upsets or “come to grief”, but that we will reduce our reactivity to these emotions and regain balance more easily – we will have the ability to “bounce back” more quickly.  In other words, we will develop our resilience.  Jack Kornfield reminds us that recent neuroscience research confirms the view that mindfulness builds resilience and creates a “window of tolerance” – a greater openness to life events that we experience as adverse or painful.

Matt Glaetzer epitomised this expanded tolerance of adverse events in the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia, in 2018.  Matt was world champion and Commonwealth Games record holder for a sprint cycling event he contested and was also the fastest qualifier for the 2018 sprint event.  Yet he was beaten by the slowest qualifier, Malaysian Muhammad Sahrom, and was eliminated from the race and did not make the quarter finals.  Matt was “gutted” and devastated by this defeat and the loss of a real gold medal chance.

However, Matt had to race the 1,000 metre individual cycling sprint the following day.  He went on to win this time trial race and the Gold Medal.  When asked how he recovered his balance, Matt stated that “I had to regroup, sometimes things don’t go the way you plan them”.   He sought out the support of family, team mates and friends; said a prayer; and reset his mind to get his “head space in the right area“.  This changed mindset involved not wallowing in his utter disappointment but focusing on winning a gold medal for Australia.   Matt faced the depth of his emotions and feelings after the embarrassing loss and focused his mind on his next goal, rather than “beat up” on himself for making a bad tactical error in the first race.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can liberate ourselves from the potential tyranny of our emotions by recognising them for what they are, by understanding their influence on our thinking and behaviour and by taking constructive steps to manage our emotions to  gain self-acceptance and balance and avoid reactivity.

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

Image source: courtesy of alfcermed on Pixabay

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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.