Cultivating Embodiment Practices For an Appreciative Learning Organization, with Miriam Novotny

Cultivating Embodiment Practices For an Appreciative Learning Organization, with Miriam Novotny

If you’re interested in human development, embodiment practices, change at the scale of the whole such as the intersection of community, business, education, leadership, life, and learning stay with us. And, if you have a curiosity about exploring the principle of wholeness and embodied practices that invite one another to show up fully, you’re in the right place.

Table of Contents

A Glimpse of Miriam Novotny

Miriam Novotny

Miriam Novotny, embodies appreciative leading. I know from personal experience. Recreationally, a passionate gardener who makes fabulous jams with fruits from her garden, she and her wife of 23 years are the parents of two sons. Professionally, Miriam is the executive director of the Mosaic Learning Center, where she has served for over 14 years. She has been developing a work environment that engages the unique abilities and strengths of staff, students and community. In partnership with staff, she seeks to inspire curiosity and resourcefulness incorporating specific embodiment practices to foster the most vibrant and appreciative learning culture possible.

Mosaic Learning Center serves students with neurodevelopmental differences. The center, operating for 17 years provides special education and therapeutic services designed for students who are challenged to fit into the public school setting. Mosaic focuses on the total well being of its students, not just academic achievement, but also physical health, mental health, and social-emotional health.

Mosaic's workforce collaborates as a team from different fields: behaviorists, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, and other special educators. Together they co-design individualized programs for the students to help them transition back into the public school. Education of this calibre requires a tremendous amount of heart and caring. The underpinning ethos is the desire to do good and be a force for good. This approach aligns with the principle of wholeness – valuing the wholeness of each person.

Collaborative Learning Culture

collaborative learning culture
Photographer: Rachel | Source: Unsplash

To counter a traditional, deficit-based organizational culture, Miriam introduced a program to re-orient people to shift their focus away from what is not working to what is working. The shift was to discover and celebrate what is good, coming from personal and organizational strengths and assets through the world view and practice of Appreciative Inquiry.

It started with a small team. Slowly, they began to grow their appreciative culture through the entire organization as a way to identify and grow their "positive core."

As we made that shift and toward that orientation, there was a request that came out from one of the members of our community. They said, You know what? We want to learn how to lead. It was really interesting because, in educational contexts, you think about teaching and not necessarily about leading.

They embarked on their culture change program that emphasized learning both at an individual and organizational level, including a number of embodiment practices.

Skillful Leadership Program for Everyone Culture

skillful leadership
aPhotographer: Anna Samoylova | Source: Unsplash

With their specially designed Skillful Leadership Program, guided by Sandra Wells, not only were students learning, the staff was invited to learn and to grow also. The desire for finding meaning at work, and to experience a sense of belonging began to permeate the culture. The research of Robert Keegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey et al, who wrote An Everyone Culture Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization states that the single biggest cause of work burnout is not overload but working too long without experiencing any personal development.

From Highest Unemployment Rate to Lowest in the State

I will say that we have experienced a tremendous amount of transformation over these past seven years. We used to have one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. We now have the lowest. When people are transitioning out of our organization, they are actually going on because they're furthering their own learning, their professional development, going on to get masters, or moving into a different part of the country.

Embodiment Practices to Cultivate an Appreciative Learning Organization

It has taken time to develop their appreciative learning culture. Currently at Mosaic, they focus on four elements:

  • awareness
  • valuing/appreciating
  • curiosity
  • relationship

What they have identified is that it is important to elevate these practices to allow both the organization and the individuals within the organization to reach their potential. There's something that happens when the focus is on practice, learning, and community because learning in isolation is meaningful to a certain point only.

Skillful Leadership is not something you just intellectualize or conceptualize. It's something that you really want to begin to practice. These practices that are being held internally and physically allow all member of the organization to see a whole new gateway of possibility.

When it comes to leading, the new gateway of possibility invites the whole being: mind and heart, body and spirit to show up fully. It is fully about embodiment practices. The body is a gateway into what you’re feeling. Understanding that elevates your awareness. So before you think about creating the gap, be aware that you’re in a reactive state. So part of what’s being practiced in the organization is the process of shifting from a place of reactivity into a place of resourcefulness.

Creating a Gap

The one thing that we have with us consistently is our breath. And so simply taking three deep breaths can bring us back into a space of being present and come home to what is within us. Simply noticing. It seems a simple skill and it is one that takes a tremendous amount of practice. It was Pema Chodron, who said it most beautifully: How do we create the gap that allows us to kind of step into a place of awareness and being present?

Here within Mosaic, we say: I need to create a gap here and step away from other staff members. In that moment, there's a lot of energy in taking a break. I need to create a gap. And it's quite profound when you think that you're infusing breath into this organization.

Dealing with Challenges in an Appreciative Culture

appreciative culture
Photographer: Ana Juma | Source: Unsplash

When developing an orientation around the positive, at first people are unsure about how to talk about and deal with areas of discomfort and the areas of challenge. There's a misconception that we can't talk about that because we're appreciative and only looking at what's going right.

Therefore, it required us to step back and articulate, a kind of different way of understanding what it meant to value and appreciate what is happening regardless of comfort or discomfort. So there's a phrase that we use here that came out of skillful leadership. What am I learning now that I could not learn in any other way? And so whether it is a moment of celebration, or one of challenge, can we enter into it with a level of awareness and spaciousness and, and begin to see that there is some something of value to be to be learned.

Fear Melters

How do we move from a place of fear and to flow? Fear often keeps us from being able to even discern a path from getting out of whatever it is we're experiencing. At Mosaic, the staff are practiced to skillfully apply Fear Melters which is a physical practice to deal with fear in four different ways. This practice is based on the work of the Hendricks Institute. A link to a PDF is available below.

We embody those Fear Melters. We actually step into each of those physically – as a whole organization, we've done this to look and experience these types of different approaches to fear. We just use the ability to move and shift so we can come out of these different types of fear.

As an example, simple hand gestures can embody the difference between seeking and inviting. The hand gesture gives a very different visual. The staff at Mosaic notice how their eyes are more narrow when they're in a seeking posture, and when they're inviting, they actually sense a more open and spacious view. That's a very small subtle distinction in body movement, yet highly impactful.

Valuing Wholeness

We've been taught that our spirit and body are different or separate, therefore, we don't see them holistically as one. For example, when it comes to integrity the focus is not only to come from a place of honesty and truth, but to come from a place of wholeness. The whole of our being is integrated in a way that is both valuing and at the same time can be deeply curious.

You begin to look at this idea of wholeness which is the full continuum of the light and the dark. Very rarely are we in one place or the other, but more often in the space in between – in place of motion and movement. This idea of change at the scale of the whole invites the whole system in, that is the fullness of your being, both the light and the dark and the shades of gray in a way that makes people feel held and seen and appreciated. This is a game-changer. When you think about your whole being and leading, you think of your mind, heart, body and spirit and that wholeness invites people to come up and show up fully.

Organizations Are Bodies

Miriam reminds us of the etymology of corporation – from the Latin, "corpus" meaning body. And organizations are bodies that are organized, and corporations are persons united in body. To this end, we can design for much more generous, caring, loving organizations, places where we can be seen and valued. When we truly see each other and truly listen to each other that is transformative. Workplaces become places of connection where you are not only honoring but dignifying the person that is there in front of you.

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