What If Standard Career Advice Is Wrong?

Standard career advice says that if you want career success, then you need to decide where you want to be in your career in 10 years time and work out what you need to do in order to get there.

This advice may be outdated. I have written a post about it on The Meaningful Success Project Blog. You can read the full post here.

Posted in Careers, Work | 3 Comments

The Psychology of Leaving

In my work as a psychologist I have worked with hundreds if not thousands of people who face a common career dilemma:

  1. They are dissatisfied with their current situation;
  2. They feel uncertain and anxious about alternative options.

This is when people get trapped in a dilemma; stay or leave?

From working with so many people in this situation, here are some general points I’ve observed.

The mind instinctively prefers the status quo

Our minds prefer the stuff they already know, because it is safer.

The problem is, most of my clients want more out of life than ‘safe’.  Overwhelmingly, they want the chance to author their own lives, make positive decisions, and to break free from inertia.  Yet it is impossible to do this without taking a risk and minds prefer certainty…

So people often end up staying where they are, but more by default than choice.  They console themselves with hopes that their situation will get better.  And the organisation often responds, offering enhanced status and perks.  I remember I was offered a promotion and a £5,000 pay rise.  Yet what I needed was a more fundamental change in my life.  Most people want a sense of control and authorship over their lives and that was certainly the case for me.

By accepting these short term compensations, we duck the human need to author our own lives – the ‘hard choices’ that Ruth Chang so brilliantly identifies as the way to build identity and meaning.

Other people have a stake in the status quo

Another common issue is that those around us often have a stake in the status quo. These vested interests can be hard to tease out, especially as they often show up as a kind of protective concern.

In my case, I had perhaps 3 or 4 friends who ‘got’ the change and offered support.  Many of the rest questioned and even ridiculed it.

Moving towards what we value always takes willingness

On the flipside of what we most value is always something that we fear.  Therefore, for the really big decisions in life we need to:

  • Define what we really want – for example meaningful work or more autonomy;
  • Develop willingness to experience some anxiety in exchange for making a choice which is in line with our values.

Without this willingness, it is very difficult to break out of patterns that are not working.  Change is essential for renewal, but it always takes courage to take that first step.

Change is never ‘in’ or ‘out’

There is always the temptation to see (career) change in terms of black and white. Do I stay in my job, or leave?  Yet the reality is rarely like this.  All of my clients make intelligent transition plans to gradually shift towards something better.  The most common is to stay in their current job, but changing their relationship to it so they can work on a ‘plan b’ on the side.

No matter what the choice – stay or leave –  the most important thing is the plan that follows.  After all, the plan is where we deal with the reality of what follows.

So what’s the right answer?  Of course there is no right answer, only context and choices.

But in general, whilst it is usually easier in the short term to stay, I notice that those who leave rarely regret it.  In fact, they almost all start to feel more authorship over their own decisions, and greater vitality, meaning and purpose in life as a result.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Incredible Tale of Leicester City Football Club…and the (Limited) Power of Thinking

“Following today’s devastating result for the national team, I take full responsibility for the most unfortunate choice of coach, which has resulted in such a poor image of the national team being put before the fans.”

ranieri sacked by greece

 

 

 

 

 

It is November 2014 and Giorgos Sarris, the head of the Greek Football Association, has just sacked Claudio Ranieri, a genial 62 year old Italian manager, after losing to the tiny Faroe Islands.

It was beyond embarrassing, and the end for Ranieri after only 4 games in charge.  It was also probably the end of his career.  His quirky, kindly personality seemed out of kilter with the hard realities of modern football.

At that time, Leicester City Football Club were rooted to the bottom of the English Premier League.  After a record 13 match winless streak they were certainties for relegation, which was really no surprise – Leicester are one of the ultimate ‘yo-yo clubs’.

Meanwhile the league title was again being won by Chelsea, a team managed by Jose Mourinho who had replaced Ranieri some years previous.  Mourinho was the opposite of Ranieri; knowing, calculating, snide.  He is the kind of man who stamped on insects as a child. Even his jokes contain a bitter aftertaste.

But Mourinho seemed modern, Ranieri a relic.  Chelsea, at the top of the league, had the manager and the money.  In contrast Leicester had 20% of the budget of Chelsea, and were facing certain relegation.

It’s all just maths.

Season 2015-16

The following season started out like any other, but then unfolded as though reimagined by Picasso.

One by one the established realities were invertedPicasso:

  • Leicester City had escaped relegation and somehow remained in the Premiership after all.
  • Jose Mourinho was sacked by champions Chelsea after a disastrous start to the new season.
  • Leicester City charged to the top of the table, stayed there, and – incredibly – last Saturday were crowned champions with largely the same players who had battled relegation a year ago.

The odds of Leicester winning were 5000-1 against.  To put that into perspective, the odds of finding Elvis alive today are 2000-1.  It was unthinkable, impossible.  The greatest upset in sporting history.

And at the helm of this towering, absurd achievement was a man called Claudio Ranieri.

 Explaining Leicester’s Season

There is now a cottage industry re-examining the leadership secrets of Leicester’s rise.  Of course Ranieri is no longer seen as a relic.  Now he is seen as having an ability to keep things light and deflect pressure, to ‘make his players believe’.

Certainly for months he had joked with the press, smiled with the fans, laughed at any talk of winning the league.  Suddenly he seemed a refreshing alternative to the cynicism of Mourinho.

But from a psychological perspective, there is one standout lesson from this incredible tale.

The (Limited) Power of Thinking

Leicester didn’t win the league because they believed they could do it. Let’s be clear, no one believed they could do it.

The psychology behind their success lies in being able to hold thoughts lightly, whilst focusing on constructive, workable actions in each moment.

Of course this isn’t easy.  Although thoughts are not reality, they feel like reality.   This is fusion – the process of seeing thoughts and reality as the same thing.  Fusion can be very useful, especially for survival.  But it can also limit our ability to thrive because our thinking can be so limited, prone to bias and swayed by ‘wisdom’ which turns out to be wrong.

Even now it feels wrong for Leicester to be champions, which is perhaps why so many people say that it still feels more like a dream than reality.

What does this have to do with ACT in the workplace?

So many people today feel trapped in jobs they don’t enjoy, or are drawn into lifestyles that are drained of joy.  Yet the traps are set by fusing to thoughts like:

  • ‘I am too old to change career’.
  • ‘I am too introverted to be a leader”.
  • ‘I can’t control my angry response with my kids’.
  • ‘I am not in a position to take control of my career’.

Whilt these stories may contain elements of fact, they are not reality. We feel trapped by these thoughts, but we are not trapped in a way that say, a dog would understand.

Picture1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The problem is that when we buy into our thinking and stories wholesale, we risk acting within the confines of the story and failing to author our own story.  We fall into the comfortable illusion that there is nothing to be done, events are outside of our control.

And this is what Leicester have really taught us.  It is not ‘if we dream it, we can do it’.  Most of us find it hard to control our thinking.

The skill we can learn is to hold belief (and disbelief) lightly, acknowledging that our own thinking is limited; an artist’s impression of the real thing.

Fusing to stories of hard luck or powerlessness may make life easier in the short term, but it also makes it smaller.

Leicester have shown us that reality is far from what our minds tell us it is.  If we learn to hold our thoughts lightly, and focus instead on workable behaviours in the direction of what really matters to us, then the world opens up.

And just occasionally, we far exceed what we can ever have imagined.

Leicester champions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

source: BBC website

Posted in Careers, Decision making, Psychological Flexibility | 1 Comment

What Can You Do When You Feel In Over Your Head?

Many leaders are feeling ‘in over their heads’. The organisational landscape has become volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) and it can often feel so challenging and overwhelming that we feel out of our depth and swamped.

The skills that led to success in the past, no longer seem to work.

There is so much change happening that we can’t keep up. Everything is interconnected and, as a result, less easy to predict or control. Your outputs are increasingly dependent on other teams. Their mistakes or delays are disastrous for you but no-one seems to think that is a reasonable explanation when, as a result, your deadlines blow out. The future is highly unpredictable, it is unclear what the next right action is.

In their excellent book, Simple Habits for Complex Times, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston explain that many of the problems we are now grappling with are complex rather than complicated and that means they need to be handled differently.

In complicated situations, you create the outcome you want by working through things logically, defining the problem, breaking it down into it’s component parts, perhaps doing a root cause analysis and then making a step by step plan. It is hard, but manageable.

In a complex environment this isn’t the case. In complex situations, causality isn’t linear or predictable. So a root cause analysis quickly becomes messy and unhelpful. In complexity, you can’t predict the future from what happened in the past. You can’t work out logically what actions will create the outcomes you want to achieve, as things are interconnected – a small change in one place has an unpredictable impact in another place. So your attempts to create and act on a plan don’t seem to work. It is easy to feel swamped, powerless and uncertain.

What are better strategies for complex situations? Garvey Berger and Johnston suggest the following:

  • Have a broad sense of the direction you want the system to head in but avoid rigid plans and goals that can’t adapt and take advantage of changes in the system. (e.g. ‘Better customer service’ is a broad direction whereas ‘answering customer calls within 2 minutes and resolving all questions within a further 2 minutes’ is a rigid goal).
  • Become very curious about the present
  • Listen very deeply to what others are saying – recognize that others may be making sense of things differently to you
  • Be interested in multiple perspectives on the situation – including the perspectives that people (including you!) may have in a year or 5 years.
  • Take a wider, more systemic view. Rather than looking for root causes – look for combinations of factors that interact to push the system in a particular direction.
  • Notice what is tending to happen already in the system and then try to amplify any current tendencies that are aligned with the desired direction.
  • Take actions designed to nudge the system in a positive direction.
  • Instead of making and executing a plan, use ‘safe to fail’ experiments to try to shift the system – learn from the outcome of each experiment and feed that learning into the next safe to fail experiment. NB For this to work, you need a culture where is okay to take risks and fail (with boundaries given for what are acceptable and unacceptable risks).

My hunch is that psychological flexibility is a key skill that leaders will need in order to enact these new and challenging skills.

Psychological flexibility is: “contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values” – Steve Hayes

It is composed of a number of processes that are highly relevant when leading in complexity:

Acceptance helps leaders to cope with ambiguity, uncertainty and the associated anxiety that comes with that.

Present moment awareness (or mindfulness) helps leaders to be better at observing what is really happening.

Values clarity helps leaders to behave more consistently in volatile contexts, so that followers can trust them, even though the direction is unclear and the leader can’t give them any sense of certainty about the future.

Defusion helps leaders to look at the world as it is in this moment, rather than how the mind is saying it is. This is a particularly important skill in an ambiguous environment, in ambiguity, we tend to have thoughts that tell us, ‘This is certain to turn out badly’. We need to be able to hold those thoughts lightly and see the situation as it is in this moment.

Perspective taking skills enable leaders to be mindful of and listen to the needs and views of many different stakeholder and also to see the broader system.

These skills seem to be key for leaders to thrive in the new industrial age.

And, often you wont feel like you are thriving, if you are like me then you will feel overwhelmed and swamped. At those times, please be very, very kind to yourself. This is genuinely hard. Some self-compassion is vital.


 

If you want to build your psychological flexibility, then these blog posts might be helpful:

How to Clarify Your Values

Acceptance – here are some posts on handling painful emotions

Defusion Techniques

If you want to read more about leading in VUCA environments, these resources are good:

Simple Habits for Complex Times

Complexity Leadership in Health Care (BMJ- 2001) – relevant for non-health care settings

A Framework for Understanding VUCA – Scott Berinato in HBR


And finally…if you are interested in learning more about Leading in Complexity – Queensland University Of Technology (where I teach) is offering a new online course for leaders on this very subject.

Posted in Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT), Decision making, Mindfulness, Psychological Flexibility, Work | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Working with ACT – 2015 in Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 50,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 19 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How can Behaviour Analysis Help in Coaching? (part 2!)

I’ve recently been travelling around Europe and the Middle East on a kind of values and defusion tour.  It’s been an amazing experience.

And no matter where I went I saw humans.  Lots of them!  Some in busy cities like Brussels or Munich; others miles from anywhere, in the wilds of Sweden, the deserts of the Middle East or quiet fishing villages in the Med. And everywhere you see how humans have adapted to their environment through different cultures, clothing and lifestyle.  Clever old things.

EMEA tour

But if humans are so good at adapting, why do we sometimes struggle to adapt to what life throws at us?

Funny you should ask, because this is where our second Very Exciting Idea from Behaviour Analysis comes in:

“Fusion can be thought of as a generalised reinforcer”.

And why is this such a big idea?

Because it is useful for clients who struggle to adapt and that turns out to be, erm…

ALL OF US!

So sit back, take the soft top down and put on some rock classics, as we explore why ‘fusion can be thought of as a generalised reinforcer’ is such a useful idea, especially in coaching.

relief

What is Fusion?

In ACT, fusion is a term for when we become fused with, or stuck to, our thoughts.

In a state of fusion it can be hard to separate ourselves from our thoughts. For example, if I am fused to the idea that ‘this is a hopeless blog post’, that is all I can see.   Yikes!

fusion (1)

From this perspective, it is easy to act as if the thought is true. So I might give up writing halfway through and see that the garden needs watering, or that the cat urgently needs stroking.  (And I don’t even have a cat).

If this becomes a pattern I might fuse to a new story: I am hopeless…

Hopeless_TCP_illo_2

Here there is no distance at all between me and the thought.

One recent example I had was with a manager at a construction firm who had received negative reviews about his ability to influence senior execs. His story was that as an ‘I’ on Myers Briggs and someone who hates small talk, there was little he could do to influence others.  He was simply “not cut out for senior management”.

It is easy to see how fusing to stories like this can hinder development. But why do people fuse so readily to such unhelpful stories about themselves?

Meaning as the Brain’s Priority

Klinger (1998) argued that humans survive primarily by being able to respond to their environment. The brain evolved to help us understand our environment during the pursuit of goals, working to sort out “ambiguous or confusing stimuli…until they can be dismissed as irrelevant, or channelled into action”.

Understanding the ‘meaning’ of things is therefore the brain’s top priority.  This is why the experience of not understanding something is associated with feelings of unease, because we do not know how to respond. Conversely, when something is subsequently understood, we experience the ‘aha!’ response, which is much more pleasant (King, Hicks, Krull, & Del Gaiso, 2006).

With language, meaning takes on a wider metaphorical significance, so humans start to consider the ‘meaning of life’. But the priority remains the same:

meaning is a matter of human understanding, regardless of whether we are talking about the meaning of someone’s life…or the meaning of a word or sentence” (Klinger, p29).

Meaning is constructed in context ,and for humans especially this means it becomes socially constructed:  “the meaning of a gesture by one organism is found in the response of another.” (Mead and Morris, 1967).  Gergen and Gergen (1988) suggest that coherent self-narratives are essential for establishing credibility and maintaining relationships.

When someone tells me that I am ‘making sense’ (a rare occurrence) then I experience it as a compliment. ‘I know what you mean’ is often greatly reassuring:

Provided that languaging is reinforced from an early age, coherence is also reinforced. As a result, coherence… becomes a generalized reinforcer for verbally competent human beings.” (Blackledge, Moran, & Ellis, 2008).

Aha! Why Fusion acts as a Reinforcer

One reason why fusion is reinforcing is that it can quickly provide a sense of coherence (i.e. meaning) to otherwise confusing or ambiguous information.

story

For example, if I receive a poor assessment of my influencing skills, I can make sense of this by fusing to a story that I am an introvert, or have never had any training in assertiveness, or am ‘not cut out for senior management’.

Perhaps it is no surprise that people cling to these stories as a means of control over their lives. My life is a mess and this is why.

Meaning trumps everything, including whether the story is helpful or not.

For example I often fuse to a story that certain aspects of my character and upbringing make me unable to hold down relationships, and this can be consoling at times.  The story makes sense of my experience – and relieves me of the responsibility to change.

And this is when fusion becomes truly problematic.

Because when we fuse to language our behaviour tends to ossify, which can reduce our capacity to adapt.

But if we can learn to hold language more lightly we retain our ability to adapt, and the world opens up before us once more.

IMG_1134

Sources:

  • Examining the Reinforcing Properties of Making Sense: A preliminary Investigation. Wray, Dougher, Hamilton & Guinther, The Psychological Record (2012).      
  • The Search for Meaning in Evolutionary Perspective and its Clinical Implications, Klinger, from The Human Quest for Meaning edited by Wong & Fry (1998)
  • Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviourist.  Mead and Morris (1967)
Posted in Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT), Behaviour change, Psychological Flexibility | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Using the ACT Matrix to Help You to Be The Person You Want to Be…More Often

I use the ACT matrix a lot in my workshops and with my coaching clients… and on myself! It is a tool that helps to build mindfulness, self-awareness and valued living. It is based on contextual behavioural science and is very easy to use.

I have made a video explaining how I use it:

 

You can download a pdf handout of the ACT Matrix here.

Kevin Polk (who is one of the people who developed the ACT matrix) has lots of free resources relating to the ACT matrix at his website.

Posted in Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT), Behaviour change, Mindfulness, Values | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments