Psychological Flexibility in the Workplace

So many leadership courses are based on the idea that to improve performance we must firstly sort our thinking out.  So we focus on motivation, confidence, self-belief or ways of controlling or removing anxiety and stress.  Sounds logical enough.

The problem is whilst this approach makes such intuitive sense to us, the evidence does not support it.  Our minds are expert problem solving machines which evolved to scan the environment for threat, propose hypotheses, and then prompt action to avoid, control or get rid of any threats. But when we try to apply the same techniques to our own thoughts, beliefs and emotional states, the evidence is that we make the problem worse, not better.

This may sound like a small distinction but it has profound implications for the way we learn, teach and improve performance  in the workplace.  In short, the evidence suggests that focusing on trying to alter, control or avoid emotional and cognitive states as the means to improving performance is flawed.  From workplace stress to task concentration, innovation, depression, anxiety, OCD and even chronic pain management, all are showing that attempting to regulate our own internal states IS the problem.  By trying to get rid of anxiety for example, we make enemies of our own thoughts and emotions and increase our distress.

In contrast, the alternative – psychological flexibility – gives people control over their lives, ironically by letting go of the struggle of trying to control their emotional states.  It is the ability to focus on task-relevant stimuli whilst feeling negative emotions that drives better performance and reduces distress (see Gardner and Moore, 2008).

This is why I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in my career work.  It helps people move towards the life they choose whilst handling the doubts and fear that come with that move.

It’s also why we’re slowly building a range of courses which use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in the workplace, Rachel in Australia and Rob in the UK.  We are pioneering this approach, but for HR Directors and L&D managers everywhere, we think this is the future.

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