Psychological Flexibility and the Miracle of Istanbul

This is a story about what Liverpool Football Club has taught me about happiness, pain and meaning.

I love Liverpool FC, but I am also what’s known as an ‘armchair’ fan. That is, I support Liverpool but don’t go to the match very often.

In 2005, Liverpool staged the most astonishing run to the final of the European Cup that has ever been seen. With a truly average team, and defying huge odds, they beat many superior teams along the way, including incredible comebacks (Olympiakos) and heroic performances (Chelsea).  It was incredible, and now they would play the mighty AC Milan in Istanbul.

In nearly every position AC Milan had the better players than Liverpool – in fact the miracle was they were there at all.

At the time, I remember that I really wanted to go to the final. I thought about it very hard but I worried about the cost involved. I even found a ticket and a convoluted journey that would have got me to Istanbul in time.  I would have loved to have gone, but in the end I narrowly decided against it.


Because deep down, I thought Liverpool would lose, and I wanted to spare myself the pain of being there when they did.

And as it turned out, I was right. Because at half time in Istanbul Liverpool were 3-0 down. They were outclassed as predicted, and I was gutted, watching on TV.

But I was also a bit relieved I hadn’t gone, because I couldn’t have handled the pain of watching my beloved team humiliated on the biggest stage of all.  Plus what a waste of money!


For some people, their love of Liverpool is so great that they go to every single match. Irrespective of where it is, how they’re feeling, who it’s against, whether Liverpool are likely to win, they will be there. They love Liverpool, and they live that love. They feel the pain when the Reds lose, but they keep turning up, through the wind and rain.  At halftime in Istanbul, these people sang You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Just after half time Liverpool scored a consolation goal.  Relief!  They had avoided humiliation.  But then, they scored again….

What followed is easily the most astonishing match in any sport I have ever witnessed. Liverpool eventually triumphed amid scenes of utter joy, elation and incredulity – which I had witnessed from a bar in Farringdon.

Just imagine what it would have been like to be there.

And there we have it.

Happiness and sadness are not opposites, but twins. They either grow big and strong together, or they stay small and weak together. By being willing to be sad, I grow my capacity for happiness. By accepting pain, I open my life to joy.

For the real fans in Istanbul they will always be able to say; I was there.

For me, I have the satisfaction of having played it safe, lessening my pain.

Not got quite the same ring has it?

Myths and Mistakes in Goal Setting

I have recently come across some highly competent professionals who say they have become reluctant to set goals.  They don’t think that goal setting really works.

I am interested in this. I wonder if they have run into problems with goal setting because they have adopted some common, counter-productive goal setting myths. So here are some problematic but common goal setting ideas.

  1. Spend a lot of time visualising success.  A mistake.  This can actually decrease motivation –for those of us who are upbeat, imagining the wonderful outcome in detail may trick us into feeling like we have actually experienced the positive outcome, so we don’t need to do it in real life.  Or the visualisation can trigger a cynical response from our mind: ‘Yeh, Like that would happen!’ or ‘Won’t it be terrible if I don’t achieve this’. Instead, spend time making an action plan. Run through the plan in your mind to see if you can identify any likely problems that you need to deal with.
  2. Spend a lot of time getting your thinking right. Another mistake. Having confidence that you will achieve the outcome is very helpful as it encourages persistence – but this confidence only really comes from experiences of success in the real world rather than trying to persuade yourself that you will succeedwithout any meaningful evidence to back up the belief.  Instead,
    • Accept that if you move out of your comfort zone your mind is likely to start to chatter. Thank your mind for this and gently carry on.
    • Divide the steps up into bite sized manageable chunks – as you experience success your confidence will grow. And, accept that each time you move forward, your mind is likely to start chattering again.
  3. Rewarding yourself for progress – this is kind of odd.  As if you are in two parts – the part that doles out a reward and the part that does the task.  Think back – how many times do you actually follow through on this?  Do you really, genuinely only allow yourself to watch ‘Gavin and Stacey’ once the ironing is done? Does this strategy really work for you?  Are you genuinely more likely to do the ironing because you know that then you will be ‘allowed’ to watch ‘Gavin and Stacey’?  I think that this is a tiny bit psychotic (sorry)! Most of us think we will follow through with our plans to ‘reward’ ourselves but then we either just give ourselves the reward anyway (and justify it with ‘Well I have had a hard day at work and I am sure I will do the ironing later’) or we do the task and don’t give ourselves the reward (‘When I lose 5kg I will treat myself to a massage’ – Yeh right, I bet you will!). Instead, link your goals to your values. Ask yourself: What is important about this?  How does taking this action move me towards being who I want to be in the world?
  4. ‘Rewarding’* others for progress – e.g. giving a bonus. This may work in the short term but it is often ultimately de -motivating.  If an external reward is attached to something I would have done anyway, (e.g. doing my best at work) then,
    • Doing my best can start to feel like something I ‘have to do’ rather than ‘choose to do’ which is a punishing feeling
    • I stop doing my best if the ‘reward’ isn’t available
    • The ‘reward’ has to keep getting bigger for it to feel like a reward  and if it doesn’t then I will tend to stop doing my best
    • If I don’t get the ‘reward’, I feel punished

Instead, start from the assumption that your employees want to do a good job.  If possible, pay them a little over the market rate so they don’t feel taken for granted. Manage them and the organisation well, so it is easy and intrinsically rewarding for them to do a good job.  (More on this in other posts)

5. Setting challenging goals. For some personality types this works well. People who enjoy risk are motivated by ‘audacious’ goals.  These folk have a tendency to climb Mount Everest and then become motivational speakers who want to teach us ‘how to climb your inner Mount Everest’. Ignore them if you don’t have the same love of risk. Instead, set goals that feel achievable and meaningful to you.

Coming soon – more tips on effective goal setting

* A note on rewards – In this post I am using the term ‘reward’ in the way it is commonly used i.e. giving someone something external (like money or praise) when they do what you want. From the perspective of behavioural science this isn’t an accurate use of the word. There is an excellent discussion of this here

People Assume It’s You, Not The Situation

The ‘fundamental attribution error‘ is a psychology term used to describe how we often make mistakes in interpreting why people have done something.

‘People have a tendency to give personality based explanations for other peoples behavior more weight than situational factors. ….(But) people tend to explain their OWN behavior to situational factors more than personality factors.’

An example of this is, if I see you respond angrily to a difficult customer I am likely to conclude that you are impatient or unskilled in customer relations but if I snap at a customer I know that it is because I am sleep-deprived because my child has been unwell and frustrated because this is the fifth time I have dealt with unreasonable complaints from this particular customer.

Susan Weinschenk says that knowing about the fundamental attribution error doesn’t seem to stop us from continuing to make it. Which is sort of reassuring to me because I repeatedly notice myself doing it!  She suggests we:

‘try and build in ways to cross-check your own biases. If your work requires you to make a lot of decisions about why people are doing what they are doing, you might want to stop before acting on your decisions and ask yourself, “Am I making a Fundamental Attribution Error?”

My approach is to build some flexibility into my interpretation of the event by brainstorming as many different explanations as I can for why the person might act that way.

How To Transform a Team

Sometimes teams become unhappy. Just like in a bad marriage, all the interactions become loaded. Problematic behaviour is noticed and ruminated upon. Attempts to improve things go unnoticed and wither. People are in pain and at a loss how to improve things.
So what needs to happen to change things?
My work with unhappy teams suggest a few ideas
1. Explore the situation with curiosity – are there some real world problems that are adding to the disharmony? Things like lack of role clarity, lack of resources, unclear expectations? Fix these.
2. Acknowledge – the pain; the impulses to act out that pain and make things worse; the many attempts that people have made to improve things; the feelings of hopelessness, ‘Things are never going to get better’.
3. Develop some team values. At all costs avoid motherhood statements here. Find the words that express what, deep in their hearts, team members want this team to stand for. The team values statement should be a clarion call – something so powerful that people are willing to face the pain of taking action to sort the mess out. To take action over and over again even if it doesn’t seem to lead to change. Change is slow and hard won – we often need to labour unrewarded for a while before things improve.
4. Agree on behaviours and actions that align with those values. What would your customers, colleagues etc see and hear you doing if you were living those values?
5. Make a plan for when they relapse. How will you respond when someone doesn’t live your agreed values?
6. Encourage them – be a cheerleader in the tough times.
Do all this with compassion, curiosity and openness and perhaps, just maybe, things might change.

The Sun Always Rises – Hemingway

This struck a real chord for me, especially as I am going to be on a plane tomorrow:
“We stare at our computer screens cataloguing our lives unaware that every important decisions has been taken by one goal: the avoidance of pain. We look out of the airplane window reviewing our belief system and realise that it’s an anti-belief system, a rejection of our values.

How did I get here?

We don’t see the consequences of one bad decision – I’ll eat this, I won’t go for a run tonight, I’ll take this job and pay off my loans, this job will give me confidence.  But each decision makes it less likely we’ll do the ideal, and the effect mounts”.

So Do Your Really Care About Your Team?

How likely is it that your team would say ‘Yes’ in response to the following statement?

My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person’

If they do say ‘Yes’, would you be one of the people they think of as demonstrating ‘caring towards others’?

Gallup has found that people who answer ‘Yes’:

  • Are more likely to stay with the organisation
  • Have more engaged customers
  • Are more productive*

So, caring about your employees/co-workers seems to be a good idea. But, so often this comes across as fake and, in my opinion, fake interest is worse than no interest at all.

In order for this to feel authentic to both you and others, it needs to connect to a deeply held value. So, my question for you is: Who do you want to be at work? How do you want others to see you? If ‘caring’ is a value you want to enact at work then not only will you feel authentic and vital but you might just be adding to the bottom line too!

* Taken from Vital Friends – Tom Rath