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, 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.
As Paul Flaxman said at a recent BABCP event, what works outside the skin does not always work inside the skin.
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, learning, anxiety and even chronic pain management, all are showing that attempting to regulate our own internal states IS the problem.
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).
One recent participant said to me that defusing from his thoughts – treating them with a degree of distance – had been the single most effective change he has made in attempting to build a safety culture in his team.
Rather than more rules and regulations to live by, ACT can help people get unstuck from where they are, and take control of their working lives. If ACT can reach more people in organisations, it could benefit us all.