The Flaw

I recently watched a brilliant film, called The Flaw which explored the global financial crisis and its causes.

Capitalism is a system which, through its invisible hand is able to benefit the many via the self interest of the few.  By trying to maximise their own gains in a free market, individuals benefit society, even without setting out to do so.

Yet as we look around the world it is clear that capitalism has another invisible hand, which is rather less benevolent.   This ‘flaw’ was identified by Alan Greenspan, who was making a relatively narrow point about economics and the self correcting power of free markets.

But I would argue that the flaw runs deeper than Greenspan thinks.  Capitalism – at least in its current form – is flawed in terms of psychology.  The way that work gets structured and organised tends to distance people from their values and sense of responsibility.  A combination of behavioural reinforcement, mindlessness (due to workload?) and a short term, inward focus encourages a kind of collective myopia and disconnect from our own values.

I found this myself when, as a consultant, my objective rapidly went from helping the public sector to improve its efficiency, to selling consultancy services into the public sector.

At one point in The Flaw individual bankers, traders and derivatives experts were asked whether they felt any direct responsibility for the financial disaster.  Most of them fell silent.  Not, I think, because they felt guilty, but more because they genuinely did not know the answer.  Such was the way their role had been structured they had lost contact with any kind of individual responsibility.  Their role had distanced them from their individual values without them even really being aware that that had happened.  No one was responsible.

It is this flaw which allows individual bankers to argue that they did nothing wrong, whilst millions cope with repossession, debts and unemployment.  It is this flaw that allows senior managers to sell packages of derivatives that no one truly understands.  It is this flaw that allows News International bosses to turn a blind eye to practices which were contrary to the ethics of their own profession.  It is this flaw that allows nurses and care home workers to treat the elderly and sick with cruelty and contempt.

I don’t think anyone deliberately set out to do this.  But we create our organisations, and then they create us.

What Can We Do to Address The Flaw?

Our organisations have created a version of us which too easily loses contact with individual accountability and values.  Instead, management focus on implementing organisational values.  The problem with this is that these are not really values – they are tracks and plys.

What then is the answer?  Better economic regulation is key, as are changes to governance practices that promote longer term thinking, flexible perspective taking and individual accountability.

But we also need to understand how and why people lose contact with their values at an individual level.  One of the major reasons is that staying in contact with our values is very difficult.  It requires psychological skills that are not innate or obvious.  It requires interventions that go far beyond merely promoting happiness or engagement.

It is interventions like ACT that have shown that people can be trained to deal with the psychological consequences of following their values.  Whilst this is not easy, we cannot fix the flaw simply by trying to build happiness or engagement or by legislating for transparency or fairness.  None of that addresses the reality of what it means to be a human.  But if we can teach willingness to experience difficult thoughts and feelings in pursuit of values, then we have much more of a chance.

If ACT can help reconnect even those lost in depression and chronic pain to their values and make a real difference to their experience, it does not take much imagination to think that maybe there are things we can learn which apply directly to organisational culture change.

There is a flaw.  We can fix it.  But we must listen to the science.

How to Build Engagement and Vitality

Are you willing to invest energy in your work? Do you persist in the face of difficulty and give your full attention to your work when you are at work? Do you feel like your work matters? Do you care about doing a good job? If your answer is ‘yes‘ then you are engaged with your work.

Rob and I are highly engaged with this project – we hope that this comes through in our writing. I believe that applying ACT principles to this project has helped us to maintain our energy and enthusiasm.

In our experience, ACT builds workplace engagement in a number of ways:

  1. When people are connected to their values and are able to live their values in their work they have a deep sense of meaning and purpose. They experience vitality. Rob describes here what that looks like in practice. Here is the values statement Rob and I wrote when we started working together. We spent time on it because we knew that if we were to persist with this, if we were to give energy to this project when we have so many other competing priorities, then we would need to be clear about why it mattered to us.
  2. When people feel a deep connection between their work and their values they become more willing to persist in the face of difficulty. They care about the outcome. They want to do their best. This week I gave a talk to a group of senior managers and CEO’s (arranged by the lovely people at Arete Executive.) I was frankly terrified. I tried to wriggle out of my fear by minimising the importance.“I don’t need any more work. My consultancy is really busy. It doesn’t matter whether they like my talk” but Rob, bless his heart, wouldn’t let me do that. He reminded me that the purpose of my talk wasn’t to ‘sell’ my consulting services  or the training sessions that Rob and I offer together (although that would be nice!). It was to connect the audience to some information that might genuinely help them (and their employees) to have more vitality in their lives. I felt more anxious after this conversation (Thanks Rob!) but I also had a deep sense that it was worth it.
  3. When people become skilful at ‘defusing’* from their thoughts and accepting** their feelings, they have more energy and attention to give to their work as they aren’t wasting energy trying to get their thoughts and feelings ‘right’.
  4. When people are in contact with the present moment, they make better decisions and tend to respond more flexibly and effectively to their circumstances.

Both the research and our experience is suggesting that ACT will be central to future workplace engagement initiatives. I am excited!

Explaining the jargon:

*Defusion is an ACT term that means having some space between you and your thoughts. Rather than seeing the world through your thoughts, you see your thoughts as just thoughts.

**Acceptance is about the reality that when we take action in line with our values, then often painful emotions (like anxiety) turn up. If we want rich and meaningful lives, sometimes we need to make space for those painful emotions.

When Your Mind is Saying: ‘You Just Aren’t Good Enough’

I want to tell you a secret…I have a fierce ‘I am not good enough story’ running today. It has been in my face on and off most of the day.

What triggered it? My dear friend and co-blogger, Rob Archer, has written four really good posts in the last few weeks. In case you missed them, there are two on values here and here and two on talent management here and here. They are really good. I feel intimidated. My mind is telling me how embarrassing it must be for Rob to have to put up with my inarticulate ramblings on this blog. I have a strong impulse to delay posting until I come up with something absolutely brilliant.

So what do I do?

I breathe…and pause for a moment. I lean into myself with kindness. I acknowledge that this ‘I am not good enough’ story has been around for many years. If I dig around, I can even find my first memory of it (I was 4 and got in trouble at school for needing to go to the bathroom during class – let’s just say that the incident ended with me wearing some borrowed knickers from the school knicker cupboard). This story is an old friend that visits me often. And I know that it is trying to help, trying to keep me safe. To protect me from further ‘knicker cupboard’ embarrassment. I also acknowledge to myself that I am not the only person in the world that has that story running now and again.

And I think ‘What do my values tell me to do here?‘ This endeavour – Working with ACT – really matters to me. Being authentic and real really matter to me.

So here I am writing away…whilst my mind whispers, ‘This is rubbish, who wants to read this’.  Thanks mind.

Care with Labels (2) – Non Talent Management?

And so it came to pass that one day, having been considered ‘talent’ for most of my life, and having spent most of my energy on defending this ludicrous position, I eventually became known as ‘non talent’.  Anti talent? Whatever, I did not make the talent pool in my next consultancy job, and it hurt.

I only found out there was a talent pool when some whipper snapper – who I had recruited – blurted out that he was on it.  And what effect, dear reader, did this label have on my performance?  Needless to say, I did not handle it well:

1. My first reaction was childish.  I sulked and withdrew.  I stopped all discretionary effort and focused on trying to find out who was in the talent pool and what they had that I didn’t.

2. My second reaction was to believe that now, suddenly, I was not living up to my potential.  This knocked my previously overinflated confidence, and may have been a good thing, except for the fact that I very quickly bought into a story that I was failing. This led what I would loosely call ‘unfocused activity’ or panic.  I was thrashing about, trying to find answers to a problem that probably only existed in my own head.

3. Eventually I became depressed and stuck in career paralysis.  My job became one of simply getting through each day.

I know there are benefits to talent schemes, other than profits for consultancies.  But I have to ask the question whether these benefits are not hugely outweighed by the costs.  On the one hand, the talent label seems to be a way of reinforcing peoples’ tendency to recruit from their own, which leads to groupthink and a serious amount of overconfidence in one’s ability.  Financial crisis anyone?

On the other, the ‘non talent’ label leads to a sense that we are not worthwhile, and that we must defer to those who are.  In terms of performance, this takes us back full circle.  Julian McNally told us:

“Labels, including diagnostic ones, are only useful to the extent they enable constructive action”.

I’ll leave you to decide how useful the talent label is at either individual or organisational level, and whether it enables enough constructive action to justify its use.

Care with Labels – Lessons for Talent Management

Be careful with labels.  That’s what Julian McNally warns in his excellent blog post: “Labels, including diagnostic ones, are only useful to the extent they enable constructive action”.

This got me thinking about labels within organisations.  One of the most common is the label ‘talent’.  This is the idea that organisations have a small number of workers who are ‘talent’ – as first decreed by Mckinsey’s in their 1997 paper The War for Talent.

Identifying the top 5 or 10% of performers  allows organisations to focus their resources on developing a small number of people and to groom them for senior leadership positions.

But what else results from assigning the ‘talent’ label?   This is only my view – but based on my own experience of both being identified as ‘talent’ and not, this is what I observed:

  1. When I was first selected as talent, I thought it was tremendous.  I did some great training courses and it gave me a confidence boost.  But the effect of this enhanced confidence was like monetary inflation.  I simply had more to say about subjects I knew too little of.
  2. Because talent was a label assigned to me, not my behaviour, I assumed that my talent was permanent.  It became my formula for success,  dressed up in the weasel words of ‘strengths’.  This made me far less likely to question the workability of my approach and far more likely to cling to being ‘right’.
  3. As a result my job became one of impression management.  I did not pay attention to performance but rather the appearance of performance.
  4. The first rule of impression management is to avoid mistakes.   Especially in an organisation of very bright people.  But trying to avoid mistakes is not a great recipe for creativity, learning or improving performance.
  5. Finally, being labelled as talent encouraged me to persist in goals which had nothing to do with my values.  I climbed the ladder, only to find it leaning against the wrong wall.

Overall, therefore, I would say being labelled as talent hindered my performance.  And in my next post, I am going to describe the effect of not being labelled talent…

Shifting Perspectives Could Improve Your Health

If you look at your writing how much do you use words like: I, me, my and how often do you use: you, we, he, she?

James Pennebaker’s research suggests that when people’s use of pronouns is flexible i.e. some days they write a lot about themselves and some days their writing is more dominated by other pronouns (you, we, he, she); the better their physical health.

This makes sense from the perspective of ACT and Relational Frame Theory.

It seems that one aspect of psychological well being is to be able to flexibly take different perspectives. To be able to consider the perspective of:

  • Myself in the here and now
  • Other people – both now and in the future
  • Other people  – both those I am close to and people who are different to me
  • Myself in the future – What would an older me suggest?
  • Myself in the past – How would I have viewed this when I was five?

It seems that flexibility in perspective taking is a bit like having a flexible body – we need to work at it. So I encourage you to play with these other perspectives.

Finding True North: How to Clarify Values (part 2)

In my previous post I talked about exploring values and looking for patterns across a number of different tests.

Over the years I have taken countless values exercises and tests.  Below are some of the best and I’ve interspersed my results to demonstrate the variability involved – and the risks of doing just one!

  1. The Obituary Exercise
  2. Values in action questionnaire
  3. Your Values by Franklin Covey
  4. Values Sort Task by Goodwork Toolkit
  5. Career Values by Stewart Cooper & Coon
  6. Valued Living Questionnare

1. The Obituary Exercise

The classic and probably still the one that has had most impact on me.  How do you want to be remembered?  Try it here.

My values in this test always include doing meaningful work first and foremost.  This means using my skills and talents to actually make a difference to other people and to ‘dent the universe’ in some way.  Another top value (for me and others) is courage.  I don’t want the fears I experience day to day to hold me back.

2. Values in action questionnaire

I have taken this test 6 times over a period of 8 years.  Although my top 6 values vary each time, there are some which remain consistent.  The values which have made it in every time are:

  • Judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness
  • Curiosity and interest in the world
  • Social intelligence
  • Fairness, equity, and justice

3. Your Values by Franklin Covey

I think this is an excellent resource which asks different questions to elicit values.  My values here include growth and development, curiosity, humour and freedom.

4. Values Sort Task by Goodwork Toolkit

Having said I don’t like ranking values, it can be quite revealing to ‘sort’ them for importance.  This online values sorting tool is quite fun and works well.  My top values here turned out to be honesty and integrity, social concerns and professional accomplishment.

5. Career Values by Stewart Cooper & Coon

Another values sorting exercise, but the sorting is done differently and so it is interesting to observe differences.  I find this kind of test more difficult because it is hard to know how to assign importance to values without comparing them to other values.  Therefore, I think you respond differently to the values at the beginning of the test than the end.

The values that came top in this test were freedom, security, helping others, recognition, honesty and integrity.

6. Valued Living Questionnaire

This test is used extensively by the ACT community, along with the similar Bull’s Eye.  This test identifies 10 different life domains and asks you to identify key values in each.  Clearly, this test deals with broader values than those which simply relate to work.  Nevertheless, this in itself can be useful to identify any conflicts or tensions between work-related values and values in other life domains.

My work-related values in this test include doing meaningful work (again), making a difference to others, collaborating with excellent people and acting with integrity.


There’s a huge range of different values tests out there.  The ones listed above are really good and all of them are free.  However, they do tend to yield different results and this can be disconcerting.  However, remember that you do not have a single set of values – too much depends on context.  So take these tests and look out for patterns.  And when you have your list, hold it lightly and aks yourself in this moment, which way is True North?