Why Organisations Should Measure Psychological Flexibility

What should we measure to predict job performance?

Organisations spend millions of pounds each year measuring cognitive ability as well as various personality dimensions – and they are right to do so.  Although personality and ability are not perfect predictors, they are a good deal better than the alternatives.Validity in selection

Two classic papers help demonstrate this.  The first by Robertson and Smith (2001), shows that two factors predict performance best of all – cognitive ability and integrity.   Of these, cognitive ability is the best single predictor of performance.  At the bottom, interestingly, are factors such as handwriting (no surprise), but also years of experience, age, job references and even (unstructured) interviews.  Anyone with an interest in valid, reliable and fair selection processes should read this paper.

And yet the challenge must be to improve selection processes still further.  After all, even the best selection methods predict only around 60% of someone’s likely job performance.  Clearly other factors matter.

This is why in the second classic paper by Sackett and Lievens (2008), the authors identify the need for incremental validity – factors which add to our ability to predict performance over and above existing measures.  They identify situation based moderators as being critical to improving our understanding of how specific traits predict job performance.  In other words, the extent to which the situation itself overrides ‘personality’ or ability factors, and demands a more flexible set of responses.

This is why we should measure a third factor; psychological flexibility.  The (accurate but pretty awful) technical definition of 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”.

What this means in practice is a measure of someone’s ability to:

  1. Focus on the present moment, including awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions and the demands of the situation; and then
  2. act in accordance with one’s chosen goals or values at that time.

Psychological flexibility is therefore a measure of the extent to which someone is able to transcend their automatic or learned patterns of behaviour, and act in ways which better fit the situation:

“This enhanced capacity for noticing, and responding to, the goal opportunities that exist in one’s environment has been described as “goal-related context sensitivity” (Bond, Flaxman, & Bunce, 2008).

‘Goal-related context sensitivity’ can be thought of as a secondary skill which helps people to implement their primary skills (e.g. communication, problem solving, creative thinking) more effectively.  By measuring psychological flexibility we can assess how well someone can adapt or persist in the face of difficulty and how well they are able to remain focused on the demands of the present, rather than implementing the same strategies irrespective of the situation.

Psychological flexibility has been shown to predict performance of an in itself (see Bond et al 2008) but it also helps us account for situational awareness.  Therefore if we want to build on our understanding and prediction of high performance, we should measure this, too.


  • Robertson, I.T. and Smith, M. (2001). ‘Personnel Selection’, Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, vol.74. no.4, pp.441-72
  • Sackett, Paul R. and Lievens, Filip, Personnel Selection. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 59, January 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1141954
  • Bond, F. W., Flaxman, P. E., & Bunce, D. (2008). The influence of psychological flexibility on work redesign: Mediated moderation of a work reorganization intervention. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 645-654.

14 thoughts on “Why Organisations Should Measure Psychological Flexibility

  1. Thanks, Rob, for considering this subject and sharing your thoughts. From my perspective, I understand that the best predictor for job success is one’s level of social and emotional intelligence. I believe that, in addition to other conditions, SEI is contained in psychological flexibility, making it an essential predictor of performance. Right?

  2. Hi Rob, thanks for this one (and not just this one, BTW).

    To elaborate: what would be best measures for psychological flexibility in this context?
    AAQ and VLQ?

  3. Hello everyone.

    as usual, thank you for your comments and thoughts. I really appreciate them.

    Donna, we love your enthusiasm for all things ACT in the workplace, here and on the list serv. Maybe a guest blog one day? In answer to your question, it is not my understanding that Emotional / social IQ predicts workplace performance to the same extent. To my knowledge it is only cognitive ability /intelligence that counts. However, I do not claim to know all the evidence – if you know better please inform me / us.

    Maarten, also just want to say how much I enjoy your contributions to the list serv and on here. It’s a shame we can’t meet in Sydney. My understanding is that it is the AAQ2 that has been used to show psychological flexibility in all the work-related RCTs I have referred to. However, Frank Bond has developed a work-specific measure, called the WAAQ which may have more face validity to work contexts. Certainly the AAQ us a weird one to administer in the workplace in my experience…

    Ludo, I did not fully understand your question. Let me know if I can help though?

  4. Hi, Rob, Sorry for taking so long to see this. In the middle of a qualifying essay on the influence of psych. flex. on leader effectiveness so have been thinking about stuff related to this blog for awhile. I’m not certain I agree with you on the cognitive ability and intelligence. Certainly, these are important but if you look at all of the domains required for success at work (or in life for that matter) there are more areas of importance here than cognitive abiliy and intelligence. I have worked with so many leaders who had so little command of psych. flex, including SEI, as to make the workplace a mess. In addition, just working with a colleague on a team who has low PF capability can and does wreck havoc. I see PF as closely related to individual developmental stages and I also see measuring PF in the workplace as a really exciting emerging area. I am pretty sure this will be the focus of my dissertation research at this point. I wish we could have some really in-depth discussion around this topic at this point. PF is difficult to achieve and even more difficult to consistently access in the moment. It requires a lot of training, the ability to really see oneself from the perspective of the Self as Context, and to access the PF skills in the moment without reactivity. A person who can do this must, to my thinking, be at a high level of adult development. I know I should be citing my references and am sorry that I just don’t have the time as I write this. I was looking for your postings on PF when I stumbled on your response to my comment, for which I thank you.

    1. Hi Donna,
      thanks for your comment again. I, too have come across many examples of the kinds of leaders you mention. And I am sure it makes a difference. Yet the research I cite is fairly unequivocal – the best predictors of overall success in the workplace are, by a distance, intelligence and conscientiousness.
      I totally agree however that the impact of PF in the workplace is a most exciting development – and I think it will become increasingly important as the information age progresses.
      best wishes – and thanks again for all your excellent comments.

      1. The truly exciting thing about PF, in contrast to intelligence or conscientiousness, is that it is far more changeable.

  5. Just thought that when I think about PF it’s generally in the context of the self. However, all of this takes place in relationship, so part of the importance of SEI in here is the ability to see, hear and interact with the Other, thus bringing us to empathy and compassion. Do you know Daniel Goleman’s quote on the Peter Principle, which applies to emotional intelligence: too much college and too little kindergarten? Goleman says, and I truly believe, that “From entry-level jobs to top executive positions, the single most important factor is not IQ, advanced degrees, or technical expertise. It is emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-control; commitment and integrity, the ability to communicate and influence, to initiate and accept change.” He also says that “The rules for work are changing. We’re being judged by a new yardstick: not just by how smart we are, or by our training and expertise, but also by how well we handle ourselves and each other. This yardstick is increasingly applied in choosing who will be hired and who will not, who will be let go and who retained, who passed over and who promoted.
    The new rules predict who is most likely to become a star performer and who is most prone to derailing. And, no matter what field we work in currently, they measure the traits that are crucial to our marketability for future jobs.” The SEI quadrants, which are also crucial to PF in my thinking, are 1. Self-awareness; 2. Other awareness; 3. Self management; and 4. Relationship management. I believe that, if one can become really competent at 1. and 3., which are inherent parts of PF, one should be able to flow into 2. and 4. more easily. Being human is really hard. Darn.

      1. Hi, Rob, Would be happy to do that. Would prefer getting through my third essay first. Can use parts of that for the blog. Can work? Sometime in the middle of December might be possible?

      2. Write it and I can publish it for you. No editing, unless you want it, but if you can keep it roughly the same length and style and make it relevant to people in the workplace – that’s it!

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