Standard career advice says that if you want career success, then you need to decide where you want to be in your career in 10 years time and work out what you need to do in order to get there.
“Following today’s devastating result for the national team, I take full responsibility for the most unfortunate choice of coach, which has resulted in such a poor image of the national team being put before the fans.”
It is November 2014 and Giorgos Sarris, the head of the Greek Football Association, has just sacked Claudio Ranieri, a genial 62 year old Italian manager, after losing to the tiny Faroe Islands.
It was beyond embarrassing, and the end for Ranieri after only 4 games in charge. It was also probably the end of his career. His quirky, kindly personality seemed out of kilter with the hard realities of modern football.
At that time, Leicester City Football Club were rooted to the bottom of the English Premier League. After a record 13 match winless streak they were certainties for relegation, which was really no surprise – Leicester are one of the ultimate ‘yo-yo clubs’.
Meanwhile the league title was again being won by Chelsea, a team managed by Jose Mourinho who had replaced Ranieri some years previous. Mourinho was the opposite of Ranieri; knowing, calculating, snide. He is the kind of man who stamped on insects as a child. Even his jokes contain a bitter aftertaste.
But Mourinho seemed modern, Ranieri a relic. Chelsea, at the top of the league, had the manager and the money. In contrast Leicester had 20% of the budget of Chelsea, and were facing certain relegation.
It’s all just maths.
The following season started out like any other, but then unfolded as though reimagined by Picasso.
- Leicester City had escaped relegation and somehow remained in the Premiership after all.
- Jose Mourinho was sacked by champions Chelsea after a disastrous start to the new season.
- Leicester City charged to the top of the table, stayed there, and – incredibly – last Saturday were crowned champions with largely the same players who had battled relegation a year ago.
The odds of Leicester winning were 5000-1 against. To put that into perspective, the odds of finding Elvis alive today are 2000-1. It was unthinkable, impossible. The greatest upset in sporting history.
And at the helm of this towering, absurd achievement was a man called Claudio Ranieri.
Explaining Leicester’s Season
There is now a cottage industry re-examining the leadership secrets of Leicester’s rise. Of course Ranieri is no longer seen as a relic. Now he is seen as having an ability to keep things light and deflect pressure, to ‘make his players believe’.
Certainly for months he had joked with the press, smiled with the fans, laughed at any talk of winning the league. Suddenly he seemed a refreshing alternative to the cynicism of Mourinho.
But from a psychological perspective, there is one standout lesson from this incredible tale.
The (Limited) Power of Thinking
Leicester didn’t win the league because they believed they could do it. Let’s be clear, no one believed they could do it.
The psychology behind their success lies in being able to hold thoughts lightly, whilst focusing on constructive, workable actions in each moment.
Of course this isn’t easy. Although thoughts are not reality, they feel like reality. This is fusion – the process of seeing thoughts and reality as the same thing. Fusion can be very useful, especially for survival. But it can also limit our ability to thrive because our thinking can be so limited, prone to bias and swayed by ‘wisdom’ which turns out to be wrong.
Even now it feels wrong for Leicester to be champions, which is perhaps why so many people say that it still feels more like a dream than reality.
What does this have to do with ACT in the workplace?
So many people today feel trapped in jobs they don’t enjoy, or are drawn into lifestyles that are drained of joy. Yet the traps are set by fusing to thoughts like:
- ‘I am too old to change career’.
- ‘I am too introverted to be a leader”.
- ‘I can’t control my angry response with my kids’.
- ‘I am not in a position to take control of my career’.
Whilt these stories may contain elements of fact, they are not reality. We feel trapped by these thoughts, but we are not trapped in a way that say, a dog would understand.
The problem is that when we buy into our thinking and stories wholesale, we risk acting within the confines of the story and failing to author our own story. We fall into the comfortable illusion that there is nothing to be done, events are outside of our control.
And this is what Leicester have really taught us. It is not ‘if we dream it, we can do it’. Most of us find it hard to control our thinking.
The skill we can learn is to hold belief (and disbelief) lightly, acknowledging that our own thinking is limited; an artist’s impression of the real thing.
Fusing to stories of hard luck or powerlessness may make life easier in the short term, but it also makes it smaller.
Leicester have shown us that reality is far from what our minds tell us it is. If we learn to hold our thoughts lightly, and focus instead on workable behaviours in the direction of what really matters to us, then the world opens up.
And just occasionally, we far exceed what we can ever have imagined.
source: BBC website
For regular WWA readers, some context. I’ve been working as one of the Faculty at the brilliant Escape School, in particular an amazing Tribe of 50 people who have been on a 3 month journey to get unstuck and do something more meaningful with their careers. It was so enjoyable and moving that I wanted to write them a short letter…and I’m sharing it here because it is hopefully a good example of ACT being used in coaching (and getting into the water supply).
Dear Escape Tribe,
I can’t tell you my admiration for your courage to stand for something in your lives, even in the presence of your fears. It feels like a privilege to watch you and work with you; in many ways one of the highlights of my career. So I wanted to write you my own letter, perhaps because I was so moved by those you wrote to yourselves…
Get out of your mind and into your life
This is a great book with a cheesy title, yet which captures a critical idea in psychology.
Society teaches us to think that if we can only get more confident, certain, less anxious etc, then all will be well. But it’s really the other way round. Thinking follows behaviour. From another great book:
“We think that the key to successful career change is knowing what we want to do next and then using that knowledge to guide our actions. But change usually happens the other way round. Doing comes first, knowing second”.
Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity
Remember the anemone
When stuck, our minds often tell us that the action we must take has to be big and bold.
If that works for you then great, go for it. But if it doesn’t, think of an anemone.
If you aren’t willing to open your whole self up to some big change, see if you can be willing to start by opening one tentacle out into the ocean; exploring and experimenting.
Experiential avoidance will always be an option….
Our minds can always find an excuse not to do difficult things. And that is normal.
But if avoidance becomes our objective, then it narrows our lives. And over a lifetime this can lead us to feel trapped – trapped in prisons made only by the words in our minds.
Values are about the here and now
Instead of seeing values as ‘out there’, a remote and distant pipe dream, remember that they are accessible to you right now.
You have a choice to tune into them and show up to them, right now. What will you stand for in this moment? Put enough of these moments together and you become a different person.
‘The road less travelled’ is less travelled for a reason
The irony of human existence is that if something feels important to us then it will have a flipside which feels scary.
If you dare greatly, you will feel fear. If you commit to love then you risk rejection.
Happiness and sadness are not exclusive, but intimately connected. They grow weak together, or strong together.
Acceptance changes everything
Once you start those first few steps out in the real world, the feedback you receive may be mixed. If avoiding pain is your objective then it is tempting to retreat into the narrow repertoires of behaviour that have trapped you.
But if you are willing to accept yourself – that is, the whole of yourself – then you will have pain and joy, anxiety and meaning.
Only if you can accept the thorn, do you get to keep the rose.
Don’t forget; the world needs you
Don’t be fooled into thinking there is nothing for you to do. The world is full of challenges which need you – your skills, talent and energy.
This may not be fighting great battles of justice or injustice, but contributing to the world in the best, most vital version of your self.
That is really what the world needs more than ever.
Therefore, for yourselves, but not only for yourselves, may you all find the courage to keep going.
And in so doing, may you all be ignited.
with huge thanks, admiration and hope for all of you,
What I have Learned So Far
Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world?
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, the holy and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.
All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
The gospel of light is the crossroads of indolence, or action.
Be ignited, or be gone.
Meaning in life is an important factor in human well being.
You probably won’t be surprised that research has shown that people who have a sense of meaning and purpose in their life are happier than those without that sense of meaning (Duh!).
However, more than that, people who have a sense of meaning and purpose seem to live longer, cope better with the losses and difficulties of life and have greater sense of life satisfaction. Having a sense of purpose even seems to protect against cognitive decline as we age.
So if having a sense of meaning is a good thing. What do you do if you want to live a meaningful life?
The first step is to recognise that:
‘Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of …your affections and loyalties…out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account’ – John Gardner
Meaning doesn’t come from a search for some big sign that says ‘This is meaningful’. Meaning is instead built gradually through the many small choices you make, through the values you choose to express.
‘Values are intentional qualities of action that join together a string of moments into a meaningful path’ – Steve Hayes
(If you are uncertain about your values – there are some good values clarification activities here.)
You can make a conscious decision to treat whatever you are doing as meaningful. An opportunity to live your values. For example, a hospital cleaner can choose to see themselves as an important part of the process of healing patients (which, of course, they are) and as a result express values of kindness or conscientiousness in their work.
However, if your work really doesn’t align with your values. If it genuinely feels meaningless, then you might want to start to work on a career change. It might just save your life!
If you are feeling a bit uncertain about what is meaningful for you, then I recommend ‘The Photojournalist’ activity described by Steger et al in Mindfulness, Acceptance and Positive Psychology. It is a great way of unearthing the meaning that is already present in your life.
Here is what you do:
Take 10-12 photos of “What makes (or could make) your life meaningful.” It is okay to take photos of places, people, things, mementos or even other photos. As you take the photos, keep a note of what each photo represents and how it contributes to your life’s meaning currently or how you hope it will contribute to meaning in your life in the future.
When you have done – notice what you photographed and what you wrote under the photographs. Notice what stands out. Notice any recurrent themes. Craft yourself a meaning statement.
I choose to make the following meaningful….
Now as you go through your day, notice when there is an opportunity to treat an event as meaningful and see what happens.
Here is one of my photojournalist images. The photo is of my partner fixing my chicken pen. A small moment but it has deep meaning for me. It is about relationships, caring, family tradition.
To learn more about the research on meaning, watch Michael Steger’s TEDx talk on What Makes Life Meaningful.
One of the reasons I left consultancy is because I felt that the work was meaningless. In meetings I would try not to fall asleep as people droned on about project dependencies and stakeholder management and at the weekend all I did was dread Mondays.
It wasn’t unpleasant exactly, it was the lack of something that bothered me. I wanted to feel passion and meaning at work, instead I experienced a sense that I did not care about the low hanging fruit as much as other people seemed to.
Now, many years later, I have created a working life which I do feel passionate about. Some nights I have to force myself to go to bed – like a child on Christmas day – because that will make the next day come faster. Some days I work with a client and it will hit me: I love this.
So for all the people who write about finding your passion at work: good for you. It is possible. It is necessary. Well done!
But your books are still at best horribly misleading and at worst, dangerous…
The thing about passion at work is that it is rarely characterised by feelings of passion. It is, if anything, characterised by feelings of anxiety and doubt, particularly in the early days. For me those years were filled with thoughts about whether this was really the right thing, whether I could do it, whether I was falling behind my peers.
Even today those moments where I feel passionate about what I do are rare and fleeting. Working with people who are stuck can be draining and usually I am assailed by doubts about my own ability to help, my mind telling me what a terrible psychologist I am. Plus it can be very painful working with people who are themselves in pain.
Is this what I left consultancy to find? Is this really passion at work?
Well, yes. I am truly passionate about what I do and I am so thankful that I get to do it (well, most days).
But if I had not been show how to grow more willing to respond flexibly to painful thoughts and emotions, then I would have never have reached where I am now.
In short, if I had defined passion as feelings of passion then the journey would have stopped long, long ago.
Why do bright, motivated people get stuck in their careers? I’ve spent the last 10 years or so thinking about the issue and working with people who are stuck in this way. I write about this in my other blog, Headstuck. I find ACT is useful for people who are stuck because it helps them not only get unstuck but to move forward with purpose in a direction they choose. ACT liberates people.
I put together a presentation on this and it struck me that it might be of interest to readers of this blog. Hope you enjoy!
According to The Centre for Creative Leadership almost 1 in 2 of the managers who have the makings of success fail to reach their potential. They ‘derail’ and are either demoted, fired, plateau or opt for early retirement (William A Gentry).
There seem to be some key problems that cause this derailment:
- Failing to build effective interpersonal relationships
- Showing poor team leadership
- Having problems adapting to changes in the environment
- Lacking growth and development in the face of the changing demands of their role
- Failing to meet business objectives (due to either failing to follow through or being overambitious )
- Maintaining a narrow focus, so that they aren’t able to supervise outside of their area of functional expertise
What seems to happen is that these managers are defensive in the face of challenging feedback, don’t learn from their mistakes and don’t identify and address their weaknesses.
Why do they do that?
I suspect that they lack self-compassion. Self-compassion makes it easier to be open to difficult feedback; learn from mistakes and admit failings. Self compassion can probably be increased*.
These managers also need to get better at noticing when their approach is ineffective and then quickly adjusting their behaviour. A starting point here may be to learn to become more mindful and psychologically flexible.
* For readers based in Brisbane, I am running a low cost public workshop on self-compassion on Sunday 6th May 2012.
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:
- 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.
- 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’.
- As a result my job became one of impression management. I did not pay attention to performance but rather the appearance of performance.
- 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.
- 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…
When I retrained to become a psychologist, my research centred on meaning in work. That’s because my work to date (as a management consultant) had been pretty meaningless, but I did not reallyknow what to do about it.
So my research questions were:
- What is meaning in work?
- How can I find it?
I wanted to create and test a model of meaning which would be scientifically valid but which would also be usable for people who wanted to identify meaning in work for themselves.
In this post I want to deal with the first question, what is meaning in work?
There’s a lot of confusion even in academic circles about what meaning is, and I spent months sifting through these definitions. Eventually however I came to a clear conclusion, via a brilliant psychologist called Eric Klinger, who argued (1998) that meaning can be seen from an evolutionary perspective.
Think about your ancestors. What did their survival depend on? Foraging for food? Avoiding the woolly mammoth? Right on. Humans evolved problem solvers, moving and adapting to meet new challenges and goals. We survived by being able to respond to our environment and meet a succession of context-dependent goals. All of our goals relate to survival, at least at the genetic level.
The interesting bit comes when we consider how we evolved to do this. The cognitive processes we developed (i.e. our senses, thoughts and emotions), all evolved to help us do one thing: understand the potential dangers and opportunities that come our way during the pursuit of our goals. It is understanding that enables action to be taken in the pursuit of goals. And successful pursuit of goals = survival.
Klinger argued that the role of human cognition is to manage the process of comprehension, working to sort out “the ambiguous or confusing stimuli…until they can be dismissed as irrelevant, or channelled into the emotional / motivation / action systems” (p31).
What does that mean? It means that at the heart of the human operating system is an absolute imperative to understand the world around us.
This is not a ‘nice to have’. Without understanding we feel uneasy (it’s not for nothing our greatest fear is the fear of the unknown). Conversely, understanding brings relief. Think about the ‘aha!’ moment when you figure a problem out. It is pleasant because this is a relief from the burden of not knowing, even if the news is unpleasant. (Think about how a diagnosis of a mystery illness brings relief). That’s because with understanding we are able to act with purpose. Without it we are unsure and lack direction.
Meaning is therefore simple. It is about comprehension, whether that be for small things (like comprehending a word in a sentence) or very large things (like the meaning of one’s work). With meaning, we know how to respond in terms of both emotion and goal-directed action. As Baumeister (1991) argued, meaning in life is therefore a process of sense-making which connects an individual’s existence to a wider understanding of the world. When we have meaning we understand ourselves in context, and that has always been essential to our survival.
Today, meaning often is not linked to survival. But the inate drive remains the same. Without a sense of meaning our lives can feel as though they don’t make much sense. Our life’s events do not seem to fit any narrative. We begin to feel uneasy, and feel less and less agency over our place in the world. A pretty fair summation of my time as a management consultant!
Conversely, with meaning we understand ourselves and our place in the world. We know how to relate to others. Whilst wee still experience difficult emotions, we understand why we are experiencing them and we generally know what to do about them. And that’s a fair summation of my life as a psychologist.
In the next post, I’ll explore how meaning differs from purpose and why it’s different to happiness, before going on to consider how to actually achieve meaning in work.
The main focus of ACT is to increase something called psychological flexibility. But what is psychological flexibility and why is it important?
Of all the psychological phenomena that we have studied, this is the one that is of by far the most help to the people we work with in organisations. Becoming more psychologically flexible helps people not just cope with stress but to do more of what it is they really value. So what exactly is it?
Psychological flexibility has been defined as “the ability to contact the present moment more fully as a conscious human being and to change, or persist in, behavior when doing so serves valued ends” (Biglan, Hayes, & Pistorello, 2008).
‘Contacting the present more fully’ means willing to be present with difficult thoughts and emotions and to accept ourselves as we are, not as we think we should be. This is a critical difference, because research shows that trying to get rid of our difficult thoughts and emotions increases their frequency, strength and duration (Wegner, 1994).
It also helps to understand psychological flexibility’s opposite orientation—experiential avoidance (EA). EA is the tendency to avoid or control unpleasant thoughts and feelings, even when doing so creates problems for a person. For example, someone who has the thought that they “are stupid” may avoid situations (e.g., a classroom) that might embarrass them. However, this strategy has the effect of systematically narrowing one’s options in life.
It’s easy to see how EA can be a problem in career change, but empirical evidence also associates EA with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, poor work performance and chronic stress. Conversely, becoming more psychologically flexible allows people to cope with life more effectively and to derive wellbeing as a consequence of valued living.
Being psychologically flexible doesn’t make life easier or more pleasant. But it makes it more vital and values-directed. And that, incidentally, is what most of our clients want from their career change; a life worth living.