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.

How Using ACT in the Workplace Could Change Almost Everything – Some Slides

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the ANZ ACT conference with an extraordinary group of ACT practitioners who, like Rob and I, are committed to using best practice to create workplaces where people find meaning and purpose in their work.

The session was wonderful – although I did keep having the thought that it would have been even better if Rob had been there with me!

Here are the slides for that session: ACT in the Workplace ANZACT 2011

The session was a reprise of a session that Rob and I delivered at Parma – a detailed handout for that session is here.

What is Meaning in Work?

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.

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

What is Psychological Flexibility?

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.