Since March last year I’ve run well over 300 webinars with tens of thousands of people from all around the world, and everywhere the themes were similar.
After the initial burst of excitement of working from home, people talk about how relentless work is, and how much they miss some of the more informal, human sides of working in teams.
For many the past year has brought a kind of empathy gap, where work has become more transactional and less human, with many of the informal 2-minute conversations replaced by more formal hour-long Zoom calls.
There is therefore a need for teams to adapt and to think of new ways of protecting the ‘human’ side of office life.
Building on this idea, here are two tools that you can download and use with your teams; The Life Compass and The Key to Me.
Below you can find a brief explanation of each, as well as free templates to use. I hope you find them useful!
Tool 1: The Life Compass
This tool is to help people to understand what really matters to them (even in adversity); what kind of actions move them towards their values, and how stress can sometimes ‘hook’ them away from that direction. It is designed to help guide people through tough times, just like a compass.
How to use the Life Compass
Step 1: Have each person in your team complete their own Life Compass for themselves. You can download the template here.
You can see a compass that I completed – and which I sometimes use in workshops – below.
Step 2: Then, the group can complete a shared compass, to help them navigate through the project together.
You can download the Team Compass template here. We’ve also created a template in Mural here.
As with the individual compass, work round each quadrant to identify what matters, how the team gets hooked away from what matters and what course correcting might look like.
Tool 2: The key to me
This tool is useful for helping to build understanding and empathy across distributed teams. It’s also quite a fun exercise to do which can bring people together really well and remind everyone that we’re all just human beings doing our best.
The idea of The Key to Me is to create greater understanding of what gets the best out of each individual, as well as what kind of constraints and limitations homeworking brings.
It is an especially great tool for any team which is newly created or has new members (so long as they feel sufficiently psychologically safe to do so).
Here is a template in Mural for using The Key to Me.
And here is my own example created in Mural:
I really hope you enjoy using these tools – both of them have helped me. Let me know in the comments anything you would add or any questions you have.
There’s a question I hear a lot during my workshops and coaching.
‘How can I be more confident?’
I ask people what they would do if they were really confident?
Well, they proclaim, if I was more confident, then I’d:
apply for more ambitious roles
begin new relationships that nourish
leave relationships that drain
ask for what I really want at work and need in love
say yes to more opportunities in life
say no to crossed boundaries
live a bigger, bolder life on my terms
I get why they think more confidence would help. But for most, it’s a misguided strategy. For many people, the problem isn’t a lack of confidence at all. It’s too much confidence.
Often people are too confident that if they take courageous action then they’ll:
look particularly stupid
be humiliatingly rejected
learn nothing whatsoever
suffer intolerably and never recover.
No wonder they hold back! Paradoxically, the solution isn’t more confidence. It’s being less certain. It’s being positively skeptical.
The next time you hear an inner voice whisper ‘better not, it won’t turn out well’, remember you have a choice. You can believe these cautious little lies and live small and safe, or you can be positively skeptical.
Actually, you don’t know:
how well this might turn out
what you’ll discover about yourself or others
who might respond positively
how others will be inspired by your courageous proactivity
how much confidence you may earn over time through experience.
The truth is, you don’t know for sure where positive skepticism and courageous proactivity will take you.
The VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment that we find ourselves in is unsettling, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but some nights I find myself waking in the early hours with a vague sense of unease, my shoulders slightly hunched against threat.
It isn’t just the pandemic, it is all the existential threats we are facing. The complexity of our highly interconnected world makes it hard to predict what will happen next. And when we can’t easily predict what will happen next, our mind tends to predict threat. Which is, of course, not unreasonable when we read the news.
So what is to be done?
Practice Self Compassion
Be very, very kind to yourself. This is a tough time. It can be hard to concentrate. Hard to focus on anything but the tasks that have an immediate deadline. It is hard to do complex cognitive tasks. If you are like me, it is also hard not to have self-critical thoughts –“I am such a wimp, compared to so many people in the world I am so safe and privileged. Why can’t I just get shit done?”. This isn’t particularly helpful but it is what many of us do in tough moments.
These hard moments are actually times when it is important to treat yourself gently. See if you can talk to yourself with kindness and firmness. Don’t let yourself off the hook but don’t berate yourself either. ‘You do need to sit down and make a start on that report. I know it feels tough but just set a timer for 20 minutes and make a start’.
When harsh and self-critical thoughts come up, respond to them compassionately – they are just trying to help.
Kristin Neff’s website has many resources to help build self-compassion. I find her self-compassion journal exercise particularly helpful. And if you can’t even manage to do that, be kind to yourself about your inability to practice self-compassion.
Be compassionate and firm with others
Most of us are a bit under-resourced at the moment, which can make us snappy and irritable and sometimes badly behaved. It is a good idea to be compassionate to each other about these failings rather than harsh and judgmental whilst also gently and firmly setting boundaries. ‘I don’t like the way my boss just spoke to me in front of a client. It hurts. And, I suspect that, just like me, they are stressed. However, it is important that we treat each other respectfully. What would a wise person do right now? Perhaps ask ‘Are you okay? Is something bothering you’
Prepare for the worst case scenario – but don’t over-do it
The answer to this conundrum is to do things that are low cost and wise even if the worst case doesn’t happen e.g. put some money on one side for a rainy day fund; have some food in the pantry for if you get sick and need to self-isolate; learn how to grow vegetables; build good relationships with your neighbours; get strong and fit.
In VUCA environments you need to think differently. You need to use different strategies to both make sense of the world and choose what actions to take.
Complicated problems have solutions that can be found. You just need to think carefully and logically and draw on the right expertise. For example, when your car breaks down, you have a complicated problem. You work out how to get the car to the mechanic (the expert at fixing cars) and then the mechanic will, hopefully, fix it for you.
If, like me, you have spent a lot of time building expertise in solving complicated problems, it is easy to assume that you can use that expertise to solve the problems you are now facing. But this assumes that the problem is complicated rather than complex. And the situation we now find ourselves in, is complex.
In a complex system, things evolve all the time in unpredictable ways. A good example of how a complex system evolves is to watch a susurration of starlings.
You can’t predict where the starlings will go next. Sometimes they follow the path you were expecting and then, quite suddenly, there is a shift in direction. In a complex system you can’t predict how the system will change and what will emerge. This uncertainty is hard for humans. Particularly when the uncertainty is about things that are genuinely threatening:
Will I or someone I care about become ill? If they do become ill, will good health care be available for them?
Will I lose my job?
Will my business fold?
Is it safe to hug my parents/brother/sister/best friend?
What will bush fire season be like this year? Will the air be smokey for weeks?
So how do we manage this unpredictable and complex world?
Firstly, take a deep breath and go back to the points I started with –
Be very, very kind to yourself and the people around you
Be gently firm with yourself and the people around you
Do what you can to plan for the worst case scenario without going overboard
Then, use some strategies that are designed for making sense of complexity:
Ask questions in ways that help people think together and come up with new thinking for example:
What has surprised you? And what can we learn from that?
Where did things not turn out as we expected and what did you learn from that?
Look for patterns and exceptions – but be careful not to impose patterns where none exist. Sometimes things are just random.
Look for what is not being talked about or perspective that haven’t been considered.
Design and run safe-to fail experiments
VUCA isn’t easy for humans. Most of us have minds that prefer safety and predictability. Paradoxically, recognising that you are in a VUCA environment and then thinking in different ways about the challenges you are facing, can help you to navigate the ever-changing situation more successfully.
This version includes improved ideas for thriving in the age of Coronavirus as well as a new section on parenting in lockdown.
This is from a CEO who’s been using it with his organisation:
Your Covid Marginal Gains booklet has been a great source to help me during this once in a life time roller coaster. It deals with so many layers that we are all going through and gave me confidence in what I was telling my team, give me solace in what I was feeling, and hope for what despair we all go through.
In my work as a psychologist I have worked with hundreds if not thousands of people who face a common career dilemma:
They are dissatisfied with their current situation;
They feel uncertain and anxious about alternative options.
This is when people get trapped in a dilemma; stay or leave?
From working with so many people in this situation, here are some general points I’ve observed.
The mind instinctively prefers the status quo
Our minds prefer the stuff they already know, because it is safer.
The problem is, most of my clients want more out of life than ‘safe’. Overwhelmingly, they want the chance to author their own lives, make positive decisions, and to break free from inertia. Yet it is impossible to do this without taking a risk and minds prefer certainty…
So people often end up staying where they are, but more by default than choice. They console themselves with hopes that their situation will get better. And the organisation often responds, offering enhanced status and perks. I remember I was offered a promotion and a £5,000 pay rise. Yet what I needed was a more fundamental change in my life. Most people want a sense of control and authorship over their lives and that was certainly the case for me.
By accepting these short term compensations, we duck the human need to author our own lives – the ‘hard choices’ that Ruth Chang so brilliantly identifies as the way to build identity and meaning.
Other people have a stake in the status quo
Another common issue is that those around us often have a stake in the status quo. These vested interests can be hard to tease out, especially as they often show up as a kind of protective concern.
In my case, I had perhaps 3 or 4 friends who ‘got’ the change and offered support. Many of the rest questioned and even ridiculed it.
Moving towards what we value always takes willingness
On the flipside of what we most value is always something that we fear. Therefore, for the really big decisions in life we need to:
Define what wereallywant – for example meaningful work or more autonomy;
Developwillingness to experience some anxiety in exchange for making a choice which is in line with our values.
Without this willingness, it is very difficult to break out of patterns that are not working. Change is essential for renewal, but it always takes courage to take that first step.
Change is never ‘in’ or ‘out’
There is always the temptation to see (career) change in terms of black and white. Do I stay in my job, or leave? Yet the reality is rarely like this. All of my clients make intelligent transition plans to gradually shift towards something better. The most common is to stay in their current job, but changing their relationship to it so they can work on a ‘plan b’ on the side.
No matter what the choice – stay or leave – the most important thing is the plan that follows. After all, the plan is where we deal with the reality of what follows.
So what’s the right answer? Of course there is no right answer, only context and choices.
But in general, whilst it is usually easier in the short term to stay, I notice that those who leave rarely regret it. In fact, they almost all start to feel more authorship over their own decisions, and greater vitality, meaning and purpose in life as a result.
So many people in ACT are attracted to its focus on values and connecting to what matters that it can be a surprise to learn of its roots in behaviour analysis. After all, isn’t that what they do with rats?
After attending an excellent talk on this subject by David Gillanders, I wanted to write a short series on how behaviour analysis might help in coaching.
In behaviour analysis, “A” refers to the antecedent, or the event or activity that immediately precedes a behavior. The “B” refers to the observed behavior, and “C” refers to the consequence, or the event that immediately follows a response.
Insight from Behaviour Analysis:
If an event (Antecedent) leads to a Behaviour whose immediate Consequence is less negative than alternatives, the chain is strengthened.
Clients who are really stuck.
Brief Example Completely Unrelated to Me:
OK so let’s imagine that someone feels anxious before going to a party. This someone always fears being judged and found wanting by those around me them.
To be clear, this never actually happens to me, but let’s go ahead and imagine anyway. And let’s get behavioural and call this the antecedent…
*Pause to high-five my bad inner behaviour analyst self*
This person then decides to stay in and watch Netflix instead (House of Cards since you ask). This is the behaviour.
The consequence is immediate feelings of relief – no more anxiety – and this therefore acts as a reinforcer of the behaviour, making the chain stronger.
Another example – Duncan – had been experiencing career paralysis for a few years. His work in finance brought acute feelings of meaninglessness. At the end of the week he consoled himself by going out and getting hammered. This was reinforcing because 1) he had a great time with his friends and 2) he forgot about his job.
Whilst there was plenty of good stuff going on (Duncan was popular) he was also anaesthetising himself from his feelings of meaninglessness. As the chain got stronger he also started to drink during the week, especially if he’d had a bad day.
In the short term this meant he could solider on whilst ‘living for the weekend’. But in the long term this pattern was reinforcing his stuckness, eroding his spirit, and draining his energy.
Helping to Unravel Clients who Feel Stuck
By viewing stuck patterns through the lens of behaviour analysis, clients can make more sense of their experience and see how avoidance behaviours provide immediate, short term reinforcement that easily become entrenched into habit.
Another client, Mia, has been stuck in her law career for over 5 years. She’s seen many coaches in her time with always the same pattern: initial hope and excitement, followed by lots of research and analysis, but then slowly tailing away. This she puts down to ‘laziness’.
In this case we see that antecedents, behaviours and consequences can take some teasing apart – but that it can be revealing to do so:
Mia feels like a ‘cog in a machine’ at work. Her feelings are most acute when she reads articles about people working for themselves and when she meets her friend Katherine who seems to have loads of autonomy as a freelance graphic designer.
Mia’s behavioural pattern then is to research alternative careers – from yoga teacher, to charity worker and in-house lawyer. This phase feels rich with possibility which is highly reinforcing.
However, as she then moves further into analysis mode, she begins to find problems with each option…. Yoga teacher? No proper pension. Charity sector? Badly paid and badly run. In-house lawyer? Same lack of autonomy.
Each option is analysed and rejected.
The consequence is that she begins to experience acute disappointment and loss of hope. This acts as another antecedent, which cues a period of plunging herself back into her work, trying to forget how miserable she feels.
Teasing out the antecedent from the behaviour (and exploring the consequences in each case) helps clients make sense of seemingly ingrained or embedded patterns of behaviour that are keeping them stuck.
This approach can also help coaches make more accurate case conceptualisations, and to track interventions more accurately from moment to moment.
I think this is a hugely important contribution to the development of effective, ACT-consistent coaching interventions, and essential reading for:
Members of the ACBS with an interest in using ACT in the workplace: the paper explains how to make interventions which organisations will actually buy and which organisational clients will respond to. It also provides a fantastically clear outline of how and why ACT is relevant to organisational contexts.
Organisational coaches with an interest in evidence-based practice: in a previous post I argued that coaches need ACT (and that ACT needs coaches). This e-book will provide you with all the information you need about why this is the case, as well as practical tools and suggestions to get started. There are specific chapters dedicated to coaching Alpha Executives and Poor Performers, as well as overviews of an ACT-consistent GROW process and goal setting.
I am going to read it again as I travel around Europe over the next few weeks. I am looking forward to it, and I know it will make me a better coach. Thank you Rachel (and well done)!
This is a story about two blog posts, two people wanting to make a contribution, and the price that comes with doing that.
In my last post I promised to write something about the difference between ACT as therapy and ACT as coaching. Before I did, I checked with Rachel that she was happy for me to do so, as we’d presented together on a similar subject before. This was her (edited) reply:
Also, if you think it is helpful, I would love you to link to the ACT Coaching e-book that goes with my ACT coaching training.
I have decided to just give it out free to folks.
No pressure, if you don’t think it is appropriate in the context of the post.
I then read the e-book. Reader, it is AMAZING.
It is the most valuable contribution to this developing field I’ve read and beautiful too (very Rachel). Needless to say it is far more useful, well written and valuable than my blog was going to be. I will be devoting the whole of the next post to it (no way am I shoehorning it into this).
But the question is, how does this happen? Here’s the next exchange:
It needs more work but I am quite pleased with it!
I then asked Rachel about the functions of ‘cos I am an idiot’ and she hinted at some aspect of her learning history that made praise both craved for and difficult to receive:
From: Rachel Collis [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org] Sent: 25 April 2015 23:42 To: Rob Archer Subject: Re: ACT and coachingThe function of ‘cos I am idiot’ is that I do something- like spend hours writing an ebook – and then don’t tell people. I think it is EA around embarrassment and shame.
And there we have it.
Meaningful work, ‘towards moves’, contribution: all come with a price. And the more we value the contribution, the higher the price.
So I wonder what the next ‘towards moves’ are for me and Rachel?
I asked her if I could post the link for her, because I didn’t want her to undersell it. But then I felt caught between two options. I could:
Post it myself, to reinforce her value to the community by praising her work. This sounds good, but am I really trying to rescue Rachel from her discomfort, and thereby reinforcing her avoidance?
Let Rachel post it. But is that just testing Rachel’s willingness? And why wouldn’t I actively support a colleague who I believe, has done such important and valuable work?
And what should I now do with my post?
I am left with something I have worked on, not as important as Rachel’s, but a contribution nevertheless. I could:
Not post, and perhaps work on it some more, trying to offer something different to Rachel.
Post anyway, in the service of making my own contribution to something that matters to me.
Both of these feel like ‘towards’ moves to me….and both will probably come with a price.
If I don’t post, I will need to make way for feelings of jealousy that Rachel has written something far better than me, without even mentioning it.
If I do post, will I secretly hope that somehow my post will be seen as just as valuable (oh Rob, this is really good too!) – and move straight to feelings of rejection if that doesn’t happen?
So there we are again. Two humans, on different sides of the world, both wanting to make a contribution to something that matters.
Last week we looked at how our psychology gets in the way of effective responding to the challenges of global change. This week we look at how ACT might help us meet some of those challenges by helping us think long-term, more complexly and with others. I want to explore with you how ACT could impact upon society not just individuals.
(As I write this, I notice my doubts – ‘who am I to write about global change?’, ‘these issues are far too complex for a short blog’, ‘do I really think ACT can make a difference in the face of huge, powerful and rich vested interests?’ and so on. And yet, here I go – stepping beyond the ways my language machine tries to protect me, and just moving my fingers to write something that might be of value to you.)
How can ACT help us to meet the psychological challenges I outlined in my last blog? Challenge number 1 was our natural human tendency to respond to short-term reinforcers. This challenge is at the heart of ACT in the way it helps us name and act in the service of long-term values. Do we want our society to be about ever-increasing consumption or something deeper?
ACT helps us to think long-term
We are evolving in at least four dimensions: genetic, epigenetic, behavioural and cultural . Just as genetic evolution is based upon variation, selection and retention of genes, behavioural evolution is based upon variation, selection and retention of behaviours. Conscious evolution happens when we turn our language machine back on itself, and consciously select behaviours that work well in the long-term, not just the short-term.
But global change is happening so quickly we cannot rely upon incremental individual change. We need new forms of public dialogue oriented around purpose and values. ACT works to support dialogue: suspending our own beliefs long enough to take multiple perspectives, keeping conversations directed towards bigger interests not particular positions, and loosening the hold of automatic, self-protective and reactive patterns of responding. We need these skills to get beyond polarised debates and turn our collective attention towards the longer term.
ACT helps us to think more complexly
The second family of barriers to change I talked about last week concerned the complexity of our thinking. As Einstein recognised, we cannot solve global problems at the same level of thinking that created them.
The complexity of our thinking also depends on emotional balance. Thinking about complex issues is uncomfortable because we experience doubt, uncertainty and fear. And we think more simplistically when we are under stress, relating in ways that make us feel more certain, more right or more comfortable in the short-term.
Learning to manage discomfort helps us to think more complexly. If you are anything like me, you might have noticed yourself sometimes switching off from even thinking about global change because of the difficult emotions it raises.
ACT enhances awareness and emotional balance. Both contribute to thinking more complexly.
ACT helps us to think together
The last psychological barrier that I considered was how self-interest often trumps the interests of others. Effectively responding to global change will inevitably involve responding in the collective interest. ACT appears to enhance pro-social behaviour.
Within evolutionary theory there is increasing recognition that selection occurs at the group level as well as the individual. So there is a selection pressure for pro-social behaviour. In other words, groups that work well together tend to survive. In highlighting self-interest, public discourse based upon economics has unduly ignored how cooperative we are. Governments, laws, hospitals, schools and even language itself are all fundamentally cooperative.
The science underpinning ACT shows that language, cognition and even our sense of self is intrinsically social. ACT increases pro-social responding in different ways: Increasing self-compassion increases compassion for others, increasing self-awareness increases our capacity to understand others’ perspectives, learning to defuse from harsh self-rules and critical stories about ourselves is associated with reduced stereotyping of others . The skills we learn in ACT not only help us get along better with others, they call into question the very idea that we were ever separate to begin with.
It is this aspect of ACT that may ultimately have the most impact upon the way we deal with global change. We need an ‘orthogonal rotation’ in consciousness (to quote Jon Kabat Zinn) where ‘me’ becomes ‘we’ not just conceptually but lived sense conveyed so beautifully by Martin Luther King:
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.” (Martin Luther King)
In a real sense, all life, not just human life, is inter-related. ACT turns that idea into science and action.
 Jablonka, E., & Lamb, M. J. (2006). Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life: The MIT Press.
 McHugh, L., & Stewart, I. (2012). The Self and Perspective Taking: Contributions and Applications from Modern Behavioral Science: Context Press.