Fighting for what matters: what I really learned about completing a doctorate whilst raising a family and running a business

So I did want to reflect on what I learned during these past few years because so much of it is Working with ACT-relevant.

But I am wary of writing one of ‘those‘ type of posts, or one of those ‘it was tough but I am so glad I did it!’ things.

Fact is, I am not sure I am glad I did it.  But I’ve done it now, so here’s what I think I learned:

1. Make every session count

If there was one principle that stood out, it was this.  Every time I sat down to work, I focused on taking one step forward.

Sometimes this was impossible, or I even went backwards (the climbing a mountain metaphor helps here – i.e. sometimes you have to go down the mountain to go up again).  However, by accepting the tiniest step as progress, including correcting one typo, I can’t think of a single instance where this didn’t work.

And one day, I woke up and it was done.

2. Create deadlines

There were days when I felt totally overwhelmed and my mind would wander to all the things I wasn’t doing / couldn’t do. If this resonates you need deadlines.  The pomodoro technique is good for this.  So are children.

I would often work during my children’s nap times, which created an exquisite sense of urgency.  Sometimes – agh! – one of them would wake before I’d made any progress.  To my surprise I was still always able to find one thing to do before running off to the bedroom.  It’s amazing how deadlines focus the mind, and a crying child is a very good deadline*.

* My children are for rent on an hourly basis.

3. Intensity beats time

I placed intensity front and centre of my strategy.  This led me to do seemingly strange things, like working for around 60-90 minutes on the Doctorate even when I had more time available and getting involved in kanban, which sounds like is a cult.  I also learned the value of 5-minute runs as a way of breaking things up and thinking things through.

I had ‘TAKE A BREAK’ stuck to my laptop and made it a rule never to stare at my screen defeated.

4. Remember it’s a choice

One especially dismal day I shared my pain on Twitter and got some lovely responses – ‘hang in there’, ‘keep going’ etc, which I was grateful for.

But Mat Rawsthorne said ‘give it up and walk away if you choose’, which felt liberating.

‘Do I choose to do this today?’ was a far more helpful question than ‘Do I feel like doing this today?’, because the answer to the first question was generally yes, and the answer to the second was always no.

5. Ditch social media

Although Twitter etc can be helpful (see above), in general it is DEADLY* to a deep work project such as doctoral research.  I basically had to cut it out altogether.  What’s interesting is I grew to dislike Twitter much more during this time, as I came to see it for what it is.  And if I can’t convince you, let Cal Newport have a go:

* not in the Irish sense

6. I had a lot of help

The fact is I couldn’t have done it without a supportive partner, and I had one who protected my sleep, too.

I literally fantasised about the words of thanks that I would give my family once it was all over, so here they are:

 

So each one of these principles of committed action really made a difference.  But to be honest, they only tell half the story…

Going where you mind says you cannot go

“Where does your mind say we cannot go?”

Steve Hayes, A Liberated Mind

I completed my final write-up in a long, hot London summer with my little children playing in a playground opposite my office.

I can still see them; 2-year-old Orla pretending to be an airplane whilst bouncing on a trampoline.  And tiny Sam, toddling and falling about like a gorgeous, drunken penguin.

Orla
Would you rather eat ice cream with her or do linear regression in a stuffy office?

I have a place in me, perhaps stored in my body more than in words, that remembers the feeling of my own Dad vanishing at about the same age. It’s like a feeling of permanent emptiness where a hug should be.

And so of course that summer it felt like I was doing something similar to my children.  Almost at a cellular level, I had a feeling that I’d been here before somehow, and that this struggle inside my office was not where I should be.

At the time, I wrote:

The brutal truth is, there won’t be another summer where my daughter pretends to be Mo Salah or when my little boy is learning to run and talk.

There won’t be another summer when, at bath time, my babies scream with laughter when I shower their toes.

And there won’t be too many summers when they both shout ‘DAD!’ and jump into my arms when they see me.

In 10 years’ time what will I give to have even one of these moments back?

It’s fair to say I had some low points.

And this led to the final thing I learned.

7. Hard choices need self-compassion

My heroes in life aren’t Buddhist monks who meditate on hilltops or Silicon Valley CEOs whose incredible ‘life hacks’ spare them the need to make difficult choices.

My heroes are the ones who struggle and fight for something, and who live all of their values fiercely and imperfectly.

I care for my children, but I care for evidence-based psychology, too.  To fight for only one of these would be a shallow victory.  Yet to fight for both meant the fight of my life.

So what will I want my children to do when faced with a similar situation? 

The same.

I want them to care for their kids of course, but I want them to struggle and fight for what matters to them too.  Otherwise, what’s the point?

From this perspective – and only from here – I reach a place where I can finally grant myself some compassion.

Because this was the summer where I stared at one of my most powerful demons and didn’t flinch.

And this was the summer my kids saw their Dad doing that.

And maybe this was the summer – who knows? – that their choices expanded a little.

And many summers from now, when the time comes for them to fight for something, maybe they will have a feeling stored in a place beyond words that they have been here before, and that this struggle is where they are meant to be.

Everything is Dysfunctional: Applying Psychological Flexibility to Organisations

But every organisation is dysfunctional!”

I was describing the frustrations of running a small business to a friend who works in venture capital.  In my mind I felt like the kind of dysfunction I was describing would shock her.  Far from it – she seemed surprised at my surprise.

What’s odd is that as an ACT practitioner I am used to the idea that our own thoughts and emotions can frequently be unhelpful.  Yet somehow I’d allowed myself to believe that organisations – built by dysfunctional humans like me – should be run in an entirely functional way.

The Dysfunctional Beatles

In early 1967 the greatest band in the world were in trouble.

John was behaving even more cynically than ever, only really coming alive when working on his own material.  His relationship with Yoko was also causing resentment among the others.

Ringo was convinced he was surplus to requirements and considering his options in other careers – photography and furniture making.  George was also feeling cut adrift, thinking that the others were deliberately excluding his songs.

Whilst Paul may have appeared the happiest, he was himself only a couple of years from his own breakdown.  The author of Yesterday aged 26, was beginning to doubt himself.  The Beatles were pulling apart.

The Dysfunctions of World-Leading Companies

In 1982 Tom Peters wrote his seminal book In Search of Excellence, looking at some of the best run companies in the world.

It’s a compelling read, until you realise that nearly all of the companies chosen as ‘excellent’ have since either underperformed or gone bust (think Atari).

Phil Rosenzweigh called this the “delusion of connecting the winning dots“.  Yet we still do this.  We pick the most successful organisations and then buy the myth that their success is down to their culture and leadership.  Think Laszlo Bock from Google, pretending their success is to do with culture; Sheryl Sandberg lecturing on work-life balance, or anything to do with Steve Jobs.

Yet look harder and it is easy to find stories of Google’s dysfunctional working practices (actually, this article did not appear in Google searches but did appear on Duck Duck Go).  Facebook’s total lack of work life balance for its actual employees.  Steve Jobs being an unbelievable jerk.

Take a look at this clip of Microsoft in 1995 and ask yourself if that can possibly have been a functional place to work:

Think of investment banks, family-run businesses, the NHS…pretty much everything is dysfunctional.

It’s funny how the idea of acceptance – particularly accepting my own difficult thought and emotions  – has freed me so much in my own personal life, yet when it comes to the places I work I expect organisations to work exactly as I think they should.

I’m not suggesting that working in dysfunctional organisations is easy or that we shouldn’t try to fix them.  But I am suggesting it’s not the only way of assessing whether our jobs or careers are right for us.

The Dysfunctional Beatles (2)

In May 1967, amidst their heightening dysfunctions, the Beatles released Sgt Pepper. 

It was a staggering achievement, made all the more remarkable by releasing Stawberry Fields and Penny Lane earlier that year, neither of which made the album.

The Beatles were overflowing with creativity and inspiration whilst growing increasingly frustrated with each other.

The following year, with relations at an all-time low, they released the incredible White Album, having earlier released Hey Jude, which was also not on the album (!)

Finally, in 1969 they released the mighty Abbey Road and in the death throes of the band, Let it Be (which was released after they had split).

In other words, some of the greatest music of all time was recorded amidst some of the most stressful and dysfunctional working relationships.

It’s the same everywhere.  Dysfunctional companies run the world; they power things, finance things, change the way we work and live, and in the case of the NHS they save lives and give dignity to people when they need it most.

What Are You Building Amidst Dysfunction?

In ACT, one of the key ideas is that we can move towards our values and goals in the presence of difficult thoughts and emotions.

The test with our own careers, therefore, is not just how dysfunctional something feels, or how frustrating your colleagues are, or how undervalued you feel.  (Of course, this is not an argument to just put up with these things – that is not what acceptance means).  It is just not the sole measure.

The other part of the equation is what are you building in return?  How often do you get to move towards your most important values and goals, amidst the dysfunction?

When I was a management consultant the answer to that was ‘almost never’.  But as a psychologist, it is every day – my most meaningful contribution to the world ever.

In the same way that mental health is more than an absence of disease, your job’s worth is more than an absence of dysfunction.

Instead of buying the story that dysfunctional organisations leave us helpless to make a difference, we can learn to hold our stories lightly, and find room to create something of value, amidst the dysfunction.

ACTing On Mental Health: The Evidence

This week someone asked me for a meeting, so I looked at my diary….kept looking…and eventually came up with a date in early December.

It’s not just me – though of course I am terribly important.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t busy (and terribly important) and perhaps no surprise – many of us feel stressed as a result.

Some of the stress statistics would be shocking if they weren’t so familiar:

  • In the UK, work-related stress accounts for 37% of ill health and 45% of days lost (Health and Safety Executive, 2016).
  • 1 in 6 people in paid employment will suffer a common mental health issue this year (Mental Health Foundation, 2016).
  • The estimated cost of poor mental health is £74 – £99 billion p.a. (Stevenson & Farmer, 2017).

So what can be done?

Tackling Stress at Work

In a recent interview for the New Scientist (on behalf of one of my Fintech clients), I argued that interventions at both organisation and individual level were required.

But given that 75% of people suffering from a mental health issue will never receive any form of psychological support (Seymour & Grove, 2005), this places extra emphasis on other forms of support, such as workplace training, to help people deal with the demands of the modern workplace.  The trouble is, of course, that workplace training often gets a bad name.

 

 

 

 

 

And a lot of it lacks even that most basic criterion; evidence that it works.  Ideally there should also be evidence of how the training works too.

The Case for Using ACT to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

As part of the preparation for the New Scientist interview (and prior to publishing a Systematic Review on the subject) I looked at some of the main evidence for ACT training.  Below I’ve listed five workplace studies which caught my eye.

1. Dahl, Wilson and Nilsson (Behavior Therapy, 2004)

This study gave an ACT intervention to a group of Swedish care workers selected as being at high risk of long term work disability due to stress and musculoskeletal pain.  An ACT group was compared to a group who received their respective medical treatment as usual (MTAU).

At post and 6-month followup, ACT participants showed fewer sick days and used fewer medical treatment resources than those in the MTAU condition, with a mean of 1 sick day versus a mean of 11.5 sick days for the MTAU condition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Flaxman and Bond (Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 2010)

This study randomly assigned 311 local government employees them to either stress management training based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (n =177) or to a waitlist
control group (n =134). The ACT program consisted of three half-day training sessions.

Across a 6-month assessment period, the ACT training resulted in a significant reduction in employee distress for those who had been at high risk initially, as well as a significant reduction  compared to the waitlist group.  In fact, of these initially distressed SMT participants, 69% improved to a clinically significant degree, compared to 31% in the waitlist group.

3. Waters, Frude, Flaxman, Boyd, (British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2017)

This study demonstrated that even a short, one-off training intervention can have positive effects.  A 1-day ACT workshop was offered to 17 care home workers in Wales, UK with a further 18 assigned to a waitlist control group.

At 3 months post-intervention, those in the ACT group reported a significantly lower level of psychological distress compared to the control group, with clinically significant change exhibited by 50% of ACT participants, compared to 0% in the control group. When the control group received the same ACT intervention, 69% went on to exhibit clinically significant change.

In keeping with ACT theory, the ACT intervention also resulted in significant improvements in psychological flexibility, but did not significantly reduce the frequency of negative cognitions.

4. Vilardaga et al., (Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 2011)

This was a cross-sectional survey with nearly 700 addiction counsellors working in substance abuse treatment centres in the USA.

Results indicated that burnout was more strongly associated with psychological flexibility than other well-known predictors of burnout e.g.  job control, supervisor support, salary etc.  The study concluded that a future approach to reduction of burnout among addiction counsellors should target psychological flexibility.

5. Lloyd, Bond and Flaxman (Journal of Work and Stress, 2013)

This study took 43 employees of a UK government department receiving an ACT workshop (3 half days over 2 months) aimed at increasing participants’ levels of psychological flexibility (PF), and 57 participants allocated to a waitlist control group. The study found significant reduction in burnout and strain in the ACT group.

Crucially the study was also able to show that it was higher levels of PF that mediated (or caused) the reduction of emotional exhaustion at follow up.  In other words, this study showed not only that ACT training works, but why it works.

Conclusion

Of course, training psychological flexibility is only a part of the solution to a complex problem.  We shouldn’t overstate the evidence, or see it as a standalone solution.  But increasingly it looks to be a critical part of our response to an increasingly demanding world of work.

 

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Is Meaningful Success Possible Within an Organisation?

Working in a twenty-first century organisation can feel pretty bleak. Many employees describe feeling increasingly discouraged, disconnected and disengaged. They struggle to feel a sense of meaning or joy in their work.

Do the harsh realities of the global economy make this inevitable? The situation can seem pretty depressing. But there is hope! New ways of running organisations may be about to change everything.

In his book, Reinventing Organizations, Frederik Laloux describes vibrant and meaningful workplaces that still deliver key outcomes. He calls these organisations ‘Teal organisations’.

in this approach, the organisation is considered to be a complex adaptive system, like a city or a forest. This is in contrast to the current dominant metaphor of the organisation as a machine. This change in metaphor is important. If an organisation is a machine, then people are seen as replaceable cogs. Whereas, in a complex adaptive system, all of the parts are important. Different parts interact in surprising ways and a small action by one element can create large, system wide changes.

In Teal organisations:

  • The usual hierarchies are dropped.
  • Individuals are given much more autonomy.
  • People often work in small, semi-autonomous groups that are nested together to create a larger system.
  • Everyone is seen as able to take on a leadership role whenever needed.
  • All employees are provided with training in the skills they need in order to navigate the complexity of this sometimes challenging environment.
  • Individual workers can make important decisions – as long as they seek advice from those who will be affected by the decision.
  • The CEO doesn’t decide on strategy or tell people what to do. The group agree a broad purpose, and then ‘the role of the leader is to listen for where this organisation naturally wants to go’ (Laloux). 

What I particularly like about Laloux’s perspective is that he doesn’t pretend this is easy. It is clearly challenging to implement this approach. If a Teal organisation is to flourish, appropriate processes and systems need to be put in place. For example, successful organisations adopting this new approach all have clear processes for dealing with conflict.

This model does give hope for the future. It suggests that grim and soulless workplaces may be replaced by something much better. Within a Teal organisation, it is highly likely that employees will experience a sense of meaningful success.

You probably don’t work in a Teal organisation at the moment, but it may be possible to start to shift the centre of gravity. In a complex adaptive system, small changes can lead to dramatic shifts. Just adopting some of the Teal daily organisation practices in your team could help build autonomy, meaning and a sense of community. Try picking one small change suggested on the Reinventing Organizations Wiki, implement it and see what happens.

Fostering these changes will require a degree of psychological flexibility. You will need to be present, open and flexible. You will need a capacity to observe what is happening; take thoughtful action; notice the outcome and then take more action.

You can watch Laloux explaining his research in more detail in this talk:

Using Values When You’re Somewhere You Don’t Want To Be

I am writing this whilst sitting comfortably on a plane, powering through a brilliant autumn sunset towards Helsinki.  I have everything I need, and the work will be great.20160126_152837

And I don’t really want to go.

This has nothing to do with Helsinki you understand.  Who couldn’t be excited by the land of sauna, summer cabins and err, Moomins?

Me.

I don’t want to go because it’s going to be hard work.  And lots of travel.  And above all I’m sad because I’m going to miss my family.  I feel like I just want to stop and go home.

Using Values When You’re Somewhere You Don’t Want To Be

This classic ACT move is easily forgotten, but when I remember it always helps:

  1. Ask the cabin attendant for an extra gin
  2. Take a moment to consider why I am making this trip in the first place:

What values are at the heart of my choice to be here?

This question tilts my attention towards the purpose of my being here.  And purpose is the great generator of meaning.

So, why did I choose to be here?

  1. Meaningful work.  I am here because the workshops I run often help people shift in a positive direction.  The data we’re collecting supports this.
  2. Learning.  I hope to learn something from the people I meet, and their reaction to the training.  And it’s exciting to learn something about the countries I visit; Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland.
  3. Security.  I want to provide for my family so that they have the stuff they need to thrive. It is not the sole purpose of being here, but it is a factor.
  4. Psychological Flexibility.  Deep down, I know that without moments like these, my capacity to experience joy in life would diminish. As Kelly Wilson said, happiness and sadness are twins that either grow strong together or die together.

ballon-2Tuning into my own values doesn’t get rid of the sadness, but it provides a different context for it.

It mixes something in with the sadness.  Something richer.

And now I’m flying in a different way.

I am not so consumed by thoughts of wanting to go home.

My sadness feels like it has been dignified somehow.

It is the admission price for a life I have chosen, and I am grateful for it.

 

 

What Can You Do When You Feel In Over Your Head?

Many leaders are feeling ‘in over their heads’. The organisational landscape has become volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) and it can often feel so challenging and overwhelming that we feel out of our depth and swamped.

The skills that led to success in the past, no longer seem to work.

There is so much change happening that we can’t keep up. Everything is interconnected and, as a result, less easy to predict or control. Your outputs are increasingly dependent on other teams. Their mistakes or delays are disastrous for you but no-one seems to think that is a reasonable explanation when, as a result, your deadlines blow out. The future is highly unpredictable, it is unclear what the next right action is.

In their excellent book, Simple Habits for Complex Times, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston explain that many of the problems we are now grappling with are complex rather than complicated and that means they need to be handled differently.

In complicated situations, you create the outcome you want by working through things logically, defining the problem, breaking it down into it’s component parts, perhaps doing a root cause analysis and then making a step by step plan. It is hard, but manageable.

In a complex environment this isn’t the case. In complex situations, causality isn’t linear or predictable. So a root cause analysis quickly becomes messy and unhelpful. In complexity, you can’t predict the future from what happened in the past. You can’t work out logically what actions will create the outcomes you want to achieve, as things are interconnected – a small change in one place has an unpredictable impact in another place. So your attempts to create and act on a plan don’t seem to work. It is easy to feel swamped, powerless and uncertain.

What are better strategies for complex situations? Garvey Berger and Johnston suggest the following:

  • Have a broad sense of the direction you want the system to head in but avoid rigid plans and goals that can’t adapt and take advantage of changes in the system. (e.g. ‘Better customer service’ is a broad direction whereas ‘answering customer calls within 2 minutes and resolving all questions within a further 2 minutes’ is a rigid goal).
  • Become very curious about the present
  • Listen very deeply to what others are saying – recognize that others may be making sense of things differently to you
  • Be interested in multiple perspectives on the situation – including the perspectives that people (including you!) may have in a year or 5 years.
  • Take a wider, more systemic view. Rather than looking for root causes – look for combinations of factors that interact to push the system in a particular direction.
  • Notice what is tending to happen already in the system and then try to amplify any current tendencies that are aligned with the desired direction.
  • Take actions designed to nudge the system in a positive direction.
  • Instead of making and executing a plan, use ‘safe to fail’ experiments to try to shift the system – learn from the outcome of each experiment and feed that learning into the next safe to fail experiment. NB For this to work, you need a culture where is okay to take risks and fail (with boundaries given for what are acceptable and unacceptable risks).

My hunch is that psychological flexibility is a key skill that leaders will need in order to enact these new and challenging skills.

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” – Steve Hayes

It is composed of a number of processes that are highly relevant when leading in complexity:

Acceptance helps leaders to cope with ambiguity, uncertainty and the associated anxiety that comes with that.

Present moment awareness (or mindfulness) helps leaders to be better at observing what is really happening.

Values clarity helps leaders to behave more consistently in volatile contexts, so that followers can trust them, even though the direction is unclear and the leader can’t give them any sense of certainty about the future.

Defusion helps leaders to look at the world as it is in this moment, rather than how the mind is saying it is. This is a particularly important skill in an ambiguous environment, in ambiguity, we tend to have thoughts that tell us, ‘This is certain to turn out badly’. We need to be able to hold those thoughts lightly and see the situation as it is in this moment.

Perspective taking skills enable leaders to be mindful of and listen to the needs and views of many different stakeholder and also to see the broader system.

These skills seem to be key for leaders to thrive in the new industrial age.

And, often you wont feel like you are thriving, if you are like me then you will feel overwhelmed and swamped. At those times, please be very, very kind to yourself. This is genuinely hard. Some self-compassion is vital.


 

If you want to build your psychological flexibility, then these blog posts might be helpful:

How to Clarify Your Values

Acceptance – here are some posts on handling painful emotions

Defusion Techniques

If you want to read more about leading in VUCA environments, these resources are good:

Simple Habits for Complex Times

Complexity Leadership in Health Care (BMJ- 2001) – relevant for non-health care settings

A Framework for Understanding VUCA – Scott Berinato in HBR


And finally…if you are interested in learning more about Leading in Complexity – Queensland University Of Technology (where I teach) is offering a new online course for leaders on this very subject.

Learning To Step Over Coercion And Create The Workplace Culture That You Want

In his wonderful book, The Nurture Effect, Tony Biglan, states that ’the most important stressor we humans typically face comes in the form of coercive interactions with other humans.

Coercion is where people use unpleasant behaviour to influence you. If you do what they want, then the aversive behaviour will stop…at least for a while. Coercive behaviour in the workplace includes overt bullying and intimidation but it also can be more subtle – put downs, teasing, social exclusion etc. It can even involve using expressions of disappointment as a form of control.

Pause for a moment. What workplace situations have you found most stressful?

How much of your stress was because other humans were being coercive towards you?

My hunch is that coercion is an almost universal quality of deeply unhappy workplaces.

Sadly, some organisations have a culture which encourages coercive behaviour. These organisations are unpleasant places to work.

Biglan writes:

 ‘We need to replace all of this coercive behaviour with behaviour that calms, supports and teaches – the kind of behaviour that helps others thrive.’

What would that be like? Imagine a workplace where people ask directly for what they want in a calm way. Where they support each other to do well, to learn and to thrive.

Biglan suggests many empirically supported strategies for creating these nurturing environments. The one that has resonated most strongly with me is to make a personal commitment to this sort of calm, supportive and nurturing behaviour.

This is, of course, easier said than done. It is particularly hard to be calm, supportive and nurturing when others are being harsh and coercive towards you. Our impulse in these situations is to either respond with our own harsh, coercive behaviour or to just give in. The nature of coercion is that we want it to stop and we want it to stop quickly, so we tend to react to it in unhelpful ways.

If we want to create change, Biglan suggests that we need to learn forbearance. We need to step over our initial impulse to punish and coerce others and instead focus on responding with firm kindness. We need to be able to shift gear and respond in ways that build connection and foster growth.

Biglan quotes reams of research to support his suggestion that what the world needs now is for millions of us to just decide – ‘I want to step away from harsh and coercive treatment towards others, Instead I will nurture connection and growth. I will focus on creating environments where humans flourish.’

He also suggests empirically supported strategies for how to put this into practice.

These strategies include the behavioural analysis that Rob described in the previous post. Looking with openness and curiosity at what antecedents and consequences may be encouraging the damaging behaviour and also at what antecedents and consequences would encourage the desired behaviour.

Biglan also explores how ACT skills can be important in achieving this change to a more nurturing culture. As people become more mindful, practice acceptance of their emotions and are more connected to their values, they find it easier to change their behaviour.

I highly recommend The Nurture Effect to you. It is an important book. A book that explores how the science of human behaviour can improve human lives.

I want to live in a world where the majority of people are behaving in ways that nurture learning and growth. How about you? Shall we get started?

Little Things Lead to Sucess At Work

What if your greatest successes are more a reflection of your small, everyday choices than of the big decisions you make?

In his book, ‘How to Choose’, David Freemantle suggests that it is our micro-behaviours that make the difference between success and disappointment. By micro-behaviours, he means the ‘nuances and minutiae of our observed behaviours’. We tend to remember big choices we have made and think they have determined the course of our life. Whilst it is true that these larger choices are important. Freemantle suggests that it is actually our micro-behaviours that ultimately determine our success in these larger events.

For example, a ‘macro-behaviour’ might be to apply for a secondment to a project that interests you. Making this choice and taking this action certainly matters, but all sorts of micro-behaviours impact on how successful your application will be. When you apply for the secondment, do you go and see the person in charge of the project and engage with them in a way that makes them feel confident that you would be a pleasant and conscientious team member? Do you take the time to write a well thought out application? Have your tiny, repeated behaviours over the last 2 years, built you a reputation as someone who is helpful and effective? All of these frequent, small choices will impact on the outcome of your application.

Our natural tendency is to consciously choose the big things but to let our habitual style determine our micro-behaviours. For example, if my family and cultural background encouraged a blunt and straightforward style of communication, I will tend to do that. If my background has trained me to be compliant and avoid conflict. I will tend to do that.

In order to succeed in ways that are meaningful, we need to do something different. Instead of letting our history determine our micro-behaviours, we need to choose these behaviours consciously based on three key factors:

  • What is happening in this moment?
  • Which of my values are most important to express in this situation?
  • What do I want to achieve both in the short and in the long term?

This assessment of what each moment calls for involves the capacity to be really present. To really see what is going on.

It requires that we have a clear sense of who we want to be (our values) and a broad sense of what we want our life to stand for (our purpose).

And, finally, it requires the capacity to unhook from impulses to act in reactive or unskilful ways.

These are the skills of psychological flexibility.

Acceptance and Commitment Training has been shown to build psychological flexibility.

To get a sense of how to do that – you could explore this blog, read one of the many excellent ACT books or find an ACT coach.

Seven (or Eight) Reasons Why Executive Coaches Need ACT

I’ve been been talking to fellow coaches at Ashridge Business School about the benefits of using ACT as part of coaching.

In the interests of space I won’t try to explain what ACT is, but will restrict myself to listing some of the benefits of using it in a coaching context.  My intention is to generate responses below, which I’ve learned are nearly always more valuable than mine.

  1. Evidence-based. If coaching is to be progressive and credible, then the interventions used should have been shown to be effective. They should have achieved a desired effect over and above alternative interventions.  Over 100 Randomised Control Trials now show ACT works, with most of these in the last 5 years.
  2. Theory-based. ACT is based on a clear theory which attempts to explain something fundamental: how language and thinking influences human behaviour. Because of this theoretical basis, ACT is clear about why changes happen, i.e. the mechanisms of change.  When using ACT, coaches know that it works and why it works.  In session, this enables coaching to become more accurate, as ACT coaches can focus exclusively on the active ingredients of behaviour change.
  3. Liberating.  Just in case this is sounding too hard-edged, in practice ACT is deeply personal because it puts people in contact with the things they truly care about (if you haven’t read this post by Rachel, please do). The aim is to increase psychological flexibility – the ability to choose one’s behaviour even when experiencing difficult thoughts and emotions. For some people, moving towards one’s values is only plearn_from_your_past_mistakesossible in the presence of immense pain. But by increasing flexibility, they can be liberated to do just that…and the world opens up before them.
  4. Universality. ACT is a therapy, but it is not only a therapy. The 100 RCTs apply to almost every outcome you can think of; from smoking cessation to chronic pain to workplace performance. By promoting psychological flexibility ACT enables people to choose their behaviour with greater purpose, broadening peoples’ choices in life. This is therefore a fundamental life skill which applies equally to the clinic and the boardroom. (And don’t get me started on schools…).
  5. Mindfulness, with a purpose. Yes, this is another trendy mindfulness-based intervention and ACT benefits from the immediacy and vitality of being strongly in the moment.  At the same time, ACT is more than just mindfulness; it is mindfulness withlightsabercrop_large_verge_medium_landscape a purpose. It uses mindfulness as a call to action, for people to get out of their minds and into their lives, rather than a desirable end state in itself. This is mindfulness used as a lightsaber, to help deal with the danger and messiness of real life.
  6. Practical and pragmatic. ACT has strong behavioural roots, which means that coaching conversations are primarily about tangible and practical behaviour change. ACT has a cognitive component of course, but there is no ‘right’ mindset to achieve, no ‘good’ way to think.  Behaviour is not judged as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but pragmatically assessed for its ‘workability’, i.e. whether a given action works over the long term.
  7. Consistency. Because of ACT’s theoretical roots, coaches work to a single, coherent and testable model of human behaviour. This allows coaches to multiply reinforce or model psychological flexibility, lending coherence and consistency to sessions. This contrasts with other approaches that more resemble a collection of techniques.   NLP is a good example, as it borrows a number of tools and techniques and relates them to a theory based on language. However, this model has not stood up to scrutiny, and is therefore haphazard pseudoscience.
  8. Ignore this final point.  In ACT training you are taught not to believe what the ACT text books tell you, or what Steve Hayes tells you, or even what your mind tells you. You are taught to trust your own experience of what works. So here is my experience…

Before ACT I was a fairly good coach. I established good relationships, was sensitive, brave and as a former consultant I had wide experience.

But post-ACT, everything is different.  When my mind tells me that everything is going wrong, that I am incompetent, that I am a terrible psychologist, I can respond with compassion for myself instead of reacting.

This tiny breathing space allows me more options for responding to my client than I had before. Maybe I will share my experience and model acceptance, maybe I will choose to refocus on the working alliance, or maybe I will reconnect to what matters to me, and recommit to being of service to another human being.

As a result, I feel as though I am more purposeful as a coach, making more of a difference, helping good people do good work in often bad systems.  And that’s not a bad way to spend my time on earth.

But then, of course, don’t believe what I tell you either….

 

Postscript

If coaches need ACT, it is equally clear that ACT needs coaches.  We in ACBS want to change the world for the better….and coaches are out there, right now, having helping conversations with powerful people.

I believe coaches are a force for immense good – bringing much-needed support and challenge to people who may not receive this elsewhere. If we want to get  evidence-based practice into the water supply, then we must learn from coaches and welcome them. 

For more on using ACT in workplace and career coaching see The Career Psychologist blog.