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.
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?
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:
Ask the cabin attendant for an extra gin
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?
Meaningfulwork. I am here because the workshops I run often help people shift in a positive direction. The data we’re collecting supports this.
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.
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.
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.
Tuning 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.
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 complicatedand 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.
Perspectivetaking 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:
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.
‘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.’
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 possible 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.
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…).
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 with 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.
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.
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.
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 experienceof 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….
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 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
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?
Because, properly 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.
One of the best productivity systems is David Allen’s Getting Things Done, where he explains why we need a system (a ‘second brain’) which we trust if we are to work without distraction.
It’s great stuff, but I think ACT has much to add to his system, in particular two key ideas:
1. Clarify values. The distinctive problem with knowledge work is that it is difficult to know what the ‘right’ work is at any given moment. There are so many competing priorities; should I be writing this blog or perfecting a proposal?
For knowledge workers, how we define our work is our most important task, so a clear understanding of what matters to us – what we want to stand for – will help. I certainly want to stand for more than winning commercial contracts, hence me finding time to contribute to this blog.
2. Acceptance. So often productivity is not actually at the mercy of external factors, but our own thoughts and emotions. For example, I know that if a task makes me anxious or bored then I will find a sudden urge to clean the shiny handles on my kitchen cupboards.
This is where all the advice to do work you love or find your passion is so dangerous. If we focus on how we feel during a task, we start to hand control of our lives over to our emotions. And our emotions – even the ones we want – are not really in our control, or reliable bellwethers of where to head next.
The most quotable psychologist in this area is Shoma Morita –> who always makes a point of separating how we feel from what we do:
“Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator or unhealthy or lazy or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die”.
Ultimately it is only by holding our emotions lightly – by committing to our values in the presence of anxiety and boredom if necessary – that we will build the kind of working life we want. Or, as Morita says:
When running up a hill, it is all right to give up as many times as you wish – as long as your feet keep moving.
(And as my mind says ‘check this post one more time’ with my finger I press…PUBLISH).
I want to highly recommend this podcast to you.
Trent Codd talking with Anthony Biglan about creating nurturing environments.
Key points for me:
There are now many randomised controlled trials of family and community interventions that have been shown to make a significant difference to the development of children and adolescents. We now have the science to impact on problems that we used to think were intractable.
Helping parents let go of harsh, critical or coercive approaches and become more nurturing, supportive, loving and caring is important.
If we want to build well being then we need to create environments that:
– are richly reinforcing of pro-social behaviour
– limit opportunities and cues for damaging behaviour
– encourage psychological flexibility
Dr Biglan goes on to talk about a range of approaches that have been shown to help to create these environments.
His suggestions are highly relevant for organisations.
What would it be like if leaders decided they were going to create nurturing environments at work?
I suspect that problems with employee retention, absenteeism and engagement would significantly improve.
Many times in Executive coaching the person I’m working with is facing a difficult choice. Do I take job A or B? Should I spend more time at work or with my family? How can I work with a difficult colleague?
I am a fan of decision science, but more often than not, this does not actually help the person to decide. That’s because they are wrestling with what Ruth Chang calls ‘hard choices’ – there is no right or wrong answer. However this is usually not what people want to hear. They want certainty… and an answer!
How then should we choose?
The thing about hard choices, Chang argues, is that yes, they are hard; but that is what makes them so liberating. After all, if there were only ever choices between the ‘right’ choice and the ‘wrong’ choice, then life would be very dull. In fact, there would be no real choice at all.
This is where the ACT distinction between choices and decisions is so useful:
Decisions can be “explained, justified and…supported by reasons”, whereas a choice
” is a selection among alternatives that may be made with reasons but not for reasons….”
In ACT, choices are where values can guide us. Values are freely chosen; free in the sense of there being no coercion, no ‘having to’ or reason-giving driving the choice. Therefore choices (or what Chang calls ‘hard choices’) are precious because unlike decisions, they are our chance to author our lives and to take a stand for something that we feel matters.
Instead of saying ‘A was better than B so I went with A’, we get to say ‘this is me, this is the choice I made and this is what I stand for’.