The Hard Thing about Hard Choices

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’.

Finding Focus in the Age of Distraction

As the amount of digital information increases tenfold every five years, a conservative estimate is that the amount of information we are exposed to daily has doubled over the last 20 years (1). Now, I don’t know if that is good or bad, because humans adapt.  But what  is happening now goes way beyond incremental growth, and this quantitative change may begin to make a qualitative difference. After all,  the human mind did not evolve to ignore new information…

Minds that ignored new information – that strange shadow over by the trees, the unfamiliar rustle in the undergrowth – were pretty rapidly rooted out of the gene pool.  The minds that survived were the ones that paid very close attention to the new and unfamiliar, and worried obsessively about it until they understood it.

Fast forward a million years and today we’re working away on our PC and up pops that little envelope and where does our attention go?

mail

Right there.  We attend to it immediately.  (Or is that just me?)

If we find it difficult to ignore new information and then the amount of information we deal with increases, what happens to the quality of our attention?  It has to become shallower and more fractured.  Again I am not arguing this is good or bad, simply that this must be the case.

The Costs of Distraction

Working in a distracted way certainly makes us feel busy.  But nearly all research shows that apart from some very routine tasks it is spectacularly bad for performance.  Effective multitasking is almost impossible with anything involving a cognitive load* – the brain is forced to refocus continuously as one switches between tasks, and this pause always costs time and accuracy.  So although we feel busy we rarely feel effective.  Is it any wonder about the explosion of the use of prescription drugs like Ritalin (“for better focus”)?

In fact if we attempt to multitask the effects are the same as if we were drunk (2).  In fact, it might even be better to turn up drunk, because at least that can be fun.

In the short term multitasking can make us feel busy and purposeful.  It can also make us feel needed and important.  It can be a badge of honour to say you are busy.  Being constantly distracted can also act as a barrier to dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions, so the emotional payoff can sometimes be even larger.

But what does the research say about longer term effects of distraction on our mental wellbeing?

Dan Gilbert’s lab ran a large study which is now an excellent TED talk by Matt Killingsworth.  Basically, he found that the times when we were least content is when we are most distracted.

This makes sense from a theoretical perspective.  High performance states involve intense focus on one thing.  Flow is the best known example, a state where we lose track of time because we are so absorbed in one task.Business Man Texting  This, clearly is the opposite of distraction.

When we also consider the effects of distraction on relationships, perhaps we can begin to understand why there is an explosion in work disengagement, as well as the rate of anxiety?  As Robert Leahy argues:

The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950’s.

So how can we find focus in the age of distraction?

Well I am assuming that no one is reading any more and is instead looking at videos of funny cats.  But if you are interested, I’ll post some ideas next time.

* your job involves a cognitive load

References

1. Institute of the Future

2. Strayer, David L., Frank A. Drews, and Dennis J. Crouch. “A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver.” Human Factors 48.2 (2006): 381–91.

Why Organisations Should Measure Psychological Flexibility

What should we measure to predict job performance?

Organisations spend millions of pounds each year measuring cognitive ability as well as various personality dimensions – and they are right to do so.  Although personality and ability are not perfect predictors, they are a good deal better than the alternatives.Validity in selection

Two classic papers help demonstrate this.  The first by Robertson and Smith (2001), shows that two factors predict performance best of all – cognitive ability and integrity.   Of these, cognitive ability is the best single predictor of performance.  At the bottom, interestingly, are factors such as handwriting (no surprise), but also years of experience, age, job references and even (unstructured) interviews.  Anyone with an interest in valid, reliable and fair selection processes should read this paper.

And yet the challenge must be to improve selection processes still further.  After all, even the best selection methods predict only around 60% of someone’s likely job performance.  Clearly other factors matter.

This is why in the second classic paper by Sackett and Lievens (2008), the authors identify the need for incremental validity – factors which add to our ability to predict performance over and above existing measures.  They identify situation based moderators as being critical to improving our understanding of how specific traits predict job performance.  In other words, the extent to which the situation itself overrides ‘personality’ or ability factors, and demands a more flexible set of responses.

This is why we should measure a third factor; psychological flexibility.  The (accurate but pretty awful) technical definition of 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”.

What this means in practice is a measure of someone’s ability to:

  1. Focus on the present moment, including awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions and the demands of the situation; and then
  2. act in accordance with one’s chosen goals or values at that time.

Psychological flexibility is therefore a measure of the extent to which someone is able to transcend their automatic or learned patterns of behaviour, and act in ways which better fit the situation:

“This enhanced capacity for noticing, and responding to, the goal opportunities that exist in one’s environment has been described as “goal-related context sensitivity” (Bond, Flaxman, & Bunce, 2008).

‘Goal-related context sensitivity’ can be thought of as a secondary skill which helps people to implement their primary skills (e.g. communication, problem solving, creative thinking) more effectively.  By measuring psychological flexibility we can assess how well someone can adapt or persist in the face of difficulty and how well they are able to remain focused on the demands of the present, rather than implementing the same strategies irrespective of the situation.

Psychological flexibility has been shown to predict performance of an in itself (see Bond et al 2008) but it also helps us account for situational awareness.  Therefore if we want to build on our understanding and prediction of high performance, we should measure this, too.

References:

  • Robertson, I.T. and Smith, M. (2001). ‘Personnel Selection’, Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, vol.74. no.4, pp.441-72
  • Sackett, Paul R. and Lievens, Filip, Personnel Selection. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 59, January 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1141954
  • Bond, F. W., Flaxman, P. E., & Bunce, D. (2008). The influence of psychological flexibility on work redesign: Mediated moderation of a work reorganization intervention. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 645-654.

You must have a good reason to….

The Lego AisleLast week I was wandering around Kmart trying to find an adapter plug. In my search I found myself walking through the Lego aisle. I was taken aback by the fierce feeling of joy and longing that hit me as I walked into that aisle. When my son, Patrick, was little we would spend a lot of time in this aisle. Pat would carefully examine each box – trying to decide, ‘Is a Luke Skywalker + Desert Skiff set better than a Hans Solo + StarFighter set?’ I would get bored and impatient as he carefully pondered these questions and start to hurry him along.

Standing in that aisle, those memories came back to me with such intensity. I felt so proud of the young man that Pat has become and at the same time I longed to go back in time, hug that earnest little boy and gently tell that younger version of myself not to be in such a rush, that these moments were precious.

I drank in that memory and walked on. A moment later, I saw these bargain jeans.$7 Jeans

I thought, ‘How can they do that for $7?’ and unbidden, thoughts of the recent news about deaths in garment factories in Bangladesh came to mind. I felt sad, guilty and powerless.

Someone watching me might have been surprised by the emotions I seemed to be experiencing. They might have come up with a story for why I seemed upset looking at a pile of jeans or why I had a tender smile in the Lego aisle. It is unlikely that they would accurately work out what was going on inside me.

These two moments show why perspective taking can be so hard.

On the surface they seem very similar. I was reminded of something and then I felt an emotion. But they are quite different in one important respect. In the Lego Aisle I was reminded of something that had actually happened to me. But in the jeans aisle the ideas that provoked the painful emotions weren’t a result of my direct experience. I had looked at a series of squiggles on a computer screen a few days earlier and now seeing some jeans makes me sad. This difference might seem pedantic but it has some important practical implications.

The second incident requires language.  Language means that a pair of jeans can make me sad because of something that has happened to some people I have never met, in a place I have never been to. This is an important difference between humans and other animals.  It is part of the reason that humans are much more vulnerable to emotional pain than other animals. It also means it can be incredibly hard to interpret, predict and influence our own and other people’s emotions.

Say my manager tells me I haven’t done a good job on a piece of work. My response won’t just be to that event, it won’t even just relate to all the other experiences I have had that my mind tells me are similar  – conversations with this manager, with previous managers or other colleagues and possibly even that time 40 years ago when Mrs Leary (the scary teacher) shouted at me in grade 3. (I asked to go to the bathroom 10 minutes after we had returned from lunch break, she found this annoying.) Experiences I have had in the real world won’t be the only factors influencing me. I will also be influenced by what I have learnt through language. It could be my Dad telling me that most managers are fools, the theory I learnt at university about how these conversations should go or the story I have about myself that I am disorganised and incompetent.  The factors influencing my response could be numerous. (Psychological flexibility is the skill of not being pushed around by these responses and is the central theme of this blog.)

This means that when my manager tries to do the right thing and work out my perspective on the feedback, she is likely to get it wrong.

It is almost impossible to really see the world through another person’s eyes. Insoo Kim Berg used to say ‘You must have a good reason to…’ She believed that people’s behaviour always made sense to them. If the behaviour doesn’t make sense to us then it is because we don’t have enough information. Her response was to ask questions with a stance of genuine curiosity and a real interest in understanding the other person and their behaviour.

Unsurprisingly, research shows that negotiations lead to better outcomes when at least one party asks good questions. Negotiators tend to make false assumptions about the other person’s needs and motives. Acting on those assumptions leads to poorer outcomes for both parties.

So next time you need to have a difficult conversation with someone – do spend time considering their perspective before the conversation but also make sure you remain curious throughout the conversation, gathering information that will help you both to reach a good outcome.

“You must have a good reason to…” Insoo Kim Berg

When Feeling Awkward Gets In The Way Of Change

Have you ever wanted to try something new but because it felt awkward you backed away from the change and went back to what felt more comfortable, even though part of you really wanted to persist with the change?

I have been struggling with such a difficulty.

I recently become aware of something small that could lessen the influence I potentially have in the world. It looks like this:

Dotty Rachel

When you look at that photo do you think – ‘There sits a credible executive coach and corporate facilitator?’ I didn’t think so!

Although I don’t actually turn up to meetings with clients looking this dishevelled and dotty (really I don’t!). I do have wild hair and a tendency to present myself a bit like a kindly lady doctor (as this is what I was for many years!).

However, I recently read this paper and also this one and realised that appearances do impact on whether others take us seriously. Then a dear friend, who is also a client, told me, ‘Rachel, one of the things I love about working with you is that you turn up to run a session and people don’t expect you to be so competent because you aren’t dressed in a sharp suit and you appear so unassuming and then you do amazing work and they are surprised‘.

And I became concerned. I want my work to have a significant impact on others. I want to play a part in helping people to have more vitality and meaning in their work. I don’t want something as simple as my appearance to mean I am starting at a disadvantage with new clients.

So I decided that I wanted to present myself in a way that is authentic but perhaps a little more skilful. Goffee and Jones call this: Be Yourself – More – with Skill.

What does that look like for me? Probably not a sharp suit but perhaps a little tidier?

So I ask my lovely daughter, Ellie, to teach me how to put my hair in a bun. I have found this new skill very hard to learn. I feel clumsy and awkward. My mind kicks into action telling me, ‘Why are you wasting time learning something so silly when you could be learning something useful and important like Relational Frame Theory‘. The bun falls out halfway through the day and my mind says, ‘Told you this was ridiculous’.  I start to wear a little more make up and my mind tells me ‘It is so superficial to focus on your appearance’ and ‘Everyone is judging you‘. I feel like a fraud. But part of me is excited about the possibility of who I could become.

In the presence of these conflicting thoughts and feelings I remind myself that the best values and actions are freely chosen. It is okay for something as small as learning how to put my hair in a bun to matter to me. I ask Ellie to help me again..and again. I write down her instructions and follow them carefully.Notes on how to make a french roll I am still rubbish at buns but I persist. One day I will be a lady who weaves beautiful buns, knots and french rolls. Hopefully, as a result, I will look a little less dotty and a little more competent and I will ‘be myself – more – with skill’.

If you were to ‘be yourself – more – with skill’ what would be different about how the world experiences you? Is there a change that you want to make but it feels awkward?Would the change be a move towards your values? If so, are you willing to persist with the change and have the feelings of awkwardness?

I hope so! Because:

‘It is never too late to be who you might have been’

George Elliot

I am going to be the lady who both knows Relational Frame Theory and wears a beautiful bun.

How about you? Who will you be?

Could It Be Helpful To Focus On Your Mistakes?

Do you have a tendency to focus on your mistakes? To notice the 5% of your presentation that wasn’t as good as it could be? To really remember and mentally grind over the times when your work was mediocre or even a bit rubbish?

I do.

English: Screenshot of Julie Andrews from the ...
English: Screenshot of Julie Andrews from the trailer for the film Mary Poppins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was keen on challenging such ‘dysfunctional thoughts’, I would give myself a pep talk about it, ‘Now Rachel,  this is ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking. Just because you didn’t handle that question from the audience well, doesn’t mean it was terrible. Let’s remember what went well’.  It was like Mary Poppins lived inside my head. She meant well but she kind of irritated me. Do you know the voice I mean? The one that tries to help you think more positively?

When I discovered ACT, I started to respond differently to these thoughts. Instead of trying to change them, I worked on noticing them with curiosity.

Have you tried that approach? What did you notice? Perhaps you tend to be hardest on yourself when your behaviour doesn’t align with your values. You might also notice which feelings turn up when you don’t do as well as you had hoped – shame, guilt, embarrassment, disappointment?  What urges do you get when these thoughts and feelings turn up? Do you feel like you want to give up or do you want to try to do better next time?

This curiosity about your thoughts, feelings and impulses can be very useful. It makes it easier to become more flexible in responding to your thoughts and feelings and this can improve performance.

This curiosity might help you to notice those times when focussing on mistakes disheartens you and other times when it actually motivates you to improve.

When you are trying a new behaviour and you are worried that you won’t ever succeed then a self-critical stance can be de-motivating. Which is okay if the activity doesn’t relate to what is important to you. But if it does matter to you, if it is a move towards what you want your life to be about, then letting Mary Poppins give you a motivational pep talk might be helpful. ‘You can do it! Everyone messes up when they are starting out! This is really important to you. Keep going and you will get better at this. What is one small action you could take today that would move you forwards?‘ Note: The pep talk is best if it is realistic, links to your values and focusses on taking action.  Telling yourself you are doing wonderfully and are destined for stardom can be problematic.  You aren’t trying to get rid of the painful thoughts – that tends to be self-defeating.

However, if you notice that the self-critical thoughts encourage you to try harder then a different approach may be useful.  If you are highly motivated to achieve mastery at a behaviour and over time you have been becoming better with practice, then you may find it useful to focus on your mistakes. Focussing on the places where you have done poorly and working out how to improve are an important part of becoming an expert.

So next time you notice self-critical thoughts, you might want to try this approach:

  1. Pause – notice the thoughts, notice your feelings, notice your impulses
  2. Check in with your values – is this something that really matters to you? If it does, then consider either:
  3. Giving yourself a self compassionate, values driven pep talk and then take a small action to move yourself forwards, or,
  4. Really focussing on the mistake and working on improving your performance.

It is all about psychological flexibility!

Growing Compassion in Organisations

Hello!

I am so excited to be joining “Working with ACT” exactly two years to the day since Rob and Rachel started this wonderful blog. Working with mindfulness and values is a big part of my professional and personal life. My aim is to bring you interesting perspectives on ACT research.

By way of introduction, I thought I might briefly review one of my own papers written with Sharon Parker.  I promise I will focus on papers by other people in the future 🙂  Here is the citation from which you can link to the paper if you would like to read more.

Atkins, P. W. B., & Parker, S. K. (2012). Understanding individual compassion in organizations: the role of appraisals and psychological flexibility. Academy of Management Review, 37(3).

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“I don’t do emotions!”  This was a comment made by one of my students in reaction to an exercise exploring values and stressors at work. But in reality, we all “do emotions”. A growing body of evidence clearly shows that emotions are a major determinant of performance in all workplaces, including public sector organisations.  Emotions alert us to what matters, they allow us to communicate and make decisions that are effective.  Emotions are at the heart of thinking about how we wish to live and what we wish to create in society?

Becoming skilful at recognising and influencing emotions at work is a key facet of effective leadership and management. Such skill rests upon the quality of our awareness and perspective taking ability. We need to be able to take the perspective of others to act effectively. We need to be compassionate if we are to respond skilfully to our own and others emotions.

Compassion towards oneself and others is a critical part of building effective relationships and making good decisions at work. Think for example of how you handle situations where you or someone in your team fails to achieve important goals. What would it be like if people were more compassionate towards themselves and others at these times?

Compassion is not just a feeling.  It involves four stages:

  1. Noticing another is suffering,
  2. Making judgments about what is going on,
  3. Feeling empathy, and
  4. Taking action.

There are three judgments that can get in the way of compassion towards self or others.

First, we can fail to be compassionate because we judge that the person who is suffering is not deserving of our compassion. For example, we might judge that the person brought their suffering on themselves.

Second, we might judge that the person’s suffering is not relevant to us. Research shows we are much less likely to extend suffering to others who have different goals, or belong to groups with which we do not identify. If we make this judgment, we are more likely to feel disconnection rather than compassion.  One can easily see how this judgment is involved in the debate over immigration in this country.

Third, we make a judgment about our personal resources. If we don’t feel as though we can cope with being in the presence of another who is suffering in some way, we are more likely to feel distress rather than compassion.  The manager who cannot bear to be in the presence of a person crying is making this sort of judgment.  This judgment appears to be involved in the experience of burnout many people feel when they work in jobs that involve caring for others.

Of course, these judgments are sometimes justified.  Modern evolutionary theory suggests that such judgments are an important aspect of self-protection and effective group function.  Sometimes it is best not to feel compassion, or at least not to act upon it. Our argument is not that we should always feel more compassion. Our argument is that it is helpful to become more aware of the automatic reactions that drive our behaviour. To the extent that we can catch our reactions in motion, we can choose our responses more deliberately and improve our effectiveness.

So how might we learn to catch our automatic reactions, and act more in line with what really matters?

If you have been following this blog you will know that there are two aspects of effective training in emotional skills. First, we need to increase mindfulness. Being mindful means being aware of what is happening in each moment both within ourselves and in the world and bringing an attitude of openness to that experience. Second, we need to be clear about our values and the values of the organisation in which we work. There is no point developing awareness if we don’t know how we want to act in the world. Values act as a compass to guide our behaviour.

What has been your experience of compassion at work? Is it encouraged? Does it have a positive impact?

Tackling Our Culture of Cruelty

A recent Panorama investigation found systematic abuse of elderly residents going on in a UK care home.  Some of the most vulnerable people in our society were being ritually abused by their so-called carers:

On the top floor of a special hospital, locked away from their families and friends, a group of men and women are subjected to a regime of physical assaults, systematic brutality, and torture by the very people supposed to be caring for them.  The victims are some of the most vulnerable in society – the learning disabled, the autistic, and the suicidal.

Sadly, this may be merely the tip of the iceberg.  In this week’s Sunday Times Minette Marin wrote of the terrible neglect of nurses that she witnessed first hand.  Similarly, the MP Ann Clwyd has told of her husband’s inhumane treatment at the hands of the NHS and asked whether cruelty is now normal in the NHS.  Today I listened to a phone in programme where one man described a ward of vulnerable geriatrics and simply said:

“Nobody seemed to care”.

How does this happen?  Presumably no nurse goes into that profession for any other reason than to care for others?  So what happens?

Organisational culture is clearly a factor and a number of systemic problems contribute –  poor job control, lack of autonomy, lack of a proper leadership.  But at some level cruelty is an individual choice.  We create our cultures, then they create us.  So what can we do about that?

I think this is a problem of experiential avoidance.  I propose that nurses dealing with ‘difficult’ or elderly patients are brought into contact with their own fears and insecurities about becoming old, infirm, or mentally impaired.  These fears – being intolerable – can only be dealt with by distancing themselves from the patients and dissociating from them.  And we don’t have to go far back in history to see the terrible, shaping effects of dissociation on human behaviour.

So what can be done?  Plenty, and we could start by not dissociating ourselves from the nurses.  The problem is that the alternative – empathy – is not the simple panacea that most people assume.  It takes real effort and psychological skill.  It is not something we can just do, any more than we can suddenly start sticking to diets or going to the gym five times a week.

The key to empathy is reducing experiential avoidance.  And we know how to do that.  Firstly train people – help them – to gently reconnect with what they care about.  Then help them to defuse empathy & experiential avoidancefrom the difficult thoughts and emotions that will arise from taking valued action.  We know we can’t get rid of those fears and demons, but we can respond to them differently, and in so doing shift the context for our behaviour.

People often talk about practicing empathy and practicing compassion.  That’s good, because these things do take practice.  But in order to practice we need to understand what prevents us from practicing.

In most cases, it is our own demons.  And we have been running from them for too long.

warning, this is a harrowing clip:

Find Your Passion At Work! (Just Don’t Expect to Feel Passionate About It When You Do)

One of the reasons I left consultancy is because I felt that the work was meaningless.  In meetings I would try not to fall asleep as people droned on about project dependencies and stakeholder management and at the weekend all I did was dread Mondays.

It wasn’t unpleasant exactly, it was the lack of something that bothered me.  I wanted to feel passion and meaning at work, instead I experienced a sense that I did not care about the low hanging fruit as much as other people seemed to.

Now, many years later, I have created a working life which I do feel passionate about.  Some nights I have to force myself to go to bed – like a child on Christmas day – because that will make the next day come faster.  Some days I work with a client and it will hit me: I love this.

So for all the people who write about finding your passion at work: good for you.  It is possible.  It is necessary.  Well done!

But your books are still at best horribly misleading and at worst, dangerous…

passionatwork

The thing about passion at work is that it is rarely characterised by feelings of passion.  It is, if anything, characterised by feelings of anxiety and doubt, particularly in the early days.  For me those years were filled with thoughts about whether this was really the right thing, whether I could do it, whether I was falling behind my peers.

Even today those moments where I feel  passionate about what I do are rare and fleeting.  Working with people who are stuck can be draining and usually I am assailed by doubts about my own ability to help, my mind telling me what a terrible psychologist I am.  Plus it can be very painful working with people who are themselves in pain.

Is this what I left consultancy to find?  Is this really passion at work?

Well, yes.  I am truly passionate about what I do and I am so thankful that I get to do it (well, most days).

But if I had not been show how to grow more willing to respond flexibly to painful thoughts and emotions, then I would have never have reached where I am now.

In short, if I had defined passion as feelings of passion then the journey would have stopped long, long ago.

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