Performance in the modern workplace takes on many different forms – effective communication, clarity of decision making, creative problem solving, or even keeping mistakes to a minimum. The skills needed to improve performance therefore vary from task to task.
However there are certain psychological states that underpin high performance irrespective of the task involved. These include:
- Task focus. High performance nearly always rests on on the ability to focus on the task, often for long periods and not to be distracted by internal or external factors.
- Goal clarity. Understanding what is trying to be achieved is critical because it gives meaning to one’s moment to moment experience. Without goal clarity we tend to go through the motions.
- Intrinsic motivation. Understanding not just what the goal is but why it matters is critical. Research has indicated that extrinsic rewards alone can lead to a subsequent reduction in intrinsic motivation.
- Behavioural flexibility. If you want the same results, then keep doing what you are doing. A major barrier to improving performance is rigid thinking or habitual responses formed in previous experience. We need to recognise when to persist and when to adopt a different approach.
- Experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance occurs when someone tries to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings by changing what they actually do in their life. A large body of research shows that higher experiential avoidance is associated with lower wellbeing, work performance and quality of life.
Recent research shows that psychological flexibility assists with each of these factors. In particular by:
- Helping people concentrate on the task for longer periods of time and become more mindful of what they are doing.
- Increasing the salience of tasks by linking them explicitly to goals, behaviours and values, thereby increasing motivation.
- Helping people recognise when to persist and when to change behaviour, rather than being trapped into ineffective patterns of behaviour.
Building Psychological Flexibility
To build psychological flexibility, there are three skills which are trained:
- Increase awareness of the present moment – by increasing one’s sensitivity to what is happening in the present moment we can discriminate between what we observe with our 5 senses and what our sometimes unreliable (or autopilot) minds tell us is happening.
- Cognitive defusion – this means developing the ability to watch thoughts come and go, and then choosing which thoughts to act on, rather than getting ‘hooked’ by difficult or disruptive thoughts. It is not about changing thoughts, but changing one’s relationship to them.
- Values-based action – psychological flexibility is ultimately about focusing attention on what it is we really want to achieve. Increasing awareness of an individual’s values helps build motivation and enables people to take positive and sustained action, even when doing so is challenging.
These three skills help counter the factors that underpin poor performance.
In a nutshell, psychological flexibility enables people to focus and engage fully in what they are doing rather than getting pushed around by their thoughts and feelings and commit to doing what works more often.
Psychological Flexibility in Action
Sports psychologists emphasise the role of the ‘right mindset’ to athletes, telling them to clear their mind, be calm and confident, and to remember their successes. But the reality is that performers are just as filled with doubt, worry and negativity, as the rest of us, even at the elite level. Focusing on getting rid of those thoughts can:
- Be counterproductive – if the athlete tries to get rid of negative thoughts, research shows that thoughts can become more influential, not less, leading to even greater entanglement.
- Detract focus from the present moment –if the athlete starts saying ‘It’s OK, I’m a good kicker, take a deep breath, relax’, then they are not actually focusing on the kick, but on their thoughts.
Over time, if negative thoughts become evaluated as ‘bad’ (i.e. synonymous with ‘lack of confidence’), or the ‘wrong mindset’, then we come to fear our own natural response to new experiences. This increases our tendency towards experiential avoidance.
The alternative – learning to be present and accepting thoughts – allows us to see negative experiences as normal, whilst being able to refocus our attention on our chosen behaviour.
In summary, by using the skills of psychological flexibility in the pursuit of values-directed behaviour, people experience higher levels of motivation, task-focus, wellbeing and performance.
- Wegner, D. M. (1989). White bears and other unwanted thoughts: Suppression, obsession, and the psychology of mental control. New York: Viking/Penguin.
- Bond, Flaxman, van Veldhoven & Biron (2010). The impact of psychological flexibility and ACT on health and productivity at work. In Houdmon & Leka (Eds).
- Flaxman & Bond (2010). Acceptance and Commitment Training: Promoting Psychological Flexibility Training in the workplace. Baer (ed).
- Gardner & Moore (2007). The Psychology of Enhancing Human performance. Springer.