A few years ago in the UK, a Panorama investigation uncovered systematic abuse of elderly care home residents who were being routinely pushed about, belittled and humiliated by their so-called carers.
Worse, when whistleblowers drew attention to the abuse it was they themselves who were disciplined by senior management. Empathy for the victims seemed in short supply as it took a TV investigation for action to be taken.
This is just one example in a long line of depressing stories about toxic leadership. From MPs to journalists, and leaders in organisations from Big Tech to oil, the modern era seems one where empathy, care and values in leadership can be in short supply.
Values and leadership
Theorists like Bruce Avolio have argued that we need a more authentic form of leadership, which connects leaders to what really matters to them. This acts as a kind of compass for leaders, which is especially useful in times of uncertainty (read; now).
Put simply, pursuing our values makes life psychologically harder, not easier. We tend to hurt where we care.
It is much easier to avoid this psychological discomfort – something that psychologists call experiential avoidance. However in the turning away from our discomfort, we often turn away from our values.
This is why experiential avoidance is perhaps the biggest driver of substandard leadership behaviour (as well as in clinical contexts, poorer mental health).
After all it’s far easier to avoid that awkward but important conversation than to have it.
how can we help our leaders live their values in practice?
Many of my organisational clients are introducing this training, not least because psychological flexibility is so practical, and especially effective with difficult situations involving ambiguity or uncertainty – what Todd Kashdan ‘calls the messiness of human life’.
Psychological flexibility is important in leadership for three reasons:
It helps people clarify and understand their values in practice, not just in theory.
It helps people stay more aware of the present moment, which means that they are more likely to notice opportunities to be empathetic and engaged with other people.
It gives leaders the skills to move towards their values and deal with the psychological cost of doing so. By building willingness to have difficult thoughts and emotions, it reduces the natural human tendency to avoid them.
Too many leadership training programmes focus on values and forget to train people in the skills that help them live their values.
Yet unless we do this, leaders will continue to run from the pain that empathy brings them.
Do you have some activities that you just avoid? You never quite get them done and you feel bad about not getting them done?
It could be cleaning out the kitchen cupboards; sorting out your email; exercising; updating your LinkedIn profile; cleaning your car…
We know we should do it, but we kind of don’t choose to do it.
And that would be okay, but if you are like me, your mind sometimes uses this lack of action as evidence that you are lazy, disorganised, neglectful…
I drive a 5 year old car. I almost never wash it. It is usually messy on the inside too. Hats, sunglasses, shoes (including, I am embarrassed to admit, a pair of red Crocs), sundry shopping bags and wrappers from chocolate bars are scattered around the seats and floor. Discarded bits and pieces that found their way into my car but never seem to find their way out.
Why is my car like this?
The logical reason is that having a clean, tidy car is low on my list of priorities. Now and again I write ‘Clean out car’ on my job list for the day, but other, more interesting (Write blog post) or more urgent (Invoicing) tasks crowd it out.
Even though I often have ‘good reasons’ for not cleaning out my car, when someone else sees how messy my car is, my ‘I am not good enough’ story pops up. I worry that they will see me as lazy and disorganised. (Which sometimes I am, but I don’t want other people to know that!)
I could use this concern to motivate me. I could clean my car to avoid the pain of other people’s judgment. In ACT terms this is an avoidance move. An avoidance move is where a behaviour (e.g. cleaning the car) is about avoiding painful internal stuff (e.g. fear of other’s judgement). There is a lot of research to tell us that a life that is organised around avoiding unwanted emotions isn’t healthy. It is clear that repeated avoidance doesn’t lead to a rich and meaningful life. So, perhaps, for me, having a messy car might just align with my values?
This is where is gets tricky. Just because cleaning my car could be an avoidance move, it doesn’t mean that ‘not cleaning my car’ is a move towards my values.
It depends what I do instead of cleaning out my car. If, instead of cleaning my car, I engage in activities that link to my values – writing a blog post; spending time with people I love; learning something new – then, over time, those choices will likely help me to build a rich and meaningful life.
But if, instead of cleaning out my car, I obsessively watch videos of Beyonce, trying to figure out if she and JayZ are happy or not. Then it is likely that I am caught in avoidance, which is usually a bad idea.
So what do we do, when we are in the grip of avoidance? The first step is to take a breath and notice. How are you feeling in this moment? When you pause, see if you can notice, with curiosity and kindness, the whole range of thoughts and feelings that show up. And then, pause some more and see if you can notice what thoughts or feelings you might be avoiding.
For me, as I pause my YouTube video, I could notice that I don’t want to feel:
Bored whilst I clean out my car, or,
Anxious whilst I write a blogpost ‘What if people think it is stupid?’, or,
Challenged and a bit stressed as I try to master a new piece of theory.
Could I make room for those thoughts and feelings? And, if I did make room for them, and chose what to do next based on what really matters to me, what would I do?
Sometimes, just now and again, that might even be to spend ten minutes cleaning out my car.
This version includes improved ideas for thriving in the age of Coronavirus as well as a new section on parenting in lockdown.
This is from a CEO who’s been using it with his organisation:
Your Covid Marginal Gains booklet has been a great source to help me during this once in a life time roller coaster. It deals with so many layers that we are all going through and gave me confidence in what I was telling my team, give me solace in what I was feeling, and hope for what despair we all go through.
It was like he was performing some form of magic. He seemed to knows how to structure his questions and interactions in a way that freed people up. As I watched, I could tell that he was doing something extraordinary but I couldn’t work out how he was doing it. This was my first experience of Kelly Wilson. It was 2008 and I was at a workshop Kelly was running on applying mindfulness to psychotherapy. Kelly is a Professor of Psychology and an extraordinary therapist. He wrote the first ACT book with Steve Hayes and Kirk Strosahl.
As I watched Kelly, it was clear that he was incredibly compassionate and caring. That he was truly present in his interactions with people. That he was open to what turned up. You knew you could tell Kelly your deepest darkest secret and he would turn to you with kindness and understanding.
And he was doing something more than that.
Something I didn’t understand.
When Kelly asked a question it was as though he was selecting the exact words and phrases deliberately, like a master chef who knows that the dish needs just a tiny pinch of nutmeg to turn pleasant into exquisite.I had no idea how he chose which words were the right ones but I wanted to discover what he was doing. I wanted to use those skills to help my coaching clients.
That desire took me on a long and arduous journey.
It was hard.
I felt lost a lot of the time. I felt stupid. But I knew that there was something important here. Over time, I saw other people doing the same extraordinary thing as Kelly.
Sitting in the cool marble foyer of a hotel in Parma, Italy in 2011, Jonathan Kanter said one sentence to me. When I heard it, pain that I had held tight since childhood simply unravelled. Years of therapy had barely dented this pain but Jonathan says this one sentence and it melts, never to return again (more on that in another post).
A few months later, I had a 1:1 Skype session with Benji Schoendorff. This kind Frenchman asked me a few simple questions and the anxiety I feel when I give a presentation changed from something bad to something that now makes me smile.
I was impressed. I wanted to be able to do what these people could do. To be able to use language to do magic.
Step by step, I discovered that what makes these people so extraordinarily effective is a deep understanding of something very nerdy and scientific – contextual behavioural science, in general and relational frame theory, in particular. (You can read the research support for this approach here.)
The reason contextual behavioural scientists can use words with the same precision a master chef uses spices is that they understand the impact each person’s learning history has on their current behaviour. They understand how everything we do is an attempt to get something – even if that something is just avoiding the voice inside that says, ‘You aren’t good enough’. Contextual behavioural scientists understand how metaphors work and why they are so powerful. They understand how each new piece of information we are given slots into the network of what we have learnt in the past. They know that ideas don’t stand alone, they are inextricably linked to thousands of other thoughts and memories.
Kelly, Benji, Jonathan and thousands of other ACT therapists and coaches use that knowledge to help people to move towards flourishing. Bit by bit I am slowly getting a sense of how to do this. These theories are very complex. We touch on them over and over again in this blog. So, in this post I just want to give you a bite sized portion.
I want to describe how ‘transformation of stimulus functions’ can help people to grow.
‘The transformation of stimulus functions is said to occur when the functions of one stimulus alter or transform the functions of another stimulus in accordance with the derived relation between the two, without additional training.’ Dymond & Rehfelt 2000
What does transformation of stimulus functions mean in practical language? A stimulus is an event that influences behaviour. A stimulus can serve a range of functions, which means that it can make certain behaviours (both in our body and our mind) more or less likely.
Our environment and the people around us teach us many of these responses (i.e. we learn the function a stimulus has in a particular situation). Once you have learnt a particular response it is very difficult to unlearn it, but you can change your response to the stimulus by linking it to something that has a different function. (for RFT folk reading this and judging me, I know this is a ridiculous oversimplification but you didn’t really expect me to explain this, did you?)
For example, when I stand in front of a group to give a presentation I often feel very anxious. That anxiety then triggers an urge to make myself small and stay safe by sticking to dry clever theory. I have discovered that if I give in to those urges then my speech tends to become boring!
In our Skype session, Benji, asked me some questions about the anxiety I feel when I give a speech. As we talked, I started to see how the anxiety turns up because I care deeply about being genuinely helpful to the people in the room. This sounds obvious but noticing that connection between my anxiety and what matters to me has meant that the stimulus of anxiety now acts as a reminder that I care very much about what I am doing. It tells me that now is the moment to speak from my heart, risking rejection and judgement because I genuinely care about the impact of my session. I find myself smiling with the joy of knowing that right here, right now I can do something meaningful. When I do that my speeches tend to become more interesting!
Benji used language to create something that felt like magic to me. The function of my anxiety changed, it was now linked to my values. Transformation happened!
I want to walk you through an example of how you could transform your relationship with a tricky stimulus in your life.
Using Words to Weave Your Own Magic
Firstly, consider what tends to trigger you to be safe and boring rather than courageous and impactful?
When you are in the grip of that trigger, exactly how do you feel? What thoughts tend to be there for you? How does it feel in your body?
Really sink into that question. How does it feel to be inside your skin at that moment?
Once you have got a sense of what is important to you here, ask yourself – If I was being the person I want to be, how would I respond to that trigger?
Next time you notice that trigger and the associated thoughts and feelings, ask yourself:
Am I willing to take a small step towards being the person I want to be?
What would that look like?
And how would it feel?
I hope that for at least some of you, the trigger now acts to remind you to live your values.
If you are interested in learning how Benji uses RFT to transform people’s relationship with painful emotions then watch this presentation. (I particularly enjoy his gorgeous French accent and the cooing of his baby in the background)
If you want to know how Kelly weaves his magic then read this book and if you want to understand what Jonathan does then read this book.
And, if you are interested in learning how to apply ACT and RFT to workplace coaching and you are in Australia then check out this workshop. It would be great to see you there.
This post was co-authored with Marie-France Bolduc . Marie-France is an incredibly warm and compassionate ACT therapist and trainer based in Quebec. In a recent training session, her partner, Benjamin Schoendorff, described a lovely metaphor Marie-France has developed and I wanted to share it with you:
Our mind is a rule-making factory. It constantly tries to make sense of the world. It does this by developing rules that tell us what to do next; what something means; how we should feel; what we should think…
These rules can be helpful. They can save us time and energy.
For example, I have recently made a rule that I will walk 10,000 steps every day. It is a good rule that will help me to stay healthy. But what if I become overly rigid about that rule? What if I insist on walking 10,000 steps, even when I am sick? Then the rule becomes like a ruler – rigid and inflexible. I will also tend to beat myself up when I don’t follow it (like those teachers from my childhood, who used their rulers to wallop disobedient pupils!).
A more helpful approach to these internalized rules is to treat them more like flexible ribbons. They can be applied when it is helpful and not when it isn’t.
To give you another example of how this works in practice. I have a rule that, before I raise a concern, I need to have worked out how I contributed to the problem. This is another ‘good’ rule. It stops me from blaming people unfairly. But if I apply it rigidly, it can hold me back from being authentic. What if, try as I might, I can’t work out my part? Or, if actually no one caused the problem – it just happened? If I follow the rule rigidly, I am paralysed, unable to raise my concerns and sometimes as a result; my silence actually damages the relationship.
You might want to start to notice where rulers and ribbons turn up in your life.
What does it feel like when you turn a rule into a ruler? What is it like when you apply it more flexibly and gently like a ribbon?
The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.
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:
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. 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’
I am going to be the lady who both knows Relational Frame Theory and wears a beautiful bun.
It might be the impulse to buy more stuff that you don’t really need; watch TV instead of doing some exercise; let work dominate your life; make poor choices that change your life forever…
In this TEDx talk, Kelly McGonigal explains that the urges provoked by desire (the promise of happiness) have a tendency to overpower current happiness and satisfaction.
Desire for something you don’t have, but would like (in my case, millions of dollars and to write a best selling book!) can create stronger impulses than the feelings of contentment associated with what you do have (for me now: love, health, safety, meaningful work that uses my strengths). Even though what you have now may be much more important to you than what you desire.
When we feel that experience of wanting something, we feel an urge to do something to get that desire met. If we are to handle this tricky emotion wisely then we need to be clear about who we want to be and what we want our life to stand for. We need to have chosen the values we want to live by. But knowing your values isn’t enough.
You can mindfully notice how feelings of wishing and wanting are pulling you in a particular direction and check if that would be a move towards your values. You can become aware when desire is in control of your behaviour, catch yourself and come back to what really matters to you in the long term – love? kindness? connection? your health? security?
I want to be clear here that I am not suggesting that you abandon your ‘big, hairy, audacious goals‘, what I am suggesting is that you also:
1. Compassionately notice when pursuit of those goals feels driven and addictive. Pause and breathe and see if you can ride those impulses like waves rather than act on them.
2. Keep checking in as to how the goals you are currently pursuing fit with your values and life purpose
3. Have the ‘willpower’ to spend some time paying attention to other important areas of your life even though you may feel the addictive pull of the desire for something ‘bigger and better’ calling to you. Your thoughts might whisper, ‘I’ll just send one more email; read/write one more blog post; sign up for that course that promises to make me rich.’ Can you have those thoughts and the feelings associated with them and still spend the afternoon in the garden with your loved ones? Can you have those thoughts and feelings and bring your attention back to this moment now with all its small pleasures and pains?
Kelly McGonigal suggests that the recurring difficulties we experience in handling our desire well is not a sign that there is:
Something uniquely wrong with us – but it is actually part of being human. it is not just you, it is all of us.
Oddly, for me, accepting this makes it easier to deal with. How about you?
[I am running a low cost, one day workshop on ACT at The Relaxation Centre of QLD on Sun 3rd March. All proceeds go to the centre. I would love to see you there.]
In this interview,Maarten Aalberse suggests that we have a tendency to feel ashamed about feeling shame and that this causes us problems. He suggests responding to those feelings with empathy and compassion instead of trying to reject these painful emotions. What does that look like?
Shame comes up quite often for me. The other day, a participant in a session I was facilitating said, ‘Well I think this sort of thing is a waste of time. Nothing ever changes as a result.‘ and pop there it was… shame. Gnawing away at my gut. Making me want to crawl into a corner and hide.
My mind went into overdrive: I am a waste of space. All those years of training were a waste of time. I have been deluding myself. It was all pointless. ( I actually feel a bit ashamed letting you know the crazy thoughts my mind can come up with!)
And then, I remembered Maarten’s suggestions and I breathed and asked myself , ‘Can I turn towards this pain with kindness? Can I hold these feelings with compassion? Can I use all of those years of training to choose my next words? Even though the urge to react is so strong?’
This sounded like a good plan, so instead of getting defensive I responded with curiosity, ‘What would have to happen for today to be worthwhile? What would we each need to do?‘
The conversation moved forward and we made a plan.
I think that Maarten may be right. That allowing those feelings to be there and treating them with kindness may lead to more effective responses.
What about you…are you ashamed of shame? What happens when you treat those feelings with compassion instead? Does that work better for you?
Do you ever feel like you might not be the best person for the job?
Do you sometimes worry that people will find you out and realise that you aren’t smart enough or knowledgable enough or skilful enough for the job?
Do you sometimes get distracted by the fear that people are thinking that you are the wrong person for the job? That they are wishing they had a different boss, coach, project manager … even graffiti artist?
When that fear that you aren’t quite good enough comes up, what do you do?
When I am in the grip of that fear I can tend to push myself too hard, trying to be perfect. I can become preoccupied with scanning for signs that people are judging me and finding me wanting. I can ruminate over and over on the 1 piece of negative feedback I was given after a workshop and ignore the 99 pieces of positive feedback.
Apparently I am not alone. Most of us have this fear at some time. It even has a psychological name – Impostor Syndrome. You can take a test here to see how bad your ‘impostor syndrome’ is. It is particularly common in high achievers. Which is oddly reassuring!
If you look at your ‘I’m not good enough’ thoughts then you might just realised that, to a degree, these thoughts are actually right. There are almost certainly people who are more skilful than you at your job. They might even be sitting in the next cubicle to you.
What would happen if you accepted the fact that you probably aren’t the best person for the job?
Sit with that question for a moment. See what turns up for you.
Perhaps your focus might become about growth, on becoming better rather than being the best? On admitting mistakes and the gaps in your knowledge and asking for help?
You may also notice that you have one big advantage over the person who is better at this. You are there and they aren’t.
So what is the best way to deal with the fact that you probably aren’t the best person for the job?
1. Accept it – it may well be true. And however good you get, those thoughts are likely to turn up now and then.
2. Get present – you are the person on the spot. So make sure you take full advantage of that by bringing your attention to what you are doing.
3. Develop a growth mindset – it isn’t about being the best. It is about getting better.
It was a reminder that I have a tendency to waste the current moment worrying about the future.
I would have enjoyed medical school much more, if I had known that I would pass all of my exams ( I did just sneak through pharmacology with a bare pass but that is another story!).
I would have enjoyed the time when my children were little so much more, if I had known that they would grow into delightfulhuman beings. (Which they have, in my completely unbiased opinion!).
It goes on and on.
Even though I had this reminder stuck on my wall, I still found myself hooked by my worries.
I now take a slightly different ACT informed approach.
I accept that my mind has a natural tendency to worry. When worries come up I see them for what they are – my mind doing it’s best to look after me – and I let those thoughts play in the background. (This is called defusion)
I have a commitment to be mindful. I am training myself to notice where my attention is and to keep bringing it back to this minute now. This precious moment that will never return.
My definition of success has changed. Success now means living my values. Making moment to moment choices about the qualities I want to bring into a particular situation. (Rob has made a great list of values clarification exercises here). This shift changes everything. It means that in any moment I can move from being unsuccessful to successful.
For example, I value being authentic. So if I notice during a conversation that I am being inauthentic, I can choose what more authentic behaviour would look like in that situation and then in the very next moment, do it (which is sometimes incredibly scary!) and ‘Bam!’ I have just been successful. The interaction might go terribly or wonderfully but I have lived my values and that is my definition of success.