Psychological Flexibility: The Key to Successful Self Leadership
Over the last few months, I’ve been talking a lot about psychological flexibility. For me, it’s one of the most important skills leaders can develop to survive and thrive in these uncertain and fast-changing times. It underpins both high performance and a greater sense of wellbeing.
According to Steven Hayes, a leading voice in this area, psychological flexibility is “the ability to notice and accept the presence of negative thoughts, feelings, sensations, and still move towards what matters in life.”
This might sound simple, but don’t underestimate its power.
If you’re psychologically flexible, you’re able to focus on completing tasks, without succumbing to distractions. Your intrinsic motivation is high, because what you’re doing is aligned with your values and purpose. And if you do get stuck in unproductive behaviour patterns, you’ll spot it sooner and have more agency to get back on track.
If you’re low in psychological flexibility, the opposite will be the case. In fact, a range of studies have shown that low psychological flexibility predicts everything from poorer work performance and an inability to learn, to higher anxiety and more depression.
So, how you develop psychological flexibility?
To help clients develop psychological flexibility, I use a tool called the Life Lens.
The Life Lens is a simple way to observe what’s going on in the internal world of your thoughts and emotions, and the external world of your actions, as you move towards a meaningful goal.
Thoughts, feelings and actions that move you closer to your goal are called ‘towards moves’. Negative thoughts and emotions, and actions that distract from the achievement of the goal are called ‘away moves’.
To help bring this to life, let me illustrate with a couple of examples.
Helping Sarah carve out more time for ‘high impact’ work
Sarah was a busy leader who wanted to devote more time to what she called ‘high impact’ work. She had a number of these longer-term projects on her plate, but despite her best intentions, never seemed to get around to them. Instead, she often got caught up in back-to-back meetings and responding to emails. She was trapped in a familiar pattern of prioritising ‘urgent’ over ‘important’.
The first thing I helped Sarah do was reflect on why these ‘high impact’ projects mattered to her. It was immediately clear that they aligned well with what she was personally trying to achieve and the wider purpose of the business.
The next step was to talk about what was going on for Sarah in the moment when she intended to do this work. Sarah came to the honest insight that she sometimes prioritised email over longer-term projects because email gave her the feeling of achieving quick wins. In this situation, responding to email became an ‘away move’.
Sarah went on to design an experiment to commit an hour early in the day to high impact work. The challenge was to notice and accept any feelings of resistance or negative emotions, and still get the hour’s work done. Over time, she was able to develop this habit of focusing on higher value, higher impact work.
Helping Gareth improve his physical health
Gareth was a busy director who wanted to do more exercise in the evenings. He said he loved running, but at the end of day often felt too tired to do anything but collapse on the sofa with a beer.
Using the Life Lens tool, I helped Gareth design an experiment to observe clearly the moments of transition at the end of his work day, and create some ‘towards moves’ that could help him develop a running habit. One of these involved leaving his trainers out where he could see them. Another was to celebrate his running achievements, even if he ran for only a few minutes. The idea of creating change in small steps is well supported by BJ Fogg’s work on tiny habits.
After trying this experiment with the Life Lens, Gareth reported that even the act of becoming more aware of the transition between work and home life made him more likely to go for a run. He had made conscious what were previously unconscious behaviours. This gave him more freedom to choose his valued running behaviour.
Gareth reported that he sometimes finished work with an anxious feeling in his chest. He also had thoughts like, “I’ve worked hard, I deserve a treat.” When these things happened together, he was much more likely to grab a beer and distract himself by checking social media on his phone. Later, he felt guilty for not exercising. This was all really valuable information. In these situations, Gareth’s intention became to accept these thoughts and feelings, and still go for a run.
While progress wasn’t always smooth, over time both Sarah and Gareth were able to develop more constructive habits. At the heart of this was having the psychological flexibility to accept any negative thoughts and emotions in the moment, and still take a step towards creating something valuable.
The beauty of psychological flexibility is that it can be applied to any work or life challenge. If you framed your current situation as a crucible for your development, what would it allow you to achieve?