Picture this. You're in a meeting with half a dozen engineering leaders from your company, including the Director of an adjacent org and the CTO.
You're going back and forth with the Director about a new process they are proposing. The principles they are using to justify it have been obsolete for at least a decade. But even more importantly, it's at odds with every single tenet the engineering org has been following for the last two years.
But you can't just tell them they are wrong. Can you?
You value learning, you always look for alternate perspectives to improve your understanding. So, you're leaning into curiosity and using all your conflict resolution skills to get on the same page with the Director. You ask what makes it important for them to implement this process; you want to know their motivation.
But they just say it's to ensure quality and skillfully dodge any deeper, probing questions.
After about 40 minutes of this, you've exhausted all your patience, and you can't muster any more curiosity. So, you exclaim in exasperation, "Honestly, I don't see how it could achieve anything other than to cover your ass!"
GASP!!! Dead silence in the room. Stunned faces all around you. You instantly regret the words leaving your mouth, but it's too late!
Luckily, the CTO swoops in and quickly wraps up the meeting. Then she pulls you into an adjacent conference room and tells you, "George, I love you, but you piss people off."
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Okay, yes, it was me. I lost my cool. I failed to manage my emotions. And I made the already unproductive meeting much, much worse.
Not only haven't we resolved the disagreement in a meeting that was called specifically for that. But when it was finally sorted out, it was done without my involvement. Because others, justifiably, didn't trust me to stay professional.
In my defense, as a relatively new leader, I focused all my learning on the mechanics of conflict resolution, implementing unpopular changes, and supporting employees going through difficult times. But I had no idea what to do if none of those strategies worked.
The skill that I needed the most at that moment was psychological flexibility.
And it's not just me. Even if you are a skilled leader, the day-to-day stresses of your job, and the occasional emotional whiplash, can, over time, cause emotional fatigue, stress, and even trauma. What enables you to deal with all that is, again, the psychological flexibility.
Unfortunately, you're unlikely to find it in many leadership development programs.
So, what is psychological flexibility?
If somebody had told me after that meeting that I needed to learn to manage my emotions, I would have probably imagined a Spock-like composure—the complete suppression of any emotion. Or, at the very least—because I'm not Spock—not showing my undesirable emotions.
However, suppressing and denying emotions is not the same as managing them.
All that accomplishes is either an uncontrollable outburst when you're no longer able to hold back all those repressed emotions. Or burnout and depression if you are successful at suppressing. I'm not sure which one is worse.
In contrast, psychological flexibility allows you to adjust your thoughts and behaviors while acknowledging your emotions without judgment.
Psychological flexibility refers to an individual's ability to adapt and adjust their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in response to changing situations while staying aligned with their values and goals.
Psychological flexibility involves being open to experiences, practicing mindfulness, accepting one's internal experiences without judgment, and taking committed action toward one's values.
The role of psychological flexibility in leadership
Several studies (Bond and Hayes, 2006; Kashdan and Rottenberg, 2010) have found that psychological flexibility enables you, the leader, to:
increase resilience in the face of adversity,
reduce stress and burnout,
improve employee engagement and satisfaction,
make effective decisions.
Effective decision-making and problem-solving are greatly enhanced by psychological flexibility. By practicing acceptance, cognitive defusion, and mindfulness, you enable yourself to maintain clarity of thought, consider diverse perspectives, and make well-informed and creative decisions.
Leaders with high psychological flexibility are also skilled in regulating their emotions and understanding the emotions of others. They can manage their reactions in stressful situations, remain composed, and empathize with their team members. Research also indicated that leaders who are more effective at emotional regulation are perceived as more empathetic by their employees (Kopperud, Buch, and Skogen, 2020).
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Recently, psychological safety has been receiving more and more attention as an important characteristic of healthy and productive teams.
Psychological flexibility and psychological safety are related, but there are some significant differences.
Psychological safety refers to a shared belief within a team that individuals can express themselves, take risks, and be vulnerable without fear of negative consequences. It is an environment based on trust, mutual respect, and supportive interactions where individuals feel comfortable speaking up, sharing ideas, and making mistakes.
Psychological flexibility, on the other hand, is all about the individual—you, the leader, in this case.
Psychological safety in a team is not possible without a leader who possesses a high degree of psychological flexibility and effectively models it to their team.
Let me repeat that.
Psychological safety is not possible without a leader who possesses a high degree of psychological flexibility.
In other words, if you're concerned about low psychological safety on your team, start by increasing your psychological flexibility.
Next, we'll talk about developing psychological flexibility as a leader. And integrating it into your organization's leadership development program. Stay tuned.
- Bond, F. W., Hayes, S. C., & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2006). Psychological Flexibility, ACT, and Organizational Behavior. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 26(1-2), 25–54. https://doi.org/10.1300/J075v26n01_02.
- Kashdan TB, Rottenberg J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clin Psychol Rev. 2010 Nov; 30(7):865-78. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.001.
- Kopperud, K.H., Buch, R., and Skogen, C., (2020). Work overload and leader–member exchange: The moderating role of psychological flexibility. Journal of General Management 2021, Vol. 46(3) 173–184. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306307020942905.