In my last article, I introduced a construct that is fairly new to psychology that is just now being ushered into the organizational space: psychological flexibility.

After learning about psychological flexibility, I have come to believe that the following rather dismal leadership statistics are largely a result of leaders not being very psychologically flexible:

In this article, I:

  • More formally define psychological flexibility
  • Identify the dimensions of psychological flexibility
  • Provide questions to assess the degree to which you fall on the continuum of psychologically inflexible to psychologically flexible across each of the dimensions

What is Psychological Flexibility?

Psychological flexibility is a way to gauge one’s psychological health on a continuum ranging from psychologically inflexible to psychologically flexible. Of course, our own flexibility lies somewhere along the continuum, but let me define each of its poles:

Psychological Inflexibility

When someone is psychologically inflexible, they hold rigid dominance on psychological reactions over chosen values. They have a difficult time making space for contingencies.

(Here is a YouTube video that demonstrates this inflexibility: Jordan Klepper vs. Trump Supporters. FYI, I don’t think that Republicans are uniquely psychologically inflexible.)

They generally hold on to their evaluative and self-descriptive thoughts (correct or incorrect) in an attempt to avoid experiencing unwanted internal events. To go back to the video clip, such people would rather hold onto irrational ideas than admit they are wrong.

This rigidity in one’s thinking as a form of self-protection actually has the ironic effect of enhancing people’s distress because it:

  • Reduces their contact with the present
  • Decreases their likelihood of taking values-based action
  • Causes them to think and act in ways that limit their long-term success

Generally, psychologically inflexible people feel buffeted by their uncontrollable and feared internal experiences.

Psychological Flexibility

When someone is psychologically flexible, they have the ability to fully contact the present moment and the thoughts and feelings it contains without needless defense and can adapt to the needs of the situation, persisting in or changing behavior in the pursuit of goals and values.

This ability to hold to goals and values without rigidly holding onto one’s initial thoughts, feelings, or judgments allows an individual to:

  • Focus on the here-and-now situational demands (as opposed to focusing on protecting their thoughts, feelings, or judgments)
  • Take the long-term perspective even in the midst of emotional turmoil
  • Consistently behave in ways that honor their core values

The Six Dimensions of Psychological Inflexibility & Flexibility

 

Psychological Inflexibility

Psychological Flexibility

1Experiential Avoidance – Distances self from unwanted feelings and experiencesAcceptance – Being willing to contact unwanted experiences and learn from them
2Lack of Contact with Present – Not paying attention to one’s experiences in any given momentPresent Moment Awareness – Possessing mindful attentive awareness of present moments
3Self as Content – Seeing difficult thoughts and feelings as a reflection of oneself and shaming oneself for having themSelf as Context – Can maintain a healthy psychological distance from difficult thoughts
4Fusion – Easily gets trapped in unwanted internal experiences and inactionDefusion – Being able to step through from unwanted experiences without getting stuck in them
5Lack of Contact with Values – Losing track of one’s priorities and values in the stress of the dayContact with Values – Staying connected to values and being directed by them
6Inaction – Easily gets derailed by setbacks or difficult experiencesCommitted Action – Possessing a resilient ability to move forward amidst setbacks

 Assess Your Level of Psychological Flexibility

The following table includes questions (not all items of these measures are included) designed to assess your level of flexibility. The items align with the dimensions above.

 

Psychological Inflexibility

Psychological Flexibility

1•       I try to distract myself when I feel unpleasant emotions

•       When something unsettling came up, I tried very hard to stop thinking about it

•       I try to make peace with my negative thoughts rather than resist them

•       When something unsettling came up, I try to give it space rather than ignore it

2•       I do most things on “automatic” with little awareness of what I am doing

•       Most of the time, I just go through the motions

•       I am generally in tune with my thoughts and feelings from moment to moment

•       I strive to remain mindful and aware of my own thoughts and feelings

3•       I criticize myself for irrational or inappropriate emotions

•       I commonly tell myself that I shouldn’t be feeling the way I’m feeling

•       When something painful happens, I try to take a balanced view of the situation

•       Even when I feel hurt or upset, I try to maintain a broader perspective

4•       Distressing thoughts tend to spin around in my mind like a broken record

•       When something bad happens, it is hard for me to stop thinking about it

•       I can step back and notice negative feelings without reacting to them

•       I let negative feelings come and go without getting caught up in them

5•       The things that I value the most often fall off my priority list

•       When life gets hectic, I often lose touch with the things I value

•       I try to connect with what is truly important to me on a daily basis

•       My deeper values consistently give direction to my life

6•       Negative feelings often trap me in inaction

•       Negative feelings easily stall out my plans

•       Even when I stumble, I don’t quit working toward what is important

•       I don’t let my own fears and doubts get in the way of taking action toward my goals

The Need for Psychological Flexibility in Leaders

It is my guess that if you could go back to episodes where you had a negative interaction with a leader, one or both of the following conditions were true:

  • Your leader was being psychologically inflexible
  • You were being psychologically inflexible

Do you know of any leadership trainings that talk about psychological flexibility? I don’t. What do you think the impact of trainings on psychological flexibility would have for current and emerging leaders? I don’t know about you, but I feel like it would have a huge shift in leadership effectiveness, organizational culture, and employee engagement.

I have a program designed to help leaders to become more psychologically flexible. If this is something you are interested in, grab a time to connect with me: Connect with Ryan.

The next article will unveil some of the content in this program as I connect the role mindsets play in psychological flexibility.