“I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
The Need for Space
Leading in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world takes up a lot of our psychological space. Leaders are required to think in more complex ways, build relationships with a wider range of people, and behave with a higher level of agility. All of these take a lot of conscious effort. When we are under pressure our psychological space shrinks and we are unable to make this effort. As a consequence, our thinking becomes black and white, we become emotionally defensive, and our behaviour becomes inflexible.
What Takes up Space?
Under pressure our psychological space shrinks because we worry. We start to worry about what has happened in the past or what may happen in the future. The more we worry the less psychological space we have available to deal with the present. We all suffer when we are under sustained pressure. We get tired and exhausted. This is normal. This is what is called ‘clean suffering’. The additional worry we pile on top is called ‘dirty suffering’. We create more suffering for ourselves and dealing with this takes up the psychological space we need for our leadership in a VUCA world.
For example, when we are under pressure, or when things start to go wrong, we often play in our heads the ‘I’m not good enough’ story. We all have this story, it’s a part of human nature; however, as people don’t generally talk about it, we think we are the only one. We then start to feel that we are an ‘imposter’ and we’re going to be found out. Gradually, we become so fused with the ‘I’m not good enough’ story it affects our emotions. We become unhappy and stressed. As these emotions are painful, we try to push them away through a variety of ways such as being busy, drinking alcohol, overeating, being passive, or just withdrawing, etc. These coping strategies, whilst giving us short-term relief, tend to make our suffering worse in the long term, as we gradually lose contact with both our internal and external worlds. The protection we gain results in us not living a full life.
Becoming fused with our thoughts and trying to push away our emotions takes up the psychological space we need for leading. By freeing up this space we are able to think more strategically, connect with people, and behave appropriately for the situation. Having psychological space allows us to focus on what is important to us and achieve goals that are aligned with our values.
Techniques for Creating Space
Research carried out by Paul Flaxman (City University, London) and Frank Bond (University of London) has found that ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) techniques can make a significant contribution to building psychological health, resilience and effectiveness in the workplace. Within ACT there are six core processes:
Whilst we can start anywhere with these core processes, it is often useful to first develop ‘self as context’. This is our witness self. So, when we become aware of our thoughts and emotions it is the witness self that does the observing. It’s like going to the balcony and watching yourself on the dance floor. Mindfulness practices can help us to develop ‘self as context’. By observing our thoughts we then come to realise what they are. They are just thoughts, and we can let them come and go without taking up a lot of psychological space. This is called ‘diffusion’. Thoughts are like bubbles; they percolate up and then disappear. We don’t have to become our thoughts. It’s the same with opening up to emotions. If we accept and experience our emotions, rather than trying to push them, we soon find they come and go. Emotions are just like waves in the ocean. They naturally rise and fall. If we live with ‘acceptance’ of our emotions they tend to take up less psychological space than trying to push them away.
Techniques for ‘self as context’, ‘defusion’, and ‘acceptance’ help to ensure that our thoughts and emotions don’t get in the way of us contacting the present moment in the ‘here and now’. We now have the psychological space to be present rather than worrying about the past or the future. Being present with psychological space enables us to focus on what matters and lead according to our ‘values’. We can now be ‘committed to the actions’ we need to take in our leadership.
By utilising ACT techniques leaders are able create the psychological space they need to think in complex ways, build relationships with a wide range of people, and behave with a high level of agility. These qualities contribute significantly to the capability leaders need to succeed in a VUCA world.