Personal Leadership Skills: Psychological Flexibility

By Govert van Sandwijk · June 10, 2019 · Posted in: Leadership, Leadership Development

You’d be surprised at how many seasoned, skilled leaders cant connect with their people. Connection, of course, is integral to trust, and it’s at the core of a safe, supportive culture where people aren’t afraid to express themselves. So why do some leaders try to avoid values, feelings, and vulnerability when putting on their ‘work’ hats?

Filling a certain role and putting personal—often emotional—‘stuff’ aside is something many leaders view as central to effectiveness. It often goes under the guise of professional distance, sometimes as cool rationality, and even sometimes as strength. But trying to segregate emotions, beliefs, and values from how you behave can also be maladaptive—as I argue in my book The Power of Professional Closeness, it only gives you part of the picture.

So how can you lead with more authenticity? How can you start becoming more attuned with your values and connecting your people? One way is to cultivate more psychological flexibility.

Psychological Flexibility Personal Leadership

What is Psychological Flexibility?

Personal leadership concerns how our internal ‘stuff’ affects our external behaviors. These affect the connections we build with those around us.

Because your values—the things you consider meaningful and important—are a massive part of this ‘internal stuff’, trying to separate from these as a leader can actually compromise, rather than enhance your judgment. At its extreme, it’s a form of avoidance or suppression that only takes you further away from authentic leadership.

Broadly, psychological flexibility is the opposite of these suppression or avoidance behaviors. It’s the ability to appreciate and adapt to situational demands, switch to more helpful mindsets and behaviors when the context calls for it, and be more aware of how your values align with your behaviors. Or not, as the case may be.

This mental agility is not only incredibly advantageous for your well-being, but it can dictate how you navigate your role and interact with your people.

Psychological Flexibility in Personal Leadership

Psychological flexibility is a central goal of personal leadership development. Let’s take one fictional leader as an example, “Masud”.

As a family man, Masud wants to raise his kids to be honest and open. He does his best to be understanding when they mess up and praises them for owning their actions. When he steps into his CEO role during the week, however, he can’t possibly imagine treating his employees the same way. To admit his own mistakes would be showing vulnerability; it doesn’t gel with the strength—he feels—that leaders must emanate for results.

Not only is Masud creating unnecessary stress for himself, but he’s also portraying himself as cold and unfeeling. His people are not only scared to come to him with ideas, but they actually see him as distracted and closed. No wonder: Masud’s attempting both to ignore his stress and creating a power distance that sabotages potential trust. At the end of the day, his team don’t feel like they’re in it together and will likely start behaving the same way.

If Masud were to consider his personal values, he might realize that they aren’t necessarily a hindrance. Rather, the openness he considers so important at home could play an important role in his professional realm—as empathy in his one-on-one interactions, and as a strong example of integrity overall. Being less distracted in the short-term, and more authentic over the long-term, Masud could start creating a culture where ideas, honesty, and trust are valued.

Over To You

Like most aspects of leadership development, psychological flexibility begins with self-awareness. Clarifying and understanding your personal values as a leader involves both stepping back and introspection, so it doesn’t come naturally to most people. But if you’re ready to take that deep dive, you’ll be equipped with the kind of self-knowledge that many leaders—many individuals, in fact—don’t possess.

You will be better able to appreciate why certain aspects of your role might consciously make you uncomfortable, and how some of your instincts are designed to avoid this psychological discomfort. All of these are essential aspects of psychological flexibility, and intensely powerful if you want to commit to your values as a leader.

Does psychological flexibility interest you? Let me know what you think, or have a look at our Personal Leadership program to find out more.

Govert is Time To Grow Global’s Managing Partner, specializing in Strategy Facilitation, Leadership development and Organisational performance. Reach him on our Time To Grow Global LinkedIn.

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