ACT IN THE WORKPLACE

ACT training has been applied to organizational settings (Hayes, Bond,, Barnes-Holmes, & Austin, 2007) and  has demonstrated effectiveness in increasing work performance (Bond & Flaxman, 2006), reducing work stress (Bond & Bunce, 2003; Flaxman & Bond, 2010), increasing innovation (Bond & Bunce, 2000), improving acceptance of new training at work (Luoma et al. 2007) and reducing work errors (Bond & Bunce, 2003).   According to the University of London’s Frank Bond (personal communication), managers trained with the ACT model can have measurable influence on the performance of their staff.  

As a model for coaching leaders, ACT has been shown to enhance a leader's behavioral flexibility and is up to the challenge of creating an evidence-based framework for executive coaching. As Admiral Thad Allen once remarked "good leadership requires flexibility."  Psychological flexibility trains leaders in this skill because it is fully grounded in contacting the present moment and, based on what the current situation affords, as a mindful individual, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values. It is also emblematic of solid leadership because it demonstrates resolve in the face of crisis and stress, and commitment to executing important plans to create a better organization or community. 

ACT experts Professor Ian Williamson from the Melbourne Business School and organizational psychologist Carol Gill reported on the findings of a study they did on leadership in self-managed teams.  Their results indicated that employees who can recognize their negative feelings, defuse them and then choose a more appropriate response are more likely to emerge as a leader.  Those with high psychological flexibility respond reflectively rather than reactively, leading to greater perceptions of control and more behavioral choices.  It can also improve the quality of attention, build resilience to what would normally be emotionally draining experiences and reduce burn-out.  Psychologically flexible leaders engage in less avoidant behavior and, through trial and error, they also  learn how to effectively use this control.  This equips them to better influence the team’s objectives, task behavior, group maintenance and culture.

ACT advocates the importance of contacting the present moment fully because “the more capable a leader is of being present and not fused with internal experiences (i.e. thoughts, emotions, feelings, sensations), the more accurately the leader will perceive problems and potential resources, and the more likely his or her actions will be decisive and values-directed.

A mindful individual is sober, awake, and aware of what the situation affords, meaning the information from the environment is acknowledged as potentially important, and none of it is ignored or confabulated.  In the presence of a comprehensive view of these environmental stimuli, the leader can alter his or her response pattern in the service of moving toward what is deemed important, or persist in a vital, chosen direction.

The ACT model supports leaders move in the direction of their chosen values by implementing the six core processes in the ACT coaching model:  acceptance, diffusion, self-as-context, contacting the present moment, values clarity, and committed action, which form the ACT hexagonal model described in the previous section. These six interconnected processes
attempt to improve behavioral repertoires by developing greater psychological flexibility by assisting the person in recognizing that certain thoughts and emotions can present obstacles to valued action, and that taking a more mindful and accepting approach to these obstacles can assist in committing to measured and prudent actions.

Each of the ACT core processes in the ACTraining hexagon model is an area for coaching intervention and used to help people become crisis-resilient change managers. Providing such training shapes up a behavioral repertoire so the leader can make a distinction between his or her self-as-context (observer or transcendent sense of self) and other content such as emotions, urges, and sensations that are experienced and then accept those private events as they occur without pointlessly defending against them. 

In this way, an individual is released from trying to control internal content and is free to move flexibly in the chosen, values-based direction that best serves the situation.  An ACT way of being in the world is not an easy stance to achieve and a one or two-day intensive training program cannot hope to provide more than basic knowledge of the skills. 

Harvard University’s Susan David and Christina Congleton, both proponents of ACT, recently addressed the subject of psychological flexibility and leadership in an article published in the November 2013 Harvard Business Review entitle Emotional agility.  Their findings also support the need for leaders to be flexibly mindful in their approach to leadership. These scholars found that
…leaders stumble not because they have undesirable thoughts and feelings…but because they get hooked by them, like fish caught on a line…

Effective leaders don’t buy or try to suppress their inner experiences.  Instead, they approach them in a mindful, values-driven, and productive way—developing what we call emotional agility (aka psychological flexibility).  In our complex, fast-changing knowledge economy, this ability to manage one’s thoughts and feelings is essential to business success.

The Gill and Williamson study on psychological flexibility and leadership behavior (2010) did identify a link between individuals’ level of psychological flexibility and engagement in leadership behaviors and they did indicate that past research suggests that individuals’ psychological flexibility can be shaped by training.

It is for this reason that executive coaching over a sustained period of time is a preferred choice. Once the person being trained and coached has integrated these skills, they will be available to him or her for life.  It is a different way of living and a different place from which to lead, which is why Bond refers to leader psychological flexibility as the “essential leadership stance” (ELS) (Bond, Hayes & Barnes-Holmes, 2006). 

So, in and of itself, there is substantial evidence that providing ACT training in the workplace leads not only to improved leadership but also to more effective and engaged teams and staff.  ACT has also been shown to increase the  psychological safety of those working in high stress, crisis-oriented and often dangerous situations such as foreign assistance and humanitarian workers, first responders, police, firefighters, primary care settings, construction workers, miners etc.  ACT training has also been shown to improve the mental health of both staff and inmates in forensic settings.

Managing for Wellness has had ample experience providing ACT training in workplace settings. Training leaders in psychological flexibility is one of the firm's fundamental commitments to improving conditions in the workplace.


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