ACT and Leadership



I want to use this space today to talk about team culture.  Before I get into that, a few things to keep in mind before I get to the meat of the article… axioms, if you will…

  • Language and thinking is an interesting behavior in that words and thoughts, while behavior, can function like objects and events. (And of course, if you’re interested in really learning the behavior analysis of that, I have a course to sell you).
  • Because words and thoughts function like objects and events, they can change the way people, situations, the world and ourselves look to us and, therefore, influence our behavior and experience of the world.
  • A lot (if not most) of the things you and I say and think aren’t original to us; someone else said them first and now you and I walk around saying them as our own (and, often, like we came up with them. Have you ever noticed how many people walk around claiming to be free thinkers, while saying the exact same things as all the people they talk and listen to?)
  • Because of their object and event-like functions, we often try to deal with words and thoughts like we would the physical world – make more of the ones we like, get rid of the ones we don’t like.
  • That doesn’t work. Words and thoughts are behavior and follow different laws than the physical world. 
  • Acceptance and Commitment Training is aimed at dealing with the object/event-like nature of language and thinking from the world of behavior.  It works through a few basic practices
    • Awareness – noting what’s going on here and now, which includes thinking and feeling.
    • Acceptance – allowing unpleasant thought to just be there.
    • Valuing – getting clear on what matters and inspires you and then actively connecting the hear and now to it.
    • Action – taking action consistent with valued directions.

Ok… now that my throat is clear…

Let’s get into team culture, starting with those first three bullet points – our words and thoughts change the way the world looks to us, and most of our words and thoughts didn’t even start with us. 

Think of something you and the people around you know to be true about your workplace.  And by “know” in this case, I mean that you generally live your life as that’s the case.  Look for the bad news.  For example, things like, “no one cares…” “there’s no accountability…” “leadership doesn’t listen…” “they can’t be trusted…” etc.  We’ll call this “your item.” 

Now, whatever your item, consider (not as the truth, but something to investigate) that what you know to be true is, in fact, a way of seeing things.  If you walk around thinking and saying “no one cares,” what you will see, no matter what the people around you are doing, is that no one cares.  People might offer you help, and you’ll wonder what is in it for them.  People may ask you how you are doing, and you won’t really tell them.  And so on. 

As a way of seeing things, your item is only one way of seeing things.  There are other ways and, if you started to really look, you could find them. 

If you’re now at a place where you are willing to consider that your item (which you have lived life as though it is the truth) is actually just a way of seeing things, there’s steps you can take. 

  1. Notice if you’re falling into the trap of “I shouldn’t think that…” or “we shouldn’t say that…” about your item. Going back to our 4th and 5th bullets, that’s treating words and thoughts like objects.  If you are falling into that trap, notice it and give yourself a little grace.  Then…
  2. Investigate all of the actions you and the other people who say and think your item take when you live like your item is “the truth.” What do you say?  What do you do?  What don’t you say?  What don’t you do?  And, what is your experience of life when you’re really bought into your item like it’s the truth.  Dwell here a bit.  When you’re kind of grossed out by it, then…
  3. Speculate! What could you say?  It doesn’t have to (and its better if it doesn’t) fix or change your item.  Just, what could you say?  “We are a team of passionate people…” “We are people who make a difference…” “We are powerful people who have a say in how this goes…” etc.  Find something appropriate to your work and your situation. 
  4. Then, do a little group level awareness, values, and action work with your team.
  5. Awareness – bring what you’ve noticed to people’s attention! “I’ve noticed we say [your item], and then we [all the stuff from point 2]. 
  6. Acceptance – don’t argue with it. Don’t try to talk them into a different way of seeing it.   Don’t say, “But don’t you think…” or anything like that. 
  7. Values – “I say we are [the stuff from point 3].
  8. Action – “Standing there, here’s what I am going to do [make a values consistent promise] and I ask [and make a values consistent request].
  9. Then listen. You will get some resistance.  So what?  People are so used to seeing the world the way they’ve been practicing seeing it, they’ll resist.  Let the resistance be.  It is part of leadership. 
  10. Hug the people who wake up. Get them moving.  Talk with them a lot. 
  11. Don’t give up on the people who resist. Let the resistance be, and keep talking to them in terms of values. 

I did this when I was a professor.  In my first year, I really loved my job, except for once a month there was 2-hour all-faculty meeting where 100 PhD’s would get together to, what looked like to me, complain.  The theme seemed to be, “the leadership doesn’t listen,” and “the leadership doesn’t care.”  And behavior tracked perfectly with those two statements!  When leadership came in, the room would get quiet while they said what they had to say, and when they left we would complain about what they said.  Then, people would grip in the hall afterwards and look exhausted and irritated. 

After a few months, I noticed I was loving my job less.  Instead of loving it all the time, I was loving it for 3 out of 4 weeks, and not liking it around the big faculty meetings. 

When it came time to elect a new faculty leader, I ran.  My campaign speech was short.  “I noticed we say they don’t listen and they don’t care, and then we complain to each other, we don’t bring our ideas to leadership, and we’re stressed out and irritated.  I say we’re a powerful group of people who make a huge difference for our students, and we have a say in how things go here.  And, I expect some of you have a concern about electing someone who doesn’t know how this place works.  I assert interacting with this place like we know it is has us where we are, and if you elect me, you can count on me to interact from that we are powerful, we do make a difference, and I promise this will change.” 

My voice was shaking and my hands were sweating while I said it, and… I got an ovation.  More importantly, I got elected. 

Over time, the tone of the meetings did change.  It took about five meetings and I got a lot of resistance, but about halfway through the year, the energy in  the room was noticeably different.  People started bringing new initiatives forward.  New partnerships got created. 

By the way, this applies anywhere you participate in groups.  Families.  Condo boards.  Cub-Scout Troops. 

And, if you want support in developing yourself to have conversations like this, there’s a couple of options.  Supervising Dynamically is a great place to start developing yourself to leverage language powerfully.  And if you are part of a team that is interested in group coaching in upgrading your culture, let’s schedule time to talk.  You can book a free consult here