Dr Austin Tay

MUSING OF AN ORGANIZATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST

be kind to yourself

I hear it too often and also guilty of it myself for saying phrases such as: “I am not good enough”; “I wish I was as fit as ..”; “ I could have worked a bit harder..”;  “I will never be as clever as him”;  and “I am just not that bright!”. It is not surprising how easily we tend to think negatively and allow ourselves to indulge in self-deprecation.

 

Why do we allow ourselves to go through such a ritual? We are taught, perhaps through education (at least in competitive Asia), that not doing well in anything is due to the lack of practice and learning. Therefore, to excel, we are required to improve constantly. While seeking to improve is a virtue, in doing so, we are disallowing ourselves to recognise that sometimes it is alright not to be good at everything.

 

We live in a world where we are judged almost by how many likes we have on our social media; to fail can be devastating.

 

However, the constant task of “keeping up with appearances” can only bring stress which will eventually create a toll on our psychological well-being.

 

We should not live our lives by the standards set out by society, instead of to live our lives by our values – that is what matters to us most.

 

We need to learn to hug ourselves and show ourselves some self-compassion. It is alright to fail, and it is okay not to know everything, we are just humans.

 

We can never revisit the past and will have no idea what will transpire in the future, why not learn to be kind to yourself in the present.

Depressed businessman sitting under trouble thought boxes

 

 

It is not uncommon that everyone tends to get stuck with negative thoughts and emotions almost every day. Humans are good at allowing themselves rationalise the why and the what of how they feel and think. It becomes a constant struggle with these internal ‘monsters’.

 

Individuals use various ways to tackle these ‘monsters’.  One of these is a direct confrontation. When individuals use this approach, they seek to ‘unpick’ or try to ‘solve’ (eliminate) the negative thoughts and emotions (the monsters). While this can create momentary relief, the bad news is that these monsters are not going away! They will keep coming back to challenge us and fight our teeth and nails to defeat us. So as humans we keep on fighting (this is what we are conditioned to do so) till we can fight no more.  We then become even more depressed than we were before.

 

So what can we do to get rid of these internal monsters? We can learn to A-C-T.

 

A – Accept your negative thoughts and emotions as they are

 

C –  Connect with what is important to your life (your values)

 

T –  Take committed actions to work towards your values

 

Yes, it is so simple. Let me explain. A-C-T aka as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, unlike other forms of therapy, does not make you actively perform symptom reduction, instead, it encourages you to notice, accept, be in the moment, focus on what matters to you most (your values) and work towards that. Strangely, in doing these, the symptoms you experience will reduce by themselves. To give you a better perspective of what ACT is, let us look at the hexaflex below

 

ACT (Simplified model)

Russ Harris (2009) – ACT made Simple

 

To understand the  6 different parts of the hexaflex, let me use a context, I will use an example of someone who is stressed.

 

Contact with the present moment – Be Here Now

 

In ACT, you are encouraged to be in the moment and notice what is here and around us. As humans, we tend to let our thoughts and emotions dictate how we behave.  In doing so, we are often caught in a state of rumination.

 

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We reminiscence about the past and worry about the future. We do not enjoy the present and will let it pass. Learn to stay in the moment and you will learn how to see and live your life differently

 

Acceptance – Be Open

 

Can you really be open when you are feeling stressed?

 

Thoughts like, “I do not seem to have enough time to complete the tasks on hand” or “I am to have a severe migraine” can come into your head. There is you, and then there is those thoughts and emotions. It is like a constant struggle. Just as depicted in the picture below.

 

 

The more you pull, the monster will pull even harder. So what should you do?

 

 

My suggestion is to drop the rope. The moment you do so, your focus will no longer be on the pulling of the rope instead you are learning to accept that the monster is there. No more struggling.

 

Mindful – Watch Your Thinking

 

Often as humans, we dwell too much on our thoughts and allow them to form what we believe to be the reality. This creates more anxiety and we get into a loop of rumination.

 

 

Stop! Do not let your thoughts lead you to a bottomless pit of uncertainties, anxieties and fear. Your thoughts are just thoughts and your emotions are just emotions. They are just that, no more no less.

 

Self-As-Context – Notice

 

When our minds are filled with negative thoughts, we leave no space for other things. We are too busy trying to attend to those thoughts and fail to see how all these thoughts are affecting us.

 

 

 

Let those thoughts come and go, don’t entertain them. However, take a step back and see how those thoughts are affecting you – physically and physiologically (viewing them from your own perspective). What else are you missing when you are focused on these thoughts? STOP, PAUSE and NOTICE.

 

Values – Knows What Matters

 

When we spend too much time regretting about the past and worrying about the future, we lose our focus on what matters to us. This could be as simple as being happy, to show love to others or be compassionate to oneself.

 

 

Committed Actions – Do What It Takes

 

 

 

Once we are able to identify our values, it is necessary to look at how to go about fulfilling those values. The steps required (goals) help you work towards your values. That is to accept what bumps along the way and be consistent in working towards a values-based life.

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Millennials – Some of us will shrug and recount our frustrations when dealing with Millennials, while others have no problem working with them.  Are Millennials that difficult to work with?

 

As a psychologist, people believe that I know how people behave and as someone who uses social media (way too much), people presume I know Millennials well. Sorry to disappoint.

 

To be able to read someone like a book would be nice, but human personality can be a tad bit tricky (though sometimes books can also provide surprises!).  I do not have a magic wand, I use evidence-based methodologies to help determine how people behave, react, think and decide. As for my tech-savviness, I am just interested in staying connected with information, news and people, in doing so, if it makes me connect with Millennials and know their lingua franca, I will take that.

 

Why then am I writing this post? I have been asked on various occasions as to whether there is a silver bullet when working with Millennials – the simple answer is NO. Let me break this down.

 

I am not getting through to them

 

Let us be truthful, Millennials are not the only ones. In every organization, there is bound to be one person who is too set on his/her ways of doing things, ask the ‘why?’, thinking that they are better at their job (but in fact, they are not – Dunning-Krueger effect). As an organization or line manager, what should you do when it comes to working with Millennials?

 

Change your Mindset

 

You have already employed them. There must be good reasons they are working in your organisations. List them down. Look again at your interviewing notes as to what are the areas of development for them. This is an important thing to do when you are trying to get through to anyone (new or old employees or Millennials). This is because it will help you frame your intentions, message and instructions. Discard your ‘we have always ….’

 

Communicate – Lay down your objectives

 

Once you have framed what you want to say, be specific. If you require to follow up steps or work to be done, provide a timeline. Remember as these individuals will be new to the work environment and not knowing how things are done, be prepared to be there to provide support and guidance. Learning by doing is indeed a good way for accelerated learning but when it is done without proper guidance, learning becomes ineffective.

 

Communicate – Listen

 

It is important to have two-way communication to ensure both parties understand each other. Be open when listening to their concerns, their ideas and their frustrations as it can help you modify the way you convey your message, intentions, instructions. Let us be clear, I am asking you to be assertive but use a form of communication that will allow you to get through to the Millennials.

 

Values

 

Knowing the values of your Millennials will help you determine a few things: motivation, dedication and emotional agility. All of us are driven by our own set of values and this, in turn, will help us decide what kind of actions to take. Why is it important? Look at the next point on Coaching.

 

Coach

 

This is important as Millennials will be looking for your guidance. This is not mentoring. Coaching will involve guidance, collaboration, being a soundboard, and providing encouragement to help the millennial achieve a common goal. Knowing the values they hold here will be useful as you can use their values to guide their behaviour, actions, dedication, decision-making.

 

Are Millennials hard to work with? Or are we simply not allowing ourselves to adapt to, and embrace, this unique group of talents.

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They come with different labels: toxic leaders, unsavory personality, the dark side of personality, but what do they actually mean? In recent months, there have been lots of articles that touch on how to identify rogue leaders and how to screen off employees who exhibit undesirable behaviors using personality questionnaires. This sudden surge of interest might be due to, perhaps, the disclosure of misbehaving executives in the financial industry. While I applaud these authors creating the awareness, I believe their approach to the issue is skin deep.

While personality questionnaires are good to identify and predict future behaviors, they form only a small part of assessing an individual’s personality. To label someone as toxic or having a dark side personality and equate that to bullying seems too simplistic. How one behaves at work can be subjected to various situations such as the need to perform, stress and re-organization. All these can be catalysts for acting negatively towards others. Can a personality tool really tease out the unsavory side of an individual and label them toxic? Or is this merely psychometric providers jumping on the bandwagon of bullying in the workplace, particularly since the culture of whistleblowing has been encouraged. (See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11520274/Banker-dubbed-Crazy-Miss-Cokehead-awarded-3.2m-for-sexual-harassment.html)

The over-reliance on such a personality tool poses a few issues. If a proper debrief has been done, the conversation will have been awkward. If the debrief has not been done, the organizations might have put themselves in a position of litigation. Lastly, identifying individuals who exhibit such behaviors and not employing them on such a basis does not eradicate the unsavory behaviors but just passes the bulk to another organization. I can fully appreciate organizations not wanting to take the risk of employing someone who might become a liability that can be difficult to get rid of. How about those who have already been employed and have been working in the organization, what insights can a personality questionnaire provide that the organization does not already know? Should, then, organizations which are interested in identifying such unsavory characters in their midst be rushing to assess individuals using a personality tool? I will say hold your horses! Just be mindful that a personality questionnaire, as it is intended, will only identify how individuals have behaved and predicted how they will behave at work. That’s it!

Regardless of how such behaviors are labeled or packaged, what these authors do not mention is the repercussion of such behaviors on the recipients. What these authors are interested in is the identification of the behavior of individuals but they are not interested in addressing those of their actions, which are classified as negative acts or bullying.

Workplace bullying or negative acts at work are by no means new phenomena (for research on workplace bullying, check out http://www.iawbh.org) but I reckon it is a topic that most organizations like to avoid discussing. While a personality tool teases out behavior, bullying research focuses on antecedents (such as the interplay of the work environment and stress) and the impact of bullying on both individuals (those being bullied, bystanders and also those who bully) and organizations (such as absenteeism, attrition and productivity). Unfortunately, while such actions are rife in the workplace, not many organizations are equipped to deal with bullying, i.e. having proper policies against bullying or having trained personnel mediating such conflicts. To date, with the exception of Australia, no country, has legislation that primarily targets workplace bullying.

So where do we go from here? I believe it is time for organizations to look at their policies to see how their employees are protected against workplace bullying or negative acts at work. They should seek help from experts and ensure resources are available to help employees who are exposed to negative acts. After all, they have a duty of care to their employees.

4I recently attended a talk, supposedly on emotional agility, and was quickly feeling a bit perplexed by the whole session.

 

First, the speaker showed us a version of personality tool that his company provides and he was successful in getting all the participants to perform some form of standing twister – moving from one side to another in response to his questions. From this exercise, he swiftly concluded that many a time we tend to move our views according to our emotions. This, according, to him is emotional intelligence.

 

He carried on to say that personality questionnaires in the market only focus on the positive and do not address the negatives. He again stressed that because all of us are emotionally agile, our personality is somewhat fluid. At this juncture, I was flabbergasted by what he said. Surely, this is nothing new, as practitioners who deal with personality questionnaire know that all personality questionnaires are subjective and has to be interpreted within the relevant context. He did show some statistics and insisted that emotional intelligence is the fifth dimension that is missing in most personality questionnaire in the marketing.

 

Other participants started asking questions that seem peculiar to me especially when they compared the personality questionnaire in discussion with a type like assessment such as DISC. I scratched my head as to how are all these connected with emotional agility? What exactly does the speaker mean when he says emotional agility. A colleague of mine who was present was equally perplexed as we both thought we came to a session that talked about emotional agility. We realized, too late albeit, the session is a kind of façade to flog his wares, i.e. the personality questionnaire.

 

Obviously, the speaker knows nothing about how a personality questionnaire is used by practitioners (legit ones) and that he is clueless as to what emotional agility entails. A Google search landed me to an article written in HBR in 2013 by Susan David and Christina Congleton where they explained what emotional agility is. That is based on the premise of Acceptance Commitment Therapy.  For more details about the article please click on the link (https://hbr.org/2013/11/emotional-agility).

 

After reading the article, I realized that the organizer and the speaker of the event have conveniently taken parts of the article as part of the session outline. Such ‘borrowed’ behavior only affirms the understanding and knowledge the speaker has. Another event from the same organizer – No thanks!

adult agreement beard beverage

 

As someone who works for myself, the wonderful thing about my work is that I can work anywhere. A café with free Wi-Fi and power point to ensure that my laptop has constant power is important.

 

I like to think that I thrive, think and work better in a café. Perhaps the aroma of freshly brewed coffee or just the atmosphere encourages the brewing ideas to percolate.

 

It is also a good excuse to observe other patrons  (mostly working executives) in the café. In most of these cafés, seats are limited thus tables are usually very close.  To ensure that I do not get distracted, I usually work with my earphones stuck firmly in my ears. But sometimes, I do get to hear peoples’ conversations.

 

What I find most intriguing is how people tend to discuss work while having a cuppa. Issues discussed include complaints against other colleagues, bosses, peers and the organisation itself. I often wonder, why people are open in public places when they discuss sensitive issues?  For e.g., I once overheard a line manager giving a pep talk to his subordinate about how to work with others.

 

I can appreciate that sometimes it is not ideal to discuss sensitive issues in the office due to various reasons such as limited space but just imagine the consequences should all these discussions are overheard or recorded.

 

The fact that people need to discuss these issues might suggest a few things:

 

  • The culture of the organisation they work for – their comfort level to discuss such issues openly.

 

  • The longterm impact of those issues a) to the organisation and b) to the employees working there.

 

  • What are the steps and procedures in place to deal with those issues to minimise the effect and impact?

 

  • Peoples’ perception of confidentiality – in the course of sharing,  the people might inadvertently divulge information that might be sensitive or confidential.

 

While I cannot suggest a bulletproof solution, what I will suggest is that the next time you decide to have those sensitive discussions in a café, just be mindful of your surroundings.

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Whose fault is it anyway when employees are leaving your organisation when they have been bullied. Time and time again you hear people are leaving their jobs due to stress, mean bosses, organisational restructuring, lost the passion to carry on working in the same organisation.

 

Many of these issues have often dealt with in a matter of fact manner – ‘part of working life.’ This is such an easy way for an organisation to sweep the real issues under the corporate carpet and carry on as if all these do not matter. I think it is time that organisations step up and make that bold move to prevent all these work incivilities.

 

Organisations are just too clueless about how workplace bullying can and is affecting the way they function – the cost of replacing employees and the impact of ex-employees bad-mouthing the organisation are some examples. Is there a way to prevent all these?

 

For starters, I believe the organisational culture needs to be clear and should include policies to deter bullying in the workplace. (see http://www.cio.com/article/2867980/careers-staffing/how-to-prevent-workplace-bullying.html).

 

The other way to prevent the infiltration of workplace bullies is to use some form of personality questionnaire and robust interviewing to identify them.

 

As it stands, there is no magic wand to wipe away this phenomenon. What will be a good start is to create awareness which will benefit both victims of workplace bullying and also to organisations. So let us start to be open and discuss real issues that matter.

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Recently I attended a talk where the speaker advocated the use of a working sample in assessment and development centres. The reason behind such a method is to ensure that the person is accurately assessed based on the actual work that he will be performing instead of relying on general competencies that are often not related to the work.

 

He advocates assessments need to be designed as a one-off and not just fitting individuals to one type of assessment (i.e. competencies dependent). Relying solely on work sample type of assessments, the onus now lies with the organisation to provide assessors, who are experts in the areas of work to be assessed and occupational psychologists will take the role of solely designing the assessments.

 

To some practitioners, the designing of one-off work sample focussed assessment might have its allure as such assessments can help organisations select and develop the right talent. Organisations will get exclusive and tailored made assessments although such form of assessment is by no means a time-saving practice.

 

A few possible issues can surface when using this form of assessment. For e.g. the task of coaxing organisations to deviate from competency-based assessments might prove to be arduous, especially when the use of competencies is so ingrained in most organisational structure. With organisations being careful about not overspending, a tailor-made work sample assessment might be a stretch too far for their purse strings.

 

Despite some of the possible constraints as highlighted above, just as organisations vary in their way of assessing individuals and their budgets, work sample assessment might be the way to go for some organisations. But how far such form of assessment will gather momentum, especially in Asia, is one yet to be seen and be tested on.

 

In my view, I believe, to balance the concept of being valid in our way of assessing participants and ensuring that they are equitably assessed, a midway compromise needs to be adopted. That is to combine both work samples and competency-based assessments in assessment and development centres.

 

As practitioners or HR professionals, it is good to be exposed to different types of methods in the way we assess individuals at work. What matters is how you intend to apply such new methods to your work and how they will benefit your clients or organisation.

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2014 came and is about to come to an end. Let’s take a look at what are some of the issues discussed in 2014 and perhaps a prediction of what is to come in 2015.

Millennial

 

There is no denying that Millennial are part of the present workgroups and will continue to play a part in organisations in the years to come. There were various articles in the past year about how to deal with Millennial, on what they really want and how they can impact the organisational structure of today. What’s undeniable is, the fact, that they have now become an inevitable workforce that most organisations need to depend on as a natural resource to the ageing baby boomers and GenXers. Millennial, though may be considered by others as selfish individuals should not be write off too quickly. They, if I dare to say, do contribute and have transformed how many old-style organisations work today. For e.g. the use of social media to communicate, advertise and be kept abreast of the ever-changing trends.

Women as Leaders

 

Women leadership in a management position was one of the fiercely debated and talked about the issue of 2014. For e.g. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook who wrote the book, ‘Lean In : Women, Work ad the Will to Lead’ to encourage women to pursue their ambitions, and to think about what they can’t do to what they can do. Obviously, such empowerment movement has gradually seen more women speaking up for themselves on gender equality like actresses Jennifer Gartner and also Emma Watson in her role as the Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women. While I applaud all these efforts, I believe this will not be an easy road but will remain a topic that will be discussed in the coming year.

Trends in 2015?

 

With the world economy showing slow and incremental growth, the outlook for 2015 is still looking quite bleak. With persisting high unemployment and fiscal austerity, there will be continuous efforts from the organisations to be more innovative and utilising their existing workforce to achieve more. So it will be common next year to see articles or topics on innovation, leadership, outplacement and freelance work. Some continuous interest in talent management, retention, I suspect will also be discussed next year.

Lastly, I will take this opportunity to wish one and all a fulfilled 2014 and a good 2015 ahead.