Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Psychological Flexibility

The couple of times I wrote about "cognitive fluency" I remarked that if you just heard the term, without any explanation or definition, you would have no idea what it meant. Link here.

Ironically, because cognitive fluency means that a simple, direct, expression of a concept, one that is intuitively easy to grasp, is likely to be more valid and more persuasive than one that is complex, convoluted, and nearly impossible to understand.

Cognitive fluency remains an excellent idea; if only its authors had used their own cognitive fluency in naming it.

All that to introduce a new concept from the world of psychological research: psychological flexibility. It comes to us from the Melbourne School of Business. Thus, it addresses how best to exercise business leadership. Link here.

Can you guess what it could possibly mean?

It means: curb your anger. A leader who can control his anger, who can separate himself from his emotions and choose appropriate moments to express them will be more effective than his counterpart who is boiling over with anger or some other emotion.

In some ways this is a radical idea. It attempts to undo some of the damage we have suffered through the influence of the therapy culture.

Until very recently the therapy culture peddled the mantra: express your emotions, especially your anger. It believed, mistakenly, that expelling your toxic emotional gases was going to make you feel better.

The mantra comes down to us from Freud. One day Freud conjectured that depression was anger turned against the self. If that were true, therapists reasoned, then depression could be cured by teaching people to direct their anger outside of themselves.

This caused generations of therapists to lead generations of patients to get in touch with their anger and then to blurt it out at the most inappropriate moments. Throwing a tantrum became a sign of emotional authenticity. It also produced a cathartic release that made people feel better, at least, momentarily.

After several generations therapists finally discovered that it did not work. When you throw a tantrum or indulge an inappropriate expression of emotion you make yourself look like a fool. In itself, that will make you feel worse about yourself. It turns out that depression is about feeling demoralized and diminished; any actions that make you feel more demoralized and diminished feed the depression.

A tantrum might offer a momentary release. The aftermath, the moment when you become aware of what you just did, takes it away, and then some.

Anyway, the researchers from Melbourne have shown that a leader cannot function effectively by expressing his emotions willy-nilly.

A leader who can control his emotions will also be able to control his group. His emotional equanimity will set the standard for others in the group. It will diminish the possibilities for using drama to address differences and difficulties.

The less emotion is involved, the less the issue will be the torments of anyone's soul, and the more the focus will be on the task at hand.

So, I am happy to recommend psychological flexibility, and not just when you rise to the position of being a business leader. If anger causes you to lose focus and to incur the disrespect of others, it will induce you to commit errors... in business and in life.


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