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Introducing psychological flexibility

Introducing psychological flexibility
We meet up every morning as a team, we have a coffee and a quick catch up. We talk briefly about what happened at home, kids, spouses, what was on TV last night. Then we plan what each of us will do for the day and if someone is struggling, even if it deals with their personal life I listen to them. I take time to pay attention. My work is based on the solid bedrock of relationships. If you care for your team members they will care for you and this is reflected in their work. Sarah is one of the managers in a marketing department that is growing at a tremendous pace.
She is ambitious and has her own characteristic style of achieving targets. Meanwhile, Nick, her colleague and a manager of another team in the same company has a totally different approach. Well I was hired specifically for my ability to cut through any nonsense and make a clear path to the goal set out for us. I am being paid to get the job done as soon as possible and I pride myself on that ability. So here are two individuals with different strategies for achieving success but what happens when a spanner is suddenly thrown into the works? when things don’t go their way, how do they respond? For instance, Sarah had her eyes set on a senior role in the company.
She was encouraged to apply for the job when it came up for recruitment but to her amazement she was pipped to the post by someone else. I just went home and cried. They said “oh you were great Sarah, but the other candidate had more international experience for the Chinese market”. So I don’t know, maybe I’m just not good enough. I work so hard but I’m always second best. Have you ever found yourself thinking like this? Well business psychologists describe this as cognitive fusion. The perceived slight against you means you’ll get caught up in negative thoughts about your self worth. You may retreat into your shell and believe you are less of a team leader than you thought.
Meanwhile on the other side of the office, the hard nose, no nonsense Nick, who never misses a deadline was forced off work for a few days due to food poisoning after an office party. As a result he missed a deadline to deliver on an important internal target. His bosses were actually quite nice to him, but that wasn’t enough for him. It wasn’t my fault. I never miss a target. I can’t believe there was nobody on the team who could step in for me and get the job done. And this is the second marker of reduced psychological flexibility experiential avoidance.
Your perceived failure to achieve will hurt so much that you’ll try to avoid feeling bad and at the extreme end, you may even begin to engage in destructive behaviours outside of work. So how can these thoughts and emotions be less of a burden to a person like Sarah, Nick or yourself? How can we be more psychologically flexible and stay in touch with what is really important to us? We will look at this in the following step.

Are we able to respond flexibly to our life and work challenges?

In the clip above, you will meet Sarah and Nick again, two managers at the same company. They respond very differently when things don’t go their way, but show a similar lack of psychological flexibility.

What is psychological flexibility?

Psychological flexibility asks us to believe that having negative thoughts, feelings and emotions is not inherently harmful to our health and wellbeing, it’s how we respond to these stimuli that can make the difference.

There are two factors that can prevent us from being psychologically flexible:

  • experiential avoidance
  • cognitive fusion

Experiential avoidance

The heart in the cartoon in the previous step is offering classic experiential avoidance. It is very similar to the ‘flight or fight’ model we looked at in Goleman’s mixed model of emotional intelligence last week, in that we attempt to alter, avoid or remove undesirable thoughts or emotions.

If we suppress our emotions or avoid situations where they might arise, we feel we might be able to reduce the worry and anxiety that these emotions engender (Flaxman and Bond 2010: 284-287).

Cognitive fusion

Cognitive fusion is almost the opposite, in that we align so closely with our emotions that we identify ourselves through them. We respond to thoughts and stories about ourselves literally and we are unable to see ourselves as distinct and separate from what we think about ourselves (Flaxman and Bond 2010: 284-287).

An example of this would be the person who describes themselves as ‘useless’ or ‘sad’ rather than being able to acknowledge that these are transient emotions or thoughts. This is often a subconscious thought process but can dominate behaviour.


Flaxman, P. E., and Bond, F. W. (2010) ‘Acceptance and Commitment Training: Promoting Psychological Flexibility in the Workplace’. in Assessing Mindfulness and Acceptance Processes in Clients: Illuminating the Theory and Practice of Change. ed. by R. A. Baer. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger

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Emotional Intelligence at Work

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