The Journey and the Destination

WorkLifePsych News 002

The Journey and the Destination

Welcome to the October edition of WorkLifePsych News.

This time round, the focus is on the downside of our goals, and the psychology of coaching. Plus, some more of that delicious people soup.

I hope you had an enjoyable September. I hit the ground running, flying to Dublin to run a productivity workshop, after a quick visit to Singapore where I contributed to the Temenos employee wellbeing week with a workshop on thriving at work.

Despite the long hours and travel, it was a great experience and I really enjoyed meeting new faces and sharing my passion for productivity and health at work. I also ran a team development session for a large team of clinical psychologists (more below) which was another highlight of my month.

But first, about those goals…

🎯 “I’ll be happy when…”

Learning how to set good quality goals is a staple of management skills training. The evidence for goal-setting in organisations has been consistently positive for decades, so this makes sense.

When goals are set well, it can improve working life for the individual and the team, as well as contribute positively to the organisation’s mission. I’ve run quite a few workshops on effective goal-setting recently, so the topic is front of mind. But it has also reminded me that no method is fool-proof. And it has lead me to explore the downsides of goals and goal-setting at work - and in life more generally.

Fundamentally, goal-setting tends to fail when the goals aren't well-defined or authentic, are overly disruptive to life or just plain unrealistic. Our goals fade away from our awareness when we don’t consider the practical steps we need to take to make them a reality. And of course, we can spend more time talking about our goals to other than actually working on them.

I refer to this as the “I’m writing a book” effect!

And yet…

Even when goal-setting is done in a textbook SMARTER manner, they can have unintended negative consequences. One of these may well be familiar to you, even if the name isn’t: the ‘arrival fallacy’.

Coined by Psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, this is when we anchor a fundamental positive experience to the achievement of a goal. “I’ll be happy when I get that promotion”. “I’ll feel secure once I get that raise”. “I’ll be able to relax once I get through this busy period”. “I’ll be successful when…”

Sound familiar?

This kind of thinking leads us to focus only on our future states, not what we’re thinking, feeling and doing now. This means we hit the pause button on present day satisfaction and meaning and instead focus on future (possible) achievement. It can lead to the kind of unsustainable striving that leaves us miserable and burnt out.

Happiness, security, relaxation - these are transitory emotional experiences, not permanent states. So they don’t make for good goals. We’re also pretty poor at estimating future emotional states and tend to over-estimate the positive impact goal attainment will have.

It’s a point I discuss in coaching contexts regularly and prompted me to record “Coaching: it’s not just goals”.

The alternative?

Don’t worry, I’m not advocating abandoning all your goals!

Instead, take an approach to goal-setting that ensures they are in alignment with your values, and translate into daily habits or regular action steps. This means that your goals are actually meaningful and also acted upon on a regular basis.

It also means that, even if you don’t achieve the goal in question, you can look back and be proud of the values-aligned action you took to get there. Not simply dwell on the disappointment of failing to reach the end-point.

Finally, the metaphors we use when it comes to our goals really do matter. Rather than seeing it as ‘arriving at a destination’, it’s more likely that we’ll maintain the habits and efforts that got us there if we think of it as the ‘end of a journey’. The difference? The latter calls to mind the effort we put in to get there.

Let me know if this changes your perspective on goals - professional or personal - and whether you can identify with the ‘arrival fallacy’ in any way. I know I experienced a massive lightbulb moment the first time I encountered the concept a few years back.

🧐 What is coaching psychology?

Last month, I ran a team development session for a large team of NHS Clinical Psychologists. It was incredibly interesting to hear all about their work and the context in which they deliver psychological services.

(Even if I did experience a little anticipatory anxiety about facilitating a session for a room full of fellow psychologists!)

Over coffee afterwards, I had a really thought-provoking conversation with the head of the team about psychology as a profession, professional identity, and how we can better communicate what it is we do as psychologists to the general public. And, incidentally, to each other!

So, recent podcast episodes, blog posts and some upcoming YouTube content all focus on the psychology of coaching. I want to shine a light on what it is that we coaching psychologists do.

So what is it?

As coaching psychology is one of the newer professional specialisms within the profession, it’s obviously not as well known as, say, clinical or educational psychology. But it now has its own professional ‘Division’ within the British Psychological Society, which means practitioners can gain their chartered psychologist status within this area.

I described it this way in a recent blog post:

“Coaching psychologists bring their understanding of how people think, feel and behave to coaching contexts. This might be coaching for wellbeing, careers coaching, coaching to overcome challenges or to develop new skills.

“They build on their domain knowledge of people at work, and use coaching skills to support their clients’ journeys to valued outcomes. An example would be a deep understanding of the origins and causes of stress, its impact on wellbeing and performance, and an evidence-based stress management programme to help a client improve their situation.”

Why is it important to even explore the distinction?

The term ‘coach’ is in no way protected, so anyone can use it - with the inevitable negative consequences. And this recent LinkedIn post I read reminded me that even the term ‘psychologist’ isn’t protected in law here in the UK, so it’s important that consumers know what the origins of services and information they access are.

In a recent chat with a friend who is considering undertaking coaching skills training, I made this distinction: coaching as a profession versus coaching as an skill. As a coaching psychologist, it’s core to my professional identity. It’s what I spend the majority of my time at work doing.

But there are countless managers, leaders and others out in the world who regular use coaching skills, while they have another professional identity. They are coaching, but may not refer to themselves as coaches. It’s just part of their people development toolkit.

Coaching is a tool, but now it’s also a professionally recognised identify for psychologists. Not all coaching practitioners are the same, nor are their methods. Rather than take a ‘caveat emptor’ approach, I’d like to educate and up-skill the ‘emptor’ so they know what they’re buying.

If you’d like to learn more

  1. I’ve put together a new Coaching FAQ page on the website, which answers some of the more commonly-asked questions we get. Let me know if you have other questions I can add for our readers!
  2. You can also join me for a free coaching webinar on Oct 26th at 10am. I'll walk you through the essentials of what coaching is (and isn't!) and how you can maximise your gains from the experience. I'll also outline how you can effectively introduce it to your organisation, avoiding some very common pitfalls. Sign up here.

🥫 Some delicious 'People Soup'

I mentioned in the last newsletter that I was  a guest on Ross McIntosh's excellent People Soup podcast. While we recorded it a while back - in front of a live audience, no less! - the episode just went live.

Ross interviewed me about my career path, my professional focus as a coaching psychologist, and the reasons for my interest in loneliness in the workplace.

Thank you Ross, for the opportunity to share my perspective with your audience and to chat about these important topics in a very relaxed environment. You can listen to Series 5 Episode 27 of ‘People Soup’ wherever you get your podcasts, or direct from Ross's website.

👉🏻 You can access all the loneliness and connection resources I mentioned during the interview on our website here.

Ross has been kind enough to agree to a return visit to My Pocket Psych. We’ll shortly record an episode on leadership and psychological flexibility.

Wishing you an excellent, healthy and productive October. Please let me know if you have any follow-up questions or comments.



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