Diagnosing a High-End Application of PROSOCIAL: A Conversation with Robert Styles

PROSOCIAL combines two bodies of knowledge to improve the efficacy of groups. The first is the Core Design Principles (CDP) approach pioneered by Elinor Ostrom.  The second is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) pioneered by Steven C. Hayes. Both of these bodies of knowledge have roots in various academic disciplines and have recently been given a more general formulation based on evolutionary theory.

The design principles provide a functional blueprint for building an efficacious group, but their implementation requires a capacity for change, which is not always easy. ACT increases psychological flexibility and therefore the capacity for change. That’s why PROSOCIAL requires both bodies of knowledge.

The number of groups that can benefit from PROSOCIAL is potentially unlimited. For this reason, the PROSOCIAL development team has created an Internet platform that provides a home page and training course to any group, along with a network of trained facilitators for guiding groups through the course.  The Internet platform also allows groups to communicate with each other. We hope to reach thousands and even hundreds of thousands of groups with this method of delivery (go here for an early example).

However, this is not the only way to deliver PROSOCIAL.  Merely learning about ACT and the Core Design Principles without using the Internet platform or a facilitator can be useful, which could be called a low-end application. At the other extreme, professionals who consult with groups for a living might be in a position to deliver PROSOCIAL even more thoroughly than the Internet platform, which could be called a high-end application.

Robert Styles, a social scientist, business consultant and accredited leadership coach based in Australia, recently described a high-end application in his article for PROSOCIAL Magazine titled “Outstanding Evidence for PROSOCIAL in a Government Agency Setting.”  Styles had both the professional experience and the authorization to implement PROSOCIAL in one of Australia’s government agencies far more comprehensively than the Internet platform’s training course.  In addition, the implementation took place between two national surveys of government agency employees by the Australian Public Service Commission, which provided a before-and-after third party assessment of the implementation.  The improvement in the agency that Styles worked with, compared to all other Australian government agencies, provides exceptionally strong evidence for the ability of PROSOCIAL to improve the efficacy of groups.

Styles learned about PROSOCIAL with Paul Atkins, an organizational psychologist at the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education. Paul is a member of the PROSOCIAL Development Team who helped to design the Internet platform’s online training course. My conversation with Robert explores what he did with his high-end application that was so successful, compared to the application that we are attempting to provide to an unlimited number of groups worldwide through the online training course.

DSW: Greetings, Robert! Welcome back to PROSOCIAL Magazine.

RS: Thank you David. It’s a great pleasure to be a part of the PROSOCIAL effort and not only be enabled to do impactful work but to learn about the evolutionary nature of human behaviour. Thanks for the opportunity to share some of what l am learning.

DSW: You and Paul are both highly trained organizational psychologists with years of practical experience working with groups. What do the two elements of PROSOCIAL, CDP and ACT, add to the toolkit of the organizational psychologist?

RS: For me the two elements of PROSOCIAL provide a coherent and accessible framework for behaviour change that impacts at multiple levels: at a personal level it helps people orient their lives around what is intrinsically important to them and deal with unhelpful habitual and reactive behaviour; at the group level it helps groups manage their priorities and committed efforts in healthy cooperative ways; and, for boards, executives and regulatory authorities it provides a framework for them to regulate and coordinate the effort of various players across a system.

As a social scientist, PROSOCIAL provides an empirically validated framework to conduct applied research. My academic interest is in how our words and speech influences what we do, both covertly and overtly. This is a study of how what we say influences what we do. Paul and I have been able to show in our research how various types of utterances regarding who we are and how we intend to act on what is important in the long run predicts wellbeing.  We have found that if people are able to take perspective on what they value and discern opportunities to enact them it predicts wellbeing up to twelve months later. This is essentially psychological flexibility.  Together with the design principles, PROSOCIAL provides a framework for groups, and groups of groups, to do this. Groups learn to take perspective on what is important to them in the long run and coordinate their effort to bring about those valued ends both as a process and a set of outcomes.

DSW: I really like how you put all of this. It is precisely how I think of PROSOCIAL but it is exceptionally eloquent coming from you. The starting point for a group that uses the Internet platform is a voluntary decision to take the training course, which we have made as short and engaging as we can. The starting point for your high-end application was a top-down decision to implement PROSOCIAL. This meant that you had more time to work with the employees but also that their participation was not voluntary. Please comment on the advantages and disadvantages of these two arrangements.

RS: This is an important question and goes to nub of an issue that impacts on the wellbeing of people at work. Before I speak about actual examples of introducing and embedding the principles and practices of PROSOCIAL in an organization, I would like to speak about how I approach this in principle. I believe that the value proposition of an organization is no more than the sum total of each individual’s value proposition being made available to the organization. For this to happen, individuals need to know what is intrinsically important to them and how this matters in their work. Further, the normative environment of the workplace needs to encourage rather than frustrate an individual’s capacity to express what is important to them through their work. This is a matter of engagement, alignment and ownership. Individuals at all levels of an organization need to be engaged intrinsically in the higher-order value proposition, the mission or purpose of the organization; also, what is uniquely important to them has to align with what is important to the others they are working with. They have to see themselves as an important part of the system. When this happens, people in teams own their work in a healthier and more productive way. Practically, this manifests as particularized forms of autonomy support. Team leaders support their team members and overarching authorities provide support for the groups and teams across the system. PROSOCIAL provides the framework for institutionalizing this as a way of organizing behavior. Core Design Principle #8 really captures this idea.

DSW: Indeed! CDP8 is really important. It can be initially overlooked when a group is trying to get its own affairs in order (CDP1-6), but you started out working with a multi-group organization.

RS: My approach to infusing an organization with this way of working involves taking constellations of teams that share a common purpose, including the executive, together with their teams through a series of highly interactive structured workshops and coaching sessions. Transfer-of-learned processes into the workplace is the objective. Over several years I have refined my approach and have got to the point where these sessions deal with the real work of the institution, the living responses of people in teams to the demands of daily life at work. I jump in the deep end with them and employ an action learning approach to trying new behaviors in a ‘safe-to-fail’ environment. Together we learn from their resulting successes and relapses as leaders and teams strive to implement change or preserve what is already valued and important to them. I am there as a coach working with individuals from the CEO and team leaders down to team members depending on what circumstances require. I do a lot of work with groups of team leaders whose teams share a common purpose. In these sessions we explore which PROSOCIAL principles underpin the particular phase of the program we are engaged in and debrief their experience of trying new things with their teams. We also jointly set the agenda for upcoming workshops involving all their team members.

The program phases take about four months to complete. We start with developing the psychological flexibility of those involved which flows into setting or clarifying the broader agenda of the organization or division. This involves scenario mapping which is a big picture perspective-taking exercise where we consider the broad trends and drivers that are shaping the behavior of the organization. From this, preferred and probable futures are rendered. This enables the divisions and teams involved to set their individual purpose and goals in concert with each other. The overarching mission is fragmented in a functional way. Each team authors and owns its purpose and clearly understands how their purpose integrates with the purpose of the other teams.

Here I have taken insights from a fellow academic, Dr Matt Doolan, a Systems Engineer from the School of Engineering at ANU. He, with folks at Cambridge University, have developed what is called Strategic Roadmapping. It is a highly structured system-wide conversation designed to facilitate technological innovation. One of their first major projects was to plan 30 years’ food supply for England. This involved policy makers, food growers, environmentalists, transport people to name a few. As Matt and I have been working together we have observed it is not so much the plan that matters – no one sticks to a plan for 30 years – it’s more to do with the players in the system sharing a common purpose and successfully coordinating their effort to achieve that purpose. We have talked a lot about the difference between a successful and unsuccessful roadmap implementation. It has become quite apparent that those that have not been so successful have failed at implementing one or a number of the core design principles. The important thing is the structure of the roadmapping conversation. It lends itself perfectly to the work of defining the shared purpose of constellations of groups and individuals. It foregrounds Ostrom’s insights into the need for polycentric governance, which is an aspect of PROSOCIAL that, in my observation, appears to confuse practitioners aiming to do this work.

Once the phases of developing psychological flexibility, the organizational mission and shared team purposes are completed, we then work explicitly on the design principles. Teams figure out how they are going to apportion effort between teams and within teams, make decisions, and monitor how they are tracking. All this is undertaken using action learning – a cyclical process of trying something then actively taking a step back and reflecting on what and how it is working then practicing again. PROSOCIAL provides the lens for this ongoing cycle of reflection and action.

DSW: I’m glad that we’re having this conversation, because this description of your game plan adds a lot of information to your article. Let me play it back to you in segments, with special attention to how other PROSOCIAL groups might learn from you. First and foremost, your approach seems highly iterative. Groups don’t learn ACT and the CDPs once and return to work – they rehearse them again and again in the context of the business of the group. Is this correct?

RS: Yes, the whole process is highly interactive and iterative. Not only do individuals and groups repeatedly interact with each other in response to specific questions in the structured workshops, they also reflect together on their ongoing efforts as they try new things – this is action learning/research.

Over the years providing training and consulting into organizations I have been concerned with transfer-of-learning. Oftentimes learning opportunities for leaders and employees take place outside of the work place. We are all familiar with this. They range from formal qualifications, immersion experiences to bespoke and executive short courses. They are all valuable, particularly for the individual doing the learning. But typically those who undertake the training struggle to have a significant or lasting impact back in the workplace. The prevailing normative environment, work climate or their boss’s attitudes frustrates their effort. I’m sure this is a familiar experience for most.

DSW: It’s also a serious problem in education, where what is taught in one course fails to transfer to other courses.

RS: Indeed! In response to the transfer-of-learning issue I have tried to embed the learning process fully in the workplace and make it part of business as usual in an unusual way, if that makes sense. And what’s more, it’s actually working. I’m observing two distinct types of behavior change as a result of employing an action learning approach to enculturating PROSOCIAL. The first relates to changing repertoires of learned behaviors, some of which appear very old and well-rehearsed. The other is a broadening repertoire of chosen responses to prevailing situations – current and anticipated. For me, these two aspects of behavior change further highlight why ACT and the CDPs are such a powerful complement.

I encourage those I work with to reframe the notion of failure and think in terms of handling relapse. It has been shown empirically that fully transformative change typically doesn’t happen. Successful behavior change emerges step-by-step and involves the cyclical process of preparing to try – trying something new – and handling relapse between three to five times before a sustained change in behavior begins to manifest.

And right here, David, I defer to your expertise and insight as an evolutionary scientist. I understand this as a form of variation-and-selection. Am I understanding this correctly?

DSW: Absolutely! B.F. Skinner described operant conditioning as a variation-and-selection process that results in behavioral change during the lifetime of the organism, similar to genetic change over evolutionary time. He called this “Selection by Consequences” and it is a fundamental insight, even if other aspects of the Skinnerian tradition were problematic. Our colleagues such as Steve Hayes and Tony Biglan have updated the tradition from a modern evolutionary perspective.

RS: Yes, and when individuals and groups appreciate that relapse is utterly natural they are emboldened. It becomes a question of workability rather than failure in a crushing sense. They don’t lose touch with the value they are striving for in the wake of an effort that didn’t work. They say, “Oh well, that didn’t go so well? What else can we try?” This process of reflection and action has been particularly important for the team leaders. As I mentioned, I work a lot with teams of leaders who together are a team in their own right. I facilitate group coaching sessions with them in between the workshops involving all their team members. In these sessions we engage in meta reflection and evaluation. We explore how things have been working and what next, all through the lens of the CDPs.

DSW: Your work applying PROSOCIAL to multi-group organizations is pathbreaking. Importantly, organizations that use our Internet platform can emulate what you have done by creating a PROSOCIAL group composed of representatives of other PROSOCIAL groups. Your method also enables me to make an important point about the CDPs that was stressed by Lin Ostrom. They are functional principles and each of them can be implemented in many different ways. For example, monitoring is important for all groups but how to effectively monitor can be highly contextual and group-specific. Every group must therefore tinker with its own arrangements.  That appears to be baked into your high-end implementation, right?

RS: Definitely! For example, in the government agency I refer to in my article, one of Canberra’s main cultural institutions, the monitoring that the Board, CEO and Executive engaged in was entirely different to that of the various divisions of the Agency. For example, the divisions responsible for hosting exhibitions, preserving the collection, or maintaining the facility and IT systems.

The senior leaders in that organization were naturally taking a broader perspective on the work of the institution and monitored the relationships they were required to maintain with various strata of government and civil society, including the general public, schools and universities, and the other cultural institutions that shared the responsibility for maintaining and preserving Australia’s cultural heritage. Operationally, the senior leaders monitored the Agency’s relationship with the government of the day as well as the internal relationships between the various divisions of the institution. To effectively do this, they first cultivated an appetite for risk then gradually refined the structure of the organisation and overarching regulatory environment to manage the risk. This involved the Board and CEO clarifying the type, tolerance and scope of risk that was acceptable for the organization. For example, basic human rights and the reputation of the organization could not be exposed to risk. On the other hand, there was an appetite to experiment with different ways of preserving and cultivating civic engagement in the activities of the museum. Monitoring in this space was primarily about tracking the success of various initiatives and reporting against these to the Minister and Senate. Some of the work the Agency did in this space led to them being identified internationally as one of the most innovative small museums in the world at the end of 2015.

Monitoring the relationships between the various divisions within the Agency matured during the intervention. A particularly important step that undergirded this maturation was the delegation of authority to local groups to self-regulate. This included the formation of a new group with members from across the Agency who took responsibility for innovation. This group also reported directly to the CEO. The impact of affording local groups the authority to self-regulate is evident in the testimonies captured in the article. You will read how leadership was increasingly being driven from the middle of the organization by the EL2s and EL1s (Executive Level 2 officers are team leaders/managers and Executive Level 1 officers are their assistant managers). These team leaders talk about having been empowered in various ways. This was in large part due to the way the CEO and Executive engaged them in high level decision making processes and subsequently afforded them the autonomy to self-regulate. This process took a while and I have to acknowledge the way the CEO approached and actively drove this. She invited the lower level managers into the senior leadership mix and continued to encourage and support their active participation. She did things like: take smaller groups of them out to lunch where she posed strategically important questions and engaged them in discussion and debate in a relaxed and informal setting; she personally mentored others who were assuming higher level leadership roles; her modeling subsequently influenced others. Over three months these people grew to feel they actually had a voice in the system that was being heard and mattered.

DSW: This illustrates how a multi-group organization can become structured in a way that is not hierarchical.

RS: Precisely. Other dimensions of monitoring from the top were apparent in the way the executive responded to observed needs of the divisions across the organization as they pursued strategic initiatives. For example, the executive provided education and technical assistance for related teams in pursuit of efficiencies or cost reduction, encouraged local teams to develop and enforce their own rules, systematized the open exchange of information, and actively informed the groups across the system of what other groups had accomplished.

You can imagine the other divisions, such as the division responsible for maintaining the facility and IT systems, monitored a very different set of behaviors specific to their work. Their primary responsibility was, and still is, the preservation and maintenance of one of Australia’s iconic heritage buildings. This work happens, for example, in concert with the work of other teams hosting interactive exhibitions or educational events. This division invests effort into looking out for the building while monitoring their part in the collaborative effort of hosting the events the other teams have primary responsibility for.

DSW: As you know, PROSOCIAL uses the Matrix as a fast form of ACT training. Do you use the Matrix or some other method? Is Strategic Roadmapping different from ACT training or a form of ACT training? Is there a source where PROSOCIAL groups and facilitators can learn more about it?

RS: Yes, I do use a form of the Matrix to develop the psychological flexibility of individuals and groups; and, this is very different from Roadmapping.

I have taken the good work of Kevin Polk, who developed the Matrix, and extended it to help individuals and groups deal more effectively with competing commitments and identify choice points where they can test their understanding of challenging situations and try new behaviors. The process I employ invites participants to explore how four behaviors are working for them: 1) how they are observing and discriminating inner experience and important aspects of presenting situations; 2) describing what they see; 3) tracking their actions in relation to what they observe and describe; and, 4) valuing as a quality intrinsic to the first three behaviors – observing, describing and tracking. I see these behaviors as fundamental to the whole process of developing psychological flexibility and prosociality.

For an individual, group or entire organization it is important they are able to observe and discriminate what is of value and track how they are performing in relation to that value. I strive to have those I am working with foreground the value that is embodied within each individual as well as infused within the preferred and probable futures they render for themselves as part of society as a whole. I use my version of the matrix to begin developing the necessary perspective-taking skills and verbal repertoire to describe value adequately at the various levels. The extent to which they can observe and describe what is of value is a necessary prelude to them being able to enact and bring it about.

Roadmapping exercises broadly take the community through the process of answering three questions, “Based on what we value, where are we now? Where do we want to be? How do we get there?” As I mentioned, the roadmapping process we use in our PROSOCIAL work is based on Technology Roadmapping developed by Matt Doolan with Cambridge University. You will find an example of a technology roadmap we did with the Australian rail industry here ‘On Track to 2040’. Matt and I have distilled this process into a series of key questions that are unpacked in a series of highly interactive workshops involving constellations of teams who share a common purpose. This process re-renders intractable social dilemmas and complex adaptive challenges as a set of interrelated, particularised and manageable local-level challenges. As far as I know we are the only university in the world to have integrated organizational and cultural sociology with systems engineering in this way. We are still refining this part of our work and look forward to making it available to others as we do.

DSW: PROSOCIAL emphasizes the importance of forming short-term actionable goals in addition to the more general mission and values of the group (CDP1). Short-term actionable goals can reinforce some of the CDPs, such as fair distribution of costs and benefits (CDP2, for example by assigning primary responsibility for each short-term goal to different group members), monitoring (CDP4, for example by developing clear metrics for accomplishing the goal) and so on. This is also a strong emphasis in your high-end application, right?

RS: Most definitely. In my opinion it is the ongoing process of goal setting in response to prevailing contexts that is important. Maybe we need to coin a new word here, we need to become experts at ‘reaiming’ as circumstances require. There are two contexts that need to be attended and responded too on an ongoing basis. Firstly, there is the symbolically rendered preferred and probable future; and, there is the ever changing current situation in relation to that future. ACT teaches us to hold onto these tapestries of thoughts, feelings and emotions lightly and to respond to them flexibly and in a value-directed way. The CDPs enable us to ‘reaim’ effectively as these contexts change. Simply, ACT and the CDPs provide a very practical and coherent framework for making sense of ourselves in situ and ‘reaiming’ toward what is important in the long run.

DSW: I was once criticized by a business executive for using a “Ready…Aim…Fire!” approach.  I’d like to think that I was using a reaiming approach, as you so nicely put it!  Returning to polycentric governance, how do you carve a large organization into groups? Do you rely on the existing group structure or do you have a way to reconfigure the group structure?

RS: In my work, shared purpose is the criterion that defines a group or group of groups. In some instances, the group/s already exist, in others the groups are formed to assume an emergent purpose. Without a shared purpose, any work in relation to the other CDPs remains in the abstract, which frustrates transfer-of-learning. I am not fully acquainted with the online system but I would assume that if the new PROSOCIAL group formed purely to learn and then translate the CDPs into an existing social system it may not be as effective as inviting a community of groups who already share a common, higher-order purpose into the PROSOCIAL process. Such an invitation would lead the community to author and enact responses specific to their shared purpose and employ the PROSOCIAL framework to design the things they have to do – apportion effort, make decisions, monitor performance, handle conflict, work with other groups, etc. This way PROSOCIAL is not the main game. The main game is defined by what is intrinsically important to the community and PROSOCIAL serves as the enabling process. By taking this approach I have observed the principles and practices of PROSOCIAL naturally embed themselves and become, “the way things are done around here”. Taking this forward, my next stage of interaction with the Australian Public Service may involve engagement with emergent groups that share a common, higher-order purpose. For example, the creation of prosocial groups involving external stakeholders who are not formally part of the existing system. These groups will, in effect, become polycentric higher level groupings informing the activity of the key stakeholders within the APS.

DSW: Excellent advice. For me and most members of the PROSOCIAL Development Team, ACT and CDP have become second nature. We spontaneously view the world that way, which makes explicit instruction unnecessary. Have you observed something similar in the agency that you worked with? In other words, can you imagine ACT and CDP becoming so much part of the culture and norms of an organization that it transmits itself?

RS: When I walk around the Agency, the A2 size posters we prepared for the interactive workshops are stuck on the managers walls with fresh post-it notes all over them. In other instances, checklists have been turned into ready reckoners inside of the team leaders’ diaries. They refer to these reckoners during important discussions and planning sessions. I have had team leaders tell me how the principles they have learned have been absorbed into the way they think and do things. So yes, ACT and the CDPs have become part of the culture and norms of the organization and I am observing them being further particularized and propagated in quite unique ways.

DSW: This conversion has been exceptionally useful for me and I’m sure it will be also for our readers. Given your success and that awesome comparison with other government agencies, have you been approached by other agencies or the Australian government as a whole? They’d be crazy not to see that you are in a position to improve the performance of the whole nation. There’s a heady thought for you!

RS: Yes, the innovative nature of this work is being recognized. Currently I am in discussion with six different government departments and in each instance they are seeing this as a fresh approach to organizational development that not only includes the best of what they are already doing but transcends it. Also, the Australian Psychological Society has identified this work as an exemplar of best practice in organizational and industrial psychology in Australia. We have been short listed as a finalist for a national award in the 2016 Workplace Excellence Awards in the category ‘Organizational Change’. We will know if we won the award on 13th September.

Your comment, “there’s a heady thought” simultaneously bought a tear and a smile to my face. The belief that this work could improve the performance of the whole nation is not a new one. My heartstrings are tugged to the point of tears each time I contemplate our future as a species and the way we are failing to look after each other and spaceship earth. The social, environmental, political and economic problems we are confronted with are seemingly intractable. I am privileged to know some extraordinarily good people who are pioneering an aspect of change that is surely needed and I see PROSOCIAL as an important and enabling part of this effort. It’s not easy to reframe and own our part in the system while maintaining our shared dignity as human beings. I often find myself working with individuals and teams who struggle with the inherent moral and ethical dilemmas’ that rift the space between being pro-self and pro-social and the resulting psychological and emotional impact. PROSOCIAL, the combination of ACT and the CDPs, shows that we can choose to be simultaneously pro-self and pro-other, while fully experiencing all that such a choice offers up, no matter how exhilarating of uncomfortable. I think our personal and collective wellbeing requires that we appreciate it is not about the hedonistic inclination toward just feeling ‘good’ – it is not about ‘goodbeing’! ‘Wellbeing’ means being able to feel it all really well for what it is and courageously continue moving in a direction that is important in the long run.

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David Sloan Wilson is President of the Evolution Institute and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. His most recent book is Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others.

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