Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Personal development concepts: a bias for action

I was first introduced to the concept of 'a bias for action' when reading the excellent The Skilled Helper, by Gerard Egan (no relation), six years ago. The book was one of the main texts for a course in career counselling that I was studying for at the time, but which I never managed to complete (the course that is; I still have aspirations of finishing the book), and, somewhat ironically, the phrase 'a bias for action' resonated with me. It is one of the main values which I constantly endeavour to bring to my consultations with athletes.

'A bias for action' is a term often used in the business world. In that sphere it refers to the "propensity to act or decide without customary analysis or sufficient information, to 'just do it' and contemplate later" (ref: In the business world, it is rarely the most effective way of doing things and is typified by people attempting to simply look busy, feel productive, or to be seen to be making a difference.

The term has a slightly different meaning in the helping context, though in certain contexts, there is a value to doing things for the sake of doing something, not over analysing and just trying things out. 

In essence, those with a bias for action are doers rather than bystanders. They set and pursue life goals, they take responsibility for their actions and they persist against obstacles. According to Egan, bias for action is one of the key values that drive the helping relationship. "The doer is more likely to move beyond problem management to opportunity development" (Egan 2007, p61).

The overall goal of the 'helping' practitioner - in this case the personal development/lifestyle support practitioners - is to help the client (athlete) become more effective in managing problems and developing opportunities. This involves helping them "become more effective 'agents' in the helping process and in their daily lives - doers rather than mere reactors, preventers rather than fixers, initiators rather than followers" (Egan, 2007, p61).

The practitioner should adopt a bias for action themselves, as well as help the athlete become doers and active agents for themselves. During consultations, practitioners with a bias for action will question what more they can do to increase the chances of the athlete taking action and solving their own problems in an intelligent and prudent way. Relationship building is a fundamental part of the 'helping' process but it shouldn't get in the way of solving problems and developing opportunities. Councelling and coaching are often seen as simply listening to the client, and yes, listening is an important component, since, afterall, we can't actually advise the client or take action on their behalf. But we can facilitate them to take action.

Egan goes on to talk about non-discretionary and discretionary change. Non-discretionary change is something that is mandated to us; something that we have to change in order to achieve a certain outcome. In the high performance sport context, a governing body might tell an athlete that unless they start attending their strength and conditioning sessions, they will be removed from funding. If they want to remain on funding, they must make the change.

Discretionary change, on the other hand, is something that we choose to do simply to improve our situation. Human nature means that if we don't have to change, we generally don't. We generally think that others should change first and that we will only change if we absolutely have to. This is the reality that we as helpers need to be aware of. Having a bias for action will help promote discretionary change.

Take, for example, an athlete who expresses concern over how their coach-athlete relationship has developed. They might feel that they are not having enough input into their development. The relationship which worked well when they were a junior athlete is no longer optimal. Often, however, the athlete in this situation isn't motivated enough to have a conversation with the coach about how they fell, and how they can work together to change the situation. Before long, the athlete's performances start to drop, they blame the coach, trust is lost, and something which could have been fixed with a conversation and some basic discretionary change, requires drastic intervention. The athlete will often end up changing coaches or moving training groups. Helpers with a bias for action would encourage action when concern was first expressed.

In many cases, simply taking action can help an individual to feel better about themselves. Take and injured athlete for example. In most cases, athletes who take control of the situation will fare much better psychologically (and probably physically) than those that don't. Whether it is just making an appointment with the physiotherapist, doing rehab exercises, or hitting the cross-training, each action that an athlete takes is a step closer to getting better. Deciding, after weighing up all the options, to use the injury as an opportunity for a prolonged rest is, in itself, action.

And not all action has to take place in the consultation itself. In fact, most of it will occur between sessions. There are normally 4 to 8 weeks between my consultations with athletes. In order to promote action, at the end of a session I will ask them to summarise how they now feel about the situation that we have discussed, and ask them what actions they are going to take before the next session. Depending on the situation, I may follow up via email. At the start of the following session I will ask the athlete what actions they have taken following our previous session.

If you would like to learn more about bias for action and other aspects of Egan's Skilled Helper Model, purchase the book via the link below.

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