Make the most of your regrets: never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.
This semester at the UEL MAPP program, I’m working in a small team on a consultancy project with the aim of applying Positive Psychology theory in a business context. Our chosen subject is leadership; thus for the last few months we have been researching the topic, reading up on management theory and finding as much academic literature on leadership as we can. We’ve also interviewed a number of CEOs and other Senior Executives from many large corporations in London to establish what positive psychology practices have been useful to them in leading their organizations successfully, and how these might be translated into positive interventions to disseminate to other, less experienced leaders.
Several interesting themes have emerged from our interviews, for example the ability of leaders to take risks, and to continue to learn throughout their lives, from failure and regret as well as from their acknowledged successes. All the leaders we interviewed were able to describe times when they took risks, both personally and professionally, for example, changing careers, companies or industries, or pressing ahead with decisions in the face of opposition.
All were also able to describe difficult events or experiences in the past which they regretted, and courses of action that they wished they could have changed. Referring to the birth of their disabled child, one said “Coming to terms with first few years was very challenging…but in retrospect it is the best work I have ever done.” Another, referring to a romantic relationship which ended badly, said: “It was an awful experience, but I learned a lot. It drove me to do better.”
Regret makes us feel a profound sense of sorrow, distress, disappointment, dissatisfaction or remorse. But is regret per se bad for us? Of course, it does have a negative effect on our well-being, but can this be changed? Is regret perhaps something which can and should be avoided by learning how to make the “right” decision in the first place? Or is it something that can and should be avoided by either adopting a more mindful approach to living or by challenging or changing ones thinking style after the regrettable incident? Or perhaps one should not fear the experience of regret at all, in the firm knowledge that there is no gain without pain?
Langer, Marcatonis and Golub’s research suggests several methods for preventing future regrets, among them approaching the decision mindfully, rethinking why the regretted action (or inaction) occurred, and starting with the assumption that one’s behavior made sense at the time given the circumstances. The only problem with the last option, of course, is that if one knew that one would regret the outcome of a course of action, surely one would avoid it in the first place.
A different approach to regret is taken by King and Hicks. They suggest that while the experience of the regret of lost goals (or lost possible selves) is indeed painful, the capacity to acknowledge and accommodate regrettable events is necessary for ego development, which itself is a crucial component of maturity. Thus the experience of regrettable events can be hugely beneficial in the longer term.
So how does all this relate to the question of positive organizational leadership? If the experience and accommodation of regret is necessary for maturity and happiness, we can be more open to taking risks and making mistakes, in the knowledge that we will learn and benefit from them. Equally, as coaches, therapists and positive psychologists, we can work to support business leaders and others in understanding and working through the process of accommodating (and ultimately assimilating) regrettable events.
The man who insists upon seeing with perfect clearness before he decides, never decides. Accept life, and you must accept regret.
~ Henri-Frederic Amiel (1856)
King, Laura A. & Hicks, Joshua A. (2007) Whatever happened to ‘What might have been’? Regrets, happiness, and maturity, American Psychologist, 62 (7).
Kouzes, J.M. & Posner, B.Z. (2002) The Leadership Challenge, 4th Edition . San Francisco, Wiley & Sons
Langer, E. (2005) Well-Being. Mindfulness Versus Positive Evaluation. In Snyder C.R. & Lopez, S.J. (Eds) Handbook of Positive Psychology, New York, Oxford University Press.
Luthans, F, & Avolio, B. (2003). Authentic Leadership Development. In K.S.Cameron, J.E. Dutton & R.E. Quinn (Eds) Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline. (pp33-47) San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.