Interview with Paul Atkins, Ph.D. on PROSOCIAL in organizational settings

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The following is an interview with Paul Atkins, Ph.D.. Dr. Atkins is an endorsed Organizational Psychologist with a PhD in psychology from Cambridge University, and is one of seven presenters for our Igniting change in your groups: The 8 PROSOCIAL principles in action pre-conference workshops at this year's conference in Seville, Spain.

Can you tell us a little about your research?

My research is mostly about mindfulness, relationships and identity. For most of my career, I have been an organisational psychologist. We published an edited volume on Mindfulness in Organisations in 2015 (Reb & Atkins, 2015), and a few years back we explore how compassion can be improved in organisations using the ACT model (Atkins & Parker, 2014). More recently I have been involved in a meta-analysis of how mindfulness impacts upon prosocial behaviour (Donald et al., under review) and we have responded to some of the errors in an influential and negative systematic review and meta-analysis of ACT (Atkins et al., under review). I have three research grants I am working on now that look at resilience, wellbeing and performance of staff of the NSW police force, nurses in Sydney hospitals and among school principals across Australia. Of course, as a member of the PROSOCIAL development team, I am also seeking funding to use our growing database of organisations adopting PROSOCIAL to conduct research on the effectiveness of that method.

Tell us how you first got interested in this topic.

If you mean PROSOCIAL, to be honest, I cannot remember when I first heard about it. I think it might have been through Joseph Ciarrochi or perhaps on the listserv or maybe at a WorldCon, but I know it was about five years ago. At the time I was teaching a postgraduate course in leadership for public servants. I found that Ostrom's principles formed a fantastic framework for thinking about what good leadership is. For many years I had been teaching the 'soft' side of leadership including listening skills, inclusiveness, conflict management, visioning, organisational justice and so forth but I was often criticised for being "naive" in the sense that my students perceived I was not talking about being 'strong' or 'hard'. I think that sort of comment says more about their expectations of leadership than about my teaching, but I like the way that PROSOCIAL seems to speak just as easily to someone working in the military or an engineering firm as it does to someone working in the public service or a not-for-profit. After a little while, Joseph introduced me to the design team, and I have been helping out ever since as the resident organisational psychologist.


Resilience seems to be an important construct in clinical and non-clinical settings alike. What kinds of interventions/trainings do you use to build up resilience with your clients, and are there differences in how you approach resilience in therapy and non-therapy settings?

Well, I guess as you might expect the main intervention I use now is the matrix and, in organisational settings, I find the Ostrom principles also help with resilience in a more systemic way. The matrix is a tremendous tool - very easy to use and it generates exactly the right sorts of conversations. One way I perhaps differ from others is that I learned about meditation before I learned about ACT, and I have taught over a dozen 8-week MBSR-like groups. I see a huge power in deliberate, repetitive practice for those who can manage it. I try to do some of this in groups, but obviously it is easier to introduce it in therapy settings. So probably that is the main difference - I rely more on informal practice in non-therapy settings and somewhat more formal practices in therapy settings - although there is a lot of overlap and I try to do both in both contexts.


What are some of the challenges that you've encountered in scaling psychological flexibility principles to the group level, and how has PROSOCIAL helped in overcoming those challenges?

I think that the biggest challenge is to get the idea of a group-level phenomenon as distinct from individual level phenomena. In part, this is because the theory of group psychological flexibility is only in its infancy. So in PROSOCIAL, we do an initial individual matrix then a group matrix. What is the difference? In the first one, it is questions like "what do I care about?", "what shows up and gets in the way of me moving toward that?" and so on. In the group matrix, it is more "what do WE care about" and "what gets in the way for US?". The group matrix sort of includes all the individual stuff because obviously individuals are members of the group, and they might share the same hooks and defensive behaviours. But there are some cultural phenomena that appear to be more 'groupy'. For example, a group might have a cultural norm that 'only the boss makes the decisions'. You could argue that, even if everyone in the group was replaced over time, this norm might continue. It is more something that is carried in the social modelling that occurs in the group and perseverates through time. So this is more of a conceptual problem - you need to start thinking culturally as well as thinking like a psychologist.

Another big issue, of course, is creating enough safety in the room to do real work around barriers, hooks and defensive behaviours. Everyone gets its value in principle but it is risky work and you need to be really really clear about WHY you are doing it or people won't take the risks involved. 


What advice would you have for someone interested in learning more about PROSOCIAL?

The first thing to do is to register your interest at This will allow us to keep you up to date with what is happening. And then come along to our pre-conference workshop in Seville if you possibly can! :-) But I know not everyone can make it to Spain so here are some other ways you can get involved. I am working on a training course for PROSOCIAL facilitators, and we are hoping to have that available by late April or early May. This will be an online course over eight weeks where we will explore not just the ideas but the practice of PROSOCIAL for enhancing groups. Participants will work on their own groups and will emerge from the course ready to transform their groups. We will announce this through our website asap.


Make sure that you register for the conference before early registration closes on April 7th! To read more about the PROSOCIAL preconference workshop, please visit the PROSOCIAL workshop page. To learn more about the other pre-conference workshop offerings this year, head over to our pre-conference workshop page.