Michael Kyrios | Ccentric Podcast
Vice President and Executive Dean of the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work at Flinders University
Michael Kyrios is the Vice President and Executive Dean of the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work at Flinders University.
Michael recently sat down with Ccentric consultant, Pam Lubrainschik to discuss his career. Some of the questions they discussed include:
- Why did you decide to study psychology?
- What influenced your decision to work predominately in academia?
- What are the highlights for you when you reflect on your career?
- You were previously Director of the Technology-based Psychological Treatment Laboratory, how have you seen the development of digital healthcare support mental healthcare and improve outcomes?
- There is often a stigma around speaking about mental health. What do you think we can do to encourage more open and honest conversations?
- When you are recruiting for a senior executive to join your team, what are the key attributes you look for in the person, apart from academic track record and experience?
- What are your top tips for aspiring leaders?
Why did you decide to study psychology?
I was the firstborn from that first wave of southern European migration post-war. My parents came from a country that had been torn apart not just by the war, but a civil war. There was great poverty and my parents decided that they would migrate to offer their children a better future. I was born here, Australia wasn’t the country that it is now. It was pretty insular and there was a degree of racism. There was a degree of not feeling as engaged. I didn’t actually know English when I went to school. There were no televisions in those days in our household and the only people that my parents knew were people who also spoke Greek. My parents studied English and went on to integrate. But as a child, clearly, I felt totally disengaged or at least not part of the same.
That caused some angst in me, some conflict, some anxieties. So, very early on, I decided that I wanted to be a psychologist. My parents were very big on education. That’s what they were here for, for their children to become educated. I read very widely and we had a very kind of philosophical view of the world, Greeks and their philosophy.
Even though they were relatively uneducated, there is still a cultural kind of overlay to that. I was pretty well-read, and I read Freud when I was in high school and decided that I was going to become a child psychologist. That’s all I ever wanted to do. Either that or open up a coffee shop. Therapy always starts with ‘can I get you a cup of coffee’.
Psychology was what I wanted to do, and followed that dream and became a child psychologist, a clinical psychologist. I was one of the first people to be asked if I wanted to do a PhD in clinical psychology. It was sort of unheard of in those days. I did that and I was the first fellow in clinical psychology at the Royal Children’s Hospital.
What influenced your decision to work predominately in academia?
I actually took a year off having studied for many years and actually thought of going overseas and working overseas. But the Royal Children’s Hospital rang me up and said, can you please come back again? My alma mater, La Trobe University, rang me up and said, Can you come back again? I decided at that point that I really loved the research, so I decided to take the job at La Trobe rather than at the Royal Children’s Hospital just for a little while.
I was also very young and didn’t have kids of my own and I felt that as a student under supervision, working at Children’s Hospital was one thing. But as a solo practitioner, you don’t quite feel that you have it all if you don’t have your own family and children, there’s the imposter syndrome. I thought I might work for a few years and do some research. I then eventually got a job at the Royal Melbourne Hospital teaching developmental psychology to medical students and worked in psychiatry. Part of my job was to do clinical work in the hospital, to do research, to teach medical students. It was just the best combination of everything I ever wanted. But I realised from the clinical work that I was doing that I was very limited as an individual. There was one of me and I could see maybe 20 people a week by the time I did research. At the time I did the teaching, I just found that really frustrating. I was eventually asked to take over the clinical training program at the University of Melbourne, and that was influenced by my impact a little bit. That meant that I could teach people, that meant that my impact was not just on the 20 people that I saw, but 50, 100, a thousand as these students graduated. At that point, I became very interested in obsessive-compulsive disorder.
It was not considered to be particularly treatable in those days, and we had developed psychological therapy that seemed to be quite effective. There were some new medications coming out that showed that for some people, the combination of the psychological treatment and the medication treatment would be very, very useful, and so I started doing some research. We started to develop manual’s treatments that were even more efficacious. The students started to roll them out, and again the impact was increasing. I was part of an international consortium that was developing these treatments. Then I got really, really greedy and thought, what if I put these online? I was convinced of this by my own kids, they said ‘Dad, you don’t have to see someone to give them the information, why don’t you just put it online?’. But essentially, we did put our manuals online and got some funding to not only put them online but to evaluate them. They were just as efficacious, particularly for people in the moderate to severe, or mild to severe people, who clearly could not use the online treatments without support. But actually, a lot of people could. This was a great way to prevent chronicity, to prevent people from having these problems over long periods of time. It was a great way to nip it in the bud for adolescents. We know that the onset of OCD really peaks during adolescence, early childhood and early adulthood period. Along the way, I changed jobs and was at Swinburne. The federal government gave us some money to put together the National Therapy Centre and a group of us put together online treatments for anxiety disorders.
What are the highlights for you when you reflect on your career?
Look, it always has to be about the people that you work with, mentor, and supervise. I now have students of mine who have got children of their own, they are kind of my spiritual grandkids and my spiritual children. As I’ve always said, I don’t supervise I adopt, it’s my culture. They were in and out of our house, my wife would look after them, we would be invited to their dos. Always maintaining appropriate boundaries, around the work. But with mentoring you have to have a care factor, so for me, they’re the highlights.
I’ve got students now who are professors, associate professors, I’ve got students who’ve now got preadolescent children and or adolescent children. For me, that’s always the highlight. The second highlight is, of course, the friends that you make along the way. I still have fantastic friendships and there’s that personal aspect of it. I don’t think that you can survive in the world without that sort of social aspect. Even now, during COVID-19, we keep telling people to socialise. So that’s imperative. They offer support and they offer motivation.
In terms of my professional highlights, I’ve been able to attract about 22 Million dollars’ worth of research funding. I have written just under 200 papers. I was the president of the Australian Psychological Society. This is the kid that was an outsider, then became the first president of the Australian Psychological Society that was from an ethnic background. Although that’s not strictly true, because we had a couple of Jewish presidents as well. I was chair of the APS College of Clinical Psychologists, again another dream. We were able to get Medicare rebates for psychological services from the Howard government, that’s a highlight.
In terms of my own personal highlights and my own research, just the number of people with OCD whose lives we’ve been able to improve through our treatments, through gold standard treatments. The impact of that on hospital systems and mental health systems, the friends and colleagues that I’ve made overseas, being able to facilitate further research in greater depth. We’re all limited in what we do, but you give a little and somebody else takes that idea then and then moves it along. Then I guess just the development of the National E-Therapy Centre, the development of the OCARD lab (Obsessive Compulsive Anxiety and Related Disorders Lab). We also put a book out in 2016 on self-understanding and treating psychological disorders through the Cambridge University Press. We had the Freud of the day, write the forward saying, this is the book I’ve been waiting for. There are so many highlights.
Now that I am at Flinders University, I’ve really been able to bring all of that together, all of the research, all of the administrative and organisational and leadership expertise or skills that I’ve mustered over the years. I can now bring it into sharp focus during a very challenging time for all universities, that’s also a highlight in itself.
My aspirations very early on were very meagre. I wanted to finish up my career as a senior lecturer because that’s as far as I thought I could get. I was the first in my family to go to university, so I didn’t know what was possible. I guess my advice to students now is never underestimate yourself, don’t question, just keep moving forward. Because this also speaks to mental health issues as well, I think we often question ourselves and our own ability to manage things or to move forward because the unknown is unknown. But it’s not the unknown that is the problem, it’s the questioning of oneself in managing the unknown. That is the challenge.
You were previously Director of the Technology-based Psychological Treatment Laboratory, how have you seen the development of digital healthcare support mental healthcare and improve outcomes?
I’d have to say over the past 20 or 30 years, the biggest impact on healthcare has been the development of digital capacities, be it something as simple as telepsychology talking to people over the phone, because there are skills involved with that, having things online, wearables or even apps. These developments have had a greater impact on mental health care than any pharmaceutical development over the past 30-40 years.
I think giving people self-agency in their own care, giving people access at all hours and immediate access to evidence-based information. This is what will improve literacy, self-management and the burden on the mental healthcare system. We, just as economies do not have enough resources to help every single person with a serious mental illness. Part of the problem is that we are spending a lot of our resources, people resources in particular, in looking after people with mild to moderate, to severe problems, who could have the capacity to facilitate change in their own lives with some structured support. Essentially, that’s what these digital technologies allow us to do. They allow people to structure their own experiences in such a way that they can support themselves through most of the challenges that they face. Which would then leave the workforce able to support those with the greatest need. The other thing about this is that these digital supports can support not just professionals, but actually peer supporters. There’s nothing as powerful as a message from someone who’s had the lived experience in giving advice, guiding, or supporting someone who has the mental health challenges right now.
Because the number one lesson in mental health support is optimism. Number two is social support, then comes the more specific guidance guides in terms of how to face your fears, how to balance out the advantages and disadvantages of one decision over another decision, how to problem solve, how to improve your social skills or how to improve your anxiety management skills. The information that we give people is essentially guidance information. People will then take on board some of those principles or some of those strategies, try them out for themselves, tailored for themselves, and then learn to evaluate whether it’s working for themselves.
We as practitioners not only impart all of that information, but we also impart what I think is the forgotten skill, that’s how to be a scientist. Most of us panic and we stop thinking rationally in challenging situations because stress does that to us. That’s how we are wired to fight or flee, and sometimes fleeing or fighting is the wrong response. It’s okay to do it when you’ve got a sabre-toothed tiger chasing you, but it’s not the right thing to do if your boss has asked you to correct something in a report that you’ve written, or if your friend looks at you rather quizzically and you interpret that as, oh my God they hate me, or if you’re feeling a heart palpitation you start to think, oh my God I’m getting a panic attack and I’m going to die. Those are overreactions, part of what we do is help people to think scientifically about their own experiences and work out ways and then evaluate the efficacy of the ways that they’ve worked out to manage those problems. We can put all of that online or we can put it together in a way that makes it easier for people to take on that information, irrespective of their education levels, their current mental health literacy, their gender, their culture or their situation.
As the technologies have developed, we have become more sophisticated in how we can impart that information. At Swinburne in the national eTherapy centre, if you were a female of a particular age or a male of a particular age, you would get a different set of visuals. The information would be presented to you in a different kind of a way, that’s much more individualised. If your symptoms had this constellation as distinct from that constellation, you would get different treatment because it would be individualised.
Nowadays, we’ve got Artificial Intelligence that can integrate not only the information that we give the algorithm about the types of symptoms that we have, or our age, or our cultural background, or our gender. But actually, it will pick up information from our wearables, such as smartphones or even the smartwatches. It will also be able to integrate information from big data and look at how many times you’ve gone to the doctor, what prescriptions the doctor’s given you, maybe even how much exercise you’ve done at the gym or in your daily life, how good your sleep is. It will be able to integrate all that information and further individualised intervention for you.
This is the direction that we’re going in, it will become much more sophisticated. But that’s not to say that the human factor is not necessary, because more often than not, it is. Humans don’t need to do the bulk of the work, the learning can happen automatically.
There is often a stigma around speaking about mental health. What do you think we can do to encourage more open and honest conversations?
I think the first thing is we’ve got to give permission to do so. We recently had R U OK Day and there is also Mental Health Week in mid-October. These events need to be celebrated and not only celebrated during those times but beyond those times, we all need to model that behaviour. There is no shame in feeling anxiety, it is the human condition, it is how we are wired. It has helped us to survive as a species and it is there for a reason.
There have been cultural shifts, and in the post-Kardashian world, we need to not aspire to perfectionism. Perfectionism in terms of emotional control, looking the best socially, wearing the right things, having the right job, or having gone to the right school. Inclusion is a really important part of this as well. It’s not just that we must model our acknowledgment of our mental health challenges, but we also have to embrace everyone and differences, whatever those differences may be.
There’s a lot to be said about the need for social tolerance, I don’t like the term tolerance because tolerance is a term that is distant. We don’t tolerate other people, we should embrace other people. The species has survived because of our diversity. Climate changes have occurred throughout history. Social changes, geographic changes have occurred throughout history, throughout our evolution. The reason the species has survived is because of our diversity and part of that diversity are the mental health challenges.
There are some people who are hypersensitive to danger, to threat. These are the people who didn’t rush into the caves, these are the people who didn’t rush out of the forest into the open plains, but they survived. However, there are some people who are more impulsive, they rushed out of the planes and were able to hunt for the meat that we needed, or to grow the grains that we needed to survive as a species. These were the people who are impulsive and were able to run into the caves to look around to see if the caves were safe. Both extremes are necessary for our survival, both fear avoidance, the people who are sensitive, but also impulsivity, people who don’t care about fear.
Now, these extremes are also associated with particular problems in modern urban life, and we just have to accept that’s just the way that our culture is and it will change, we’ll have more or less acceptance of some of these things. But we will need to have almost a social contract with each other so that we all understand that we as individuals and as a species survive because of each other. Because of the acceptance and the celebration of each other’s tendencies. People don’t ask to have this tendency or that tendency, these things just happen. They happen because of what goes on socially during a critical developmental period. It happens because of things that are embedded within us through genetics. It also happens because of what we now know as epigenetics, that interaction between what the environment offers and what we come into the world with. It’s that interaction that determines who we are and then has some impact again on our genetics, which has an impact on our behaviour, which has an impact on our genetics. It’s no one’s the article of fault that they have a particular mental health problem.
There are some cognitive and behavioural problems that are challenging to us as a society. These are things that we know are problematic to the social contract. These are the sorts of things we need to talk about, be aware of and know what we can do in order to avoid them, again, it goes back to epigenetics. There are some people who are predisposed in some sort of way to be more aggressive or more impulsive. But actually, if we engage with them, if we help them to feel more secure, if we help them to be more attached to the social milieu, they won’t end up with the certain environmental conditions can lead to. Again, it gets back to this social contract, I think, and that we are each of us obliged. We have a moral responsibility to talk about our own inner world and to help others feel that they were part of it and to have permission to talk about their inner world without the threat.
When you are recruiting for a senior executive to join your team, what are the key attributes you look for in the person, apart from academic track record and experience?
I mean, clearly, that is important because the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, particularly in terms of economic output. At the end of the day, we work in organisations, organisations are made up of people, and you need a person who can fit into your culture, into the gaps that you have. Sometimes it is a balancing act between finding people who are the same as me versus different to me.
Sometimes you need to have people who have different skills to the skill set that already exists. You need to make a systemic decision about what is the type of person that would best fit the organisation, for your particular organisation to meet its current challenges. It is always very contextual, at the end of the day. There are some people who are really flexible and can fit into any kind of organisation. They are great people to have because they will mould, develop and evolve with the circumstances surrounding them.
I hear lots of different views, as to this person’s not as personable, this person is too harsh, this person makes very harsh decisions. You actually need such people, particularly during difficult times. Other times you need people who are more democratic, more collegial because when times are good, they are the people you want to have to collect people and to come up with collective ideas. Often it is good to have people who have both those skills, who can go backwards and forwards.
We look at the circle of skills. They go from the greens and the yellows all the way to the purples and the blue, as a leadership team, you need all of those sectors of inclusive of creativity, ability to operationalise, ability to implement, ability to evaluate. You kind of need all of those skills in a leadership team. The other thing is that leadership is always a must, people need to be able to take leadership in their own particular way. It doesn’t have to be a loud kind of leadership; it can be a soft one. But leadership is about self-agency, finding opportunities, having the initiative to do so, or having the ability or the propensity. Sometimes people need permission to be creative, even that in itself is it is a propensity and part of the leadership spectrum. They would be my general views about this.
Sometimes you just have to take a risk. I truly believe in gut instinct, if your gut is telling you one thing, you got to listen to it. You can ignore it, but you still have to listen to it and make a strategic decision to ignore it. I have done that in the past, I’ve gone for people who my gut was telling me were the right people, but my head was telling me I’m not so sure. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong, and if you can get it right, 70 per cent of the time, you are an expert.
What are your top tips for aspiring leaders?
You’ve got to believe in yourself, even when you doubt yourself. You’ve got to believe that you go through a period of doubt and if you used the data available to you, the information available to you, the process available to you, you’ll come to a decision at some point and you just have to trust your gut feeling.
If you can’t come to a decision, then it’s a difficult and challenging situation. At the end of the day, there may not be the right answer. And so, again, take a risk. Don’t take all responsibility on your shoulders. I think you’ve got to consult, take in information and listen to ideas. But as a leader, and particularly if you are the ultimate leader of a particular group, it’s on your shoulders. You have to be resilient enough to be able to fathom the notion that you might have made a wrong call. If you do make wrong calls, as I say, if you get it right 70 per cent of the time, you are an expert. So be prepared to make mistakes, but don’t take the burden of responsibility on yourself for those mistakes. The responsibility is usually on the changed circumstances or something that went wrong in the process of decision making, and reflect on that, and reflect what might happen, what you might do differently next time.
But I really believe it’s about believing in yourself, not being able to predict doom and gloom. Doom and gloom is only going to lead to more doom and gloom. You have to be problem-focused and solution-focused, even in times when there are no obvious solutions. When there are no obvious ways through a problem, you just have to believe that whatever it is that you do is the best that was possible under those circumstances, keep moving forward, be compassionate to yourself and be compassionate to others mistakes, acknowledging those mistakes and being open. It’s really the same message as the mental health message, let people into your inner world and help people feel comfortable to allow you into their inner world so that there is that communication.
I don’t think you always need to be democratic, and I don’t believe you always need to come up with a consensus. It’s great if you can, but you don’t always have to do that because often you are privy to information that your team around you is not privy to. Sometimes you might be supporting the level of management that is above you, and you are privy to information at that level that the people below you, or your team may not be privy to, and sometimes you just have to make a hard call. Sometimes that means a hard call about your own team. So you can’t always be completely open about these things, but you have to be as genuine as possible. People know when you’re not being genuine, so I have given people the hard news, explained why and given them the genuine reasons why. Because there is a history of being genuine, they take that on board and really appreciate that. A leader does that, they can give good news, they can give bad news, they can give hard news and they can give easy news. But you always have to do it from the perspective of being genuine and have a kind of a style as well. People understand, I’m using my hard hat today I hate to do this but, or today is a day of celebration we don’t have to be hard we can just celebrate. But it’s really that kind of believing in yourself and not doing too much second questioning.
I know that there’s a lot of principles in that, that actually conflict with each other. There’s a law in psychology that’s called the Yerkes–Dodson Law. An example of this is your performance increases as your anxiety increases, right up to a certain point. It could be anxiety, could be self-doubt, it could be self-questioning. Beyond a certain point, performance decreases, so it’s trying to stay in that in that middle ground. That’s why sometimes it’s a bit like clinical work, you’re dealing with uncertainties. As long as you’re dealing with the uncertainty, you’re actually in the peak performance of that graph. But if you’re not dealing with the uncertainties and ignoring them or your performance is not going to be good, and if you’re over-concerned with uncertainty, you’re going to be more anxious, more perfectionistic, have high expectations of yourself, and therefore your performance will actually decrease.
Leadership is a little bit like that too. Sometimes you can be a leader that leads from the stalls. Clearly, you lead by leadership, you have to be there and get your hands dirty. People know that if you’re giving out an instruction for people to take leave, you’ve got to take leave, too. If you’re asking people to take a pay cut, you take a pay cut to and you take a bigger pay cut than others. You’ve got to lead by example, and you can never ignore it. You can never ignore uncertainty and anxiety and the responsibilities of leadership.
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