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Towards Less Dysfunctional Workplaces – Recognizing Patterns of Growth

One of the greatest challenges for anyone involved in a growth relationship is that there are simply too many and often conflicting choices! The wife wants a 2nd child while the husband has already set his eye on a vintage car; a college student aspires to be an artist but also expects a juicy starting salary upon graduation; an employee wants to be recognized as a top performer while the manager has to deal with complaints about his brash communications style; an important customer just called asking for a deeper discount than what’s allowed by company policy, so on and so on.

The truth is that we have very little control over our environment in the past, present and future. The best we can do is to recognize certain patterns of growth so that we may best align all the moving parts (energies) of our organization and realize more versus less synergy between the opportunities offered in the work environment and the aspirations of the individuals working there. Rather than going at it totally blindly, we can benefit from relevant research in social science which has grown tremendously in the past a few decades and is still pushing boundaries as we speak.

The first field of relevance is developmental psychology, the scientific study of how and why human beings change over the course of their life. This is relevant since we must have functional individual workers for a functional workplace. The functionality of a worker is defined not only by what needs to be done for business production but also what the worker needs to fulfill his or her growth potential. I will use the work of Harvard psychologist, Robert Kegan, as an example. Kegan discovered three dominant patterns in the psychological growth of individual human beings. The first he calls ‘socialized mind’. We are all born into certain social environment built and controlled by people who came before us such as our parents and their parents. Their rules and conventions have enabled our elders to survive and even prosper. Certain amount of indoctrination of the traditional ways by the young is essential for their survival. The situation is not much different when a new college graduate enters the workforce. A period of apprenticeship is necessary for the student to understand how the business is being run and for what reason. Only then the youngster may be able to come up with better ideas to further improve the conditions of business. But he or she must learn the old way first or risk repeating the same mistakes of earlier generations versus leaping to a better future. The second dominant stage of growth characterized by Kegan is called ‘self-authoring’ mind. At this stage, the individual has become well versed with the traditional ways and frustrated with the limitations of the status quo. In business, this impulse shows up most obviously when someone becomes very analytical about everything and starts to criticize how slow, poorly and redundant things are being done around here. Under proper guidance, the individual can add a great deal of value to the business by diagnosing the root causes and inventing new tools and processes, the sort of things popping into people’s mind when they think of business productivity improvements. However, almost immediately, the individual will run into conflicts and resistance from others who are either content with how things are or have their own ideas of how things could be improved. If not dealt with, the self-authoring minds could clash with each other and create chaos instead of productivity increase. The 3rd type of mind that is needed to avoid chaos and push progress in a healthy direction is named by Kegan as ‘self-transforming’ mind. People who have reached this stage of psychological development don’t care much about whose idea it is but only what’s the best one, essentially transforming their own, first and foremost, and other people’s ego to focus on the common wealth. When the ‘self-transforming’ mind is sufficiently strong in an organization, innovative ideas have much greater chance to flourish versus being suppressed by egoistic motives. Kegan observes that most of the modern workers are supposed to have reached the ‘self-authoring’ stage of psychological development but unfortunately most have not. Most managers are supposed to have reached the ‘self-transforming’ stage but few have. That is a clear indication of the root causes of the dysfunctional workplace.

The second field of research comes from a group of social scientists at MIT, most notably Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer. In a book by the same name, Otto Scharmer distilled their research findings into a theoretical model called ‘Theory U’. According to the model, human experiences are submerged within 4 successively deeper social fields. The first field is called ‘down-loading’. At this level of consciousness, people can only repeat patterns from the past but are unable to see the present or the future. This is analogous to Kegan’s ‘socialized mind’ that only recognizes and follows socially accepted protocols. When our consciousness expands to field 2, the first opening occurs in our minds, enabling us to ‘see’ what’s around us in space and time and redesign our physical surroundings as we see fit. This is once again in close alignment with the ‘self-authoring’ mind observed by Kegan where the human creativity first blossoms into the material world. When our consciousness further expands to field 3, we start to ‘sense’ in our hearts our inner longings and begin to re-frame the problems in ways that are worthy of our hearts as well as minds, correcting some of the mistakes made when we could only ‘see’ with our minds. Finally, when our consciousness deepens to field 4 our purpose in life becomes transformed. We begin to ‘presense’ a future that is emerging with our efforts and our goals are to co-create reality as it emerges. From field 3 to field 4, we gradually shift the center of gravity of our consciousness from our isolated self to the larger universe without losing ourselves in it, thus achieving what Kegan calls ‘self-transforming’ mind.

The third field of social science looks at the phenomena of human growth from both a historical and developmental perspective, going back some 100,000 years. Once again, they found distinct patterns of growth characterized by long strengths of stead progress punctuated by some abrupt changes. The most well-known work in this field is perhaps ‘Spiral Dynamics’, written by a couple of organizational consultants, Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, based on the work of their mentor, the late Union College professor, Clair Graves.  SD interprets the history of human civilization as well as individual development through the lenses of 8 developmental stages. It also predicts the emergence of additional stages in the future that we could not yet imagine. For the sake of our purposes, we’ll focus only on 4 of these stages, in approximate correlation with the previous two researches. The first of the 4 stages is nicknamed ‘Truth Force’. With the birth of major religions in the world (e.g. Christianity and Judaism in the West, Islam in the Middle East and Confucianism and Daoism in the East), human societies acquired the ability to indoctrinate their core beliefs in a comprehensive administration system. It enabled them to build vast empires. Strict conformance to these beliefs is both expected and enforced. Today even though our beliefs have evolved, we still retain the same habits and capabilities in administering most of our national and indeed international affairs, from social security to the command of army to Obama Care! At an organizational level, no business can survive without some stable administrative systems in place, from payrolls that send out checks on time to the operating procedures that keep cars and smart phones rolling off production lines on schedule and on budget! People at this stage of development believe strongly in one and only one right way and absolute obedience to authority. This provides a rational explanation of the motivation behind ‘socialized mind’ and ‘down-loading’ mindset in Kegan’s and Scharmer’s work, respectively. If there is only one right way and our ancestors have already found it as inched in stone or written in the scrolls, why bother to do anything different that could lead to trouble?

The next stage of human development at a large scale first occurred during Renaissance in the West (it has happened in China in the last 30 years). It is nicknamed ‘Strive Drive’. What characterizes this stage of human development is the birth of possibility thinking, the belief that one can change one’s life conditions through own efforts. That is obviously quite a departure from the previous belief in one right way prescribed by the authorities. It is the source of modern entrepreneurship and still very dominant in many walks of our lives today, from the free market idea to the popular belief in the American Dream. In a typical American business, the primary management mandate is to increase the productions and sales of consumer products. It is the entrepreneurs who lead both the invention of new products and discovery of new markets as company fortunes rise and fall with their ideas. Once again, there are clear correlations between the ‘Strive Drive’ motive and Kegan’s self-authoring mind and Scharmer’s ‘open mind’ field, respectively. People living in this stage of human consciousness are no longer content with merely following orders. They want to create something of their own.

Starting from the 60s, a large number of people in the West started to repel against the dominant success culture. People began to realize that the ‘Strive Drive’ logic has gone too far, the abundant material world it has created could not fulfill the deeper needs of the human heart. That’s when the ‘Human Bond’ stage of human development began at a large scale. This is clearly reflected in President Obama’s domestic and foreign policies. The former emphasizes the welfare of the middle class and the later seeks diplomacy first and foremost even with America’s adversaries.  Such ‘Human Bond’ ethic has driven significant changes in the corporate world as well. Work/life balance has gained wide acceptance as a legitimate business concern. Flexible hours and paid vacations have become standard at many workplaces. Even on the productivity front, improved employee relations have begun to be recognized as a significant driver of team productivity, especially in professions and industries where collaboration and innovation are a significant competitive advantage. When people truly share values beyond materialistic gains, they are more open to each other’s ideas, spend less energy in egotistic battles and as a result become more creative and productive collectively. Companies like Southwest Airlines, Google, Apple, Amazon and Wholefood Market clearly recognize the competitive advantages of ‘Human Bond’ and have invested heavily in creating a corporate culture known as ‘conscious capitalism’. Hearts as well as minds are engaged at this stage of human development as predicted by Scharmer’s field 3 and Kegan’s ‘self-transforming’ mind, respectively.

However, there is a weakness in the ‘Human Bond’ motive. It tends to confuse the differences between all modes of human growth, treating everything as equals and therefore unconsciously draining vast amount of energy in unproductive and unsustainable ways. At work places, this often shows up as carefully designed development events (e.g. an offsite training to improve communications skills between team members) isolated from the context of day to day realities. People are rarely able to transfer such incidental learning, however well intended, designed and experienced on the occasion, back to their real work environment. So at an experiential level the ‘Human Bond’ only lasts for a very short time in the rough and tumble of the business world. To strengthen this bond, we need the next stage of human consciousness, called ‘Flex Flow’. This level of consciousness tries to ‘smooth out’ the rough edges between ‘Human Bonds’, ‘Strive Drive’, ‘Truth Force’ and other forms of cultural phenomena common in all human arenas such as a workplace. It achieves this by organizing our experiences into systemic flows from lower to higher level of development and production in materials, knowledge, relationships and spirit. The science of flow is the science of integrating body, mind, heart and spirit. To the degree that this goal is achieved in an individual or team, we observe the birth of ‘self-transforming’ mind and ‘open heart’ and ‘open will’ fields as described in Kegan’s and Scharmer’s work, respectively.

So far we have sketched a brief contour of the growth patterns as revealed by the new science. It could serve as a model of living creatively in real workplaces, enriching workers as well as making the workplace less dysfunctional. It is anything but a cake walk to pull it off in practice which we will explore with some real world examples next time.

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