Leadership Coaching Tip: A Process for Change

Leadership Coaching Tips / August 2011

A Process for Change

Barbara Alexander

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory. —W. Edwards Deming

Many of us agree with the spirit of Deming’s quote… in order to survive we need to change. It has always been thus. Change is the only constant is a familiar phrase that finds its origins from Herakleitos of Ephesus. A Greek philosopher, Herakleitos was known for the doctrine that change is central to the nature of universe. The original Greek, Πάντα ε κα οδν μένει, is translated several ways: “everything flows and nothing stands still,” “nothing endures but change” and, “change alone is unchanging.”

It is deep truth to be sure, but nevertheless we humans resist it, and resist it mightily. We have according to Harvard’s Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, “an immunity to change.” How to address our immunity to change is a puzzle leaders address in a variety of ways. Kegan and Lahey, in their book Immunity To Change, draw on Ronald Heifetz’s distinction between adaptive and technical change challenges. Too often leaders apply technical changes (enhancing a skill set) to challenges that need adaptive change (increasing one’s capacity for complexity) because they don’t know how to facilitate adaptive change in themselves and others.

Kegan has spent his career researching human’s capacity for complexity or meaning making. In Immunity To Change he outlines three plateaus or levels of adult mental complexity. (His earlier book, In Over Our Heads, gives a more complete explanation.) In brief they are:

The socialized mind (maps to Amber altitude) that is shaped by the definitions and expectations of one’s environment. One’s self-sense coheres by alignment and loyality to that environment.  People at this stage are team players, faithful followers who seek direction and are reliant on direction. Not only do people at this stage say and do what they think others want, their lens can significantly distort communication directed to them.

The self authoring mind (maps to Orange altitude) that has moved into an internal place of authority that evaluates and makes choices about external expectations. One’s self-sense coheres by aligning with internal beliefs/codes and can take stands and set boundaries based on them. People at this stage are agenda driving, independent problem solvers who follow their own internal compass. Communication is aimed at what others need to know that will further one’s agenda. The lens through which they receive communication comes attends to the information being sought that has relevance to their plan or agenda. Other information doesn’t make it through the filter.

The self transforming mind (maps to Teal and Turquoise altitude) that can see limits and partiality of personal authority or ideology so can hold multiple perspectives and manage contradictions. One’s self-sense coheres through not confusing one’s internal consistency with wholeness and aligning with the dialectic rather than either pole. People at this stage are problem finding, interdependent meta-leaders who lead to learn. Having transcended and included the capacities of the previous two stages, people who operate at this level of complexity look for improvements or modifications of their agenda, knowing that any idea is partial and subject to the fast paced shifts in the world. While retaining the capacity to focus and cut through extraneous information, they are attuned to “out of the box” information that may be just what the agenda/idea/design needs. Further, they let others know their contribution is welcome for this very reason.

Kegan defines complexity as “a story about the relationship between the complex demands and arrangements of the world and our own complexity of mind.” Reading these brief descriptions makes his concern obvious: “In the world in which we used to live, it was enough in most cases if people were good team players, pulled their weight and were loyal to the company or organization where they worked and could be counted on to follow conscientiously the directions and signals of their boss.” In today’s world, not so much, which is why Kegan says many people are “in over their heads” in positions that require a level of mental complexity they simply don’t have.

As a young graduate student in psychology I was introduced to the “paradox of change” put forth by Carl Rogers who said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” My professor said it more succinctly. “You have to be where you are before you can be somewhere else!” Adaptive change, change that expands one’s mental complexity, requires not only acceptance of where you are but first to know where you are. In the coaching method I learned at Integral Coaching Canada, the belief/assumptions that cause us to act as we do are called our way of “seeing.” They are the filters that we look through that influence our actions and reactions. They often block change no matter how much we desire it. In a full coaching program, one’s beliefs and assumptions are assessed from each of the five AQAL lenses. Kegan and Lahey have designed a method of self assessment that while it does not cover the full spectrum of an individual’s way of “seeing,” goes a long way toward helping people know what is keeping them stuck. The process shifts the focus from the “lens I look through” to the “lens I can actually look at.” At this point our beliefs/assumptions shift from subject to object or from “having us” to “us having them.” It is only then that we can begin to employ practices that can shift our ways of operating in the world.

The process is deceptively simple yet elegant and effective in design. Kegan and Lahey suggest using columns to map the assessment.

  1. The first step is to identify your desired change. That becomes your goal in column one.
  2. Next ask yourself what am I doing/not doing instead? List these actions in column two. This step helps you to see your “change prevention system,” the behaviors that work against your goal. It’s designed to help you look “at” rather than ”through” your way current way of operating. It is not a time for self-criticism but rather an opportunity to identify an established way of operating that has developed over time as a means of care and protection. Here’s the place where acceptance is critical. By deciding to change, you are putting your established system at risk and need all the support you can get. Self-criticism doesn’t help at all!
  3. Once you’ve outlined what you are doing/not doing instead of what you desire the third column asks you to look at your hidden competing commitments. Here’s the really tough part, as it requires a fearless look at your motivations. One example from Immunity To Change that many of us may relate to is the leader whose goal is to be more receptive to new ideas. As you might imagine the behaviors he’s doing instead of his goal include talking too much, not asking open-ended questions and using a curt tone when an employee makes a suggestion. His hidden competing commitments? You guessed it . . . to have things done his way and to maintain his sense of self as a super problem solver. Sound familiar? Perhaps not. Our competing commitments differ widely even if the goal is the same. We are unique in the ways we’ve learned to adapt. But certainly the experience of desiring change yet blocking it somehow, the one foot on the gas, the other on the brake phenomenon, resonates for many of us.
  4. The last step of the self-assessment asks you to identify in column four the Big Assumptions that underlie your competing commitments. Kegan and Lahey call them Big Assumptions to make the point that they seem true to us whether they are or not. For our leader in the example above, his assumption was that deep satisfaction was only found when he was being a super hero. I doubt that he would have identified this assumption before engaging in this process.  No surprise, assumptions are often out of our awareness. We are looking “through” them and are unaware of how they affect our behavior. Identifying and beginning to challenge assumptions helps us begin to look “at” them. In this way we begin to dis-identify with our current operating system, which is the first step in developing more complex mental structures.

Experiencing this process is the best way to understand it, so try it. It’s only the beginning, of course, because insight alone does not change behavior but it is the necessary first step because we really do have to be (and see) where we are before we can be somewhere else!

About the Author

Barbara Alexander

Barbara Alexander has been engaged in human development throughout her 35-year career. After earning an M.A. in Counseling Psychology and completing a three Gestalt Therapy program, she spent 25 years as a psychotherapist, splitting her time between individual therapy, teaching and consulting in the public and private sectors. Her interest in spirituality led to graduate school, this time studying the intersection between theology, spirituality and psychology where the Integral Model became her framework. She currently practices as a Coach, certified by Integral Coaching Canada, and Spiritual Director in the San Francisco Bay Area where she works with individuals and organizations as well as teaching in areas of spiritual development and integral theory.