Book Summary – Changing on the Job (Developing Leaders for a Complex World)

Organizations can manage complexity by developing leaders correctly according to Robert Kegan’s theory of adult development.

Harvard University’s Robert Kegan articulated three stages of adult development that view growth in perspective. For example, as you gain experience and evolve as a leader, you get better at seeing other people’s perspectives and managing your own emotions.

“Curiosity – and the way it leads to openness to learning – is a necessary skill that workplaces should be actively cultivating.”

First, you mature from the “self-sovereign” stage, where everything appears black and white, right or wrong. In this stage, you view the dynamics of the workplace from your own point of view exclusively. People regard self-sovereign stage employees as being in a state of perpetual immaturity, incapable of recognizing ambiguity or engaging in more than a superficial conversation.

“Asking different questions is perhaps the most underrated of all learning skills.”

About 87% of adults make the successful transition from the self-sovereign state to the “socialized” level of maturity. Here, you accept societal and workplace rules and norms. You follow directions and work in teams. You broaden your perspective, seeing multiple options where before you saw only one. You keep many long-held ideas and beliefs, but you understand them as choices, not givens. You recognize your emotions and triggers, even if you can’t control them. You grasp that everyone plays the role of hero in his or her own story, and that those stories combine into a bigger picture, in which your story is one of many.

“Someone who does not listen well because he is not interested in others’ perspectives is different than someone who does not listen well because he does not fully understand that others have perspectives.”

Unfortunately, fewer than half of adults mature beyond the socialized stage to a level that proves essential for leaders – the “self-authored” stage. Leading up to this stage, you form ideas and take responsibility for your decisions. You develop values, principles and standards to live and work by. You don’t flout the rules, but you don’t want anyone telling you what to think or believe. You do a better job of managing the complexity of nuance and conflicting opinions.

“If you are going to try to have any idea about how someone else makes sense of the world … no matter how good you are at listening, you will have to get better.”

Modern firms need self-authored leaders and contributors. Self-authored leaders and employees can find it hard to step out of their worldview – their values, principles, and the like – to take the widest possible perspective and to manage perplexing challenges. Fewer than one percent of adults reach the final stage of maturity – “self-transforming.” Those who do balance multiple perspectives: “shades of gray” and wide perspectives. You view complexity as normal, and manage it with equanimity and curiosity.

Use careful interviewing or self-assessment techniques to determine a leader’s (or your own) stage of development.

Assess your stage or the stages of the leaders you want to develop. Knowing your current stage helps you determine what steps to take to keep growing. Write about an important situation, decision, challenge or opportunity in your life. Maybe you dislike your work, and must decide to quit or stay. Ask what’s the worst that might happen if you quit. If you answer that it might permanently damage your career, ask what’s the worst thing about that. If you answer that it might mean never reaching your full potential, ask yourself what’s the worst thing about that. Keep going until you have enough information to assess your developmental stage.

“People with a self-authored mind are those who own their own work, make their own decisions, and mediate among different perspectives with relative ease.”

If your answers center mostly around disappointing others and worrying about their opinions, you’re in the socialized stage. If your answers revolve around your feelings, ambitions and standards, you might be in the self-authored stage. Practice this with others using tools like the “Subject-Object Interview” (SOI). The SOI depends on asking worthwhile questions, and then listening to the answers with a curious mind-set and with the expectation that, at first, you won’t understand anything the person you are interviewing says. This mind-set helps you hear the subtleties in his or her stories and answers. Seek the framework of your subjects’ thinking: their decisions, how they describe conflict, their perspectives and their assumptions.

“The self-authored form of mind looks most familiar to us, as what adults are supposed to look like.”

Why did they make certain decisions, or fail to? How did they weigh and balance their options? Do they blame others or take responsibility? Do they see other people’s perspectives? Do they describe their choices in stark, simple terms, or do they see blended possibilities? For example, socialized-stage, career-oriented people who want to spend more time with their families might see only two outcomes: maximizing career prospects or missing their children’s upbringing. A self-authored person might explore ways to achieve both. Ask the person what’s the worst thing that might result from each choice.

Take deliberate action to develop your leaders through the stages of their development.

Once you identify their stages, find a coaching method to fit each leader’s current “growth edge.” Leaders at the self-sovereign stage have a narrow, self-centered perspective; most coaching methods won’t work. Take a flexible, nonjudgmental approach. Don’t expect them to have nuanced personal values or principles, or to care about other people’s ideas, values or rules. Gently persuade them to consider and appreciate others’ perspectives. Ask them to take meeting notes, for example, to record the participants’ comments, opinions and ideas. This “skills-based, tactical” approach helps people take concrete steps before making gradual transformations.

“To be a good help on someone’s journey toward transformation, you need to understand the world as he sees the world, not as you see him.”

People in the socialized stage hold strong attachments to institutional loyalties or an authority figure’s teachings or rules. The need to coach someone through the transition from follower to self-directed comes up most often when organizations try to convert followers with technical abilities to leaders who can exercise original thinking and creativity. Rely on “transformative coaching” that emphasizes a hands-off approach to guide people to greater self-sufficiency. Those at the socialized stage still crave instruction. Give it sparingly. Nudge them toward their own decisions by “questioning authority” and considering that equally valid rules, ideas, definitions of success, and opinions come from many different places. The transformation from taking orders and following rules to forming one’s own values and principles requires learners to change their relationships with people they previously followed.

“As the world becomes more complex, the complexity of the self-transforming mind is going to be pivotal inside organizations.”

People in the self-authored stage consider other perspectives and the complexities of situations, but cling to their own ideas, values and beliefs. They may not know another stage of development exists. People don’t let go of their identities easily. Explain Kegan’s adult development model so they learn they can evolve further. After achieving self-authoring development, they may be ready to lead at the highest levels.

“Learning outcomes, like everything else inside adult learning spaces, need to allow for developmental and other differences if they’re going to mean anything.”

Align professional development to learners’ stages of adult development. You can’t tailor your presentation and exercises to each individual, so offer content that provides many “entry points” for people at each stage. Offer “what’s in it for me” for those in the self-sovereign stage. Explain the research and authority behind your ideas for the socialized learners. Let the self-authored adapt the ideas to fit their own thinking. With the self-transforming person, share ideas that feature wide interpretation and nuance.

“Learning the habit of intentionally taking other people’s perspectives stretches the mind and makes it possible to see new options.”

A good outcome for people at the self-sovereign or socialized state might be learning to hear other people’s perspectives. That means you may need to help self-authored learners appreciate the validity of their colleagues’ contributions. Self-transformers realize they would remain incomplete if they see the world only through their own eyes.

Learning theory says people change as they adopt “three habits of mind”: “asking different questions,” “taking multiple perspectives” and “seeing the system.”

For any learning to stick, it has to address the way that people “make sense of the world.” Professional development must help learners attain their career goals, while equipping them to achieve the firm’s goals as well. Motivate employees to welcome rather than avoid learning by helping them form these habits:

  1. Asking different questions – Most people ask questions they can answer. Building the courage to ask questions that push the limits of your understanding opens you up to more learning. Help other learners overcome the tendency to ask safe questions, especially when they feel uncertain.
  2. Taking multiple perspectives – Help learners habitually hear and internalize others’ perspectives. While this opens them up to new possibilities, it doesn’t mean everyone should agree, only that they should try to understand other viewpoints.
  3. Seeing the system: “managing patterns and polarities” – Learners should look for how things connect and notice the patterns of their connection. Learners might not see connections between seemingly opposite things at the self-sovereign stage. At the socialized stage, they might acknowledge the patterns, but not how they connect. Leaders might not understand how a process that worked in a different role in another field applies to their work and industry. At the self-authored stage, people better appreciate connections and complexity. At the self-transforming stage, a process that others might find tactically or strategically useful could prove transformational.

Leaders’ perspectives must grow as they encounter increased difficulty and complexity in more senior positions. 

Leaders form ideas around what the future should look like. They create objectives and initiatives to fulfill that vision or to prepare their firm for the future. As they gain seniority, leaders should embrace new perspectives, inspire and encourage learning, support collaboration, match people to the right tasks and jobs, and support their execution. Senior executives require a bigger view to craft a vision 10 years out than a senior manager needs for working on a three-year strategic plan. A senior executive must weigh the perspectives of multiple stakeholders simultaneously.

“To support lasting change…create habits of mind which do not only support this change but also make future changes more possible.”

Self-sovereigns have a difficult time at any level of leadership because they find it nearly impossible to acknowledge, let alone consider, other perspectives. Expanding time horizons and considering other stakeholders are challenging. Socialized-stage leaders might manage longer time horizons, but remain overly partial to one perspective – perhaps their bosses’ – and struggle with the paradox of having less control as they move into more senior positions.

Seasoned self-authored leaders have what they need to navigate change. They see others’ perspectives and have no illusions about the nature of control. They expect ambiguity. Their attachment to their values and principles might blind them to the perspective of others.

Ask leaders at all stages to answer stretch questions. For example: “What do clients/stakeholders want from the firm and what opportunities do you see?” Or, “What do you see the firm looking like in five or 10 years? How should the firm position itself?” These questions force people to think strategically. Help your leaders, employees and teams stay mindful of their goals. Build their development into your operations. This includes giving people time for exploration, reflection and experimentation. Make it possible for leaders and employees to do their work while learning.

Make learning part of your performance expectations for everyone in your organization.

Ensure that your leaders and employees pursue continual learning and constant growth. Regard employee development as an investment, not a cost. Every firm needs more people at higher developmental stages.