This post was written by Neil Gilbride, Lecturer in Education at the University of Gloucestershire. As part of our Gloucestershire Expertise series, we are giving local leaders the opportunity to share their knowledge and experience, to help other ambitious enterprises grow. If you would like to contribute to the series, please email email@example.com
Neil shares his research and expertise on how most of us don't understand how difficult the tasks that we're assigning are, and what that means for our teams:
In this brief article, I want to plant a seed. The seed is a thought. If this thought is the only thing that you take away from this article, then the next 10 - 15 minutes will have been worth your while.
What’s the thought?
Most things that you expect your adults to do in your organization are far harder than you are giving credit for.
This is not your fault. This is not because you're bad manager or over demanding or because you are a mean spirited individual. The fact that you're choosing to read an article about how adults develop, grow and the demands organizations accidentally place on their employees demonstrate that you are indeed a good human. However, when we start to look at the adult development literature, we can begin to see how some of the common day to day tasks are fraught with challenges. These challenges, which I hope you will see on reflection, a far harder then we initially recognise.
We will start our journey by looking at the adult development theories of Robert Kegan and Jane Loevinger. These theories, originating from the United States, provide the framework from which to understand how an adult’s capacity to engage with the world around them changes throughout the life span. This table summaries some of these developments.
The table represents a series of developmental stages which individuals move through sequentially throughout their lives. Some move faster through these stages, some move more slowly (PS they are not related to age!) This is not a journey that all adults will make – most adults will not reach beyond the conscientious stage. The findings and understandings one stage prepares individuals for the discoveries understandings of the next stage. For this reason, stages is cannot be skipped. Growth through each stage require significant events and hard work to occur – growth does not occur by accident.
There is a line in the previous paragraph that I wish to draw your attention to: “Most adults will not reach beyond the conscientious stage.” It is true- most adults move to the conscientious stage and then struggle to move beyond this. It is part of the reason that I am particularly fascinated in the differences between the conscientious to individualist stage. Looking at these stages in particular, and even the table as a whole, we can learn three important points about the demands we place on adults:
1. Genuine collaboration is hard
To collaborate i.e build ideas jointly with those around you as a team endeavour, requires certain way of making sense of the world. One of these features is mutuality – that there is equality between yourself and each other and that you, as a team, are equally responsible for the outcome. Without this, one prioritizes their own ideas or that of others. My own emerging research with headteachers suggests that the practices underpinning collaboration, and the true value of it, could only be observed in individuals within the individualist stage (see here http://eprints.glos.ac.uk/4623/)
2. Managing organisational life is hard
Organisations face a raft of external threats and opportunities. Equally, life within the organisation also places demands on the organisations and its leadership. These demands can conflict – answering the internal demands of, say, rising pay for staff might clash with an external factor i.e increasingly difficult to access credit or customers being more conservative in their spending habits. What do you do? Trying to integrate and compromise against both needs is a fundamental part of how organisations need to operate.
But again, even only a glace at these stages demonstrates that being able to manage this conflict is a very hard and rare adult skill. Prior to this, individuals will be driven by their own values and moral code (Conscientious) or will look to follow/apply the rules (Self-Aware). Striking a balance between both only comes in the later, post conscientious stages. And yet, it is something we ask organisations and their employees to achieve every day of their work life.
3. Managing people and work-life is hard
As I have said, most adults live within the conscientious stage. A core feature of this stage is feeling an intense responsibility to others – prioritising the needs of others, often beyond their own needs: Going to ‘that’ meeting even though their workload Is building up; taking the 8pm phonecall from a colleague even though they are in the middle of leisure time. This can emerge in many different ways, but the route cause is the same – this sacrificial approach can be a fundamental way in which people make sense of the world.
In busy and people orientated organisations, without proper management this has the recipe for burnout written all over it. In my practice as a trainer, academic and coach, many adults tell me how they wish they can balance the needs of themselves with that of others – the fact that most adults reside in the conscientious stage, I would argue, is the key reason behind this.
So what do we learn from this? If development is so hard, how do we at least make these tasks easier for the majority of adults who have not progressed to stages of adult development where such tasks are easier to handle?
First, we take responsibility. We put the structures and safeguards in place that recognise the following points
- If collaboration is difficult, what rigid structures can we put in place to develop it? Can we hire or act a team coach that can facilitate that mutual approach? Are we kind on those who are struggling to get on board?
- How can we make it easier for individuals to see the broad range of demands on the organisation? Are we explicitly explaining how the organisation works or are we assuming that those around us can just ‘grasp’ it?
- How do we put the fixed structures in place to help people to strike the balance between themselves and others. Are we asking individuals to manage their own well being, knowing full well that they are more the likely to prioritise the needs of others? Are we modelling how we put our own life mask on first before others?
I would argue, beyond this, the most important point is empathy. This knowledge tells us that adult life is really hard – its hard to collaborate, to achieve balance and to understand our organisations. We can use this knowledge to understand why people might find tasks challenging – not because they are incompetent but because we are asking them to do really hard things that most adults will struggle to do. I hope that, what this knowledge can do, is alter the perspective and allow us to empathise with adults when the collaboration doesn’t quite work out or that, despite all your advice, they continue to put others before themselves.
To summarise: Most things that you expect your adults to do in your organisation are far harder than you are giving credit for. Let that seed grow, watch those in your organisation and have a think. Any thoughts? Let me know. firstname.lastname@example.org