A Coaching Power Tool Created by Josh Alwitt
(Executive Coach, USA)
I met with Pooja, a junior manager in India who was struggling with a heavy workload. She was trying to service people in the US and India timezones and was getting burnt out. I asked Pooja what she was doing to try to improve her situation, and she told me “I’ve talked to my manager in the US, and to the senior person here in India to come up with a solution. I’ve talked to my local HR person too, and the only idea they have come up with is to wait until we hire a few more people. I think I can tough it out.” I asked her who else could help with this problem and she drew a blank. So I shared the observation that I saw a key person who was not weighing in on the decision, and she responded “yes and I’m talking to you right now.” I told Pooja I was not referring to myself, but rather to herself. At that, her eyes grew damp as she considered that she would herself need to make the difficult work/life balance decisions in this situation rather than rely on others.
She saw that rather than being resigned to her situation and allowing it to be defined by others, she could take back the authority to determine her own priorities. By taking back her own agency and making more conscious choices, she was able to balance the tension between her apparently conflicting priorities of family, health, and job performance. She eventually came to see that she could actually improve her job performance by giving more attention to family and her own wellness.
Many of us are familiar with the Serenity Prayer by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can
And wisdom to know the difference
The last line is the crux of this power tool. How can we tell whether a situation should be accepted or changed?
In order to make a choice, we need to first identify that there is a choice. This can be as difficult, depending on one’s perspective, as a fish trying to understand the concept of water. Robert Kegan, a Harvard psychologist, has done extensive research into the concept of perspective and uses the idea of subject-object. When we are subject to a situation, we cannot identify it as separate from ourselves. When we can see the situation as object we are able to make conscious choices about it. A fish is subject to the water. For the human swimmer, the water is object, separate from oneself, allowing us to make choices about it.
Kegan’s research on adult development describes different forms of mind that influence how someone makes sense of the world:
- Self-sovereign (12% of adults) - a person is not able to see the existence of other perspectives than his or her own. They are subject to their own perspective and unable to see it, let alone make choices about it. These people approach activities by applying methods and rules.
- Socialized (46% of adults) - a person is able to see and take the perspective of others and becomes subject to that other perspective. He or she sees the world through the lens of that other perspective, be it organizational, cultural, religious, etc., and is not able to apply multiple perspectives. Things are seen as right or wrong, based on the adopted perspective coming from outside. This person can make choices within the boundaries of the perspective they have taken.
- Self-authored (41% of adults) - a person is able to see multiple perspectives other than his or her own. This person makes his or her own decisions about what is right and wrong, applying different perspectives as they see fit. That said, even someone able to take multiple perspectives can struggle to identify the existence of choices.
- Self-transforming (<1% of adults) - a person is able to see multiple layers, complexity and paradox in every issue. Instead of looking at others as having separate points of view, they see the connections and similarities across points of view. In this form of mind a person sees choices everywhere.
In my own experience, people do not always think in a single form of mind. They can apply different forms of mind in different situations; especially during a time when they are moving from one form of mind to another in their life journey. For example, someone may start to think from a self-authored view in areas where they have a lot of experience and confidence, and still apply a socialized mind in other areas.
Now that we have explored the states of mind that allow choices, let’s look at the Resignation state of mind:
In the Resignation state of mind, a person has subconsciously accepted the current situation. They have taken their underlying assumptions to be facts and are not aware of any alternatives to the condition they are in. This is different from an explicit decision to accept a situation where one has thoughtfully considered the alternatives.
In the opening example, Pooja assumes that she does not have agency in the matter of the hours she is working. She is following the values of an organization with an emphasis on performance and teamwork. Because she wants to perform, and doesn’t want to let her team down, she sees no alternatives to the current situation.
Underlying the state of Resignation is a set of assumptions, and usually what Kegan calls the Big Assumption. The Big Assumption is an underlying belief, and as such, is like the water the fish swims in. Helping a client shift their view of the Big Assumption is at the core of this power tool. Here are some real examples of Big Assumptions that I have seen subconsciously prevent people from seeing that they have choices:
- “If I draw boundaries around my work-life balance, I will not be able to perform at the level expected of me.”
- “If I confront people when they don’t deliver, I will be seen as harsh and therefore not a good leader.”
- “To be a successful sales person in this company, you cannot maintain positive relationships with everyone.”
- “To be successful in my role, I have to have positive relationships with everyone.”
- “If I give honest feedback to senior executives, I will be punished.”
When your client is able to recognize their BIg Assumption for an assumption, rather than an implicit fact of life, it opens up all sorts of new possibilities.
Here is the challenge: as coaches, how can we help our clients see their Big Assumption when it’s subconscious?
Kegan and Leahy outline a simple, effective, four-step thought process in their book Immunity to Change. I will describe the steps here and also encourage you to read the book in order to be able to apply this effectively. The entry point for answering these questions is that the client currently wants to do something and has the skills, but for some reason cannot do it. It may take some reframing on the part of the coach to get to this entry point. In the example of the junior manager, I might have asked “what is it you would like to do in this situation that you are currently not able to achieve?” Kegan and Leahy’s four questions are:
- What are you trying to do?
- What are you doing instead?
- What are you afraid of?
- What is your Big Assumption?
Helping the client see their Big Assumption frees them to see the universe of choices available to them. Their Big Assumption may even be true in some cases, but if they can see it as only an assumption there may be ways to work with it. In Pooja’s case, I was not acting consciously as her coach. In retrospect, it would have been more effective to take her through the Immunity to Change process, and help her come to see her Big Assumption on her own.
Here are some examples of Big Assumptions and possible reframing:
- Consider the form of mind your client is applying to this situation. Whose perspective are they using to make meaning? Their own? Their organization’s? Multiple perspectives?
- Ask your client about the alternatives they have considered. This may be enough to move from acceptance to choice as you explore the different alternatives.
- If the client dismisses an alternative, you can challenge this and ask “what’s the worst that could happen if you make that choice?”, or “what assumptions are you making about what might happen?”
Turning Choice Into Action:
If your client has succeeded in seeing alternatives where none existed before, that is tremendous progress. Now there is Choice and the question shifts to which path to choose. Extending the Big Assumption examples above, let’s look at possible actions the client could take in these situations:
When we find ourselves in uncomfortable situations, it can be difficult to see that there may be alternatives. Depending on our client’s form of mind in a given situation, they may not be able to see the choices available to them, and move into a state of resignation. As coaches, we can help our client’s see and challenge the assumptions they are making, opening up new choices. Through serenity, courage and wisdom we can make conscious decisions to either accept or change our life situations.
- What situations have you seen where someone accepted an undesirable situation because they didn’t see that they had a choice?
- What situations have you experienced where you accepted an undesirable situation because you didn’t see that you had a choice?
- Which of Kegan’s forms of mind are most likely to be present when someone cannot see the possibility of choice?
- How could you help someone with the Self-Sovereign form of mind see beyond their own assumptions?
- What kinds of situations call for the “wisdom to know the difference”?
Immunity to Change, Kegan & Lahey, 2009
Changing on the Job, Garvey & Berger, 2012