Book review: An 'everyone culture', where the purpose of work is self-growth

The idea that work can be meaningful isn't new. Most of us have some notion of a dream job, where satisfaction, our innate gifts and a sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves will be part of the job description. If you want to stay on the cutting edge of how our culture thinks about work, you might browse Rob Kegan and Lisa Lahey's latest book, An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organisation, which will urge you to measure the meaning of your work not by how much you like or value it, but by how much it makes you grow up, and past the edge of your current limits. When an organisation can create routines where everyone does just that, on the job, all the time, a "DDO", or deliberately developmental organisation, emerges.

As Kegan and Lahey explain, we can now map, with a degree of certainty, the growth of adult minds over the length of an average life. Ever wonder why your supervisor, who's older than you, can come across as a baby? She might be less mature than you. She might be behind you in terms of her ability to know what is truthful for her, and to act on that. Her capacity to withstand the always-emerging knowledge of her human frailty (her blind spots, the motivations and assumptions that keep her in the grip of all her bad habits) might be less developed than yours – even if she's senior to you.

So this "growing" is not about the accumulation of skills, information or technical knowledge, or even about the extent to which you are now in a job (an NGO, say, or an orchestra) that satisfies your sense of purpose. Kegan and Lahey refer rather to a specific type of mental "stretching" or expansion, which all grown-ups are engaged in, all the time, and to the possibility of workplaces turbo-charged by people asked to do just this kind of stretching. To what? Towards a greater capacity to understand and engage with complexity.

Mostly, change management fails because, as a discipline, it has no clue about the minds of people at work. I spoke to one of the book's contributing authors, Andy Fleming, before his forthcoming Australian tour. He explained that this internal stretching (or "adaptive learning") is the frontier of organisational change. Given the rate of change going on around us (accelerating), Fleming contends that organisations will come under increasing pressure from workers to provide an environment that makes adaptive learning (developmental stretching) inevitable and routine; not least because it feels so meaningful, even if the everyday of work (filing, meetings, feedback) can't supply the thrill of inherent purpose.

The premise that anyone can find reward and purpose at work by understanding themselves better in the context of that work is fundamentally democratic, in my view, and a welcome antidote to the occasionally fundamentalist cheering about "purpose" that our culture now engages in.

Kegan and Lahey have moved here to the level of practical detail, asking (with co-authors Matthew Miller and Fleming): what would an organisation designed to trigger adaptive learning actually look like? Its thesis (work can make you a better person) is built around three case studies drawn from the American private sector. Those doubtful about the effects on the corporate bottom line of this approach should note that each case study links a deliberately developmental culture with low turnover and high individual and organisational performance.

Here's an example: Kegan and Lahey find that "talent management" has negative effects on productivity into the longer term. To paraphrase, they find that corporate stars tend to hog the work and the credit, and their talents (for power, assertive communication and self-promotion) are valued by senior executives mainly because they were promoted for the same reasons. To their junior colleagues, who tend to be much more invested in their own growth, these unapologetic corporate favourites are the unloved and unclothed emperors of work. It could be that too much fun on the job means it's being had at the expense of the learning and development of others – and the effectiveness of teams.

The kind of "talent" nurtured in a deliberately developmental organisation (or "DDO"), by contrast, is a talent for self-confrontation. Greater self-knowledge is the only known means of speeding up the uncertain rate of adult development and producing humans with a greater capacity to thrive within the new normal of VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) contexts.

Kegan and Lahey show that being open about weaknesses within teams and across (and up and down) leads to learning cultures within which work becomes meaningful for its own sake – to about the same degree that people can begin to tolerate and expect the discomfort or "burn" of adaptive learning. In the DDO, routines (whether digital or face-to-face) make everyone's "backhand", or learning edge, transparent. Tend to arrogance? Or to too much humility? Everyone knows, and everyone is supporting you to grow through it. Developmentally speaking, everyone is naked, and everyone knows it. Moreover, everyone hates it – until they love it.

In An Everyone Culture, Kegan and Lahey have laid out an accessible manifesto in which everyone who cares about work is implicated: interns, coaches, engineers, old hands, digital whizzes, chief executives, cleaners and middle managers keen to throw off the despond of their unmet potential. In the DDO, no one's contribution can be wasted. And in this book, two academics have pulled off the feat of providing a fiscally and scientifically defensible map towards alive human workplaces offering meaning – and growth – for everyone. Bravo.

Jacqueline Jago is an executive coach and the principal of Bloom Coaching & Consulting.

An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organisation, by Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey, Matthew L. Miller and Andy Fleming, is published by Harvard Business Review Press (March 2016). RRP: $US32

The story Book review: An 'everyone culture', where the purpose of work is self-growth first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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