Self-Observation and Resourcing Develop the Capability for Self-Reflection (Premise 4)
This chapter is an excerpt from No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work, the first in a series of books on toxic practices in the workplace. Read the introduction and previous chapter here on Medium, and find links to purchase the full book here.
Self-observation and resourcing are two capabilities that are not usually well developed in modern cultures. Feedback has been introduced to fill the void that their absence creates, with devastating consequences. Feedback prevents people and organizations from becoming aware of their inner processes and the effects of their work in the world. Both self-observation and resourcing are essential for building the capacity to create and work with plans based on developmental premises (many of which are listed at the end of chapter 11).
Self-observation is a person’s ability to isolate aspects of themself from emersion in their ongoing life, standing apart to see the sources of their behavior and thinking and to note the effects they have on others. Observing themself, they are in a divided state; they are both the observer and the observed. This capability, though it is sometimes taught as mindfulness or meditation practice, is rarely developed in schools or businesses.
Self-observing allows a person to change or correct their own thinking, behavior, and effects in the world as they emerge moment to moment, and eventually to apprehend them before they are manifest. This capability, which grows only through ongoing practice over extended lengths of time, is boosted when a person engages with a community of people who are working together on developing it — especially when this community shares a dedication to second- and/or third-line work. To provide the basis for real change in the world, self-observation must be built into entire organizations as part of their developmental infrastructures.
Acting as a resource to others on developmental paths contrasts sharply with some other leadership or guidance roles — for example, coaching, mentoring, training, facilitating, and giving feedback — which often inhibit or completely shut down the practice of self-observation. The term resource can be understood by breaking it into its parts: re-source, to return someone to themself as the source of wisdom and knowing. This necessarily banishes the assumption that thinking, knowing, and wisdom have any existence whatsoever outside of individual, self-observing minds.
In regenerative work, resourcing is conducted by Socratic questioning and use of living systems frameworks. Together, these enable resources (those who provide resourcing) to pose questions without relying on a private agenda or judgment, and thus to explore with the person they are resourcing in a more whole and complete way. This naturally fosters self-observation on the part of both the resource and the person being resourced, and it eliminates suspicions that either is pursuing a hidden agenda or thinking off topic. The roles of resource and resourced are far and away preferable to supervisor and supervisee or feedback presenter and feedback receiver, because among other beneficial effects, they foster development of the core human capacities in both persons.
Resourcing development is unique, in that it is based on the execution of a plan that the person receiving the resourcing has created for themself, based on their essence, the distinctive self that they are seeing to develop. Observations and assessments from others are accepted based solely on a prearranged contract. This contract contains the principles that resourcing will be based on, and it defines the arenas within which resourcing is invited. It requires that resourcing be conducted in the form of questions that foster self-reflection.
A contract like this one aids the development of self-governance and agency toward the aims in the developmental plan, and thus enables them to evolve their essence and the contributions they seek to make to the organization’s stakeholders (distinguished from those they make to the organization, itself). Holistic, optimizing assessment can come only from within oneself and from one’s own reflections. Feedback from others, regardless of how skillful it is, always tends to be maximizing in nature, which invites runaway.
In business settings, the only effective feedback from outside a person is the success or not of the project or change endeavor they are leading. It may be a rise in margins or revenue, an expansion or extension of offerings, or sometimes direct comments or changes that come from a distributor or consumer sharing the meaningful change they experienced. These are targeted outcomes written into the developmental plan. They have been deeply considered by a team selected to support the endeavor by resourcing the person leading it. The means of measuring have been specified and validated with the plan’s creator, the project leader, and often in comparison with their stakeholders’ objectives. Therefore, it is pretty easy to track outcomes and success, eliminating any need for use of generic standards or competencies that do not invite people to be themselves or to innovate outside the box.
Development at DuPont
In the lead-up to DuPont’s change initiative, Ed Klinge’s first question to hosts on site visits was, “Why does this work so well? Why is it far outstripping all the other new practices?” Hosts mostly replied that there was no way to make comparisons because they were avoiding those “programs of the day,” which they had learned from experience were toxic. They had assessed the practices they chose based on their ability to achieve the three core human capacities and had sent consultants and academics out the door before they got far into the conversation. They knew for sure that fostering the core human capacities would steer their businesses toward steady growth.
My own study of humans — comparing cybernetics with human psychology based on living systems — provides a bit more insight into why the developmental approach works far better to drive change and course correction than the people management approach based on external inputs. We have already seen how, in humans, feedback drives runaway thinking: replaying others’ observations and assessments, obsessing about whether they are true, comparing them endlessly with one’s own opinions, and building arguments for or against them in our heads that we may or may not share with others. Whenever feedback is offered, it takes some time for all that mental recycling to run its course and for people to get back to their real jobs. It is obvious that this results in loss of motivation and direction, which further results for the organization in lost time, lost money, and diminished creativity.
There is an unexpected and much worse outcome, as well. Runaway thinking and imagining following feedback invariably lead to decreases in individuals’ capacity for self-reflection and subsequently to their loss of self-governing capability. This may seem like a big jump, from a bit of destabilization caused by receiving feedback to serious loss of self-control. However, my research and the reports from many companies that adopted feedback processes have shown that constant inner dissonance and mental defensiveness make people question themselves about what is true, and further, what really matters. Sometimes people end up working on things they don’t agree with and often on activities that seem minor or a distraction from the real work. This can’t help but erode whole organizations.
When people work from plans with specific contributions and development designed in, they themselves can interpret the information they extract and convert it into optimizing self-observation and self-reflection. A developmental plan has built into it the specific contribution that the person who created it is seeking to make. This provides a whole context within which information received indirectly or from markets can be assessed and used for further self-development and contributions to stakeholders. Without this whole context, the interpretation of information always tends to become egocentric or to produce reactivity, at least for a time, which again makes optimizing responses difficult. No part of a living system can truly manage its own behavior independent of external engagements with other systems to ensure the vitality and viability of the whole. Real development or regeneration requires a community working together to build the core human capacities.
The Socratic Method
This most recent installment of the DuPont story, which continues below, has perhaps made the role and importance more evident. But what about resourcing? I described earlier the use of Socratic questioning, which leaves learning and the strengthening of agency to the person guiding their own development. Socratic questioning is far more than the popular image of a foolish old man offering questions as a trail of bread crumbs to the right answer. Resources have no answers. They seek to make discoveries along with the people they are questioning. They stay with the inquiry, and even when they think they see something the other person is missing, they continue to ask questions, encouraging ever deeper reflection.
The Socratic method relies on five guidelines, which work together as a system, in order to bring about this deeper reflection. It is a lost art and in most American institutions its practice is frowned upon; it doesn’t work well for teachers who only aim to elicit stock answers. Its purpose is to ask questions that require deep reflection on a person’s own experience and the effects their actions have had on themself and others. Students taught this way learn to think about hard questions and find ways to see and make sense of life and the world around them that they haven’t had access to before. They are able to observe their own minds and they develop the ability to reframe what appeared to be difficult situations into opportunities for innovation. These were Socrates’ intentions — not to teach his wisdom but to ask questions that would guide students to wisdom by engaging them in structured reflection.
A way of learning that does not lead to immediate insights is difficult for some people to accept. Their concern is that not getting the answer quickly implies that they are ignorant or slow witted. When children ask questions that require reflection, they most often produce annoyance in adults. Western science, in all of its multiplicity, focuses on assessing the quality and validity of answers. Game shows and educational processes reward memorizing and learning to produce rote answers.
We have virtually no processes for learning to develop questions that challenge us to reflect or for assessing the quality of the questions we pose. Training in question development, posing questions, or identifying truly unanswerable or useless questions would better serve businesses and teams than the current focus on communicating pre-defined ideas to others. Questions are the source of newness and regeneration, and yet we spend 99 percent of our lives acquiring answers and the ability to get more answers. Posing open-ended questions creates a very different learning and work environment than asking questions that have predefined answers, which cast parents and teachers in the role of expert rather than nurturer or co-creator. Feedback is teaching to the test of already framed answers; it holds every person up to one light, excluding creative differences and diminishing the will to think freely, or even at all. True intelligence is measured by the quality of a person’s questions, not by the number of answers they get right or the information they pass on to others.
The Value of Great Questions
A profound test of the value of questions in human development can be seen in a program developed at the University of Arizona for helping educators deal with slow learners. The program worked on developing higher order thinking skills (HOTS) and used the Socratic method as the foundation for learning. Teachers asked questions instead of offering answers. The core belief was that children’s cognitive development, rather than their ability to absorb facts, was paramount.
The results posted by schools using the HOTS approach were remarkable, particularly in view of the fact that most of the students entering the program were considered to be remedial or at risk. Ten percent were reclassified as gifted at the end of the first year, and 36 percent had made and retained a position on their schools’ honor rolls. Of the four students ranked as the top academic learners in one school, two were HOTS participants who had come from the bottom of their class.
In a single year, participating students gained an average of 15 percent on standardized reading and math test scores, 67 percent above the national average in reading and 123 percent above the national average in math. Significant improvement was noted in every student’s self-concept. All reported feeling increasingly confident of success at levels significantly beyond those that they originally felt were possible. Also, at the end of the year, in one inner-city school, students in the program no longer posed any discipline problems at all.
If you transfer this to a business setting you can quickly see the power of working with an assessment model based on open-ended questions designed to encourage exploration and discovery. Translate these statistics to a workforce, and its capability might increase at a rate 67–123 percent faster than the competition’s. Who wouldn’t like to give that a try?
Extending the exercise, imagine that in business half of the major promotions into new, more challenging positions are of people originally considered unpromotable or topped out. Workers formerly considered to be disciplinary problems now become creative, committed, self-disciplined contributors. The HOTS approach is clearly a very powerful one, from which businesses could learn a great deal. The first step would be simply to learn the value of questions over answers for the purpose of creating learning and development in businesses and businesspeople.
Resourcing at DuPont
DuPont first initiated a developmental approach to change in engineering, where the feedback program had been launched. Ed Klinge was still seeking to give guidance, although he admitted to being nervous about it. It seems “unengineering-like” to have so much open-ended development. But the testimony of more than two decades of results was too good to ignore.
Ralph Sims, a chemical engineer with a doctoral degree who was just a couple of years from retirement, had always longed to see a solution to the “Freon problem.” Freon®, a commonly used fluorocarbon refrigerant and aerosol propellant, was burning a hole in the ozone layer of Earth’s atmosphere. At the same time, every nation on the planet was growing and demanding more Freon. We were on a collision course with planetary disaster.
The industry had known this for a long time but had not had the focus, or maybe the confidence, to take it on as an innovation challenge. DuPont’s version of Freon was a high margin product, a large percentage of one of its division’s revenues every year and a huge money maker for the company. Ralph’s idea for replacing it put at risk the goose that was annually laying golden eggs.
With a bit a fanfare, Ralph made a promise to the DuPont’s Board of Directors, its head of intermediate chemicals, and to Green Peace, which had been pressuring DuPont to solve this urgent problem. He committed himself to finding an alternative way to refrigerate. And he added to his promise that the result would be better outcomes for the planet and the company than the current ones.
Ralph gathered a resource team to work with him that included operators, distributors, and the industrial manufacturers of refrigerators — among them several in China and India, where rapid growth was pressuring the creation of their own toxic refrigerant in order to by-pass the more expensive proprietary product (which at that time would have accelerated the environmental problem, given these countries less evolved technologies and lower environmental standards). Ralph’s development plan for the three-year project was extensive and too technical to describe here, but its overarching objectives were to:
- Find less harmful, more effective alternatives to Freon
- Deliver some benefit to China and India for cooperating
- Maintain and then grow DuPont’s earnings over time
One of the primary functions of the resource team was to ask questions that would expose unexamined challenges in order to 1) help determine the best path forward to a cooperative venture, 2) organize the funding necessary for research, 3) create some internal and external functions, and 4) develop each of the people involved in the initiative so they would be more technically and personally able to work on the difficult challenges that might arise as the shift was made — and to make them better businesspeople, generally.
The team met monthly and developed many different roles among its members: technical, financial, internal relations, partnership management, and cultural values. Each meeting began with questions that had to be answered to keep the team on track. One set of those questions was always directed to Ralph, in his role as manager for timeliness, budget, and progress toward his core objectives — the promises he had made to DuPont’s board and business unit leaders.
There were also questions designed to help guide his reflection on his personal evolution. Where did he feel that he was tripping himself up? Where had he surprised himself with the advances he and the team were making? The expectation of questions every month, oriented to personal, technical, and business success, inspired Ralph, and he often asked people to work with him on finding answers and to participate in assessing them. But the personal questions were always pushed back to him to examine for himself, and he was encouraged to use them to set aims for his own growth over the next month or the longer term.
Ralph’s team trusted him to find the truth in himself through reflection. There were no rhetorical questions; all were based on the original plan or the ever-evolving version of it, which meant that Ralph was fully responsible for leading the endeavor. As a result, he was much harder on himself than any of the feedback he received in the old program had been. And his arguments, when they arose, were always only with himself.
Ralph would sometimes privately ask other team members if they had perspectives that were different from his, and sometimes they did. But the resource team members gave him no answers to the questions they posed to him, and those who shared their perspectives were not attached to Ralph’s adoption of them or not. Different perspectives were viewed as personal reflections, not as competitors for most accurate, objective assessment. They were just additional ways of looking at things — not truths to be adopted and worked on, as they had been in the earlier feedback processes.
In the end, this innovative project led to world-changing outcomes, as did many other projects taken on by that business group. In accord with the original objectives, a primary outcome that benefitted the entire international community and was lauded by Green Peace was the creation of a substitute for Freon with far fewer environmental and other downsides. The move to the new chemical refrigerant took less than two years and became part of the foundation for designing the United Nations Global Compact.
Six years later, in a review of the decision to become a developmental organization, Ed commented, “This means no energy is lost on managing people’s behavior. You just keep improving their capacity to manage and lead themselves.” Both Ed Klinge and Ralph Sims became consultants to other companies when they retired because they saw the power of the switch from human resource programs such as feedback, designed to manage people, to a developmental approach capable of growing the capability for self-management in every member of the organization.
In a developmental organization, the role of resource is often held by people who were previously called supervisors. They may still be guiding from their expertise, but instead of instructing, evaluating, and critiquing with feedback, they use great questions to help individuals and teams develop critical thinking skills and their intrinsic capacities to be self-managing and make innovative, highly beneficial contributions to stakeholders. Resourcing by teams who are skilled in use of the Socratic method is what makes organization-wide development of self-management possible.
In the case of Dupont, the group selected five resources from those who volunteered to become proficient at Socratic questioning. This is not something a person can be trained to do. It requires learning the philosophy, working with the principles, engaging in real-time thinking, and reflecting on the evolution of oneself as a resource. In particular, those learning to be capable resources observe the evolution of those they resource, and in themselves they see new levels of courage and wisdom about how to do business.
A key instrument in this process is the explicit shared use of Living Systems Frameworks, which are critical to the resourcing role. Most people have mental models in their heads that predefine paths and outcomes. Sometimes these are externalized and held up as models or steps in assessing progress towards specified ends.
Frameworks offer no answers. Instead, they provide infrastructures that enable any two people or groups to establish shared language for expressing ideas and developing thinking. They lead to ideation and innovation, and also to reflection that invites people to release their useless mental models. They bring fairness to teamwork because they are shared and explicit, and they also enable creativity.
Businesspeople who are learning to be resources attended regular, dedicated learning events with a community of resources from multiple companies, where they engage with and are themselves resourced by other businesspeople and educators who are a long way down the path. The nature of this work has been laid out in other places, including The Responsible Entrepreneur: Four Game-Changing Archetypes for Founders, Leaders, and Impact Investors.
This has been an excerpt from No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work. Read the next chapter here: