Every coach, trainer, and consultant believes they can and do help build The Responsible Business. But do they really? Do they foster responsible behavior as part of their expertise and code of practice? Are they promoting practices that develop responsibility at all levels of business and society? What yardsticks do they use to assess their effects? These three professions make up a multi-billion dollar industry with a huge reach and significant impact. They affect strategic and operating choices and in almost all businesses, governments, and not-for-profits. But what if coaches, trainers, and consultants are one of the obstacles to building responsible businesses and a better world?
I have been very critical of these three professions and feel justified in being so because I sometimes call myself a consultant, even though the title is not exactly correct in my case. I am more an educator and I call myself a Resource. This is not just a matter of semantics, and regardless, I am part of the industry. Today’s post is offered to elevate thinking about The Responsible Coach, The Responsible Trainer, and The Responsible Consultant. Those of you who fill one of these roles, with or without a certificate, may find this useful and, if I present it well, possibly a bit disturbing.
The Dark Side of the Business Helping Professions
From my point of view, there are many limiting and even some toxic or irresponsible coaching and consulting practices, which I call Class One Errors, a term borrowed from an ecosystems-tending system called Permaculture. For this post I have selected three of the most significant and, quite honestly, the easiest ones to describe without being face-to-face with you for a few hours, weeks or even years. They are the “False Client Error,” “Managing Rats Error,” and “Beat Your Wife Less Error.”
The False Client Error
I doubt anyone would argue with me that we have several challenges ahead as we assist corporate leaders to become fully responsible for their actions and stop transferring blame to others for their impacts. Self-accountability is a learned way of thinking that is not taught by many of the educational processes I know of in our society. With rare exceptions, parents don’t teach children to think about their behavioral impact on other living beings in any purposeful way, especially impacts that will manifest outside their lifetime and eyesight. Teachers don’t ask students to make choices based on contributions or potential impacts beyond their own test scores and class standing. I rarely see companies build ways of thinking that take the systemic ramifications of choices into account beyond adopted programs that other people have designed (the obvious exceptions are companies where I or my colleagues have been involved). Yet I can safely say that any client of coaches/trainers/consultants would benefit from developing such capability.
No matter who hires you or pays you, the client is the system which that person or the business in front of you is a part. This is always the case, and all responsible design starts from here. The child in the classroom is not the client. The client is the child as she or he exists in and can contribute to, and even help evolve, future living systems. The client is not the manager or the organizational leader of the unit you are working for. The client is the unit’s context and its people’s abilities to understand the dynamic relationships they have and can develop. This client also includes individuals not in the room who are part of teams contributing to the same effects.
I call this framework for thinking about clients, The Three Lines of Work. The first line of work is the immediate client, the organization or business that has hired you. The third line of work is your real client, the larger total system and its endeavors as they are impacted by your immediate client. The real client is always outside the primary system of the immediate client. The second-line client is everyone who is working in parallel or competition with you, including your own teammates and all of your organizational colleagues; other organizations your client collaborates with; and every agency that your or your client must effectively engage. This picture of the client may seem enormous, but it is the reality one must grasp in order to make responsible decisions.
If your immediate client is to build the ability to see links, build mental relationships, and experience the dynamics of three lines of work, every one of your designs, coaching exercises, or training programs must hold the framework in mind. Any time this is not the case, the False Client Error is reinforced and False Client Interventions are created. This is an easy error to perpetuate because it is almost always embedded in organizations and powerfully strong from he start. It is critical that our industry learn to engage all interventions from the three lines of work.
Consultants make the False Client Error when they engage in supply chain analysis only from the perspective of the purchasing customer and its business outcomes. Consultants rarely ask their immediate clients to consider broader effects on the health and vitality of their suppliers’ communities (maybe a fair trade certification is taken into account, but that gets no credit in my book). It is also rare for consultants to connect suppliers with their contributions to the customer, except when costs and standards have not been met.
Other examples of the False Client Error include team building with a function, coaching an executive on his career, and internally competitive reporting. Any good intentions associated with these practices can be accomplished in contexts that build connections to the third-line customer (which includes all external stakeholders, starting with the customer/buyer).
The Managing Rats Error
Almost all organization interventions in this century are based on the study of rats and how they function, rather than on human-based research. Behavior Modification Theory, for example, was developed in the rat-filled labs of John Watson at Princeton University and B. F. Skinner at Stanford. BMT may work very well for clients who manage rats, but it is never appropriate for managing humans.
Studies on rats examine the functional aspects of the mammalian brain, the fight-and-flight mechanisms, which exclude all the uniquely human capabilities of our highly evolved frontal lobes. These include the ability to reason; project ourselves into a better future, pursuing it purposefully and making course corrections as we go; and invent possibilities that do not currently exist. When we base management on rat theory, we rely on practices that address the functioning of only one-third of the human brain, leaving out all of our higher capabilities.
Unfortunately, most interventions and designs for change are based on rat theory. Feedback, incentives, reward and recognition, rating and ranking, most hiring and discipline processes, and just about the entire set of programs relied upon by human resource departments. The problem with these programs is that they work against the development of the full potential of humans and businesses. Inevitably, they also work against communities, societies, and natural systems. Shifting towards practices based on human capabilities, which means shifting from extrinsic to intrinsic or from functional to developmental considerations, helps return the apple cart to upright position.
The Beat Your Wife Less Error
Almost the entire profession of sustainability is dedicated to “beating your wife less.” The basic premise is to reduce one’s “footprint” on Earth by decreasing exploitation and reducing impacts. We don’t want to do the opposite — leave bigger footprints by making exploitation more successful and increasing impacts. But starting with the idea of “reducing” is like asking a violent husband to beat his wife less often in order to reduce the physical and emotional injuries it causes her.
Doing less harm is clearly not the appropriate goal. Instead we want this marriage to be recreated so that it fosters the vitality of both wife and husband and of their children. We want all members of the family to be understood as unique, able to develop themselves and to contribute in a unique way to the future of life on Earth. We want them to feel called upon to work together to make things better and make a difference — for themselves and others. In contrast, asking for less, asking the violent husband to do less harm by beating his wife less often, measuring by reduction of impacts, would only dehumanize the whole family even further.
Just like humans, ecosystems (think watersheds and communities) are also unique and uniquely creative. To manage them by best practices developed in faraway places only standardizes and “commoditizes” them. If we understand this, we can support the creation manifest in every watershed and every community.
Regenesis Group is a consultancy that helps communities and developers overcome their tendency to homogenize ecosystems. They do this by discovering a unique “Story of Place,” from which all else is designed. An ecosystem’s Story of Place is its starting point for policy, systems design, and economic development. This is very different than the tendency of sustainability planning to bring in technology, accounting, and programs designed to “beat the ecosystem less.” It recognizes and honors the full vitality and uniqueness of every part of every living system; doing so it creates more life and better futures.
The Responsible Coach, The Responsible Trainer, The Responsible Consultant
Gregory Bateson wrote, “The major problems of the world are the result of the difference between the way nature works [including humans] and the way people think [and therefore act].” My definition of responsibility is working the way nature and humans work when they are living to their full potential in an ecosystem and contributing to its evolution. This requires educating and developing our capability to see how nature works and to contribute to the evolution of natural and human systems, promoting their vitality and viability — and thereby promoting the vitality and viability of all people and all of Earth.
Originally published at carolsanford.com on July 16, 2012.