Robert Kegan

Three very useful sets of ideas from theorist Robert Kegan.

1. From the language of public rules and policies to the language of public agreements

Most organizations do not foster agreements, they impose rules.

Without public agreements, the only place people have to look is to the preexisting nature of their own principles and expressions of their individual, private integrity. However valuable this private integrity is, others have had no hand in creating it and can take no personal pride in it.

The ongoing health of our organizations actually depends on leaders’ abilities to foster processes that enhance the possibility of collectively experienced, public, organizational integrity.

The intention with public agreements is not to prevent violations but to create them. Without public agreements, there can be no violations. The anticipation is that agreement will be violated, and that the violations are the curriculum for transformational learning.

Our violations should not be viewed with self recrimination, but instead with a particular kind of curiosity.  What would it mean to take a curious and learning oriented (as opposed to self recriminating and penitential) stance toward the violation of an agreement?  Fostering internal learning about our failures to keep our agreements may be a far more powerful way of promoting organizational integrity

Initial agreements will lead to A) agreements being kept, and B) agreements being violated. Nourish regular collective opportunity to check in and refine agreements.

The two principal outcomes of a language of public agreements:

  1. The experience of organizational integrity
  2. The use of violations as a resource for surfacing further contradictions

All concepts distilled from chapter 6, How the way we talk can change the way we work, Seven languages for transforming organizations, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, Jossey Bass, 2001.

2. From the language of prizes and praising to the language of ongoing regard

Regular expression of genuinely experiencing the value of another person’s behavior is the language of on-going regard.  The intention is to enhance the quality of a special kind of information:  Informing the person about our experience of him or her.  It is practice of non-characterizing, non-attributing communication.

Direct, specific, and non-attributive:

The first two are easier. Deliver your appreciation and admiration directly to the person, not to others about the person.  Be as specific as possible.

Before defining “non” attributive, let’s understand “attributive.”

The subtle negatives of attributive communication:

Ongoing regard is not about generally praising, stroking, or positively defining a person to herself or to others. This is “attributive” communication.

When we characterize people, even if we do so quite positively, we actually engage – however unintentionally – in the rather presumptuous activity of entitling ourselves to say who and what the other person is.

It is a subtle act of power. In a sense, we are saying, “I’ll tell you your shape, I’ll tell you who you are.”

For example: “You are so generous.” And many people have an instinctive response to being typecast – even positively:  “No I’m not.” they say. Instead, use your experience: “I appreciate how you took all that time to fill me in on what I missed.” Then, it’s your experience, and not theirs….

  1. The key is to limit the communication to expressions of our own experience.
  2. Bend your mind toward awareness of your experience of admiration or appreciation.
  3. Create vehicles to communicate ongoing regard to remind the group that this is a place where what I do matters to others, and what others do matters to me.

All concepts distilled from chapter 5, How the way we talk can change the way we work, Seven languages for transforming organizations, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, Jossey Bass, 2001.

Language of prizes and praising

Language of ongoing regard
Creates winners and losers; draws energy out of the system Distributes precious information that one’s actions have significance; infuses energy into the system
Frequently communicated indirectly; said about person and not directly to him or her Communicates appreciation or admiration directly to the person
Usually, global statements giving little if any information about what the speaker is valuing Communicates specific information to the person about the speaker’s personal experience of appreciation or admiration
Often characterizes the other person Non-attributive, characterizes the speaker’s experience, and not the person being appreciated
Frequently formulaic; glib Sincere and authentic; more halting, freshly made
Non-transformational Transformational potential for both the speaker and the person being regarded

All concepts distilled from chapter 5, How the way we talk can change the way we work, Seven languages for transforming organizations, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, Jossey Bass, 2001.

3. From the language of constructive criticism to the language of deconstructive criticism

Our faulty assumptions about the feedback we bring to others:

  1. We assume that our criticism or feedback is right, is correct.
  2. We see the purpose of the criticism to get the other person to see things correctly; that is, to transfer what is in my head the correct answer, to your head, which is in need of the correct answer.
  3. We face a collection of barriers to learning when we posit a truth-claiming relationship to our negative judgments about other people and situations.

The first object of attention is not the other person but our own evaluations and judgments.

Deconstructive propositions:

The stance I might take when giving you “feedback”:

  1. There is probable merit to my perspective.
  2. My perspective may not be accurate.
  3. There is some coherence, if not merit, to your perspective.
  4. There may be more than one legitimate interpretation.
  5. Your view of my viewpoint is important information to my assessing whether I am right or identifying what merit there is to my view.
  6. Our conflict may be the result of the separate commitments each of us holds, including commitments we are not always aware we hold.
  7. Both of us have something to learn from the conversation. We need to have a two-way conversation to learn from each other.
  8. We can come to see interpersonal contradictions – conflict – as a source of learning.
  9. The goal of our conversation is for each of us to learn more about ourselves and the other.

All concepts distilled from chapter 8, How the way we talk can change the way we work, Seven languages for transforming organizations, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, Jossey Bass, 2001.

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