I recently received an email from a friend that contained the quip, “You can lead a person to knowledge, but you can’t make them think.” It had a picture of a horse staring back at the reader, head held high but obviously not drinking. It occurred to me that it is even more the case that, “You can offer development to a person, but you cannot accomplish their development work for them.”
When said this way, people will readily assent. However, in practice, I see people doing the exact opposite on a regular basis — often spending the most energy on the least receptive people.
We want the other to be free. We want them not to suffer. We want them to be powerful and express themselves in a satisfying way. Yet sometimes, we may want this for them more than they want to let go of safety, or let go of what they are used to, or let go of the story they tell, let go of the identity they hold to, or of the trauma or self-doubt in their past in the area next calling for development.
At the level of fantasy, (where we like to think we don’t live, yet where many of the things we suffer over do live), we might think we ought to be able to help everyone with their development. If it is something good, shouldn’t everyone benefit? Isn’t it our failing if they don’t develop and we are the expert “developer”? Why don’t we take the responsibility for them?
My answers to these questions will be unpopular relative to the fantasy of development. It will, however, be sane-making and supportive of the right use of your energies and time and talent. My answer to these questions goes like this: Do your best to create an environment, a partnership, and a support structure for people to develop, and then they either do or they don’t. Do not do their work for them as it will not be sustained when unowned and unearned. It will just be living off someone else’s idea for them.
Doesn’t this mean I would let people fail? Yes, it does.
Aren’t you out to save them from themselves? No, I am not.
Sometimes, the best spur to development is to have people live with the suffering that comes from avoiding development until the very situation makes it worth taking on the challenge and uncertainty of development as the resolution of something clearly seen to be not working.
Isn’t that cruel? I think not. Having people live as a pretense based on other people’s ideas seems more cruel to me. And developing oneself consistent with one’s strengths, and in a way that fulfills one’s life, is both an arduous and rewarding task. Cheating doesn’t happen to work there at all. And cheating often takes the form of making the short-term more comfortable at the expense of the long-term.
I have a phrase I have used in corporate consulting, where I call a certain kind of management “the idiot-level of management.” This kind of management sounds like the following, “OK, we need $10,000,000 of new revenues and we have 10 business units. Let’s have each unit come up with an additional $1.000.000 in revenues. Problem solved.”
If you listen to that quickly, it might sound like it makes sense. However, it rarely does. Usually, one business unit is more competent than another, or more leveraged to take advantage of new and upcoming business, while others might be in the late stage of their relevance. Trying to have both accomplish the same outcome might initially sound “fair”, but it is idiotic in the sense that the task is easy for one and is nearly impossible for the other. This is betting the success of the overall campaign on something nearly impossible rather than on something smart. Hence, “idiot-level management”.
In the same way, we could talk about the “idiot-level of development”, where some new insight or opening or alteration happens for one group of people in an organization. Pretty quickly the idea will be raised by someone to have “everybody” share in the new development. “Everyone” will include some innovators, some early adopters, some followers, and some “stuck in the muds”. Making the inception of a new way of being require getting “stuck in the muds” to go there in the first wave is making life more difficult on everyone and is also unnecessary. It is, however, considered “fair”.
I would much rather start with the innovators and early adopters. Once they have covered the new ground and expanded people’s interest in it, I would include followers. When the bulk of the culture has shifted and seen the benefits, I would go after the “stuck in the muds,” who by that time don’t want to be seen to be left behind.
Is this fair? Maybe it is. Maybe those who have demonstrated a willingness and openness to alter themselves have earned the opportunity to further do so. Or, maybe it isn’t a matter of fair. It may be a matter of use of bandwidth — how much developmental competence do you have available, and how much of the spectrum of willingness-to-unwillingness are you competent to serve? What kind of environment do you need to have in place to be successful in developing people in the new way that you have found?
Again, you cannot do people’s work for them.
My experience has been that when people hit their self-declared limits, and they dig in and don’t want to go further, you ultimately get further by letting them live with the sell-out while investing your talents and energies in those who are at the moment both open and willing. In this way, the overall accomplishment isn’t limited by the least common denominator.
You can lead people to development, and a part of the transformation or evolution is theirs to do or not do. Honesty in that matter works better than fantasy.