The following is an edited transcript of a talk I gave at the Bridging Dialogs event in Venice.
When I was nineteen, I was hanging out with some friends and one of them was really interested in Uri Geller. He said: “Oh, I want the power to be able to bend spoons”. And suddenly I heard myself say: “I want the power to raise consciousness”. I really did not have a clue what I was saying then. I see, though, that this was prescient in a way about much of my life, work and tasks. About that time I dropped out of university, I took up spiritual practice, and twelve years later I went back to university and I started looking for where people were talking about this kind of thing, this consciousness thing.
It turned out that there were a lot of people talking about it, and a lot of people were using different models and metrics. People trying to help us have better distinctions and better language to make sense of our experience, even a little bit related to this notion of technology. In this regard we can mention David Chalmers’ notion of the hard problem of consciousness: we can map out and describe all sorts of things that the brain does to process sensory stimuli, and perform various functions, but we cannot say how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience.
Thus there is something about consciousness that is central to our experience as human beings, and it has been a deep curiosity for me to figure out how I can make a living doing work in this area. I raised pigs, did carpentry, drove a dump truck, all the while being curious about how to work with consciousness. Eventually I went back to school and got a degree in leadership studies. I got a job teaching and doing research at a university in Norway, and organizations started to be curious about this consciousness raising approach to leadership development. This trajectory has led to the formation 12 years ago of the Center for Transformative Leadership. Now, it is taking another step with the creation of a new organization, Adeptify.
Today I am going to tell two stories of people in organizations and of how we were trying to support them in developing their consciousness and being more successful in their leadership roles. I will delve into more details between the stories. The basic concept here is what Kegan and Leahy have called an “Everyone Culture”: How do we enable development work for everyone? How can leadership development go beyond being a privilege for a few executives, but to be available for the masses? This is what Adeptify is setting out to do.
I am going to start with telling you a story. I teach a course on leadership development, within a masters in management program, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. It is a continuing education program with mature students, managers from all different sectors of Norwegian society. They come and take these courses, and two of them have been gracious enough to give permission for us to use their stories.
I am going to start with Henrik’s story from last year. Then I am going to tell you a little bit about what the concept is and some of the theory behind it, but I will keep the theory to a relative minimum. After that I am going to tell Anne’s story, from this year’s course, and then I will talk a little bit about the process itself.
How are we enabling these kinds of deep, reflective and developmental experiences for people? Let’s consider Henrik’s story to explore this question. Henrik is a manager in a technology organization. In the course, students are required to make and share a three minute video on the last class day to show what they have learned in the course. Henrik chose to tell the story of when he stood up for himself at work.
In my course, students receive 360 feedback on their leadership, have a professional debrief, and then engage in circles of conversation in trios. This confirmed for Henrik that he had some patterns in his behavior. He was very insecure, passive, meek and very complying with other people’s wishes. He was always going along with things. He was stressed out a lot and typically ruminated on all sorts of catastrophes he imagined were going to happen. So he decided to take this course. Here is what Henrik learned.
One day, at the office, his boss Bergita comes to him and says: “Hey Henrik, can we talk for 5 minutes?” Henrik answers: “Okay, sure, no problem!” But somewhere in his brain, he is thinking: “Oh, something’s wrong! I feel it in my stomach. My heart starts racing and I start catastrophizing in my head. Something’s not right here!” Now, his boss just said that she would like to talk to him, but what Henrik experiences are habituated, neurological, emotional patterns that are automatically running him.
Later on, during the meeting, Henrik’s boss says: “Hey Henrik, you know, we’ve got a new project and we want to offer you a promotion to head it up”. And he says: “Wow, that is really cool! That sounds great!” In reality, he is thinking: “I want to jump on this, but I’m a little insecure about it.” She says: “You know, it is going to be good for you. We think you are a good fit for it.” He answers: “Well, that’s nice, but what’s in it for me?” He had some concerns and considerations and he said to himself: “Well, you know, I’m glad I came prepared.” So he learns to trust himself.
What he says is that he would need to understand what this would do for his salary? What would this do for his opportunities for further education? How is the company going to look after him if they are going to give him these expectations? After these questions Bergita said: “Well, you know, I don’t know a lot now, but it’s a really good thing and we need to know fast. You know, there are other people we could offer this opportunity to.” Then he holds his ground and he says: “Okay, I need to think about it.”
What Henrik said during our class conversation was that he would have never done this before. He would have never maintained his integrity and taken care of himself. He would have jumped, just doing whatever he was asked, despite all of his anxiety. He said that he could act differently now because he noticed the feeling arising, anticipated it and could choose different actions. The feeling starts small and comes creeping up on him. Before this episode, he would not have noticed it and he would have simply acted out of his old patterns. He would have gotten himself into a situation that may or may not have been okay for him, but his underlying stress would always be present for him. What he was able to do was make a bit of a subject object shift: he looked at his experience and noticed it as it arose. And in the gap between the stimulus that generated the stress and his response, he had the freedom to choose differently.
How Development Happens
What do we think is going on in situations like this? How many of us can recognize these kinds of thoughts and patterns in ourselves? These are very much part of the human condition. We all get stressed. We all sometimes want to be liked and please people. This can inhibit our ability to be effective not just as leaders, but in relationships with our friends, with our children, with our spouses.
I am going to talk very briefly about how the kind of development Henrik experienced happens. I have studied developmental psychology and I have had the good fortune to hang out and study with experts of the field for a long time. As Flavio mentioned, I am the editor of a journal called Integral Review, which arose out of a desire of a few people to have an alternative platform to Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute. As a journal, we included and went beyond those perspectives.
One of the things I learned from hanging out with all these bright people is that development happens, first of all, when things go wrong. We make our plans and God laughs. Suddenly we encounter a breakdown in the world and we have to adapt, we have to figure out what was wrong with our mental models that did not work out the way we thought. So the opportunity to expand how we understand the world, arises for us when things go wrong.
Development also happens through our relationships with others, and there are all sorts of ways this takes place. For instance, very young children learn through modeling. In this regard, I heard a very interesting story from a woman who was at a workshop we did. We were talking about how little children learn to walk. They try over and over again. They go through practicing and failing and they cry. They hurt themselves but they keep going. She said: “Oh, I had twins. One of them did all this trying and failing to learn to walk, and the other just sat there and watched the first twin. When the first one who did all the trying finally got up and walked, the other one just got up and walked without ever having practiced.” There was something in that relationship – and twins have some kind of deep connection – that enabled them to learn vicariously through the other’s experience and then perform those skills. So we often learn through how others model ways we would like to be able to do things but have not quite attained yet. But it needs to be in the ‘Goldilocks zone’ for us, not too big of a stretch and not too little of a challenge.
We also learn through relationships because people give us feedback. People mirror our affect. This is about how mirror neurons work. There are ways in which our engagement as humans tune us in with each other. There is also research made around neurocardiology that describes how heart rate variability and the electromagnetic field that the heart produces can entrain us with others physiologically.
The third way in which development happens is in the middle of everything. We are busy every day, encountering micro learning and development opportunities. We don’t need to go off to a course to learn something. The curriculum to learn from is all around us. There I am with you, my audience, and there is a client, and there is a complex context, and we are not sure where the boundaries are. There are a lot of opportunities to learn in these situations.
That was a very kind of succinct way of describing some key principles of how developmental growth happens. This comes from a long history, starting with Baldwin in the 1890s, through Piaget, Vygotsky, Kohlberg, Fisher and others. That is enough theory for now, although I could go on for a few hours.
All this led us to the concept of the word “adept.” To be adept is being very skilled or thoroughly proficient at something. This is something I think most of us aspire to: being adept in some field or other, in some domains of our lives. It helps us feel that we matter, that we can contribute to the world in some meaningful way.
Adeptify, the name we gave our company, is the process of becoming adept. What we want to do with our company is democratize development by enabling people to build robust skill networks. Essentially what we have learned through neuroscience, developmental psychology and other fields of study, is the importance of making connections, whether they are human connections, heart connections, intellectual connections or neurological connections. These are the things that help build robust knowledge, robust performance, agile performance, things that enable us to thrive in adversity and actually grow from it. Things that make us adept.
Through our experience, we have recognized a couple of things. A colleague said: “Hey, we’re using Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Can you help us work with that?” So we looked through it – we were familiar with the book – and what we realized is that it said a lot about how to be really good at something, but it did not tell much about how to get there: what are the micro-steps, the little building blocks and foundations that you need to get there? The book seems to just tell you: “Here’s what it looks like to be really good at this so just go!” Sometimes that works for people who are kind of in the right zone and therefore have enough of the prerequisites needed to get to the point of performance described.
But sometimes it is outside of what we would call the Goldilocks zone. It is too far out of reach or it is not challenging enough. So that is one challenge we have seen concerning this kind of material: there are a lot of implicit expectations. Robert Kegan talks about it in his book In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. He argues that there is an implicit expectation or curriculum when, for example, your boss says: “Do this,” and you go: “Yeah, okay.” You interpret your boss’ request in a certain way, but you do not really have the same experience, the same connections of skill, knowledge and contextual sensemaking, the same richness of understanding as him. So you go and do something and then your boss says: “Sorry, that’s not quite what I meant.” Then you have all sorts of mechanisms to deal with that stress and you can be like Henrik and decide to just please everybody and say yes all the time and hope it works.
We are born with a natural addiction to learning. Then we go to school and little by little this gets bled out of most of us. The educational systems of the industrialized Western world are not necessarily designed to take advantage of natural learning mechanisms. Some schools do it better than others, but most industrialized, commoditized Western education sucks the life out of our ability for natural learning. We want to try and engage that natural addiction to learning, which is in all of us, and connect it to how we build the foundations for being able to perform whatever tasks we face in robust ways. So learning happens in the middle of everything, and we are all unique.
Now we get to Anne’s story, which I call emotional granularity awareness. Anne is a student who was in the leadership course this year. She works for the local municipality where I live in Norway, and she has a job that deals with youth who face a lot of challenges. There is a center for them where, on Wednesdays, Anne is on duty to take care of preparing lunch. In the little video she made for the course, she told of her experience with two kids. These kids came into the center, and they were standing at the serving counter where they were supposed to get their food and then go sit down. So she asked them: “Okay, you got your food. Can you go sit down?” They just kept standing there and stared at her. Then she asked them again and they said: “No, we’re not going to sit down.”
You know how it is when dogs smell fear? These kids saw that they were able to get under her skin by ignoring her, so they just kept being stubborn and refused to do as she asked. After a moment, a colleague of Anne’s came along, put her hands on these kids’ shoulders and just walked them over to the table where Anne had asked them to sit.
Anne realized she was emotionally triggered by this. In a staff meeting afterwards, she was talking about it, trying to process what happened, to make sense of it. In response, one of her colleagues said: “You know, well, we’re not that kind of people,” to which she replied: “What do you mean?” Her colleague repeated: “We’re not that kind of people!” They continued on, conveying to her that proper behavior was to restrain herself and not to be “too much,” or show herself fully.
In Norway, we have this thing called Janteloven, or “tall poppy syndrome.” It refers to the cultural expectation that you should not have an opinion, or talent, and don’t think you’re anybody. You are not to show yourself. This is how Anne experienced this conversation, even though her colleagues might not have meant it that way.
These incidents, both with the two kids, but even more later on with her colleagues, triggered many feelings and a cascade of associations in Anne. Brené Brown has this good phrase for this, “armoring,” that describes how these feelings bring out protective mechanisms in us. Anne described it like this: “My brain goes into lockdown and all the protective mechanisms come up.” When this happens to her, she avoids eye contact and wants to disconnect and pull away. She feels small and unworthy. Even more, she becomes subject to underlying internal assumptions that tell her she is not worthy, she is not good enough, nobody cares about her. She said these are the kind of feelings and associated beliefs that made her dread this part of her work. She hated Wednesdays because she did not know how to handle these kinds of situations, nor did she know how to handle her colleagues’ inability to help her process her emotions.
Anne finds eye contact difficult and very uncomfortable. She would rather not even be there for those duties and she thinks about calling in sick for a day. She has these assumptions about herself and then she starts to see how they play out. Now, working through the part of the course where we help people gain a more granular awareness of the emotions underlying their triggers, she found herself starting to slow down and make distinctions instead of having a single, undifferentiated, uncomfortable feeling. She started to make distinctions about what was going on in her subjective experience. Her initial response is to see that there is danger and so she protects herself.
But she also had to admit that she was not quite being totally honest with herself. “The truth is I’m actually angry. Yes, I’m still feeling these other things, but I also feel anger. I’ve been emotionally bypassing or suppressing. I’ve been stuffing this away because it’s not safe, it’s not okay to be angry or to show this.”
Now, here in Italy that might be different, but in Norway – believe me – emotional suppression and repression is the norm. So what Anne starts to see is that she has a range of emotions. She starts to see a number of things going on inside her and that she has these inner danger signals that tell her that she is getting trapped by these patterns and these beliefs. She begins to notice that all this is limiting her ability to be herself. What she came to in her video was saying: “Showing more of my colors does not compromise my safety.” Somewhat like Henrik did, she was then able to experiment, test her assumptions and make these shifts using the granularity of her awareness to show herself more. Rather than trying to accommodate everybody’s expectations, she could now contribute to her work in a more creative way.
The Adeptify Process
How does all of this connect to building robust skills and becoming adept? One of the things that we do with people in our leadership program is to say that we all have fears, we all get triggered, but how can we use those to elicit curiosity? To start, we recognize that we are emotional beings who occasionally think. The prefrontal cortex is a late addition, and there are lots of experiments that show that this kind of rational thinking is coming far after the impulse for action actually occurs. In essence, we make up stories about why we do things.
These triggers, these emotional reactions are messages. They give us useful information so that we are able to understand our relation with our environment, with other people and with situations. In our program, we use triggers to drive everyone’s developmental learning. We are doing it with micro-skills rather than saying “here, read the Seven Habits of highly Effective People and go be better, and practice for the next year.” We are actually saying to people that there are micro-moments that these triggers occur in, and that if they can become aware of what is going on, they can change it. They can change their behavior and change the impact they have. So we are focusing on helping people develop emotional resilience. We are using somatic awareness, helping people notice what is going on in their body and how these are signals from the world. We are helping them reconstruct and expand their range of emotional distinctions. How do we do this? To explain this I will draw on some learning I have had from colleagues.
Theo Dawson did her PhD in neuroscience at Berkeley in the nineties, after being a midwife and delivering 500 kids. She has developed this virtuous cycle of learning, or VCoL, which is meant to replicate how we learn naturally. In Dawson’s cycle of learning we set a goal. We see our sibling doing something, or a parent, or a friend, or a role model, or a boss, or a teacher, and we want to emulate it. Then we seek a bit of knowledge about what we need in order to do that and finally we go try it out. What is critical is that we then need to stop and reflect. “This is what I thought would happen. I tried it. This is instead what actually happened ….” So you go back and revise the goal. There are also different skills related to this kind of learning activity.
My adaptation of how micro-skill development works relies on the fact that we are always going back and forth in fractions of a second between acting, experiencing and reflecting. Now that you are sitting here as my audience, part of your acting is listening, but there is also reflection going on. Your thoughts are going to different connections you see, different emotions are coming up and this process has phases. First, you need to notice these things, then you need to understand what is going on and make distinctions about it. After that you need to practice, experiment and revise.
In our program we work with these learning emotions and we put our learning model in an online platform that fits our model. Our students and other clients now working with this, go through a series of “missions,” which are designed like this: there is an image, sometimes a video, and a little bit of text. We point out instructions by telling them, for example, to direct their attention to a particular part of their experience or to notice certain things more than others. We give them distinctions. For example, there is a particular set of distinctions we use that come from the work of Karen Horney, one of Freud’s students. Her work was about the patterns that we typically develop to protect ourselves: do we move over people to control them? Or do we withdraw and protect ourselves to get out of a messy situation by being distant and critical? Do we move towards people with a supplicant posture and say: “If I do everything you ask me to do, will you love and protect me?” There are all sorts of internalized beliefs and assumptions associated with these questions and behaviors.
We take our students and clients through this model where they first practice just becoming aware of their triggers – “what kind of situations trigger me?” Then they learn to understand what is happening in their body, what is happening in their emotions, and what thoughts are going on when these situations trigger them. Then we help them name their fear – “what is the concern or worry you have underneath this?” – and transform that fear into curiosity by asking, what else could be going on? How can you lean into what this experience is telling you?
We are just starting out on this. We are prototyping it and have many possibilities for the future. I have done this exercise a couple of times at the University, we have a bank in Texas that we are piloting it with, and we are deploying it in a leadership development program for the Roman Catholic Church.
What do you see?