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4 October 2019

Knowing what the path is and how to help others walk it: Psychologically spacious or targeted interventions for groups

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

While most adult development theories describe the growth of one person, mostly we do our growing with other people—in partnerships, teams, leadership programs, families. It’s helpful to think about all of us growing together because it supports the possibility that we can have interventions at scale where we need them (beyond one-on-one coaching, which isn’t as scalable). It’s also helpful to think about developmental growth experiences because you can use the group as the context for peoples’ growth: it’s easier to see the developmental edges of someone else than of myself, and it’s easier for me to imagine myself growing if I see you growing.

So how do we create spaces where groups of people can engage in their development together? I’m exploring that in a couple of blog posts. This one is focused on a question most people don’t even know they are answering: Do I want to create a developmentally targeted or a developmentally spacious program?

Those of us who seek to create developmental experiences often have a sense of what sort of change we’re looking for. Very often, the folks I hear from are interested in a particular change they want to see:


The folks in this team are too dependent on their leadership for everything. No one takes initiative around here. They seem to spend most of their time doing “image control” and wishing for others to like them. No healthy disagreement, no willingness to step away from the crowd. It feels like a Socialised team, and they really can’t keep up this way.

For me, this kind of request lends itself to creating psychologically targeted group interventions that are developmental from people moving from one particular form of mind to the next. Here is where many leadership programs seem to be doing their work—particularly in the Socialised → Self-authored transition (as I describe above). Here, for example, we find the many programs that are about finding your personal purpose. The idea of personal purpose is too difficult for those who aren’t yet at the Socialised form of mind—it’s too much of an abstraction for someone who is figuring out the initial pieces of who she is and how she relates to the world. The idea of personal purpose is interesting but not transformational for someone who is already beyond the Socialised form of mind and is already Self-authoring: this person likely already knows a thing or two about her personal purpose and knowing more about it isn’t likely to be that developmental for her. (Not that it makes the exercise unhelpful—just not particularly developmental.)  For the person starting the move between the Socialised and the Self-Authored transition, though, deep work on personal purpose can be really transformational. Using targeted developmental approaches is useful if you know that it would be helpful for a group to collectively make a particular developmental transition.

The problem with this approach is, of course, that it’s hard to know what is really going on in the developmental spaces of individuals. What you are seeing in the team or organisation might be people clustered in a Socialised form of mind, taking their cues from the world around them. But it might be organisational systems or structures that are creating these conditions—the organisation’s history of punishing people who stepped away from the group, the entrenched politics that make it necessary for people to manage their reputations, etc. What might look like individual sensemaking might really be something else.

Or it might be that you just don’t know what mix of people you might have or what matters most in their current developmental space. I do a lot of keynotes, and there’s no possible way to have any sense of where people might be developmentally. So for those times, it’s useful to try an approach that is psychologically spacious as you’re designing something for a group.

This is the most common way I think about using adult developmental ideas. For me, the shorthand is about using the Habits of Mind (from Simple Habits for Complex Times) to create and shape learning experiences for groups. For example, in our own practice, a model or framework or experience doesn’t make it into a leadership program we teach unless it exercises at least two of our three habits:

  • asking different questions,

  • taking multiple perspectives,

  • and seeing systems.

For example, we often use Barry Johnson’s Polarity Management technique, which exercises all three habits of mind: you ask different questions (is this a problem to be solved or a polarity to manage?); you take multiple perspectives (how does someone on the opposite pole make sense of this issue?); and you see systems (as you put together the map and track the energy system of the polarity. This makes Polarity Management not only an incredibly useful tool for leaders, it also makes it developmental. As people use this approach, they will grow individually, no matter where they might be on the developmental map.

In both of these approaches, the focus is still on the individual, even though that person is growing in the context of a group or team experience. In my next blog I’ll offer some first thoughts about actually growing as a group. In the meantime, think about it: Was the last program you attended (or created) psychologically spacious or targeted?

PS The picture today is from Tuscany—sometimes I think we spend way more time cultivating spaces for grapes than we do cultivating spaces for people…

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