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15 October 2019

Helping people grow together: When groups use the group to grow

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

I’ve been writing about how to help use adult development theory (which you can read about here or watch something about here) to help groups grow and change together. In my second blog on this topic, I offered a perspective about how adult development ideas could support work with groups, but was still focused on helping individuals grow. In this third blog, I’ll write about how we help collectives grow.

I figure there are at least three different ways for us to think about how to support groups to grow as a group.

  • Do we want the group members to have a collective discovery about themselves as a group?
  • Do we want them to learn about a content area that helps them support one another to grow?
  • Do we want them to develop processes and interactions that support their growth, individually and collectively?

Probably yes, right? But we can’t do all of it at once, so let’s take it in steps.

Creating opportunities for entire groups to have a discovery about themselves. The core motion of individual development is from that to which we are “Subject” (the lens you look through) to that which we hold as an “Object” of our reflection (the lens you look at). This happens to individuals when an identity that used to control you (“Of course I need to be liked by everyone!”) starts to be something that you can look at (“I wonder why I have this drive to be liked by so many people and how that holds me back…”). We can extend this individual discovery to a collective developmental experience, holding the group as one entity which itself is Subject to some of what is driving it. There are several helpful ways to try this.

Sometimes group assessments (like The Leadership Circle’s Collective Leadership Assessment) can help groups see a thing that they were blind to. Sometimes there are collective activities (like the collective Immunity to Change by Kegan and Lahey) that can uncover a collective Big Assumption that is interfering with a goal the group aspires towards. And of course there are others—which I hope you’ll start to pile on in the comments section! In every case, you’re looking for a tool or approach that shows the group a lens it has been unintentionally looking through rather than looking at. This will help the group develop as they are able to see some of what they have been blindly Subject to, and they will have more choices.

For example, a Leadership Circle Collective Leadership Assessment once showed one group I worked with that the collective was very low in “community concern.” This was a shock to them as they felt so individually concerned about their communities—and in fact were doing lots of volunteering, pro bono work, etc. So it wasn’t, perhaps, an individual thing that needed changing. In fact, they decided, their habits at work tended to be different than their habits at home, and at work they simply thought of the organization as their whole community. Understanding this—that the wider community outside the organizational boundaries was still massively important—was a Subject/ Object shift for them. Once they saw it, they could think and work differently, more explicitly connecting with the community even as members of their organization.

Creating opportunities for groups to understand the possibility of their growth. There are other ways to help groups make a collective—and developmental—discovery—not about their dynamics, perhaps, but about growth itself. Lately I’ve been teaching developmental ideas in leadership programs. I shied away from doing this for many years, but in the last couple of years it has seemed that teaching about the adult development map is critically important for some groups (see why I think so here). I try to offer these ideas as quickly and accessibly as possible—just to show some of the terrain of the map of our individual evolution. I have been finding that groups are hungry for these ideas, and that they find once they have the notion of adult development theory, they begin to watch themselves and their colleagues grow. A journey much easier to take with a map.

For example, we work with an organization that struggles with getting its top talent ready for senior leadership roles. They have many people on the list approaching readiness, but few people move off of the “approaching” space. People talk vaguely about “leadership presence” or “leadership maturity” as the missing pieces. Over the last several years, we have been teaching those talented senior leaders about the adult development journey, so that they can develop their own understanding of “presence” and “maturity” and see where they might be on the development map and where they might like to go next. With an entire cohort of leaders thinking and talking about their own developmental map and considering the question of “Who is the leader I am becoming next?” the group becomes a collective network of growth and support.

Which leads me to the last piece I have been thinking about: Helping groups create processes and ways of being together that are developmental for the collective. Here is the big ticket prize, the way an organization can create the conditions for the ongoing development of everyone. You have Kegan and Lahey’s ideas from An Everyone Culture about how to craft this kind of organisation. You have my ideas from Changing on the Job or smaller pieces like this little article. Like all developmental approaches, this approach relies on helping people make this Subject→Object transition. When we are thinking of growing an entire collective, though, we are looking for those processes and practices that ask people routinely to uncover what they have been blind to—while they are doing the work itself.

For example, holding some of your meetings in a “fishbowl” (where there is a center circle working on the issue at hand and an outer circle watching the process of the meeting and giving feedback) really increases the developmental gradient of the meeting. Instead of simply acting out of habit (as we tend to do in meetings), in a fishbowl we are offered feedback about the patterns of interaction of the group and even how what we might be doing can get in the way. Our habits begin to become an object of our reflection, and we begin to have choices about how we want to engage with one another. We can create developmental contexts in other ways in and out of meetings as we create thoughtful conditions about how we will support each other to grow.

There have been fantastic suggestions in the comments on the other blogs about how you think about development and how you work to create the conditions in yourself and others for growth. I am intrigued by your ideas and even more heartened about the many people who are putting development into work in organizations. We are long used to considering the growth of children as they mature into young adults who can begin to make their way in the world. In a time when the complexity of the world around us is challenging our social, political, and economic systems, it’s important for us to think carefully about our growth throughout our whole lives. This will help us resist the simplistic reflexes caused by our anxiety about complexity and instead develop the wisdom we need to address the most complex challenges humans have ever faced.

PS The picture today is from the North American meeting of Cultivating Leadership where we basically tried out all of these ideas together.

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