Home FieldsBusiness When Does Growth Really Stop? (Part 1)

When Does Growth Really Stop? (Part 1)

written by Donald Officer 20 June 2018

Donald Officer, MA '89, is a strategic thinking practitioner who melds problem solving research models to help clients anticipate unexpected scenarios and opportunities while pursuing what is most meaningful to them. In addition to coaching, facilitation, and consulting Don blogs at The Intention Coach, where he welcomes comments. He is a certified facilitator and a member of the International Coach Federation and the Canadian Positive Psychology Association. Donald's articles can be found here.


What if a company did everything in its power to create a culture in which everyone, not just selected people identified as high potential, could overcome their own internal barriers to change and use errors and vulnerabilities as prime opportunities for personal and company growth?

We can imagine organizations where serious personal and organizational growth are broadly distributed, but such organizations are few and far between. More common are small businesses or teams working in industries where something drives the members to seek a close consensus. Think of platoons in a war zone or creative units producing quality products for demanding customers.

Falling Short via Deliberate Deception

Because short-term mindsets often prevail, work cultures are none too supportive of development on the job. New hires are expected to come fully trained, given the buyer’s market for employment. On the other hand, employers are usually suspicious of the career intentions of overqualified recruits settling for work outside their fields. Psychologist Adam Grant recently posted a cartoon to his LinkedIn page showing a job interviewer advising an overqualified candidate to come back when he’s forgotten a few things. With this short-term focus, well established principles like learning transfer from one skill set to another are easily dismissed, while techniques like coaching are customarily reserved for managerial elites.

Managing how we are perceived

Many of the reflexively discouraging ways we operate in business, government, and non-profits have consequences for the future. How is that? Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, research and business practice collaborators for 30 years, published An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization in 2016. In this book, they make the pointed observation that most of our organizations underperform for the same embarrassing reason, “…nearly everyone is doing a second job no one is paying them for – namely, covering their weaknesses, trying to look their best, and managing other people’s impressions of them.” Not exactly a strengths-based path to optimum performance.

In such a necessarily deceptive cultural environment, it is difficult to assess how much of the effort expended is directed to the real business of the organization. It is also hard to pinpoint and address the critical pain points in the operation. Such a state of affairs will taint every explicit statement of encouragement or acknowledgment since such language will not be trusted and may serve to mask more negative or suspicious feelings.

Gamification for Greater Engagement?

One approach to addressing suboptimal organizational climates is to frame the issue as employee engagement. Surveys suggest disengagement hovers over about two thirds of the workforce. Could management make the daily grind more enticing or at least more bearable? One technique is gamification, using an element of competition to keep things interesting. The playground could be virtual, board based, physically interactive with movement through shared spaces (embodied as facilitators like to say) or involve any of a number of forms of mental jousting.

Flight simulator

The idea behind gamification is to take the worker’s mind out of a frustrating, sometimes not so safe, office setting into a temporary world where dysfunction is not a real hazard. This is a bit like using a flight simulator, which come to think of it, is classic gamification. Gaming methodologies have merits by making work feel less like school and more like recess.

Other popular and positive tools for resetting engagement include mindfulness with its short track to flow and the whole suite of positive deviance tools listed in valuable books like Profit from the Positive, Awakening Compassion at Work, or Grateful Leadership. Happier and more respectful workplaces are necessary for optimal satisfaction or performance. However, as necessary as positive infusions are, they are not sufficient to achieve the best results.

Hygiene and Purpose

Management theorist Frederick Herzberg discussed what matters in our work decades ago. Foreshadowing the science of flourishing that combines hedonia with eudaimonia. Herzberg developed a two-factor theory to explain employee satisfaction as a prerequisite for full engagement, distinguishing between hygienic and motivating factors. Herzberg’s point was that staff would not be happy for long without basic needs being met, such as adequate wages and key benefits. However, even if these hygienic needs were satisfied, employees would not stay engaged indefinitely if they lacked a deeper sense of purpose.

Where does that purpose come from? It could come from a deep commitment to the job’s importance or through the crafting of the job by the current job holder to meet a personal standard of meaning. It might also come from being part of a larger social enterprise such as building a worthy institution or fighting a just war. These are meaningful ends, but they might not reach the high bar of fulfilling individual purpose.

What Does the Growth Curve Look Like?

This is where Kegan’s theory of lifelong development comes into play. But to understand it we need to look at the work of an important developmental psychology pioneer.

Children making sense of the world

Early in the 20th Century Swiss biologist and psychologist, Jean Piaget, started to observe children systematically, starting with his own, as they attempted to make sense of the world. He saw that through interactions with their surroundings they developed explanation frameworks. He also noted that while children were absorbent learners, only after experience accumulates and is assimilated could the young fully accept abstract concepts typical of later ages and stages.

Piaget’s scheme begins with what he calls the sensori-motor stage of infants and toddlers, proceeding through to the formal operations level of mid adolescence. Here, says Piaget, cognition reaches its final form as the individual is now capable of deductive reasoning. If this model were shown as a linear graph, we would see a flat line starkly indicating no meaningful growth after early adulthood. While teenagers might endorse this model as they assess their elders, does it really jibe with the evidence?

Is development a flat line after adolescence?

Great work was done by Erick Erickson who mapped out the challenges life imposes as crises lead to developing maturity. Likewise, researcher Albert Bandura has documented how people continue to learn throughout their lives by watching one another and recognizing how they shape the environment even as they are shaped by it. So, there is refinement to look forward to, but is there growth?

In Part 2, we will look closely at how the growth proposition has actually been put to the test in three existing real-world companies with solid results which are heartening for organizations, managers, employees, customers, and society. In Kegan and Lahey’s deliberately developmental organizations (DDOs) everyone is expected to grow and to find new strengths while interacting with equally committed colleagues on parallel journeys. It may sound idyllic, but it’s tough and gritty as well as intensely rewarding.




Kegan, R. & Lahey, L.L. (2016). An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. Harvard Business Review Press.


Coyle, D. (2018). The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. Bantam Books.

Elkind, D. (2013). Piaget’s Developmental Theory: An Overview. Film.

Erikson, E. H. (1959). Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: International Universities Press, Inc.

Grant, A. (2018). The Daily Show’s Secret to Creativity. WorkLife TED podcast transcript. LinkedIn post.

Greenberg, M. & Maymin, S. (2013). Profit from the Positive: Proven Leadership Strategies to Boost Productivity and Transform Your Business. McGraw Hill.

Herzberg, F., Mausner, B., & Snydermann, B. B. (1993). The Motivation to Work. Transaction Publishers.

Umlas, J. (2012). Grateful Leadership: Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results. McGraw-Hill Education.

Worline, M. & Dutton, J.(2017). Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Facade: Managing how we are perceived courtesy of mharrsch
Flight simulator courtesy of lam_chihang
Children making sense of the world courtesy of Colegio Jean Piaget
Line with bird courtesy of R.H.Sumon™

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Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC 21 June 2018 - 11:56 am

Brilliant article, Donald! You’ve raised a timely, critical question–what if workplaces were about deliberate development? What if workplace communities provided the opportunities and the support for continuous growth? Your article also hints at a larger possibility, i.e., making the entire lifespan an opportunity for deliberate development. I really appreciate your excellent references …and can’t wait for the next installment. What suspense!

Scott Crabtree 23 June 2018 - 2:11 pm

Great article, thanks! I love the mention of gamification. At the risk of being shamelessly self-promotional, I wanted to make sure you were aware of my game Choose Happiness @ Work that is designed to get people learning about happiness and engagement at work–as well as learning about each other. You can see people playing it and talking about it here: http://bit.ly/GameVid.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, and reading your next article. 🙂


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