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Imagine….. After a long workday you’re sitting in your comfortable chair. That’s the moment you start to think back of your day. Have you ever wondered why people have such a radically different view of the same situation? Why is behavior so difficult to manage?

When you are working with people, you’ll have noticed that different people make different decisions and handle conflict differently. We know this is because everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, different backgrounds and personalities.

Here's a story about a recent situation that happened to one of my coachees. Let's call him Tom. He came into the session confused about how different he and a co-worker experienced the day-to-day reality at work. 

What happened?

Without warning, the boss of his company hired a new salesperson, Richard. Within a couple of days Tom and his team couldn't help noticing that Richard showed unusual blunt behavior.  Especially the fact that Richard refused to wear mouth masks and was trying to shake hands, unsettled a lot of people. This all against the backdrop of a colleague fighting for his life because of Covid-19. 

This situation shows us how Tom and Richard value and experience the same subject differently. Adult Development Theory would describe this as: They are making meaning of the world, and their place in the world, in a different way.

From his research Robert Kegan is talking about five different ways (stages) of meaning making. Which are early childhood, Self-Sovereign, Socialized, Self-Authoring and Self-Transforming form of mind. From early childhood we all transition into other stages. An example would be the first time my daughter sat in an airplane. Her reality was that the cars down on the ground were very small. It was her firm believe! Now she knows that in the air, or on the ground, the cars are the same size. For her growing into a next stage meant she had to leave behind certain believes and assumptions. 

What’s different from stage to stage is that people increase their ability to see more complexity in the world.

In this first article let's take a look at the Self-Sovereign form of mind.


Jennifer Garvey Burger describes the self- sovereign form of mind in her book “Changing on the Job”

“This form of mind in adults is marked by the combination of a sense of self-centeredness and a focus on what I want……..While they are aware that others have feelings and desires, true empathy is not possible for them yet because the distance between their minds and other minds is great. Mostly other people’s interests are important only if they affect the interests of the self-sovereign person……….Because they cannot yet take the perspective of others, the thinking and feeling of those around them is generally mysterious. This means that they often see others as helpers or barriers on the road to their desires.

Authority lies outside them and is marked by both the formal authority of a title and also power over them in some way. Because of this, those with the self-sovereign form of mind appreciate (and obey) rules because of the direct consequences of the rules. They are unlikely to be motivated by mysteriously abstract factors like loyalty or a commitment to the relationship”  (Jennifer Garvey Berger, 2012, P 33)

Meaning Making

Is making meaning through a self- sovereign form of mind a bad thing? No not necessarily, in a lot of situations this might be enough to walk comfortably through life. However, in a complex world with a lot of moving parts and certain roles you have to fulfill, this can be a very limiting and counterproductive view of the world, and of yourself in this world.

A person with a self sovereign form of mind seems mostly internal oriented and finds it hard to understand the subtleties of human interaction. Another factor is difficulty to be influenced by abstract constructions. Loyalty, empathy, giving up a personal desire in order to help another person seems foreign territory. He/she is living in a world with limited choices for every decision. A world of black and white without many shades of grey.


How to bring these worlds together ?

It's possible Richard feels very comfortable in the current stage.  He doesn’t experience internal or external stimuli to transition into a next stage.  So… how to “invite” Richard to look beyond his current way of meaning making?

Tom can make the difference! Interesting fact is that he needs to do some work himself. Right now frustration about Richards behavior is standing in the way of really stepping into his world. In order to help Richard, Tom needs to expand his listening, and challenge his own limitations of meaning making. How can Tom stay in the moment and try to understand Richard?

Richards growth is to expand his understanding of the perspectives of others. For Tom lies the task ahead of engaging in a lot of conversations being curious about the perspective of Richard. From there asking a ton of (motivational) questions to broaden the perspective. 

After a while Richard may realize there are more options beyond his current believe system. His current view of what is true in his world. The outcome of this shift in his internal system is likely to result in a shift in behavior as well.

Let's take a step back

Richard was hired because of his network and skills. In our society this is still a dominant factor in a hiring process. However, the interpretation of his world, thus his behavior, was seriously causing grief and harm to the rest of the team. In a vacuum this would be no problem, but in the current complex world we need to rely on each other, and trust each other, in order to make progress.

Basically, we’re talking about two things: about growth of skills (for example learning to make a stellar presentation) and growth of mind (expanding your view of the world and yourself in the world).

This case was not mitigated by learning more skills but only by a shift in believe system, so growth of mind.

When using the lens of Adult Development Theory we can start to see more possibilities. Tom started to realize that these behaviors could stem from a different way of making meaning that was not fit for the context. Instead of agonizing more we can also meet the person where they are. Start from there and embark on a journey to help a person grow to a form of mind that is better fit for the context.

This journey is an invitation to show genuine tough love over a longer period of time.


Interested to know more about our approach? Do you have an interesting case you want to discuss?  Check out our offer. Each week we’ve allocated three timeslots of 45 minutes. No charges apply.  
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Kind regards, the 360° Leadership team