All posts by edrankin

Ed Rankin Ed has coached executives from multiple industries for development, performance enhancement and career transition. He designed and implemented corporate restructuring programs and large-scale recruiting initiatives. He managed large organizational assessments and the redeployment of thousands of employees. Ed’s clients have included such leading organizations such as EDS, Texas Instruments, Blockbuster, Dow Brands, Price Waterhouse, Perot Systems, Nokia, National Semiconductor, SGS-Thomson, Frito-Lay, PepsiCo, Sysco Foods, CompuCom, Accenture, Fujitsu, Sun Microsystems and KPMG. Ed has extensive experience in human resource management cost reduction, process improvement, acquisition integration and best practices benchmarking. Ed was the founder and CEO of PeopleSolutions, a pioneering human resource management services company. He led the business through a decade of rapid growth. In 1998, the company was recognized as a Dallas 100 company by the CEO Institute and Southern Methodist University. The company was named to the prestigious Inc. 500 in 1999. In 2001, The National Association of Small Business Investment Companies recognized PeopleSolutions as its Portfolio Company of the Year. Ed holds a BS in Psychology, an MS in Industrial Relations an MA in Human and Organizational Systems and a Graduate Certificate in Evidence Based Coaching from Fielding Graduate University. He is currently completing a Ph.D. in Human and Organizational Systems at Fielding. He is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) and is a Certified Professional Coach by the International Coach Federation. Ed has has additional graduate training and certifications in both cognitive and personality assessment. He has been a Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Dallas. Ed is a graduate of Leadership Dallas and is a member of TheDallasAssembly. Ed is widely published in business and professional journals. He is frequently quoted by print media. He has made numerous television and radio appearances to discuss human resource management topics. Ed has made numerous conference presentations to groups such as the Society for Human Resources Management and Staffing Industry Executive Forum. He has served in numerous appointed and elected community service leadership roles. Ed is an avid distance runner and an advanced yoga practitioner having completed 30,000 miles, four marathons and more than 1000 hours of yoga training.


In 1962, Aldus Huxley author of Brave New World, presented “The Ultimate Revolution” at the University of California-Berkeley in which he discussed the probability of society replacing external constraints with internal compulsions. In the presentation Huxley said, “A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.”

Self Awareness and Consciousness

By and large, people lack awareness of self and others. A man who does not know himself, does not trust himself. A man who does not trust himself cannot be free. A man who is not free, is not comfortable with others being free. If a man cannot get comfortable with freedom, he is vulnerable to the control of others. He will have an external locus of control. Rather than living a life of self-authorship, he will allow others to define him. He is not conscious of this capitulation of his agency. It is an unconscious process. As Goethe said, “No man is more hopelessly enslaved, than one who falsely believes he is free.”

Psychopathology and Leadership


The emotionally healthy person seeks greater control over his life, display little interest in controlling others or being controlled by them. The evolved, self-reflective person may want to influence and encourage others, but is not likely to seek power or control over them. Because of this, people unwittingly abdicate positions of power in government and business to those who are emotionally “incomplete” who seek power as a means of compensating for their own insecurities. Once in positions of power, only the most emotionally healthy and resilient can avoid the slide into psychopathology. For those with some of the personality attributes of sociopathy or psychopathy, the descent into deeper pathology may be beyond their ability to resist. Even their followers can become pathologically dependent. Democracies characterized by individual freedom and liberty are rare. Throughout history, autocratic governments and tyranny have been the rule. Sometimes, it does indeed seem allow psychopaths to rule the world.

Healthy or Normal Personality

The Individual

In its early beginnings, the field of psychology formed its roots in the study of psychopathology. Pioneers like Freud, Jung and Adler focused upon the cause and alleviation of the symptoms of psychological distress. Theorists were predisposed to define emotional health as the absence of significant psychopathology.

In the early 20th century, the predominately American-led field of Positive Psychology, spawned by the work of Abraham Maslow, began to explore the more optimal states of psychological health and functioning (Mischel, Shoda & Ayduk, 2009). Positive psychology is focused upon building upon the best qualities of people rather than the mitigation or elimination of pathology. According to Seligman (2002), positive psychology has three levels: subjective experience, the individual and the group.

Mischel, Shoda & Ayduk (2009) describe the focus of the subjective experience level is “well-being and satisfaction with the past, flow, joy, sensual pleasures, happiness in the present; constructive cognitions about the future—optimism, hope, faith”. The focus of the individual level is “positive personal traits, such as the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future-mindedness, talent, wisdom”. The focus of the group level is “civic virtues and the institutions that move individuals toward better citizenship: responsibility, nurturance, altruism, civility, moderation, tolerance and work ethic” (p.341).

There are many models for emotional health and they appear to be subjective and evolving. One operationalization is the measure of one’s positive feelings and positive functioning in life. A related branch of psychology, now referred to as hedonic psychology is concerned with the quality of life. In order to evaluate quality of life, several levels of analysis are often considered. These include “Cultural and social context: definitions of the good life; Subjective well-being: judgement, measurement; Other aspects of quality of life: values, capabilities, tasks; Persistent moods: temperament, disorders; Pleasures, pains, real time: retrospectively judged biological and social determinants; Transient emotions: subjective, physiological stress effects; Neural systems of emotion: reward, punishment anatomical, physiological, biochemical levels” (p.23) (Kahneman, Diener & Schwarz, 2003).

The individual with a “healthy personality” is often referred to as someone displaying subjective well-being (SWB) (Diener, Suh, Lucas & Smith, 1999). This concept is based upon a collection of an individual’s subjective experience and objective, behavioral criteria. Some of the key components of SWB are finding meaning, optimism, self-efficacy or agency and social support (Mischel, Shoda & Ayduk, 2009). According to Keyes (2002), positive functioning is determined by measuring the six dimensions of “self-acceptance, positive relations with others, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, and autonomy” (Keyes, 2002).

Furthering popularizing the research on optimal emotional health, Rath and Harter’s best-selling book, Well Being (2010) built upon decades of world research begun by George Gallup in the 1930s (Rath & Harter, 2010). Rath and Harter identified what they describe as five essential elements of wellbeing: career, social, financial, physical and community. People with high career wellbeing have the opportunity for regular vocational activities that fit their strengths and interests. People with high social wellbeing have close relationships “that help them achieve, enjoy life, and be healthy” (p.154). People with high financial wellbeing “manage their personal finances well and spend their money wisely” (p.154). They “buy experiences instead of just personal possessions, and they give to others instead of always spending on themselves” (p.154). People with high physical wellbeing “manage their health well” (p.155). They “exercise regularly, and as a result, they feel better” (p.155). People with high community wellbeing feel secure in, contribute to, and take pride in their community.

Wilson (1967) suggested an emotionally-healthy person is someone who is “extraverted, optimistic and worry-free”. He concluded the happy person is “well-paid, young, educated, religious, and married”. Diener et al. (1999) offer up a very subjective, situational description of happiness. They suggest the happy person is “blessed with a positive temperament, tends to look on the bright side of things, and does not ruminate excessively about bad events, and is living in an economically developed society, has social confidents, and possesses adequate resources for making progress toward valued goals”. Keyes (2002) describes the presence of mental health as “flourishing” and the absence of mental health as “languishing”.
The Social Context

Social cognitive theory connects the individual personality with the social context. Behavioral psychology suggests stimuli control behavior. However, the perceiver’s cognitive interpretations of stimuli determine behavior (Mischel, Shoda & Ayduk, 2008). For example, an individual’s sensitivity to social cues influences self-regulation (Casey et al., 2011). George Kelly, one of the leading social cognitive theorists, maintained that personal constructs were the basic units of personality. Kelly created a cognitive theory of personality before the field of cognitive psychology emerged. (Mischel, Shoda & Ayduk, 2008).

In the 1960’s, Albert Bandura suggested that observational learning, like classical conditioning and reinforcement, was an important learning process. In his now famous experiments with dogs, Ivan Pavlov demonstrated that a previously neutral stimulus, like a ringing bell, could become significant with paired with an existing significant stimulus like food. Bandura and others demonstrated that many common behaviors like table manners and interpersonal relations are learned through observation or a process called modeling. Learning through modeling requires no direct reinforcement (Mischel, Shoda & Ayduk, 2008). Likely Bandura would agree with the Latin proverb, “The smart man learns from his mistakes. The wise man learns through the mistakes of others.”
The Dark Triad and Leadership

In recent years, researchers have turned their attention to the Dark Triad (Babiak & Hare, 2007; Hogan, 2006; Lee & Ashton, 2004; O’Boyle, Forsyth, Banks & McDaniel, 2011; Paulhus & Willams, 2002). The Dark Triad refers to the combination of the three maladjustment traits of Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy. While these three traits are very similar they are distinctive enough to justify independent description and analysis (O’Boyle et al., 2011). The common thread these traits seem to share is disagreeableness (Paulhus & Williams, 2002), one of the Big Five factors of Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness to Experience (Digman, 1990). Agreeable people are predisposed to altruism. They have a genuine concern and empathy for the interests of others (Judge and Bono, 2000).

Not so for those characterized by the Dark Triad. Machiavellians believe others are gullible and are unconcerned for their rights. This leads to manipulation. Narcissists’ aggrandized sense of self leads to self-promotion. The psychopath’s disregard for social norms leads to antisocial behavior. These conditions lead to diminished job performance and counterproductive work behavior (O’Boyle, et al., 2011).


“Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions with originate with a prince offend the individual only.”– Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, p.59

Deriving its label from Niccolo Machiavelli’s the prescriptions for leaders described in his book, The Prince (2009), a Machiavellian personality is defined as someone displaying the interrelated of a belief in manipulation of others, a cynical attitude toward others and a moral outlook valuing expediency over principle. In short, the manipulative personality. Machiavellian personality types are often successful in their careers, especially in less structure environments. While they are more likely to be dishonest they do not frequently engage in extreme forms of antisocial behavior (O’Boyle, et al., 2011).


“Charming people live up to the very edge of their charm, and behave just as outrageously as the world allows.”—Logan Pearsall Smith, Afterthoughts, p.3

According to the DSM-IV, symptoms of narcissism include: “a grandiose sense of self-importance; overwhelming fantasies of unlimited success, power, beauty or ideal love; a belief that they are special and unique and that they can only be understood by other individuals or institutions of similar superior status; an excessive need for admiration; a sense of entitlement; a propensity to exploit other to achieve their own ends; a lack of empathy towards others; a profound enviousness of other and a belief that others are envious of them and a tendency to show arrogant or haughty attitudes and behaviours”.
The narcissistic leader seeks power for personal objectives only (Ouimet, 2010). They use the resources of any organization they are associated with to garner the attention and admiration of others as a means of confirming their belief in their own superiority. Like Machiavellianism and psychopathology, one can display traits of narcissistic personality disorder without meeting the criteria for the formal diagnosis. Narcissists exaggerate their achievements and their contributions. Narcissists appear arrogant and self-promoting to others (O’Boyle, et al., 2011).


Two businessmen are walking together, each carrying a briefcase. ‘We’re only morally bankrupt,’ says one. ‘Thank God”, says the other.—From a cartoon by Bill Lee in Omni, p.84.

Being a psychopath or a sociopath refers to a specific set of personality characteristics determined to represent a specific form of psychopathology. Although both terms are widely-used in popular culture, the American Psychiatric Association’s primary diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health practitioners, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) has no specific criteria for the diagnosis of sociopathy or psychopathy as a personality disorder.

Those characteristics laymen consider to represent sociopathy (“a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood”) are defined in the DSM-IV as Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Those characteristics typically considered to represent psychopathy include those of ASPD but also include other characteristics of aggressive narcissism and socially deviant lifestyle. The Psychopathology Checklist Revised (PCL-R) is a clinical rating scale most often used to identify psychopathology. Almost all psychopaths are sociopaths but not all sociopaths are psychopaths (Hare, 1993).

Psychopaths are often described as people without conscience (Hare, 1993). While often portrayed in the media as Hannibal Lecter-like serial killers, most people with psychopathy seek to fulfill more common needs rather than commit gruesome murders. It is their “egocentricity, whim and the promise of instant gratification” (Hare, 1993, p.74) driving them to unethical, immoral or illegal activity not more heinous motives. Hare suggests there were two or three million psychopaths in the United States alone.
Typical people follow rules and laws out of fear of punishment, a rational appraisal of the probability of getting caught, an ideological perspective of good, social standards and empathy for others. Often psychopaths lack these emotionally-connected reflective thought processes and a diminished capacity for anticipating the consequences of their behavior. They shut down the “inner voice” in order to rationalize their behavior (Hare, 1993).

Psychopaths purposefully create positive first impressions that perform the function of social lures contributing to their manipulative power. They often display a disarmingly attractive physical appearance (Holztman & Strube, 2012). Targeting the vulnerable, they use their charm to engender trust through which they manipulate others (Hare, 1993). Of the three traits of the Dark Triad, psychopathy may be the most dangerous. Their predisposition for minimal anxiety combined with disagreeableness makes them more inclined toward antisocial behavior (Paulhus & Williams, 2002).

While some of the activities of executives of Enron, WorldCom and Tyco were criminal violations of law, and certainly many of the executives involved displayed psychopathic characteristics, and most perhaps were subclinical, not all psychopaths are criminal. In fact, one might consider the most “successful” psychopaths are those who operate sub criminally. While these people do not break criminal or civil law, they may indeed violate accepted moral and ethical standards (Hare, 1993).
Leaders and Followers

For the autocrat’s only true subject is the man who will let himself be killed by him. This is the final proof of obedience and it is always the same.”—Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 1960, p.232.

Leaders begin as followers. As a follower, they form a framework or schema (Mischel, Shoda & Ayduk, 2008) through which they evaluate their world. Ideas which contradict their world view are often interpreted as flawed and are rejected. Like Robespierre, influenced by Rousseau, they may rationalize horrors like the Inquisition in order to express their ideological faith. Influential leaders are often people of action not thought. Their strong convictions Reflective thought often leads to doubt and inaction (La Bon, 2002).

The study and discussion of leaders, followers, power and control spans centuries from ancient texts to more modern works of Machiavelli (1906) and Canetti (1960). Throughout history, despotic and tyrannical leaders have used coercive strategies and techniques as a means to oppress their followers. The oppressed internalize and accept the dependent image of them created by their oppressor and become afraid of freedom. By accepting this less powerful image, the oppressed are complicit in the creation of their oppression (Freire, 2000).

This dance between leader and follower is a delicate one. The impact of the leader’s personality upon the organization’s performance is impacted by the amount of discretion afforded the leader. When discretion is low, there is little relationship. When discretion is high, there is a strong relationship between leader personality and organizational performance. The best way to prevent abuse of power is to limit the leader’s discretion (Hogan, 2006).

Oppressive leadership can only survive when the leader is skilled boundary manager. If the oppression is taken to an extreme, there in no one left to lead. If it is not oppressive enough, it will not result in compliance (Kets de Vries, 2006). Machiavelli (2006) saw dictatorship as a transitional form of government on the way to democracy. Machiavelli and others who support his view fail to see that dictatorship almost always deteriorates into tyranny (Kets de Vries, 2006).

Potential for the abuse of power exists whenever people gather in groups. However it is during a formative or transformative period that despots seem to flourish. Throughout history, accomplished civilizations like the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Chinese, Indian and Central and South American have turned their societies over to tyrants at one time or another (Kats de Vries, 2006).

In Escape From Freedom (1941), Erich Fromm suggests people may be attracted to totalitarian leadership precisely because the autocracy removes the anxiety associated with the risk of making a bad choice. Some willing relinquish personal discretion when choices are numerous, complex or difficult (Kets de Vries, 2006, Peterson, 1999).
In The Crowd, first published in 1895, Gustave La Bon (2002) suggests leaders are often people so driven by ideological faith they have almost lost the instinct for self-preservation. This ideological zeal enables them to appeal to the base instincts of followers who, through faith, may follow their leader along a path of self-destruction. This faith or ideology is the tool used by despots to gain and retain power. Through ideology, the tyrant expresses his narcissism and creates solidarity with followers. In order to sustain this fusion with followers, individuation and autonomous functioning are suppressed (Kets de Vries, 2006).

To the despotic leader with a Dark Triad personality, ordinary followers are simply cannon fodder for the political machine. The tyrant enforces compliance through the police, military and security apparatus to control the population. In order to maintain compliance the government devotes resources far out of proportion to the current situation to reinforce its reputation for toughness (Axelrod, 1984).

Terror becomes an end in itself (Kets de Vries, 2006). Indoctrination is accomplished by controlling cultural dialogue. The tyrant controls communication by controlling the flow of information. Acceptable topics of debate are limited. Honest debate is not allowed (Kets de Vries, 2006). By fostering strong ties to the state, the tyrant creates an illusion of solidarity among the followers while breaking original ties, compartmentalizing and limiting relationships among followers (Kets de Vries, 2006). Even the most powerful leader depends upon compliance from the majority of followers. Compliance is achieved by creating and enforcing rules that are expedient for the majority to follow (Axelrod, 1984).

In order to deflect criticisms of the state’s inevitable failures, the tyrant seeks scapegoats. Adolph Hitler blamed Germany’s failings on the Jews and Pol Pot blamed the educated elite for Cambodia’s problems. Everyone in the society suffer. The scapegoats suffer directly while those who observe suffer guilt from their failure to stop the oppression (Kets de Vries, 2006).
All Are Vulnerable

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”– John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton

No one is immune to the dark side of power. For this reason, many believe no single individual should be in control of an organization or government. Strong checks and balances are necessary to prevent the abuse of power. “Power retained should always be a check to power conferred” (Kets de Vries, 2006, p.212). Despotic leaders often resort to “protective reaction” or preemptive strikes against those they suspect might want to overthrow them. These actions also serve to deflect followers’ attention from the problems created by the leader (Kets de Vries, 2006, p.212).

Tyranny often comes to power subtly and incrementally. Many accounts of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power suggest few world leaders or even the German people took him and the Nazi’s very seriously in the early years of his ascendency. Yet, while losing seats in the Reichstag in the November 1932 election, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in January of 1933. Tyrannical governments often create or use conflict to seize power. The United States created the Gulf of Tonkin incident during the war in Vietnam in order to justify escalation of that conflict. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there has been an alarming consolidation of power in the United States. One of the reactions to the events of 9/11 was the passage of The Patriot Act in October of 2001.

The Patriot Act significantly expanded the powers of the federal government in areas of domestic surveillance and information sharing among intelligence gathering agencies and border security, among other expansions. Another government response to 9/11 was the consolidation of the US National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the US Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the US Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration into the Cabinet-level organization, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Few Americans can escape the effects of the Transportation Security Administrations (a department of the DHS searches at airports, train and bus stations and subway terminals.

The militarization of local law enforcement agencies has accelerated (Kraska, 2007) and the US Congress has approved the use of drone aircraft for domestic use. It’s widely reported drones can be outfitted with cameras, heat sensors, facial recognition systems and weapons.

On December 31 of 2011, President Barak Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2012. In addition to authorization funding for military expenditures, the 2012 bill jointly sponsored by Senators John McCain a Republican, and Carl Levin, a Democrat, included some very controversial provisions contained in Title X, Subtitle D, entitled “Counter-Terrorism”. In particular, sub-sections 1021 and 1022 which grants the President of the United States the power to order the US military to arrest and detain indefinitely, without due process, any American citizen the government suspects of terrorism (NDAA). The provisions are currently being challenged in the courts. The Obama administration is fighting the legal challenge.

It appears our own government, is using the events of 9/11 to increase its own power. As history has shown a people feeling vulnerable, will give up freedom for safety. Whether it’s an individual tyrant or a central government it seems the system evolves toward centralization and control. Without a well-informed and vigilant population those in power will seek to increase their power. A quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin seems appropriate: “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.”


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Transformative Learning and Executive Coaching in the Workplace


Transformative learning is a concept most often associated with the field of education.  However, organizations are often seeking to transform executives in order to prepare them for more responsibility, more challenging roles or environments. Coaching is often used as one of the interventions to help facilitate significant executive change and transformation. This paper discusses the intersection of coaching and transformative learning.

Transformative Learning and Executive Coaching In the Workplace

Executive education and adult learning are often seen as formal processes requiring participation in corporate retreats filled with “team building” exercises and instructor-led seminars.  Conversely, executive coaching is often used as a direct intervention with a coach performing the role of catalyst helping an executive mitigate some shortcoming impeding his or her success in a current role or to prepare him or her for more responsibility or a promotion.  Here, we explore the intersection of executive coaching and adult learning that leads to individual transformation.

What is Executive Coaching?

            The International Coach Federation (ICF), the largest professional association representing coaches worldwide, defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential”.  According the ICF a competent coach will possess the following Core Competencies:

  • Setting the Foundation

¨      Meeting Ethical Guidelines and Professional Standards

¨      Establishing the Coaching Agreement

  • Co-Creating the Relationship

¨      Establishing Trust and Intimacy with the Client

¨      Coaching Presence

  • Communicating Effectively

¨      Active Listening

¨      Powerful Questioning

¨      Direct Communication

  • Facilitating Learning and Results

¨      Creating Awareness

¨      Designing Actions

¨      Planning And Goal Setting

¨      Managing Progress and Accountability

Coaching shares many similarities to mentoring.   As we see, most of the primary tasks of mentors, “engender trust, see the student’s movement, give the student a voice, introduce conflict, understand, emphasize positive movement and keep one eye on the relationship” (Daloz, 1999, pp.122-124) are found among the ICF’s Core Competencies. One can see how these same skills would be important to success in counseling and consulting as well. Indeed, coaching draws much of its empirical base and practice from the field of psychotherapy (Judge & Cowell, 1997).

Within the coaching profession, there are many concentrations. Life, leadership, relationship, career and executive coaching are some of the more popular areas of specialization. The executive coach is often seen as a change agent within a business, corporate or other organizational environment.  While there is no single definition or best way to practice executive coaching (Stern, 2004) suggests the executive coach is the “organizational consultant who can provide the coaching to help carry the weary executive through the constantly changing and harsh environment faced by business leaders of the 21st century” (p.161).  A good description of executive coaching is “an experiential, individualized, leadership development process that builds a leader’s capability to achieve short and long-term organizational goals.  It is conducted through one-on-one interactions, driven by data from multiple perspectives, and based on mutual trust and respect.  The organization, an executive, and the executive coach work in partnership to achieve maximum learning and impact.” (Ennis et al., 2003, p.20).

Within the corporate environment many coaches coach for skills, performance, development or the executive’s agenda (Gray, 2006).  According to Gray, skills coaching is directed at helping the client learn “basic concepts, strategies, methods, behaviours, attitudes and perspectives, for business success” (p.478). It is not intended to nor does it often produce long-term change (Fitzgerald & Berger, 2002).  Performance coaching seeks to help the executive become better at performing in her or her current role.  The goal of development coaching is to prepare the client for movement into another role.

Coaching for the executive agenda often encompasses a broad range of issues. The executive may be contemplating a merger or an acquisition, his organization may be experiencing rapid growth or contraction or her company may be impacted by major regulatory changes and need to respond.  Since the executive coach may play many roles, it is important to understand the theoretical underpinnings from which the coach operates. One of the major epistemologies of coaching is found in adult learning theory, more specifically transformative learning (Gray, 2006).

Kilberg (1996) suggested “executive coaching is defined as a helping relationship formed between a client who has managerial authority and responsibility in an organization and a consultant who uses a wide variety of behavioral techniques and methods to help the client achieve a mutually identified set of goals to improve his or her professional performance and personal satisfaction and, consequently, to improve the effectiveness of the client’s organization within a formally defined coaching agreement” (p.142).

In many instances, the terms coach and teacher can almost be used interchangeably.  Certainly, there are many intersections and overlaps of the two roles.  According to Jarvis, Holford and Griffin (1998), teachers may play several roles. Some of these roles are:

  • Provide information on certain topics
  • Serve as a resource for the individual
  • Assist learners to assess their needs and competencies
  • Locate resources or secure new information
  • Set up learning experiences
  • Work with learners as a sounding board for ideas
  • Help learners to develop a positive attitude towards learning and self-directed

Certainly coaches do these things too.  However, the executive coach is typically expected to help his client achieve something beyond simple skill development.  Often, she’s expected to help lead her client through some significant change, growth or “transformation”.  Adult learning theory, specifically transformational learning theory, offers great insight into the processes and approaches coaches might use to help their clients make significant change (Gray, 2006).

What is transformative learning?

             Popularized by two major theorists of adult learning, Jack Mezirow and Paulo Freire, the terms transformational learning or transformative learning have become somewhat diluted by some academicians and researchers, according to Mezirow contemporaries Stephen Brookfield (2005) and Robert Kegan (Mezirow, 2004).  Brookfield (Mezirow, 2004) points out Mezirow has been consistent in “asserting that a transformation is a transformation in perspective, in a frame of reference, in a personal paradigm, and in a habit of mind together with its resulting points of view” (p.139).  Elkins (2003) suggests transformative learning is facilitated by a cognitive process wherein our responses to our experiences are brought into our awareness through reflection and are evaluated.

Perhaps the definition most relevant to executive coaching comes from Mezirow (2000) where he states, “Transformative learning is learning that transforms problematic frames of reference—sets of fixed assumptions and expectations (habits of mind, meaning perspectives, mindsets)—to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective, and emotionally able to change. Such frames of reference are better than others because they are more likely to generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action.” (p.58).

Mezirow (2000) identified four conditions for transformation:  “the presence of the other, reflective discourse, a mentoring community, and opportunities for committed action” (p.112). The presence of the other provides a contrast through which one compares his or her beliefs, thoughts and ideas.  Reflective discourse is “the process in which we actively dialogue with others to better understand the meaning of an experience” (p.114).  A mentoring community refers to the social learning aspects of transformation and opportunities for committed action refers to the ability of the individual to act upon the “evolving commitments” (p.117).

According to Kegan (1994), when people develop the ability to reflect upon something they were previously unaware of or took for granted and make conscious decisions about it, they have the opportunity to become transformed.  Kegan distinguishes between informational learning or new knowledge added in a form that currently exists in our minds and transformational learning, knowledge that actually changes our perceptions and interpretations of the world. Transformative learning occurs when someone changes “not just the way he behaves, not just the way he feels, but the way he knows—not just what he knows but the way he knows” (p.17).  Kegan believes transformation can take place when someone moves from Subject to Object.

According to Kegan, things that are Subject to us are a part of our selves. They are beliefs that form the frameworks and lenses through which we see the world.  We are often unaware of them. We take them for granted.  We assume they are true.  “We don’t have things that are Subject; things that are Subject have us” (Fitzgerald and Berger, 2002, p.30).  Things that are Object “can be seen and considered, questioned, shaped and acted on” (Fitzgerald and Berger, 2002, p.30).  Object isn’t how we see, it is what we see. Therefore, it can be analyzed, evaluated, retained or discarded.  Our worldview becomes more complex as we move from Subject to Object. We are more aware, more conscious and can be more responsible.  Indeed, one of the great ongoing developmental tasks of life is the moving from Subject to Object.

Transformations frequently follow the following phases, according to Mezirow (2000),   (p.22):

  • A disorienting dilemma
  • Self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame
  • A critical assessment of assumptions
  • Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared
  • Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions
  • Planning a course of action
  • Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans
  • Provisional trying of new roles
  • Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
  • A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective.

The most significant transformations occur when we are able to analyze our own frameworks.  Exploring and challenging one’s own assumption about one’s self, society and one’s reality can often lead to a transformation (Mezirow, 1996).  Self-awareness is a critical component of this framework analysis.  We cannot analyze until we know. Knowledge is essential.

Cranton (2006) discusses three kinds of knowledge; technical, communicative and emancipatory. Technical knowledge is about cause and effect.  Acquiring it does not often lead to a transformative experience.  In the technical knowledge domain the coach or educator often performs the role of subject matter expert.  Communicative knowledge is “concerned with how we see ourselves and the social world that shapes us” (p.106).  The facilitator of communicative knowledge is in a co-development relationship with the learner.  Emancipatory knowledge is created when people “critically question their habits of mind in order to become open to alternatives” (p.106).  Emancipatory knowledge frees the learner from constraints, leads to awareness, reflection and development. The coach or educator working with students of emancipatory knowledge acts as a provocateur. The coach helps the learner become aware of limiting beliefs and to address discrepancies between their expressed values and their behaviors (Cranton, 2006).  From the social learning perspective of theorists like Albert Bandura and Julian Rotter, transformational learning requires an experience, and a critical reflection upon that experience followed by a developmental opportunity (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007). Certainly coaches can be instrumental facilitators of this experience.

Coaching and transformational learning

            Coaching’s links to counseling and psychology have been well documented.  Indeed, much of the profession’s body of knowledge, techniques and competencies are rooted in psychotherapy.  Some variation of many of the ICF’s Core Competencies highlighted above can be found among the skills utilized by counselors, social workers, psychologists and other professionals working in psychotherapy and individual change.  More recently, many have highlighted the coaching profession’s ties to adult learning, more specifically, transformational or transformative learning (Brookfield, 1998; Elkins, 2003; Gray, 2006; Griffiths, 2005).

Griffiths (2005) suggests combining coaching and transformative learning to create a new, synthesized model for growth.  Facilitated through traditional coaching processes like “active listening, powerful questioning, problem solving, self-regulation and observation” (p.62), the student/coachees’ readiness would determine their development plan and goals.  Organizational transformation might be facilitated by creating competency models including such transformational learning theory components like critical, objective and reflective thinking, collaboration and consensus building about individual reflections into leadership development and individualized coaching plans. (Elkins, 2003).

Brown and Posner (2001) connect learning to leading.  They suggest transformational learning theory can be used to “assess, strengthen, and create leadership development programs that develop transformational leaders” (p. 279).  They suggest learning to apply adult learning principles and fostering transformative learning is one of the attributes of an evolved leader. Daloz (1999) and others support this idea suggesting that mentoring becomes a responsibility of leadership.

Helping clients become better at reflective thinking is one of the most important aspects of the coach’s role.  Summarizing, integrating, reframing are communication skills considered important skills, according to the ICF.  Coaches need to be critically reflective in order to help clients create awareness that can lead to transformation (Brookfield, 1998).  Indeed, according to Mezirow (1998), transformative learning cannot occur without critical reflection. Ducharme (2004, Peltier, 2001, Sherin & Caiger, 2004) and others reinforce the importance of reflective thinking through advocating a cognitive-behavioral approach to executive coaching.  In cognitive-behavioral therapies like Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Therapy, the therapist focuses upon helping the client create awareness then encourage the client to evaluate and possibly reconsider the emotions the client associates with their life circumstances (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007).

Gray (2006) makes a strong argument that coaches serve as educators.  He compares Mezirow’s comments about the educator’s role to that of a coach:

“Education [coaching] for competence involves cultivating the learner’s [coachee’s] ability to negotiate meanings and purposes instead of passively accepting the social realities defined by others” (p.489).

Coaches facilitate reflective action by “helping their clients overcome situational, knowledge or emotional constraints (p.489).  Emotional constraints are often presented in the schemes or frameworks through which we view our lives and the world. These frames of reference determine, to a great extent, form our worldview.  Cranton (2006) defined these points of view as “clusters of meaning schemes”.  They are habitual, rules for interpreting experiences.  They often impede our ability to see things objectively.  Sometimes referred to as “habits of mind” these predispositions or interpretations are components of these frameworks.  Much of the work of the executive coach is designed to help the client identify and deconstruct these schemes.

Gray (Gray, 2006) suggested the term Meaning Structures to define these frameworks.  Meaning Structures provide rules for interpreting.  He broke Meaning Structures into two components, Meaning Perspectives and Meaning Schemes.  Meaning Perspectives form sociolinguistic, psychological or epistemic “codes”.  Meaning Schemes are defined by concepts, beliefs, judgments and feelings.

A personal reflection is a critique of our assumptions.  Teaching clients how to engage in behavioral self-monitoring through awareness created by self-reflection is an important task of executive coaching (Stober & Grant, 2006).  Reflections might be about content, process or premise.  Reflection is often triggered when life hands us contradictions to meaning structures.  According to Mezirow (1994), reflection occurs during problem solving.  In order to break down the barriers to self-awareness these frameworks create, the coach or educator might lead the client through a process of critical reflection.  Mezirow (1994) identified phases of a critical reflection process. These are:  Epistemic, Sociolinguistic, Psychological, Moral ethical, Philosophical, Aesthetic.  Distortions in meaning can occur in these stages.  The role of the coach/educator may be to help the client/learner become aware of these distortions.

Typically, the coach/educator will help the client develop a learning plan.
Effective development plans should include some basic elements, according to (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2011). These are the content of the problems or challenge, the process of the problem solving and an underlying premise. Ideally, the coach/educator and the client/learner will collaboratively construct a development plan which identifies a process which attempts to mitigate the client’s deficiencies against competencies.  Competencies are requisite abilities or qualities important to creating successful goal attainment.

Cognitive, humanistic and adult education theorists suggest the individual is the most important component when building competencies. Individual may not know what competencies he or she needs.  The role of the coach/educator is to expose the learner to role models.  The elegance of the competency model isn’t critical, according to Knowles, et al. What is important is the learners understanding of how acquisition of specific skills and abilities will improve their lives. This helps put the learning experiences into context.  “It (personal competency model) converts course-takers and seminar participants into competency developers.” (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2011, p. 124).

Coaching is said to work because it facilitates action learning (Whitworth, Kimsey-House & Sandahl, 1998). “Clients take action and learn, which leads to more action based upon what they learned, which leads to more learning, etc.”(p.79). Sustained over time, action learning through coaching leads to transformational change.  Along with collaborative inquiry, Mezirow (2000) supports action learning as method to support transformational learning.

Many executives enter coaching to address a specific challenge or need. They’ve been promoted and feel ill-equipped for their new role or their progress is being impeded by a lack of skill or behaviors deemed inappropriate by their organization.  In these instances, it is common for both client and coach to view the coaching work as task-oriented and situational.  Major theorists and the research suggest more meaningful and enduring change might be achieved by approaching the work as a transformational learning opportunity rather than a routine, linear coaching assignment.


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Differentiation of Self

“A person with a well-differentiated ‘self’ recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality. Thoughtfully acquired principles help guide decision-making about important family and social issues, making him less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment. What he decides and what he says matches what he does. He can act selflessly, but his acting in the best interests of the group is a thoughtful choice, not a response to relationship pressures. Confident in his thinking, he can either support another’s view without being a disciple or reject another view without polarizing the differences. He defines himself without being pushy and deals with pressure to yield without being wishy-washy.


Every human society has its well-differentiated people, poorly differentiated people, and people at many gradations between these extremes. Consequently, the families and other groups that make up a society differ in the intensity of their emotional interdependence depending on the differentiation levels of their members. The more intense the interdependence, the less the group’s capacity to adapt to potentially stressful events without a marked escalation of chronic anxiety. Everyone is subject to problems in his work and personal life, but less differentiated people and families are vulnerable to periods of heightened chronic anxiety which contributes to their having a disproportionate share of  society’s most serious problems.”


Bowen Center Website

Leadership In Action as a Way of Being to meet the Demands of Early 21st Century Life

It seems like there’s nothing much new in the leadership literature until about the year 2000.  Indeed, there has been an evolution in thinking about leadership which has moved through first “person-subjective” to “second person-interpersonal” to “third person-objective” (organizational systems) to a more integrative “fourth person-inter-objective view”. (Nicolaides & Wallis, p.1)

Once, effective leadership was viewed as an individual having specific traits or qualities and displaying specific behaviors.  In the years following, you see the introduction of an appreciation for the interactions of leaders and followers with the introduction of “emotional intelligence” and still later, a more complex systems-oriented view incorporating concepts from Spiral Dynamics and Integral Theory.  The bookstore shelves are full of how to guides and even some of the most notable authors on the subject, like Peter Drucker suggest good leadership is the possession of a set effective personality traits and the display of certain desired behaviors.

Our thinking about leadership has evolved from thinking in terms of behavior traits of effective leaders to a more complex systems view.  Certainly, today’s more progressive view of leadership is one of leadership as a state of being as opposed to simply displaying the specific traits or behaviors.  Advances of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR) will inevitably require even more significant changes in how leaders lead.  In the near future, failure of our social systems to evolve rapidly enough to keep pace with technological advances could lead to tremendous problems for humanity.

1st Person-Leadership from the individual perspective (Subjective)

Leadership, to the average person, most likely means charisma.  The handsome, articulate political, business or military leader comes to mind.  But there are many examples of charismatic leaders, like Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin who led their followers into a death spiral.

Conversely, other reserved, shy and somewhat awkward people were very effective leaders.  Perhaps Lincoln, Churchill and Gandhi are good examples.  Perhaps because, as management guru, Peter Drucker suggests, the foundation of effective leadership is clearly defining the mission.  You find this theme echoed in some of the most popular evidenced-based leadership textbooks like Kouzes and Posner’s very popular, The Leadership Challenge (1987).

One finds the trait theory alive and well into the 1960s when MIT professor Douglas McGregor defined the characteristics of “Theory X” and “Theory Y” managers.  Theory X assumes most people respond best to coercion and force while Theory Y suggests people respond better to the charismatic leader who using persuasion to change follower’s behavior.  It was McGregor who suggested a Theory Y approach would better create an environment of trust which he believed was more a more effective leadership strategy.

Many of the traits ascribed to good leaders have proven quite stable over time.  Good leaders view their role as a responsibility rather than an honor bestowed.  Good leaders are secure with themselves and gather the best possible teams around them.  Good leaders engender trust in their followers. (Kouzes & Posner, pp.3-49)

Trust emanates from integrity which is demonstrated by behaving in a manner consistent with ones spoken words. (Drucker, p.271)  Through self awareness and reflection, today’s good leaders behave as they want their followers to behave.  One’s actions are more important than words.  Research tells us we have gaps between what we say and what we do.  Followers experience those inconsistencies at unconscious and preconscious levels and see them at a conscious level. (Quinn, p. 233)

Effective leaders model values important to the purpose or mission of the organization and good leaders are able to facilitate the creation of a shared vision around which followers can rally.  By its nature, leadership is about inspiring followers to move toward something new.  If people are to stay where they are, they need good management, not effective leadership.  So leaders, by nature, are risk-takers.  Through integrity and trust, leaders inspire others to action.  Great leaders are also able to “tap into” the emotions of followers inspire their followers.  Churchill and Martin Luther King are good examples of leaders who presented themselves authentically, inspired a shared vision, challenged the status quo, enabled and encouraged others and tapped into the emotions of their followers. (Kouzes & Posner, pp. 3-49)

Kouzes and Posner have conducted longitudinal research about the attributes followers say they value in leaders.  Consistently across years and cultures, followers say they look for honest (integrity/authenticity), forward-looking (vision/mission), inspiring and competent.  They maintain these attributes comprise credibility and they suggest that characteristic is the foundation of leadership. (Kouzes and Posner, pp. 3-49)

According to the old models, and even today, effective leadership is definitely a “way of being”.   Historically, most leaders of note have been people whose locus of control was more internal than external.  (Rogers, p.119)  Self awareness for effective leadership then, is not a new idea.  When one reviews lists of the characteristics of effective leaders created by the popular writers in the genra, the similarities appear striking.

As recent as the late 1970’s and early 80’s, the focus remained on the leaders’ behavior with “situational leadership” gaining popularity. (Graff, p. 285)  This movement seems to be related to “structural contingency theory” and the concept of person/environment fit.  Jim Collins in his popular book, Good to Great (2001) speaks about the importance of getting the right people “on the bus”.   It seems the classic argument that leaders are born, not made is successfully refuted in Rooke and Torbert’s article, “Seven Transformations of Leadership”.  They suggest leadership is situational and that leaders can change their behavior though self-awareness and personal development efforts.  How leaders develop is the most important factor. (Rooke &Tolbert, p.45)

In his very contemporary but rather traditional book, The Soul of Leadership Deepak Chopra (2010) highlights the themes of self-awareness, vision creation and vision communication.  Interestingly, Chopra lists introduces the seven-letter acronym L-E-A-D-E-R (L= Look and listen, E= Emotional Bonding, A= Awareness, D= Doing, E= Empowerment, R= Responsibility, S= Synchronicity) to define a leadership style which is visionary, emotionally intelligent, self aware, empowering (echoes of servant leadership) and accountable for the development of both the group and the individuals.

Type Characteristics Strengths Weaknesses
Opportunist Wins any way possible.Self-oriented; manipulative;“might makes right.” Good in emergencies and inpursuing sales. Few people want to followthem for the long term.
Diplomat Avoids conflict.Wants tobelong; obeys group norms;doesn’t rock the boat. Supportive glue on teams. Can’t provide painful feedbackor make the hard decisionsneeded to improveperformance.
Expert Rules by logic and expertise.Uses hard data to gainconsensus and buy-in. Good individual contributor. Lacks emotional intelligence;lacks respect forthose with less expertise.
Achiever Meets strategic goals.Promotesteamwork; jugglesmanagerial duties and responds

to market demands

to achieve goals.

Well suited to managerialwork. Inhibits thinking outside thebox.
Individualist Operates in unconventionalways.Ignores ruleshe/she regards as irrelevant. Effective in venture andconsulting roles. Irritates colleagues andbosses by ignoring key organizationalprocesses andpeople.
Strategist Generates organizationaland personal change.Highly collaborative; weavesvisions with pragmatic,

timely initiatives; challenges

existing assumptions.

Generates transformationsover the short and longterm. None
Alchemist Generates social transformations(e.g., Nelson Mandela).Reinvents organizationsin historically

significant ways.

Leads societywide change. None

Rooke and Torbert’s seven Action Logics (Rooke and Torbert, p.45)

 2nd Person-Leadership from the interpersonal and relational perspective (Inter-Subjective)

Dan Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence (1995), like Steven Covey’s, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, codified many of the somewhat timeless traits of effective leaders.   The awareness of one’s own emotions and the emotions of others and the ability to manage both are found in the writings of Drucker and many other management and leadership theorists and writers. The accurate empathy of Rogers’ “core conditions” has implications in management and leadership.

Emotional intelligence has been shown to be important factor in determining which individuals emerge as leaders, the effectiveness of the management or leadership process, how others perceive the individuals as leaders and organizational performance.  It is generally agreed emotional intelligence has four components they are: (1) awareness of one’s own emotions; (2) accurate awareness of others’ emotions; (3) the ability to manage one’s own emotions; and (4) the ability to manage others’ emotions. (Humphrey, p. 495-502)

The concept of authenticity comes up, again and again. To be authentic requires courage because when one is authentic, they are exposing their “real selves” to others and the world.  If one’s inauthentic self is rejected, one can take solace in the fact that it wasn’t their true identity that was rejected but their “avatar”.  The rejection of one’s authentic self would be more painful.  If one considers the ability to influence or persuade others a necessary leadership skill then Carl Roger’s “core conditions” of an effective therapeutic relationship which include authenticity, unconditional positive regard and accurate empathy contribute to the leadership literature of the 20th century.

3rd Person-Leadership from an organizational and systems perspective (Objective)

            While not cited in his book, “Change the World”, Quinn’s Advanced Change Theory appears to draw heavily from Spiral Dynamics thinking.  His “four strategies of change” parallel the MEMEs found in Spiral Dynamics.  Some of the themes common to both are high concern for task and people rather than position or hierarchy, preference for collective good over personal and internally directed and other focused leadership.  (Quinn, p. 238) Quinn’s term “bounded instability” has a definite systems origin. (Quinn, p. 149)

4th Person- Leadership from an integral multi-dimensional perspective including the 1st, 2nd and 3rd person perspective (Inter-Objective)

When one gets to Beck and Cowan’s Spiral Dynamics (1996) and Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory (2000) there is a view into a more transcendent leader.  While their views might be viewed as simply expanding upon the work of Maslow and other developmental theorists, they integrate earlier thinking into a framework that is quite different. (Figure 1)  These works appear to have spawned a new wave of thought about leadership, a more holistic view, rooted in systems theory.  This approach views leaders as catalysts or “spiral wizards”, a term coined by Beck and Cowen.  From a human development and leadership perspective, Wilber and Beck integrate quite nicely. (Figure 2)

One can hear themes of both situational and servant leadership in Beck, Cowan, Wilber and Quinn’s writings.  A connection between Rooke and Tolbert’s seven “action logics” or descriptors of leadership styles to Spiral Dynamics’ MEMEs is obvious.

Figure 1: In Spiral Dynamics:  Mastering values, leadership and change (1996), Don Beck and Chris Cowan describe a systems-based evolutionary human development framework depicted in a spiral balloon’ graphic.  From this view, individuals and society expand consciousness from a center focused upon individual survival to concern for the welfare of all others and of nature.

Figure 2: Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrants overlaid upon Beck and Cowan’s nine levels, Rice (2006)

Chopra’s selection of seven principals here shouldn’t go unnoticed.  It has some correlation with the seven hierarchical chakras from the Hindu belief system.  Chopra provides no references in this book which seems to be written for the hurried executive interested in a view of leadership that goes beyond those offered by the best-seller volumes found on the shelves of Barnes and Noble.

In Evolutionary Leadership (2009), Peter Merry positions leadership in an organization development “change agent” light.  Merry references Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near (2005), Beck and Cowan, Wilber and many other progressive thinkers of today in defining effective leadership as facilitation of change.  Interestingly, he brings physical health into the conversation by devoting a significant amount of space to the topic.

While not specifically about leadership, Ken Wilber’s Theory of Everything (2001) suggests effective leadership would use an “all quadrant, all level” (AQAL) approach.  Wilber’s theory suggests that there is an interior, exterior, individual and collective component to everything.  Daryl Paulson suggests the development of Wilber’s four quadrant, Integral Theory is a natural evolution from Theory X (Upper Left) to Theory Y (Upper Right) to cultural management (Lower Left) to systems management (Upper Left). (Wilber, p. 94)

If Ray Kurzweil (2005) is correct then much of the leadership thinking of the past will be out of sync if not mostly irrelevant within a few decades.  If good leadership is about emotional intelligence and meeting people where they are, then classifying people according to their Meyers-Brigg Type Indicator or their Strength’s Finder 2.0 hierarchy will not be sufficient in the future.  Historically, throughout human history, man’s tools and technologies have evolved more rapidly than the social systems which govern them.  While the looming advances in GNR offer great promise, they also hold potential for great tragedy.  A genetically modified virus or a nanotech “robot” in the wrong hands could kill millions if not destroy all humanity.

The realm of consciousness and the definition of authenticity may change dramatically in the not too distant future and the biological and non-biological worlds merge mid-century, as predicted by Kurzweil.  With the potential for organ regeneration, artificial organs and body parts, our very definition of what it means to be human may need to evolve.  And Wilber suggests what good are these technological developments if they are placed in the hands of those whose consciousness has not evolved to a point where they will be good stewards of it (Wilber, pg. 105).


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How do people “make sense” of things in organizations?

            The formation of the concept of organizational sensemaking is attributed to Karl Weick, an American psychologist (Hatch, p.44).  According to Choo (1996), “The central concern of sensemaking is understanding how people in organizations construct meaning and reality, and then exploring how that enacted reality provides a context for organizational action, including decision making and knowledge building” (p.337).  Organizational sensemaking is set in motion, when members encounter events or circumstances that appear to contradict what they believe they already know.  This “ecological change” forces members to try to understand the differences (Choo, 1996, p.333).  It is how circumstances are categorized and converted into explicit language. It is how knowledge is converted from tacit to explicit.  It is an ongoing process that is “instrumental, subtle, swift, social and easily taken for granted” (Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, p. 409).  Wright, Manning, Farmer & Gilbreath (2000) introduce the term “resourceful sensemaking” which they define as “the ability to appreciate the perspectives of others and use this understanding to enact horizon-expanding discourse”.  They believe the individual’s past experiences as well as their current standpoint is important to resourceful sensemaking (p. 823).

            Sensemaking theory suggests the real organization exists primarily in the minds of its members.  Organization sensemaking is not just an amalgam of individual cognitions but something more and different.  Sensemaking is a complex and dynamic process where members shape and are shaped by events (Weber & Manning, pp. 238-239).  It is how members deal with ambiguity.  The members create cognitive maps or schema of their experiences through which they construct or “make sense” of the organization.  These schemas have several functions.  They provide a structure to map experience, they direct information storage and retrieval, they impact efficiency and speed of information processing, they help to fill in information gaps, they provide problem solving templates and they facilitate planning for the future (Harris, p. 310).  Schema guided sensemaking can occur consciously or unconsciously and this internal dialogue impacts individual image and decision making (Harris, p. 315). 

             Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld, assigned the following characteristics to sensemaking in organizations:

            “Sensemaking Organizes Flux-organizes chaos

            Sensemaking Starts with Noticing and Bracketing-classifies

            Sensemaking Is About Labeling-defines

            Sensemaking Is Retrospective-compares to experience

            Sensemaking Is About Presumption-tests intuition

            Sensemaking Is Social and Systemic-beyond the individual

            Sensemaking Is About Action-evolves through action

            Sensemaking Is About Organizing Through Communication-tacit knowledge is   made explicit through dialogue” (pp. 411-413).

             In organizations, sensemaking evolves through action.  As members take actions, they learn and make meaning.  The number of plausible options often gets reduced.  Because sensemaking is an evolutionary process, it is less about accuracy than it is plausibility (Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, p. 415)

            It is generally agreed among the leading theorists that organizational sensemaking follows a connected sequence of stages.  Choo (1996, pp.333-334) indentified these stages as:

            Enactment-bracketing, labeling and rearranging, generate data

            Selection-choose meanings, create schema

            Retention-store successful sensemaking for the future

            Some sensemaking is belief-driven.  That is, members start with beliefs then seek out information to support those beliefs.  Other sensemaking is action-driven. Here, members start with actions and grow structures around them thereby creating meaning to justify or explain their actions.  Once the environment has been enacted, selections made and retained the organization is now faced with the “what now?” question or what Weick called, a consequential moment (Choo, 1996, p. 337).

            Power and emotion are two areas where more research is needed.  Power plays into sensemaking in that those in positions of power may disproportionately impact the sensemaking process.  According to Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld the seven dimensions of sensemaking are:  “the social relations that are encouraged and discouraged, the identities that are valued or derogated, the retrospective meanings that are accepted or discredited, the cues that are highlighted or suppressed, the updating that is encouraged or discouraged, the standard of accuracy or plausibility to which conjectures are held and the approval or proactive or reactive action as the preferred mode of coping” (p. 418).  Members have emotional experiences when the sensemaking process is interrupted or resumed.  Their expectations impact the emotional reactions they will have to these events (Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, p. 419).

            According to Choo (1996), three types of knowledge exist in organizations—tacit, explicit and cultural.  Tacit knowledge resides in the experience and expertise of individuals.  Explicit knowledge is found in artifacts and it is defined in terms of rules and routines.  Explicit knowledge can be articulated.  Cultural knowledge is found in the “assumptions, beliefs and values” of the organization.  Choo believes new knowledge and capabilities comes from the mingling of these three (pp. 334-335).

            Choo (1996) believes there are four knowledge conversion modes: 

            Socialization-tacit knowledge is obtained through shared experience

            Externalization-converting tacit knowledge into explicit concepts

            Combination-creating explicit knowledge through combination

            Internalization-“embodying” explicit knowledge (p. 335-336)

            If one considers organizations as “decision-making systems” then an organization, like an individual is limited by the concept of “bounded rationality”.  It cannot have all of the information about decision choices before making them.  It’s not possible in reality.  Therefore, like the individual, the organization is limited by “the mental skills, habits, and reflexes; by the extent of knowledge and information possesses; and by values or conceptions of purpose which may diverge from organizational goals”, as stated by Simon. 

            In order to protect itself, the organization establishes decision premises to guide its members.  These premises set up two decision making conditions.  First, members seek to satisfy, not exceed expectations.  Second, members seek to simplify in order to avoid uncertainty and reduce complexity (Choo, 1996, p. 331). One of the purposes of organization sensemaking is to reduce equivocality of information (Choo, 2002).

            Although often considered distinct processes, the information use areas of sensemaking, knowledge building and decision-making are highly interconnected.  Perhaps best thought of as concentric circles with sensemaking the outermost circle, then knowledge building then decision-making the three processes leading to organizational action are analogous to information interpretation, information conversion and information processing as shown below (Choo, 1996, p. 339).

  • Sensemaking—Information Interpretation
  • Knowledge Creation—Information Conversion
  • Decision Making—Information Processing

Choo characterizes an organization effectively integrating these processes as a “knowing organization” (1996, p.339).  In these organizations, there are continuous reiterative cycles of sensemaking, knowledge creation and decision making.  Certainly more research on the interplay of these processes would be of great value.

            Isabella (1990) identified stages of sensemaking taking place during organizational change.  These are anticipation, confirmation, culmination and aftermath.  With anticipation, managers may consider a plethora of information from rumor to bits and pieces of factual and non-factual information.  Confirmation is an interpretational stage following anticipation.  Here, events are put into a framework or schema and standardized.  It’s what Isabella calls “reasoning by analogy”.  Culmination follows confirmation.  Here, organizations members adjust their interpretations of an event. Isabella’s final stage is aftermathAftermath is a post-mortem analysis or an evaluation.  (pp. 16-26)  Weber and Manning (2001) assert the processes proposed by Isabella are circular rather than linear as she suggests (p. 240).

            Meindl, Stubbart & Porac (1994) suggested there are many important questions for those conducting research in organizational cognition. 

  • What is an appropriate construct system for describing managerial and organizational cognition?  While there is general agreement schemas play an important role in the sensemaking process, there is not much agreement about how to use and interpret them (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p. 290).
  • What is an appropriate way to treat level-of-analysis issues in cognitive research?  Should research be conducted at the individual, group, organization or industry level? (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p. 290), (Walsh, p. 280).
  • What is the relationship between cognitive structure and cognitive process?  Most of the research has looked at either the process (individual/collective) or structure (schema, etc.) of thought. Very few have looked at both. (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p. 291)
  • What is the relationship between managerial cognition and organizational outcomes?  There has been pressure to link research on organization cognition to outcomes.  Unfortunately, the measures are difficult at best.  (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p. 292)
  • What role do “cognitive aids” have in shaping managerial and organizational cognition?  Not enough attention has been given to collective problem formulation and solution development (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p. 292).

            Substantial research exists about sensemaking and innovation. Dougherty, et al (2000) suggests innovative and non-innovative organizations have qualitatively different sensemaking systems.  Innovative organizations link knowledge to solve customer problems.  Non-innovative organizations link knowledge to solve functional operational problems which do not necessarily directly address customer concerns.  Innovative organizations differ from non-innovative organizations in how they manage tension.  Innovative organizations purposefully contrast new technologies and insights with established ones at the product, business and strategic level in order to create new knowledge.  Non-innovative organizations use tension to “confirm, verify and exploit existing knowledge”.  It’s more about doing what they do better than doing something new or different (pp. 342-344).

            Weber and Manning (2001) suggest cognitive maps may help further understanding of sensemaking in organizations by explaining how hierarchy and culture impact the process.  Their study indicated one’s position in the organizational hierarchy, and access to information, were significant factors in sensemaking during organizational change.  They advocate a broad distribution of information as a means to address those differences (p. 243). 

            Research suggests information technology can be designed to better support the sensemaking processes in organizations.  In their article, Boland, Tenkasi & Te’eni (1994), argue information technology has not addressed the distributed cognition phenomenon of sensemaking.  They believe distributed cognition should be viewed as a hermeneutic inquiry and technology should be designed to support that process.  Information technology should “support distributed cognition by enabling individuals to make rich representations of their understanding, reflect upon those representations, engage in dialogue about them with others, and use them to inform action. The authors suggest six design principles for distributed cognition.  They are:

  1. Ownership-an interpretation belongs to an individual
  2. 2.    Easy Travel-an interpretation should be easily linked to another
  3. 3.    Multiplicity-individuals should make their own interpretations and participate in critique
  4. Indeterminacy-interpretations are not necessarily complete or precise
  5. Emergence-new concepts emerge during interpretation
  6. Mixed Form-members should be able to represent their interpretations in mixed form.  They should not be limited to written communication.

                                                                                                            (pp. 456-457)

                A substantial amount of research has been conducted around individual cognition.  However, much work is needed in the area of organizational thought processes.  Weick speaks of the “collective mind” in organizations.  According to Weick and Roberts (1993), “collective mind is conceptualized as a pattern of heedful interrelations of actions in a social system”.  The mind, says Weick, “is an integration of feeling, thinking and willing”.  An organizational mind evolves from social processes.  Weick says, “People act heedfully when they act more or less carefully, critically, consistently, purposefully, attentively, studiously, vigilantly, conscientiously, pertinaciously” (p. 361).  When organizations practice “mindfulness”, they seem to be more effective (p. 357).

            Wright, Manning, Farmer and Gilbreath (2000) suggest the sensemaking practices “shape and are shaped” by events and the “lifeworld”.  Events are occurrences which trigger a need to interpret.  The “lifeworld” is the background against which these events are evaluated.  It is the “routines, interactions, values and skills which are essential to the conduct of everyday affairs (pp. 818-819)

           Isabella (1990) suggests one of the implications of the organizational sensemaking research is that organizational change professionals and leaders might begin to think differently about change resistance. Rather than something to be mitigated, it may be better construed as a necessary part of the organization’s learning process.  Additionally, her research indicates manager’s roles may vary according to the stage of cognition (p.33). 

           Walsh (1995) identified several areas for a future research agenda.  In the area of representation, he suggests researchers need to reconsider the value of descriptive studies of knowledge structure.  He believes a better understanding of the relationship between knowledge structures and the environments they represent is needed.  Walsh suggests the study of content and structure should be combined.  He believes researchers should look at organization cognition as something other than an aggregation of individual minds (pp. 303-308). 

           In the area of use, he suggests many researchers may be guilty of “The Fallacy of the Wrong Level” when investigating supra-individual knowledge structures.  Walsh thinks more research is warranted in the area of knowledge structure use.  As he states, “research suggests we can be mindful, mindless or ‘out of our minds’.  We need to know more about “out of our mind” behavior.  We need to know more about how knowledge structures are linked to managing organizations (pp. 303-308).

           Development is another area where more research is needed.  Since there is so much evidence of the dynamic nature of organization knowledge structures, we need a better understanding of information processing.  Additionally, we need more information about the “costs and benefits of forgetting”, according to Walsh.  And finally, more research about the “social and emotional bases of change” is needed (pp. 306-308).

           There are significant methodological challenges for researchers in this domain.  The subject matter is inherently difficult to classify and measure.  It is even difficult for researchers to be certain they are measuring their subject’s processes and not their own.  Advances in research design are called for.  Longitudinal studies incorporating cognitive mapping, argument mapping and semiotic analysis techniques have promise. (Walsh, pp. 308-311)

           The field of organization sensemaking and cognition is still very broad.  It’s believed future research will focus upon areas of the domain which hold the greatest promise.  The highly-exploited arena of level-of-analysis is likely to fall by the wayside to more promising topics such as interpretive dominance.  Future research will better integrate the study of both process and content and the most important studies will link cognition, behavior and organization outcomes.  And finally, information systems will play a more important role in facilitating, managing and measuring sensemaking and other organizational cognition processes (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p.293).


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