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Wanted: A Unified Development Theory

November 13th, 2014

Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo demonstrated 25 years ago that competencies are important to managerial and executive success.  Further, that what matters most is learning agility, the ability and willingness to continually learn from first time experiences and apply those lessons across one’s career.


Carl Jung, spiriting through Elizabeth Myers-Briggs, makes the case that personality is the invisible agent behind observable behavior. Myers-Briggs speaks of Personality TYPE., not to be confused with Personality TRAITS postulated by Gordon Allport and H. S. Odbert which are supported by an equal amount of normative data and contemporized by Pierce Howard, among many others.


Dan Goleman makes the case that emotional intelligence (EQ) or the self-regulation of our emotions, is the secret to success, especially at the executive level.  And David Rock is helping us to understand that the internal battle between our neo cortex (thinking) and our limbic system (emotion) is the root cause for why self-regulation can be such a struggle.


Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey extend the work of Piaget into a theory of social-emotional maturity wherein we move through stages of development across our careers from self-absorbed indulgence to social dependence to mature independence to rarified intradependence.  It is not much of leap to see EQ as learning to play well together in the Mature Independence stage.


Elliott Jacques’ fifty years of research kept alive by Stephen Clement and others proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that judgment, the ability to master increasingly complex problems unique to each level of management is the sine-qua-non of executive success. Not IQ but experience-driven judgment based on complex mental models, meaning making and reflective thinking. Innovating business models, corporate and business unit strategies, defining corporate cultures, and optimizing organizational structures depends on this acquired wisdom.


Elliott Jaques took the additional stand that it is the absence of negative temperament, not positive behaviors that ensures success. His argument was that any number of competency combinations supports success.  A notion reinforced by Robert Hogan in his ‘dark side of behavior’, described as Neuroticism by the Trait psychologists and ‘derailers’ or negative competencies.


Each school of thought has normative proof of the veracity of the specific ‘lens’ through which they see the problem, supported by multi-million dollar consultancies and tens of thousands of industrial psychologists and executive coaches.


To whom should a CEO or Human Resource professional listen? Who’s right? Unfortunately they all are correct, but only if taken together.


Our behaviors don’t show up for work by themselves.  Nor do our brains, personalities or motivations.   WE show up for work everyday.  So do/does our:

  • Personality
  • Stage of emotional maturity
  • Stage of cognitive development
  • Ability to frame mental models of sufficient complexity to address the complexity of the problems we face
  • Personal experience histories
  • Level of work mastered
  • Inventory of effective and ineffective behaviors
  • Personal and professional aspirations
  • Hopes and fears
  • Presence / Stance
  • Physical condition


In other words, the whole person shows up.


Unfortunately some of these facets can be in perfect harmony with what is required in a role only to be sabotaged by one facet being completely inadequate. You can’t behave your way out of a bad strategy.  You can’t solve a complex problem that is over your head.   You can’t become great at what you are not motivated to achieve.  It is very difficult for most and impossible for many to consistently behave in a way that is contrary to your personality.


We tend to address the various personal aspects separately and thus, ineffectively.  Is it any wonder that talent management is frequently chided for its lack of individual successes or organizational impact?


We have no lack of empirical observation (some people succeed across their careers better than others) or normative data (some competencies, types, traits or stages of cognitive or social maturity are more correlated with executive success than others).  What we lack is a Unified Theory of Human Development.


Such a theory would weave together a more comprehensive understanding of the whole person supported by multi-dimensional assessment.  This theory would link observable behavior to our underlying personality preferences, as well as our understanding of the scope and scale of problems unique to each level of management linked to the levels of experience and cognitive capacity to solve for those problems.  Such a theory would move us from an episodic application of development to a serial, career-long alignment between what is required to succeed at each level of management and the pace of maturation in cognitive and social development.


Much of the criticism of talent management is the result of oversimplifying an essentially complex problem. We tend to engage in episodic, uncoupled interventions that neither link together over time nor address the unique development needs of each individual as they evolve and mature over time.  It is hard, if not impossible, to see significant personal growth or organizational impact from such scattered interventions.


Please share your thoughts and suggest any management theorists you believe are articulating a Unified Theory of Human Development.

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