An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization

Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey

308 pages, Harvard Business Review Press, 2016

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Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, coauthors of Immunity to Change and How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, have been research and practice collaborators for thirty years. In their new book, An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, they, along with Matthew L. Miller, Andy Fleming, and Deborah Helsing, provide a new model that they argue can help organizations develop the potential of their employees. An Everyone Culture examines the design principles of three leading companies that embody this approach—companies the authors call Deliberately Developmental Organizations (DDOs)—all of which operate under the conviction that organizations are most likely to prosper when they are deeply aligned with one of their workers’ strongest motives: to grow.

In an ordinary organization, most people are doing a second job no one is paying them for. In businesses large and small; in government agencies, schools, and hospitals; in for-profits and nonprofits, and in any country in the world, most people are spending time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other people’s impressions of them, showing themselves to their best advantage, playing politics, hiding their inadequacies, hiding their uncertainties, hiding their limitations.

We regard this as the single biggest loss of resources that organizations suffer every day. Is anything more valuable to a company than the way its people spend their energies? The total cost of this waste is simple to state and staggering to contemplate: It prevents organizations, and the people who work in them, from reaching their full potential.

Consider it from the employer’s point of view. Imagine you’re paying a full-time wage for part-time work to every employee, every day. Even worse, consider that when people are hiding their weaknesses they have less chance to overcome them, so you must continue to pay the cost of these limitations as well—every day.

Consider the second job from the employee’s point of view. What does it cost you to live a double life at work, every day, knowing you’re not the person you present yourself to be? As human beings we’re set up to protect ourselves—but it is just as true that we’re set up to grow psychologically, to evolve, to develop. In fact, research shows that the single biggest cause of work burnout is not work overload, but working too long without experiencing your own personal development. Now consider the drag or cap on personal development we create by hiding our weaknesses rather than having a regular opportunity to overcome them.

In an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, organizations naturally need to expect more, and not less, of themselves and the people who work for them. But our familiar organizational design fails to match that need.

How did we come to this observation about everyone in the ordinary organization doing a second job? Was it by staring hard at the ordinary organization? No. When you’re staring very hard at the normal organization, it’s hard to see anything but normal.

Normal began to look strange to us only after we stared hard at organizations where no one is doing the second job. These organizations include Decurion, a real estate company that owns the ArcLight Hollywood movie theater; Next Jump, an e-commerce tech company; and hedge-fund investor Bridgewater. Different as these companies are, they share a striking commonality: They have created a safe enough and demanding enough culture that everyone comes out of hiding. This is what we call the deliberately developmental organization: the DDO.

The Deliberately Developmental Organization

There’s no single right way to be a DDO—no simple recipe of programs, policies, incentives, and perks—but there are deep assumptions that run through all the DDOs: assumptions about the possibility and value of growing in adulthood, ways of structuring people’s growth directly in their work, ways of helping people get the most out of giving and receiving feedback and coaching, ways of making people development and business development all one thing.

But in each of the DDOs we studied, we saw a seamless integration of two pursuits as if they were a single goal: business excellence and the growth of people into more capable versions of themselves through the work of the business. Each company has its own approach, but, interestingly, what each emphasizes can be found in the others as well. Next Jump’s culture puts helping others explicitly at the forefront, including the central importance of coaching as a way to grow while serving others. Decurion builds the strength of next-generation learning communities (really, development communities) as a way to create conditions for people to both grow as individuals and seize business opportunities fully. Bridgewater stands for the pursuit of what is true, no matter how inconvenient, both as a business necessity in the financial markets and as a path for personal evolution and cultural integrity.

There are striking differences in the “feel” and operation of each company. If Bridgewater Associates might be glibly characterized as a cross between business and the Navy SEALs, then The Decurion Corporation might be seen as a cross between business and the wisdom traditions of the East and the West. Next Jump Inc., has a “no firing” policy and an explicit commitment to stand by employees through thick and thin (“You wouldn’t fire your children from your family,” Charlie Kim, its leader, often says). But Bridgewater is equally explicit in saying, “We are up to growing people, not rehabilitating them; some people have to go.” In thinking about its operations, Bridgewater makes continuous use of the metaphor of the machine, an analogy you would never hear at Decurion. Next Jump is in some ways proudly nonexceptionalist (the two top leaders talk about not being the stars growing up in their own families or schools); Bridgewater’s leaders believe you become a one-in-ten-thousand company by hiring one-in-ten-thousand-type people.

Hedge fund managers, movie theater operators, and software engineers would probably not be most people’s first idea of who might be interested in self-reflection and working on one’s weaknesses. But at Bridgewater, Decurion, and Next Jump, respectively, people told us a version of the same thing: “Every day I get up and 
I am absolutely clear what I am working on—myself.” These are not psychotherapists or priests. They are not New Age professionals working at the Esalen Institute. They are investors, theater managers, techies—and very good ones, by the way, constantly sought after by the leading, conventional competitors in their sector.

A 21st-Century Design for Development

“What is the most powerful way to develop the capabilities of people at work?” Executive coaching, high-potential programs, mentoring, corporate universities, off-sites, retreats, and leadership development programs may sound like widely varying approaches, but they actually share enough common (and problematic) features to be seen as a single, twentieth-century answer to the way we might best develop human capabilities. What are the features common to these approaches? First, they give people punctuated inputs, delivered from time to time rather than continuously. By themselves they may not occur often or intensely enough. Given how daunting the project is to help people grow in fundamental ways, the application of the intervention may be too thin.

Second, they constitute “something extra”—something beyond and outside the normal flow of work, an approach that raises the vexing problems of transfer and cost. Even if these activities support powerful learning in a context outside work, how do you ensure that employees transfer their new knowledge to the stubbornly durable context of business as usual? And how do you sustain the double costs of external inputs and employees’ time away from the job?

Third, these types of programs are provided only for a few, generally for the 5 to 10 percent of employees who are designated “high potentials” (to say nothing of the way such a label indirectly writes off the potential of 90 to 95 percent of your workers).

Finally, and above all, notice that the twentieth-century answer to developing potential, in all cases, makes the individual and not the organization the point of dynamic entry. If the organization wants to significantly impact people’s capabilities, it should apparently find something new, outside the organization itself, some additive: give them a coach, a program, a course, a mentor. The organization itself does not change. We might soup up the fuel through these additives, but the engine remains what it has always been.

What is the alternative? Imagine so valuing the importance of developing people’s capabilities that you design a culture that itself immersively sweeps every member of the organization into an ongoing developmental journey in the course of working every day. Imagine finding yourself in a trustworthy environment, one that tolerates—even prefers—making your weaknesses public so that your colleagues can support you in the process of overcoming them. Imagine recapturing the full-time energies of your employees now joined to the mission of the enterprise.

You’re imagining an organization that, through its culture, is an incubator or accelerator of people’s growth: a deliberately developmental organization.

The Rise of the New Incomes

We live in unprecedented times. Gone are the days when payoffs to Economic Man alone—to the material self, to greater agency in the external world—were enough. In those days, conventional incomes—such as paychecks, health benefits, and limits to the hours in a workweek—sufficed.

Now we’re seeing the pursuit of new incomes: personal satisfaction, meaningfulness, and happiness. These are payoffs to the Psychological Person, to the intangible self, to fulfillment in the interior world. Paychecks, bonuses, and benefits will always matter, of course, but, increasingly, they’re not enough for many of us. The rise of the new incomes may represent the biggest shift in the work-reward equation since the emergence of the labor movement in the nineteenth century. That whole countries, and even the United Nations, are now exploring the development of measures like GNH (gross national happiness, a qualitatively different way of measuring success) as well as GNP is evidence of the robustness of the new incomes.

But what is happiness? The definition most in vogue, fueled by the positive psychology movement, is one of happiness as a state, characterized by pleasure; a banishing of pain, suffering, and boredom; a sense of engagement and meaning through the experience of positive emotions and resilience. This is the dominant version of the new incomes sought and paid in the most widely celebrated “great places to work.” Think of flexible work hours, pool tables and dart boards, dining areas run by chefs serving fabulous and nutritious food at all hours, frequent talks by visiting thought leaders, spaces for naps, unlimited vacation time.

However, the research literature on happiness suggests another definition, one that is overlapping but significantly different. The second definition sees happiness as a process of human flourishing. This definition, whose roots go back to Aristotle and the Greeks’ concept of eudemonia, includes an experience of meaning and engagement but in relation to the satisfactions of experiencing one’s own growth and unfolding, becoming more of the person one was meant to be, bringing more of oneself into the world.

It is far too soon to settle, in the reorganization of work, for what amounts to experiments confined to a single conception of happiness. As an experiment in new ways to organize work, the workplace built for flourishing stands shoulder to shoulder with the workplace built for well-being. These workplaces may one day marry, or they may not, but they should be mutually supporting, each taking an interest in and cheering for the other as together they lead a common movement to repay, with a new income, the gift of our labor.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted and adapted from An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. Copyright 2016 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved.