Gumption, Discipline, Withitness and Career Development
Dave E. Redekopp
Life-Role Development Group Limited
Thank you very much for having me. As I was walking out the door this morning, my wife Cathy asked me to remind her what I was speaking about. I told her, and she said “Don’t keynote speakers usually talk about something on which they have some expertise?” I’ve since made a “note to self” to talk about something I know about next time!
Before you get too worried, let me assure you that the aim of this talk is to provoke some thought, not to be “correct” or “true.” I know most keynotes are designed to inspire (like yesterday’s keynote) or to work up some fun energy (like tomorrow’s talk will) or to inform, but mine is aimed at getting us all to ponder a few things. Consider it more of a sermon than a talk.
Now, just before I start, I need to point out a change in the title of the talk – in your program, only gumption and discipline are referred to. However, as I worked on these characteristics it became apparent that a couple of other things served as career development prerequisites. One is “honour” – doing things for the right reasons – and I won’t be talking about this today. The other is “withitness,” which you’ll see has been added to the title. As I see it, as we all travel down the yellow brick road toward Oz, we need the gumption the Cowardly Lion discovers, the withitness the Scare Crow so desires, the Discipline to be true to the heart the tin man covets, and the honour to do the right thing, exposing, as Dorothy does, fundamental truths in support of her friends.
Let me begin by telling you some of the things I’ve been seeing that led me to want to give a talk on gumption, discipline and withitness. Here are some gumption (or lack thereof) examples:
Enron, Worldcom, the federal sponsorship scandal and other instances in which accountability seems to have been abandoned have dominated the news in the last couple of years. These events could easily lead to a talk on ethics and accountability, but what I find interesting from a career development perspective is this question: What stopped people with reasonable ethical standards from “speaking truth to power” or just plain whistle-blowing? It seems to me that gumption is pivotal here. Integrity without the gumption to do something about it isn’t fully integrity, in my view.
I do a lot of work with policing organizations, and something I continuously hear from them is how they are called to resolve low-level conflicts. “My neighbour’s lawnmower is too loud” or “The dog next door is barking” are becoming increasingly common calls in a world in which accelerating high-risk calls are already keeping the police quite busy! What happened to the gumption required to go to one’s neighbour and say “The dog’s barking is really bothering me”? In the workplace, we see this with managers increasingly being asked to resolve employee workplace conflicts. Of course, the managers are losing gumption, too, so rather than coaching employees on how to resolve their own issues, they create over-arching policies so that they do not have to speak with anyone directly. The complaint “Jane’s perfume is overpowering” becomes a “No scent” policy.
Continuing on with policing but changing the topic to “discipline,” I have been seeing something that I bet you are seeing with your younger clients: The new generation of police officers want to move up the ranks or into speciality areas such as drug sections without “paying their dues” by putting in time on the street doing front-line policing. Now, at one level we all want that, but what I have been seeing is a real lack of recognition that learning one’s craft before moving on will truly help one perform well in the next position. It’s not just about greed or lack of impulse control; there really seems to be a blind spot to the need for practice, repetition, honing and refinement.
On the withitness front, I see countless examples of people who want to be designated as leaders in the workplace. Few of these individuals, however, turn their heads to look behind them to see if anyone is already following them! Many just do not seem to have the withitness to recognize the effects of their behaviour on others. Of course, if you do not possess withitness, you are the least likely person to figure out that you need withitness – this creates a very problematic loop!
Of course, I need to define my terms. I think you have a strong sense of what these three words mean, but allow me to give my perspective:
Gumption. “Gumption” has several traditional meanings, including initiative (“I’m working up the gumption to get started on that.”), courage (“It will take a lot of gumption to go talk to the boss about that.”) and common sense (“Anyone with a little gumption would know what to do.”). For this talk, I’m going to use gumption as a combination of courage and initiative. To me, taking initiative almost always requires a certain level of courage, and courage is meaningless without the action driven by initiative. I also believe that initiative is not a “one-shot” affair; it’s not just about getting something started. Sticking to something in the face of obstacles is also a manifestation of “gumption.” Those of you familiar with Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance will likely find this “gumption as stick-to-it-iveness” definition the most familiar. Here’s an excerpt:
I like the word “gumption” because it’s so homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn’t likely to reject anyone who comes along… I like it also because it describes exactly what happens to someone who connects with Quality. He gets filled with gumption…
A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what's up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption…
If you’re going to repair a motorcycle, an adequate supply of gumption is the first and most important tool. If you haven't got that you might as well gather up all the other tools and put them away, because they won’t do you any good… Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. (pp. 272-273)
At some poorly marked spot, however, this “sticktoitiveness” element of gumption becomes “discipline.” So let’s move to that definition.
Discipline. In this talk, “discipline” is shorthand for “self-discipline,” or the ability to control and direct oneself to do things that don’t come naturally; to impose some sort of order on one’s own actions. Most of us think of disciplined people as controlled, orderly and self-sacrificing, but I’d like to tease apart “controlled” from “self-sacrificing.” If your personality is, by nature, orderly, organized and anal-retentive, being organized requires no discipline! Discipline would be needed if you wanted to be sloppy, messy and disorganized. To me, the important part of discipline is overcoming one’s natural inclinations. This usually involves sacrificing short-term pleasure (i.e., impulse control) in the hopes of achieving long-term gain. For most of us, studying hard, practising an instrument or doing grunt jobs at work require discipline.
To paraphrase Wendy Fox and Jim Geekie, discipline is the thing that converts “wishes” into “reality.” We all have dreams and visions of better futures. Gumption starts us moving towards these, but it is discipline that keeps us moving in the direction we want to go. In their words, “gumption is pluck – discipline is making your time matter.”
You can see that “sticktoitiveness” – forcing oneself to carry on even though it’s not pleasurable to do so – is a big part of discipline. As I see it, the “discipline” part of “sticktoitiveness” takes over when one’s “gumption” starts to peter out.
Withitness. Jacob Kounin (1970) coined the term “withitness” when doing research on effective classroom management. Kounin found that successful teachers did not handle discipline problems much differently than unsuccessful teachers. He found that successful teachers prevented discipline problems much more effectively than unsuccessful teachers, however. One key attribute that allowed them to do so was “withitness,” or knowing what’s going on and who’s doing what at all times. Teachers with withitness have “eyes in the back of their heads.” For my purposes, “withitness” is that ability to be aware of one’s environment and one’s impact on it. People who are fully withit read social and emotional cues, check others’ responses to their behaviours, know what is going on in the world, and keep up with new ideas. They are sure enough about themselves that they can focus outward more than they focus inward.
Now, I can hear murmurs from the academics in the crowd that all I have done is use vague terms in place of more precise, more operational, and more scientific language. Well, you are right! I could be speaking in terms of self-efficacy and internal locus of control instead of gumption; impulse control and meta-cognitive strategies instead of discipline; and emotional intelligence and social intelligence instead of withitness. However, as I mentioned earlier, I’m hoping to be thought-provoking more than I’m hoping to be “correct,” and I think the vagueness of these terms helps provoke thought.
There are many reasons that society might benefit by having people with more gumption, discipline and withitness. Today, I want to focus on the career development concerns related to these three characteristics. The list of problems that can arise when these characteristics are missing in the workplace could be endless; I will focus on a few that I see as pivotal to career development success.
Recently, a CEO of a large organization was on a tour of various organizational sites. At one site, a heavy set gentleman on the front lines of this organization stepped forward to shake the CEO’s hand. The CEO, in a feeble attempt to be humorous, said “They’re certainly feeding you well here!” What would most of us do when offended in public by the most senior person in our organization, a person at least seven levels higher in the organizational hierarchy? I know I would have put on a small smile and waited for the discomfort I was feeling to pass. This individual shook the CEO’s hand and replied, “I find that remark quite offensive, sir” in a very calm and even voice tone. That’s gumption.
Not long ago, speaking truth to power was an enormously career-limiting move. Of course, it still can be career-threatening to do so, but I think things have changed sufficiently that this is now becoming a modern transferable skill. It can also be a make-or-break skill from a career development perspective: In an era of public accountability, organizations fall when corruption is not stopped. In a context of stiff competition, organizational leaders cannot afford having front-line information hidden from them. In an environment requiring constant adaptation, organizational leaders also cannot succeed if followers are the traditional “yes men” of the past. Recently, a number of organizations have collapsed or become severely damaged because of these problems – this is not helpful for any of their employees’ career development. If we’re in the think if the “information age” right now, one could argue that we’re moving into the “gumption age” as we speak.
Even if one’s organization survives and even thrives when truth is hidden from power, one’s own career likely suffers. The person who knows something is wrong and does nothing about it begins to learn what Martin Seligman called “learned helplessness.” The individual typically also becomes resentful and cynical, losing respect for and trust in organizational leaders. Finally, the sense of personal integrity the individual has is almost certainly going to erode as the disparity between what needs to be done and what he or she is doing widens.
“Power” is not the only group that needs to hear the truth. As I mentioned earlier, it seems people are increasingly reticent to state their needs to their peers. For those of you in the audience who used to teach assertiveness skills, “I” statements, and the like, I think I have good news for you: I see resurgence in sight! Organizational productivity is being directly damaged by individuals’ inability to speak directly and professionally with each other when offence is taken. No action is taken, resentment increases, cliques of “us and them” form, communication suffers, and so does the work.
The issue here is that “assertiveness training” isn’t enough. A certain level of gumption is needed before individuals will use the assertiveness skills they possess. I’ll examine later how this gumption might be developed.
“Speak truth to power” and “speak truth to others” might have as a prerequisite “speak truth to self.” It takes a good dose of gumption to have an honest look at oneself, seeing one’s shortfalls and recognizing one’s errors as they are made. Even more gumption is required to own up to those errors and take responsibility for them. Few abilities, however, will help an individual more with career development than these two: self-initiation and self-analysis. Given more time, I could make the argument that self-initiation and self-analysis are the two most useful career development skill sets. For now, let me illustrate their importance with a couple of stories.
First, here’s a story about self-initiation – a story most of you have lived out: Recently, I was facilitating a workshop with a group of workers who were less than enthused about being there. One of them was particularly grumpy, so my co-facilitator sat down with him at a break to get a better sense of him. As they chatted, the person revealed that he wasn’t pleased with the organization and, without saying so, that he held a strong grudge against management. When my co-facilitator pushed the issue, he discovered that one of this person’s managers had denied him a training opportunity that he really wanted. My co-facilitator, being an empathic sort, said something like “I can understand how frustrating that can be, and how it might take the wind out of your sails.” Then he asked, “When did this happen, and what have you done about it since?” The fellow answered with “Six years ago. I haven’t done anything since. I’m still waiting for management to figure out they screwed up and that I should get this training.” Here’s an extreme example of the lack of self-initiation and the impact it has on career development! This fellow had become increasingly morose and unmotivated, and his skill levels hit a plateau six years ago.
Now, a self-analysis example: Not long ago, I was teaching a group of managers and was working with a co-facilitator whose expertise is diversity. I had not met this co-facilitator prior to working with her, so at breaks I spent some time chatting with her. At one point we got to talking about racism in the workplace, and she nonchalantly said “Of course we’re all racist, sexist, ageist, etc. How could it be otherwise? The real issue is figuring out how you’re racist, sexist, ageist, etc., and then deciding what to do about it.” It didn’t really hit me until later, but at some level this casual, off-the-cuff comment made by someone I’d just met caused me to re-examine my “isms” (which I thought I’d done away with!). For whatever reason, my usual “I’m not racist” reaction disappeared and I simply started asking questions of myself: “How am I racist?”, “How am I sexist?” etc. Most of you have probably figured this out already, but I must say it was quite a revelation for me. And, of course, the point is that this is simply better self-analysis than saying “I’m not racist.” And, with better self-analysis I have a far better chance of effective self-initiation.
“Speak truth to self,” or self-analysis, and then doing something about it, or self-initiation, requires gumption. They both also require withitness, which I’ll address later.
Related to self-initiation is the ability to risk failure. From a career development point of view, the logic seems pretty clear: One’s career will not move forward without learning new things; one will not learn new things without trying new things; one will not try new things of one will not take risks; one will not take risks if one has no gumption.
On the news a month or two ago was a report on an editor of an American news publication, a publication that took a pro-Democrat stance. This editor had written a host of pieces railing against America’s instigation of war on Iraq. Then, one day, he wrote a piece entitled something like “What if Bush is Right?”. He described a world in which Iraq had become democratic, causing a cascade of democratic reforms throughout the Middle East, ending with resolution of disputes between Israel and Palestine. He asked readers to look at these potential outcomes and consider the possibility that an enormous amount of world-changing good could come out of the war on Iraq. Needless to say, his Democratic readership was not amused. He received hate mail and threatening phone calls, and many readers cancelled their subscriptions.
What this fellow had done was step out of a collectively constructed box of interlocking beliefs that constitute “Democrat” or “left leaning.” In questioning one possible belief, people concluded that he had rejected all beliefs within the box and therefore was now “against us” (George W. Bush’s speech declaring “they’re either with us or they’re with the terrorists” makes effective use of this “box set” way of thinking).
Stepping out of the “group think” of one’s preferred group requires significant gumption. Hard feelings, alienation and downright rejection can ensue when one questions conventional wisdom. However, both innovation and reasonableness are derived from the ability to do this. Innovation is often defined as “thinking out of the box”: new perspectives and beliefs are typically required to generate breakthrough innovations. Reasonableness emerges from this ability because issues are seen from a variety of perspectives, not just the perspective of one’s conceptual box.
In a recent book, The One Thing You Need to Know, Marcus Buckingham argues that the key differentiating factor between continuously successful people and those who are not is the ability to stop doing what is neither their passion nor strength (Buckingham speaks in terms of “talent,” a combination of ability and desire). Successful people don’t just figure out what they’re good at and pursue that; they also actively jettison those activities that they do not enjoy and are not their strength. This ability to follow one’s heart, even when not doing so shows great promise, takes serious gumption. I’ll give you a quick example: In the RCMP, as in many organizations, there’s an assumption that one will seek promotions and move up the ranks. Many members of the RCMP do so, even though their heart is in police work, not supervising. A little while ago we were doing a leadership workshop with RCMP managers, and in the middle of the week one unhappy and out-of-shape administrative manager had a revelation. The revelation was that even though he could do the administrative managerial tasks required of him, and even though he made more money and would get a better pension if he kept moving upward, his real love was supervising and coaching front-line police officers. He went back to supervising front-line police officers after the course, and later reported his fitness had improved, his weight had dropped and his mood had changed dramatically. Choosing to be “demoted” takes gumption!
The first chapter of Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, is titled “Good is the Enemy of Great.” He argues that most of us are quite content with “good,” and we therefore do not strive for greatness. I think Collins is onto something here, but I think the pursuit of “great” is also impeded by gumption issues. Many workplace cultures discourage “great,” and it takes significant gumption to break through these cultures and achieve personal or professional excellence. I often hear of high performers being penalized by their colleagues for “working too hard,” “showing us up,” “setting unreachable standards” and “brown-nosing.”
Added to the continuous gumption-draining peer pressure to under-perform is the gumption challenge of risk-taking that is inherent to achieving greatness. Greatness cannot be achieved without taking risks, and all risk-taking requires gumption.
There are a host of other career development areas in which gumption is a factor, but let me stop here with the above set. I’ll review: Gumption is essential to:
It strikes me that these are important career development activities, and so it’s worth pursuing how gumption might be fostered. An issue, however, is that gumption alone can cause more problems than it solves. For example, speaking truth to power rudely or recklessly is, and probably should be, extremely career limiting! Taking initiative without thinking through the consequences is hardly desirable. Thinking out of the box is sometimes just a sign of stupidity, not non-conformity. Gumption needs to be tempered, and this is where discipline and withitness come into play. I’ll address withitness next.
Withitness seems to be such an obvious prerequisite or co-requisite to career development that you might not think it’s even worth addressing. I think it really needs an in-depth examination for two reasons: changes in the workplace demand withitness but, concurrently, many workplace cultures act against withitness, and I don’t think we practitioners know how to help our clients effectively develop withitness.
Let’s look at the workplace. We all know there has been a huge shift in the last couple of decades away from “command and control” management to a more inclusive, non-hierarchical and almost democratic approach to management. In the old model, workers did what they were told – no more and no less. Management did all the thinking, and workers “left their hats and their heads at the door.” Workers were told to not self-initiate, because doing so would likely mess up the grand plans of management. Workers who were “withit” were problematic, because they would respond to more stimuli than just the important one – their manager’s instructions. The assembly lines of Ford, GM and Chrysler served as the prototype for this approach.
In the new model, many hierarchical levels have been removed, decisions are pushed downwards to the front-line worker and employees are expected to contribute to the overall direction of the organization. Employees need to be “withit” because they are making important decisions that affect both day-to-day operations and the future of the organization. W.L. Gore, the makers of Gore-Tex (amongst other things), might exemplify this approach. There’s virtually no hierarchy (e.g., if you want to be a leader, you need to find people who are willing to follow you – there are no designated leaders) and people have enormous authority levels to make decisions about what to research and manufacture and how to research and manufacture. Toyota and Best Buy might also illustrate this type of organizational structure.
We may think that everyone’s figured this out and is operating in the latter mode, but let me ask you some questions that you can answer with a show of hands. I’d ask that business owners refrain from answering:
There are more questions I could ask, but I think this illustrates that there’s a huge range of organizational behaviour between “command and control” and “democratization” (or whatever we want to call the modern workplace). In between these two worlds, there are enormous contradictions at play. Some forces really encourage involvement, decision-making and, of course, withitness. At the same time, other forces demand compliance, acceptance of hierarchy, and “going numb from the neck up.” We still have a long way to go conceptually, emotionally and socially to move to a truly worker-involved workplace. If we didn’t, the Dilbert comic strip series wouldn’t be funny.
In the new work world, withitness is essential because the organization is relying on it. Organizational, departmental, team and worker success depends on workers knowing what’s going on and what to do about it. In the old work world, withitness is an impediment. Some workers with withitness get into trouble because, heaven forbid, they also have the gumption to act on what they know. Others become lethargic or fully depressed because they see what’s going on and know (or feel) that they can do nothing about it. Again, Seligman’s “learned helplessness” fits here. Still others suppress their own thoughts and feelings, going numb to avoid the pain (e.g., I was told by an addictions expert that in the 1980s, General Motors once raised the price of their cars for the sole purpose of funding internal substance-abuse programs). When both the old world and new world are mixed in one work environment (e.g., “You’re empowered unless you screw up,” “I’d like your input, unless I disagree”), it can be extremely confusing. Moreover, I think it can set people’s withitness back a notch or two.
This last thought brings me back to the other reason I think withitness is worthy of study: I’m not sure we have figured out how to help our clients develop withitness, nor do we fully understand how to help them deal with the withitness they do have in a mixed “old world – new world” workplace.
With that lengthy request to take this all seriously, let me point out some withitness problems.
I was once working with a group of consultants for a couple of days in a retreat setting. One of these consultants was somewhat of a Foghorn Leghorn character (the rooster from the Bugs Bunny show), and I happened to be having breakfast with him on the second day of the retreat. I’m not a morning person, so I was somewhat relieved that I didn’t need to generate conversation – this fellow had plenty to say, and I had to do little to trigger his thoughts. After a while, I realized that he seemed not to notice or care about my reactions to his opinions. I thought I’d test whether I was engaged in a conversation or listening to a soliloquy, and to do so I picked up the newspaper on the table, opened it, and held it above eye level as I began reading. To my amazement, the chatter from this fellow didn’t change! This event set the standard for a complete lack of withitness, in my view (as well as a new standard for rudeness on my part)! Not seeing the impact of one’s behaviour is rarely this extreme, but I regularly hear of instances of workplace withitness problems. Many of the problems are deficits in what Thorndike (1920) called “social intelligence” or Goleman (1995) called “emotional intelligence,” such as:
So many career development opportunities can be lost when the “behaviour-outcome” feedback loop is flawed. For example, colleagues and supervisors are inadvertently offended, one’s ideas are dismissed, and clients disappear for seemingly random reasons.
Perhaps the most important problem, however, is that people who cannot see the impact of their behaviour are unlikely to see themselves as true agents; origins of action rather than pawns that are moved by external forces. They do not connect their actions with consequences, therefore they do not see how things that happen to them are anything but random events of an unpredictable universe. They cannot connect what happens to them back to their own actions!
In the extreme case, people acting as pawns see themselves as workplace victims rather than as active co-creators of their workplace environments, and this is an enormous career development problem. Not seeing themselves as agents, these individuals do not take active control of their career paths or their learning. They do little to “manage up” because they don’t see themselves as having any power to do so.
One’s need for withitness extends beyond the impact of one’s own behaviour. Being oblivious to the politics of one’s work environment can cause huge career development problems, too. Not knowing “what’s going on” can cause problems ranging from putting one’s foot in one’s mouth to missing key opportunities. My business partner, Barrie Day, moved from Saskatchewan to Edmonton to work for the Alberta government. As he was beginning his tenure as Executive Director within the precursor to Alberta Human Resources and Employment, the Department’s Deputy Minister said, “Our Minister comes from the same area as you.” Barrie replied, “Oh, what church was he with?”! Now there’s a lack of withitness!
I get quite a few requests to help employees “manage up,” or manage their managers. I’m often amazed at how little these employees know about their manager’s roles, the expectations placed upon managers, the pressures on managers or the pressures on the organization as a whole. Much of “managing up” begins with developing withitness about these areas. For example, knowing what one’s manager’s manager expects from one’s manager is a critical starting point to “managing up.” Those who know what’s required for their manager to “win” have a far better chance of understanding what they need to do to “win” than those who don’t.
In a world of joint-ventures, supply-chain integration and partnerships, the same principles apply to having the withitness to understand the pressures affecting one’s partners, suppliers and others. An example: The first Porsche to leave the assembly line built right the first time, without needing repair in the quality control department, did so in July of 1994. Think about this for a moment: Porsche had been building cars since 1930 yet couldn’t get one built right until the 1990’s! What changed in 1994? Several things happened, but the pivotal change was the engineers were forced to develop withitness regarding the build-ability of their designs. Engineers’ offices were removed and the engineers were co-located on the shop floor where they could see the impossibility or at least great difficulty of putting together what they had designed. Another example: I haven’t found the study yet, but someone reliable was telling me that in an effort to reduce surgical errors, one intervention included ensuring that everyone in the operating room knew each others’ names. This simple “withitness” intervention apparently reduced surgical errors dramatically!
I could list more withitness issues here, but I think you get the point. Those not aware of self, their impact on others, their immediate environment and their manager’s world are going to experience some career development problems. Withitness alone, however, can be problematic. Withitness without the gumption to do anything about it or the discipline to see actions through can, as I said earlier, “learned helplessness.” This combination produces a person in pain, seeing all and feeling powerless to do anything about it.
Gumption and withitness will result in a person taking action within the context of the needs of self, colleagues, manager and the organization. This is terrific, but without discipline, the action won’t be sustained. We’ll see the one-shot hero, but we will not see follow-through. Discipline is required for sustained action.
As a reminder, please remember that I use “discipline” to mean overcoming one’s natural inclinations and immediate impulses.
Workplaces are becoming increasingly “pressurized.” Demands on workers are high, and the pressure to “do more with less” is not letting up. This relentless day-to-day pressure appears to be wearing away at individuals’ ability or willingness to remember that there is a future. People seem to be grabbing what they can today because they don’t have time or energy to think about what they want for tomorrow.
This pendulum swing away from “sacrifice today for tomorrow” of previous generations is not disastrous. I believe that the message to “focus on the journey” is an important one in a rapidly changing world. People need to find some meaning and enjoyment in today’s events, because we just don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
What worries me is that the future is being neglected not because of active choice, but because the whirlwind of today is as much as people can think about. And, when people do take a moment to think about the future, they seem to be doing so in stereotypical rather than personal ways. I hear lots of employees, for example, whose retirement plans sound identical to those of employees sitting beside them. They’ve got a future in mind, but it’s simply a socially accepted notion of the future. The dreams they have are more like somebody else’s movies rather than something self-produced and directed. It takes effort and discipline to craft a preferred future that is truly one’s own.
We’ve all heard stories from older generations about the sacrifices they made to get an education – walking to school barefoot on gravel roads for twenty miles, uphill both ways, carrying their injured horses! Then, they made sure they got a well-rounded education, going to university to learn their profession as well as Latin, history, philosophy and other core subjects. I’m not going to argue that we should go back to this type of self-sacrifice, but I will say that people seem to be less willing to take on difficult learning tasks. I have no hard evidence for this, so I’m hoping someone will stop me after this talk to tell me that more people are signing up for multivariate statistics courses than ever before, and that research design courses are packed to the hilt! From what I’m seeing, I doubt anyone will.
This isn’t just a “aren’t the youth of today lazy” tirade. In fact, the youth I know are far harder workers than my generation was. As I alluded to previously, I think something bigger is going on in which “focus on the journey” is a more achievable message in the workplace than is “follow your heart” over the long haul.
Related to the above, I’m also seeing people who want to move up the organizational ladder without doing the genuine developmental work that is required to move successfully. They want to lead, but have no followers; they want to have authority, but have insufficient knowledge; they want status, but have no earned credits; they want to see things from a broader perspective, but they don’t know the details. Now, I’m fully aware that many organizations still suffer their new people with meaningless “grunt” tasks to make them “pay their dues” and “build character.” Not too long ago I interviewed a young engineer whose firm wanted him to draw ½” pipe for a few years before he’d be allowed to work on more structural elements of a building! Policing organizations call this approach “junior man prove” – the most junior constable is the one stuck with character-building tasks such as cleaning the vomit from the back seat of the police vehicle. This approach to “dues” is not what I’m referring to.
By “dues,” I’m referring to doing the groundwork that truly enables one to move “up” from a solid base. For example, I believe that, everything else being equal, you increase your odds of managing a group of career counsellors well if you’ve seen hundreds of clients yourself rather than just dozens. The best leaders I see, whether in human services, police work, banking or whatever, are the ones who’ve “been there” and who have all the necessary leadership and management skills, too. The one’s with just the latter can do okay, but there lack of depth shows up at critical periods. For example, consider an airline pilot who’s successfully taken off and landed a few times compared to the one who’s done it many times under varying circumstances. They’ll probably behave identically 98% of the time, but during the critical times we’d all feel safer with the latter pilot.
In business, there are “just in case” models and “just in time” models. In a “just in case” business, for example, you make sure you have extra stock just in case something goes wrong with your supplier. In a “just in time” business, you order only the stock you need at the time, and just before that runs out, you re-order. “Just in time” makes much more sense than “just in case” for many businesses, but it may have no advantage from a career development perspective. The most obvious and painful example I see of this is that grating question I get from university students: “Is what you’re saying right now important?” What they’re asking, of course, is whether they should pay attention because what I’m talking about will be on the test (“just in time” learning) or because it just might be interesting and important (“just in case” learning). In career development, I think both “justs” are important, but what I’m seeing is a strong leaning to “just in time.” Part of this is due to the sheer expense of education nowadays – people better make sure they’re getting what they need out of it. However, part of it is a drifting away from seeing learning with a long view – how will this help me do what I want to do? Is this something that I should attend to, just in case my career takes me to a situation like it?
Closer to home, let’s take the career development competency framework that is being unveiled at this year’s BTT. If we all use that (or any other competency framework) and learn only what we need to just in time to meet whatever requirements are necessary, we’ll have done ourselves and our field a great disservice. One of the reasons I’ve loved working in the career development area all these years is the terrific diversity of backgrounds of people in the field. Because there were no “entrance requirements” into the field, we find career development people whose educational backgrounds range from anthropology to physical education to educational psychology to social work. The “just in case” information they have is overwhelming, and it brings a richness to the field that will be lost if we learn only what is need “just in time” to be certified. A competency framework sets out the minimum, and I think it’s enormously valuable to have minimum standards in place. However, when we start to think that competency frameworks set out all we need to know, we’ll be in deep trouble.
It takes effort to move beyond the minimum, and this is where discipline comes in. Years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, I was studying with a relatively new friend who was reading a textbook. He read for a little while, then got up to leave. I asked him where he was going, and he said “Down the hall to the library.” I asked why, and he said, “This text refers to such-and-such a theorist, so I’m going to get his book.” I asked, “What on earth for? You’re not going to be tested on anything outside of the textbook!” With a look of slight disdain, my friend said, “No, but I actually want to know this stuff.” That was one of the major “wakeup calls” I had as a student. This incident led me to ask “Why am I learning this? Is it just to get the grade? Do I think I’ll ever use this information again? Do I actually want to work in this area? If so, don’t I want to have a well-rounded view of things?”
The last few decades have seen people move away from externally imposed discipline toward a less structured, more fluid, “go with the flow” type of existence, wherever possible. The “let it all hang out” philosophy has questioned the authority of the church, the state, the military, the police – pretty much everything! This shucking of outside forces in exchange for autonomy and self-direction is a terrific evolutionary move, in my view, but I must say that it makes for really bad meetings, confused workplace relationships, and lousy accountability systems! When throwing out externally imposed structure, many folks also threw out all structure. Discipline has not been replaced with self-discipline, and this leads to problems.
Let’s take meetings as an example. In their hesitance to impose structure on others, people call meetings that have no agenda, no end time, and no real reason why certain people were invited and others were not. The meetings degenerate into random chats about whatever is topical, nothing is accomplished, people leave frustrated and no further action is taken. People then say “meetings are a waste of time.” Well, they needn’t be! A well-run meeting is where real work can happen, where the true innovation that arises only from synergistic ideas can occur. Discipline is required, however. In fact, sometimes serious discipline, as in learning and enforcing Robert’s Rules of Order, is needed for effectiveness to win out.
This may sound circular, but I believe people risk doing themselves a disservice because they don’t put values, or what’s important to them, ahead of interests, or what’s enjoyable for them. It sounds circular because it is: If discipline is about going against your natural impulses in the short-term so that there might be long-term gain, discipline is about putting values ahead of interests! I bring up this obvious point mostly because I think we need to re-attend to questions of value, importance and legacy with the people we work with, not just enjoyment, interests and “fit.” It’s always struck me as a little sad that so many working people think that they’re working just to have more money so they can buy more “toys.”
So you don’t think I’m just a whiner who complain but doesn’t offer any solutions, I’m going to move to talking about the development of gumption, withitness and discipline. Be forewarned, however, that I didn’t get very far in my musings on this. Developing these characteristics is more difficult than it might appear, particularly when dealing with adults.
Initially, I thought diagnostics were going to be quite important; determining exactly what component needs to be developed. I came up with a framework for a mini-Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Gumption Disorders (DSM-G, for short), one that’s quite a lot simpler than the DSM-4:
- Social gumption is Assertiveness; the lack thereof is Avoidance
- Conceptual gumption is Bold Mindedness; the lack thereof is Conventional Thinking
- Physical gumption is Courage; the lack thereof is Timidy
- Social withitness is Perceptive; the lack thereof is Obliviousness
- Conceptual withitness is Astute; the lack thereof is Dull
- Physical withitness is Reflexive; the lack thereof is Slow
- Social discipline is “Paying your Dues;” the lack thereof is Entitled
- Conceptual discipline is Rigour; the lack thereof is Sloppy
- Physical discipline is Stamina; the lack thereof is Lazy
This exercise, as you can see, quickly become pejorative and not particularly helpful, so I moved onto thinking about actual interventions that would be helpful.
I suspect most of you are aware of Martin Seligman’s work on “learned helplessness,” “learned optimism” and explanatory style. For those who aren’t, I’ll give a brief synopsis (with apologies to those of you who’ve spent the last decade or two studying his work). The basic premise is this: How you talk to yourself about successes and failures sets you up to be either optimistic or pessimistic about the future. Optimists believe the future will be better and that they have an ability to make it better. Pessimists believe the future will be worse and that there is nothing they can do about it. For example, say this talk goes really, really badly. If I’m an optimist, my self-talk afterwards would focus on specifics – the specific talk, the specific audience, and the specific event. I’d say to myself things like “That talk didn’t capture this specific audience of career development people” or “My delivery wasn’t up to my usual level this morning” or “This seems to have been a really bad day to talk about gumption” or all of the above. I’d narrow down the problem to the context, the time or my competence. If I was a pessimist, I’d generalize to all contexts, all times, and my whole character. My self-talk would sound something like this: “These people need all the information they can get and I still couldn’t tell them something useful,” or “I couldn’t give a talk to anyone on any topic,” or “I’m no good at talks; it’s just not in me to give them.” Now consider if this talk goes really, really well. If I’m an optimist, I now do what the pessimist does with failure – I generalize to all time, all contexts and my whole being. I’d walk out of here going “I’m so good at talks, I could give a talk on the uses of string that’s too short to use and people would be fascinated,” or “I’m just a great speech-giver,” or “I could give a talk to any audience and they’d be spell-bound.” On the other hand, if I was a pessimist, I’d make my success specific: “I sure lucked out that time – I picked the right topic for the right day,” or “I sure am lucky that career development people are so darn receptive,” or “It sure was fortunate that gumption is such a hot topic nowadays.”
Seligman argues that we’ve destroyed a lot of optimism via the self-esteem movement. By falsely praising kids and lifting their spirits, regardless of the quality of their behaviour, we have systematically removed their ability to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. They have been robbed of the ability to develop optimism. When things have gone wrong, we’ve said “That’s okay” rather than “How can you fix it?” or “How can you improve?” According to Seligman, later in life these children fall into defeatism when things go wrong because they have not had the chance to self-correct.
All of this is important because optimism is required for gumption. I won’t have gumption if I don’t believe that I can make a difference. Fortunately, Seligman has worked out a host of strategies for developing optimism. Many apply best to young children, which is not the clientele of most of you, but many work well with adults, too. Most of these involve teaching cognitive strategies to your clients, all with the aim of changing their explanatory style by which they account for success or failure.
I’m not going to describe Seligman’s interventions. You can look these up for yourself. I’d like to point out a failure of Seligman’s, and that’s his inability to appreciate the work of Carl Rogers. To me, Seligman helps with gumption but is weak on withitness. Rogers, on the other hand, is the master of developing withitness. We’ll see how shortly.
Most of the professional gumption I’ve developed came from mentors. I’ve had spectacular mentors, each of whom have done a number of things to develop gumption.
I’ll give you an example. My business partner, Barrie Day, used to be my manager. When I started working with him, I made it clear that I wasn’t interested in sales or speeches; I was an academic who wanted to teach, write and do research. He said “Fine, I’ll handle those things.” Some time later, Barrie was giving a speech. He came over to me and said, “You know, Dave, I’m giving this talk, and I can handle it alone, but there’s a piece in it where I may not be able to describe it as academically soundly as you could. I know you don’t want to give talks, and I’m not asking you, too, but I’m wondering if you could just cover off this 10 or 15 minutes of technical stuff.” My head swollen with being “academically sound” (whatever that means), I graciously accepted. My little piece went okay, even though I was very nervous. A couple of months later, Barrie was giving another talk. This time, he explained that he was again going over some technical areas in which I had great expertise, but that this time it comprised about half of the presentation. I consented (in order to preserve “academic soundness,” don’t you know), and we shared a talk at a conference. Later, another talk came up, Barrie went through the same spiel, and I agreed. This time, however, it was at a national conference. Barrie and I were late for the talk (Barrie had organized a meeting just before it), and as we ran into the already-full room, Barrie whispered to me, “By the way, did I tell you that I have to leave you in half-an-hour? I’ve got a meeting booked that I can’t get out of.” I wasn’t about to yell at him with 80 people watching, so he started the talk, and then proceeded to cut a swath through everything I was going to say! Then, he left. I survived the talk. In fact, I had a lot of fun finishing up an hour’s worth of content extemporaneously! I’ve since given many talks, usually jumping at the opportunity to do so.
What did Barrie and my other mentors do? First, they’ve led by example. My mentors have made bold moves, taken personal and professional risks, put their ethics and values ahead of their own personal needs, and I’ve seen that each has not only survived, but thrived in doing so. Second, they “primed” my gumption. Each mentor has nudged me to take on things that I didn’t think I could handle. In doing so, they started a flow of gumption going that I could carry on after a little while. Third, they minimized my risks. Although they pushed me to do things that stretched my capacity, they also made it clear that they were there for the long haul. They didn’t abandon me when things went wrong – they stuck around to either take the hits aimed at me or to help me clean up the mess. My risk-taking was therefore graduated and learned developmentally. Finally, mentors helped me process the outcomes of my gumption. What were the potential risks? What actually happened? How resourceful were you?
Have you ever noticed that typically timid, shy and quiet moms can be all full of gumption if someone messes with their kids? Or that reserved, quiet individuals can all of a sudden start barking out orders to people in an emergency? Or that people who usually don’t put great stock in looking after their neighbourhoods will work up the energy to ensure their place of worship is pristine and beautiful? It seems gumption can be enhanced by helping people attach themselves to something outside of themselves – something bigger, more profound, more enduring. At the broadest level, this becomes a “calling” or purpose or meaning in life. Things don’t need to get this grandiose to get gumption going, though. We career practitioners already do some extremely important things to encourage this. We have clients identify the values they live for, the important elements of life that form the bedrock of their choices. When we help clients clearly see the values that are bigger than they are, like truth, justice, nature, health, we enable them to develop the gumption they need to move forward.
I saw a terrific play a couple of weeks ago called “Summer of My Amazing Luck.” The play is based on Miriam Toew’s book of the same name. It’s about a young welfare mom who lives with a number of other welfare moms in subsidized housing in Winnipeg. At some point, two of the moms decide to go on a little adventure, a road trip that could cause them to lose their welfare status. In preparation, the one mom says to the other, “Come on, we’re going to a party!” The other mom is reluctant and eventually asks why the party is so important to her. I’ll paraphrase her response: “We need courage to go do what we’re going to do. But our courage levels are low, and they’re low because our fun levels are low. If we want to get our courage levels up, we need to get our fun levels up!” Now, if you think about this for a moment, you’ll see there’s more to this causal link than meets the eye. It is easier to engage in the risks of the world if one already has some engagement with the world. Rather than starting from a standstill, the person with high “fun levels” has momentum that will support acts of gumption. The buoyancy that fun brings holds up courage, as well (and, unfortunately, sometimes to bravado, where you see groups of people doing things they would never do, or shouldn’t do, alone).
If this makes sense, the obvious next question is “How do we raise the fun levels of our clients”? In group counselling/teaching settings, the answer is straightforward – include ice-breakers, energizers and other fun activities as part of the facilitation. In one-to-one settings, raising fun levels seems a little trickier. If I was more disciplined, I would have started doing something about this sooner and phoned Emily Sylvester or re-read her book A Book of Surprises: Games, Stories & Magic for Career Practitioners to find out more about how to do this.
If Seligman is the quintessential gumption developer, Carl Rogers is the consummate withitness coach. Rogers’ work is all about helping people develop awareness, particularly awareness of their internal thoughts, feelings and inclinations within the context of what is going on externally. Rogers’ work complements Seligman’s extremely well: Where Seligman teaches you how to overcome and change your beliefs, Rogers teaches you how to uncover the very basis of your beliefs, attitudes and feelings; the ground on which they are built. Rogers figured out that true withitness starts with getting rid of, or at least identifying, all the emotional and conceptual filters through which we gather and, of course, distort information. Now, we likely don’t all have the luxury of engaging in Rogerian counselling with all of our clients, but here’s what we can do:
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years co-teaching with a number of people who are jocks, ex-jocks and/or coaches of jocks. I am not a jock: I exercised once, but it didn’t really work out. I didn’t grow up with that sports camaraderie that some of my friends experienced in their hockey, baseball, football or other teams. And, I must admit I didn’t feel like I was missing much – I like chasing a ball or a puck as much as the next person (or spaniel), but it sure wasn’t about to take over my life. The more I listen to my jock colleagues, though, the more I’m realizing that the game is quite incidental to the real dynamics at hand. The real dynamics, such as figuring out how to get along, share, collaborate, identify one’s strengths, appreciate others’ strengths, admit one’s weaknesses, combine assets, forgive error, innovate and improve, are almost entirely independent of the type of game being played. Notice that this list of dynamics is almost all about withitness: Playing on teams is all about paying attention to cues outside of oneself; paying attention to team mates and reading the opponents.
I believe similar withitness development takes place when learning drama, particularly improvisation. Improvisation is all about letting go of one’s own agenda, paying attention instead to what the other actors are doing and how the audience is responding. Improv might be the ultimate withitness intervention!
Again, the question that emerges is “How do we do this in our career development work?”, and the answer isn’t obvious when it comes to one-to-one interventions.
Feedback, or information about behaviours and their outcomes, is a critical withitness developer. In my view, most of our clients don’t get good feedback in school, at home or at work. They sometimes get judgment (e.g., “You’re lazy” or “You’re a hard worker”), but they rarely get information. For example, consider a staff meeting in which an employee is somewhat disruptive – they don’t seem to be paying attention, they start side conversations and they roll their eyes at various suggestions made by colleagues. Rather than a manager pulling the person aside after the meeting and saying “You were really disruptive – shape up,” it would be far more useful from a withitness perspective to say “I saw you create side conversations when topics X and Y were being discussed. After you did so, the person you were talking with asked a number of questions about items that had already been talked about, but they’d missed the information. I also noticed two of your colleagues looking at you talking rather than at the person speaking.” Notice that there’s no judgment here, there’s just information. Then, some coaching could take place: “Are these the effects you wanted? How might you voice your opinion without creating a side conversation? How might you better see the effects of your behaviour at the next meeting?”
Judgment typically creates defensiveness, and defensiveness stops one from seeing things as they are – all information is filtered through a wall of emotion. Descriptive feedback doesn’t create defensiveness. Unfortunately, it is almost non-existent in life, learning or work.
My daughter had the great privilege of attending a pre-school run by a brilliant teacher, Heather Craig. One of the first things she learned at this pre-school was the idea of pattern – not mathematical pattern, but behavioural pattern. The day started by playing outside; boots came off when she came inside; coats were hung up when she got into the classroom; she then sat on the carpet to get ready for a story… the whole day was structured in a predictable, patterned way, and yet built into that pattern was room for immense creativity and freedom.
In our reluctance to be too formal, we’ve moved away from pattern in the last couple of decades. We think pattern stifles our freedom. The paradox is that pattern often actually frees us up to be more creative. Our energy can go into creativity rather than into figuring out what we should do next. To me, pattern is the beginning of self-discipline. Although pattern is externally imposed, it models what is achievable when impulses are set aside for a moment for the sake of a greater order.
Pattern is something easily established in our employment, life skills and other career-related programs, and it’s really easily established at work.
I co-teach with a fellow, Bud Bechdholt, who used to be the Detachment Commander for Nanaimo Detachment. When he took over the Detachment, it had some troubles and needed some fixing here and there. Immediately, however, Bud started sending a message to his people – “Nanaimo will be the best Detachment in the RCMP.” A slightly different message was given to people transferring into Nanaimo from other Detachments. Bud would meet them with the greeting “Welcome to the best Detachment in the RCMP.” Of course, they weren’t the best, and even deciding what “best” means could have kept a committee in Ottawa busy for years! What Bud was trying to do had nothing to do with what was true; what he was doing was tapping into people’s pride in who they are and what they do. Soon, Nanaimo Detachment started improving – members would ask themselves “Is what I’m doing right now worthy of being called the ‘best’?” Not too long thereafter, Nanaimo Detachment did become one of the best Detachments. There were other things going on, of course, but the centrepiece was the high expectation that was just taken as a given.
The phrase “People don’t rise to low expectations” sums up what I need to say here. Our clients want us and need us to think highly of them and their potential. There’s a great phrase I’ve learned from my colleague Don MacInnis: “If I see you as you are, I encourage you to be less than you can be; If I see you as you can be, I encourage you to become more than you are.” High expectations get people’s gumption going, and once their gumption is going, they see the value of discipline in meeting the unwavering standards set out in front of them. People want to do well, and sometimes all they need as their wake-up call is the challenge that they can.
I’d like to conclude by reiterating what I see to be some of the important career development outcomes of having gumption, discipline and withitness. With gumption comes a host of events – self-initiation, risk-taking, moving out of one’s comfort zone, learning and “stretching.” Each of these on their own can simply be one-off sparks that quickly peter out, but add discipline and they become flames of consistent action to improve, grow and innovate. Without withitness, though, all the good things that might be done with gumption and discipline might be lost and ignored because they were not done with the right context in mind. Add withitness, and this sustained action is then happening in ways that are collaborative, in tune with one’s surroundings, relevant and accepted. It strikes me that people who have this three-legged base are at a distinct career development advantage over those who do not. Add “honour” to the mix, and we’d have both unstoppable and sustainable career development on the go. On their journey toward Oz, the Cowardly Lion, Scare Crow and Tin Man end up developing the very attributes they’re seeking. With some effort, perhaps we can help our clients do the same. Thank you very much.
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