Why Do So Many People in the Workplace Still Believe that Self-Development is Therapy?

Beliefs are powerful things. They persist even in the face of evidence – even in the light of experience.

The world of business – that is, the world of commerce,  is still largely under the impression that feelings have no place in the workplace. In light of what we now know from a wealth of neuroscience – that’s just dead wrong.
Few people still deny the existence of psychology, or that human dynamics are the workplace. But too many people still hold the common assumption that self-development, that is – self-growth – is frivolous, a luxury, unnecessary, unproductive, unprofitable, impossible and  inappropriate in the workplace.  These days most people would say that change in the workplace is not only inevitable – but essential for growth and survival.  Too many people still hold the unhelpful and untrue belief that people don’t want to change, don’t need to change or are immune to changeWhy is that?  Why is it that we still haven’t made the link between personal and organizational development?

In their excellent book, Immunity to Change, co-authors, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey point out that recent research has completely altered what we now know about adult development,. “When we began our work, thirty years ago, the accepted picture of mental development was akin to physical development – your growth was thought to end by your twenties.”  The growth of the field of neuroscience has made a major contribution to redefining our understanding of mental complexity and the lifelong potential for cognitive development. Learning does not stop in young adulthood –  it is continuous.  Recent science has also affirmed that cognition and emotion are inseparable – providing ample evidence for us to surrender the false idea that our feelings are less important than our intellect or can be compartmentalized. In fact, authors Kegan and Lahey point out that organizations are “incredibly impeded by the covert dynamics that are never acknowledged around the emotional life of the organization. In order to really alter the dynamics of an organization, you’ve got to get that stuff out on the table, or it’s going to block you all the way.”

What Keeps the Myths Going?

Change is rarely easy, but it is possible. Our “immunity to change” is built on old beliefs that are constructed for self-protection.  We deny, delay and resist change as a way to minimize the anxiety of life’s inevitable uncertainties.  Avoidance is part of the brain’s structural defense against threat. Unless we use our cognitive abilities to consciously acknowledge and explore our resistance, our neural hardware continues to harden and thwart attempts to change.

Some common inhibitors to change include:

  • Beliefs – the power of personal and collective beliefs can’t be overemphasized.  Unraveling the knots of our beliefs can be one of the most illuminating and freeing actions we can take towards change. Beliefs drive behavior, that’s why they are the starting point for change.  
  • The Perception that Self-Development is Weakness – this is still a common belief in this culture, especially within the workplace.  We tend to seek power (the perceived antidote to weakness) in externals and deride those who seek internal knowledge.
  • Lack of Self-Awareness – the key to change (what do you want to change and why?)  is dependent upon your level of self-awareness. Immunity to Change authors, Kegan and Lahey, refer to the “blindspots” that keep us from even seeing what needs to be changed.
  • Fear of Change – we hear this term all the time. Unless we understand what it is we fear – it’s of little value to say fear is blocking our change. Most of the time what we fear is an illusory loss of control of the unknown.  We don’t know and can’t know the unknown so we believe that if we stick with what we know, we’ll be safe. 
  • Unwillingness to Feel our Vulnerability –   Attempts at self-protection often mean we create strategies to avoid experiencing the natural human feelings of vulnerability.  So one strategy (usually subconscious) is to avoid anything that feels like change.  Because we live in a results oriented culture, allowing a temporary sense of loss of direction that is part of feeling vulnerable, feels unacceptable.
  • Stigma – Despite all of our “progress” there is still a stigma attached to seeking outside help (even coaching).  It can still feel like a weakness to many people. Too many of us still can’t admit we don’t have all the answers, even if we are having difficulties and need support and new information.
  •  Lack of Skills or the Language for Change – Most of us haven’t had the training or exposure to the skills necessary to initiate and implement change in our lives.  Many people, even those leading change in organizations, still don’t understand the fundamentals of human dynamics.   People still talk about wanting to “just change behavior” without a basic understanding that how we act isn’t a separate function from what we think and feel. They are completely integrated processes.

Our anti-change narratives take many forms. If we listen closely to our self-talk (or our self-talk reinforcing itself to others) it can go like this:

“I’m not ready. I’ve got to get certain things in order before I can take that on.”

“This will never work.” Or “I’ve tried this before and it didn’t work.”

“I don’t want to rock the boat right now.”

“I can’t risk that kind of upheaval in my life now.”

“I don’t want to open up a can of worms.”


Peter Drucker, a “father” of modern management stated that, “the basic assumptions underlying much of what is taught and practiced in the name of modern management are hopelessly outdated and wrong.”   The complexity of business today demands that workers have a greater command of their mental complexity.  Performance based solely on past bottom line results is a limited model on which to run global business and achieve more meaningful work.  Unless people and organizations begin to embrace the idea that self-development is organization development, our advances will be confined to the remedial.  Building our emotional competencies, expanding  positive capacities like resiliency, optimism and trust are the essence of self-development.

In the words of authors Lisa Lahey and Robert Kegan, There is no expiration date on your ability to grow. No matter how old you are, the story of your own development – and the stories of those around you — can continue to unfold.”

Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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