Responsibility and the self

A little Theory

I am thinking about responsibility and the self in modern management. (Background is an article which I promised to write this year based on client data, which is supposed to be part of a collection of articles dealing with the role of responsibility and management). An opportunity to put some thoughts into writing that I’ve had for the longest time – some 15 years or so … consider the following graph with four different scenarios related to two dimensions –

  • the degree to which the self is dominated by internal/external events and expectations (vertical axis)
  • the degree to which the expression of the self is dominated by (the availability of) technology

This coordinate system allows us to distinguish four different scenarios:

  1. Self improvement: an extension of the self through education, acquiring skills. Emphasis is on improving the individual self – often in response to family and/or societal pressure (class). Low degree of self-determination. Drives educational industry. Responsibility is felt towards family or society.
  2. Self congruence: congruence of inner and outer persona in the sense of authentic behavior and self. Emphasis is on self-reflection and self-interventions. Relationships with professional helpers (e.g. coaches). Responsibility is felt towards different aspects of oneself.
  3. Self extension: extentsion of self facilitated by computer technology. Seemingly limitless availability, independence of time and place, split-off electronic identities both online (avatars) and offline (blog, newsgroup). Participation in communities of practice or interest (SIGs). Responsibility is felt towards a group.
  4. Self reliance: ego-motivated virtualisation – the individual becomes the object of appliances. Resistance against state and industry interference is lowered, human relationships suffer and privacy is threatened. Little sense of responsibility.

I am not happy yet with the last quadrant (“self reliance”) yet – both the naming and the characterisation are pretty weak. In this scenario, the self disappears behind technology rather than being enhanced by it.

My research proposition: we are moving from a time of self improvement and congruence into one of self extension and reliance. This change is catalysed by new technologies. It also requires different coaching tools and practice than in the past. Both the scenario poles (improvement,congruence) and (extension,reliance) are opposites. Though the individual may oscillate between them.

Short Story

Consider myself: like most young people, I started out wanting to learn and improve myself – based mostly on the beliefs and dreams of my father, mother and those people we adopt in the course of a life (in school, from books etc.) as role models.

I took this path with so much vigour and conviction that, once it had brought me relative success, I experienced the gap between my “improved” persona and my original self as painful: the latter had, in some important respects, not caught up with the former! This is partly how I got into coaching and therapy (first for myself). I was now trying to become more congruent.

All the while, I loved the web and computers and new technologies. To some extent they were part of my self improvement programme, but for the larger part they were a conduit for the extension of myself to participate in groups anywhere in the world, build things, dream with others, and so on – and the use of these tools also improved my communication skills. I was extending my self beyond its original form (limited by my body). I find traces of this former self even today on the web – here is an example: my user page in 1995 which miraculously was never erased on the DESY server. It is as if I someone grows additional hands, uses them, and then leaves them laying around somewhere. Kind of a gruesome thought! (Question: how is this different from a diary? Answer: nobody interacts with your diary!)

At times, technology would not be a channel towards others but an excuse for me to completely withdraw from others – this happened when I was 15 and I had my first Texas Instruments home computer, and it happened in the early 90s when we were building the WWW, and it happens now, too! Today’s information technology has the potential to make us believe that we need nobody. That we are self-reliant. I then have to bring myself back on the path of communication (or others do that – family and friends).

Next steps

Wrap these scenarios in four different short stories, which I will present to my manager test group together with questions on how they see themselves relative to them. It will be hard not to describe the “self reliance” scenario as quite impoverished – though it is a realistic, possible choice for the self. See Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on the topic. Isn’t this is also the Great American Virtue: need nobody? The scenarios will highlight which managerial (and personal) choices are open to people behaving accordingly. The fact that all managerial choices are personal choices might also be worth looking at.

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