“Understanding the Leader’s ‘Identity Mindtrap’: Personal Growth for the C-Suite” by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Zafer Gedeon Achi (McKinsey Quarterly, McKinsey & Company, 2020)
What are the big take-aways?
Followers of the Leadership Library may remember last year’s review of Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity by Jennifer Garvey Berger, in which she names five “shortcuts” that we have all naturally developed, to some extent, in order to move through our busy days in a complex world. These shortcuts serve us up to a point, and then they become limiting and get in our way as leaders if we do not commit to unlocking them by expanding our self-awareness. One of the shortcuts that can become a mindtrap is ego: “shackled to who you are now, you can’t reach for who you’ll be next.” (The other four mindtraps are: simple stories, rightness, agreement and control.) In this McKinsey Quarterly article, Berger and her colleague Zafer Achi rename the ego shortcut as the “identity mindtrap” and outline how vertical development (a.k.a. adult development) theories “offer us a map of the terrain where our growth potential plays out.”
Why do I like it?
First, the authors cite research that says “most of us tend to believe that we have changed a lot up to now but won’t change much in the years ahead. Yet we tend to express this belief at any point in our lives when we’re asked about it”! This is powerful information. It means we tend to attach ourselves to, and defend, the identity we have now instead of “growing into the person we might become next.” That is why it is a trap: we get stuck in certain patterns because we think that’s just who we are, when more than we imagine might be possible for us. The identity mindtrap often triggers the other four to kick in, as well, when we respond reactively to a perceived threat to our cherished idea of who we are.
Second, Berger and Achi provide an excellent mini-guide to the four stages of vertical development, called “forms of mind” in Robert Kegan’s framework. The forms of mind are sequential and cumulative phases of psychological growth, “much as a tree grows new rings. And like tree rings, our older ways of making sense of the world do not vanish but remain within us, where they may, occasionally and unbidden, shape our behavior.” The descriptions of what our sense-making thoughts and behaviors look like at the four forms of mind (i.e. self-sovereign, socialized, self-authored and self-transforming) are succinct but not oversimplified. They offer enough information about the key characteristics of each stage of development for you to create a working hypothesis of where you might be on the developmental spectrum, if you’re interested.
In what situations would this be useful?
The third reason why I like this article so much is that it culminates in “three questions to help you grow.” These three self-coaching questions are useful in any leadership situation, at home or at work or in any other dimension of life: (1) Why do I believe what I believe? This question encourages us look at the origins of some of the beliefs we have which we might be confusing for the truth. It asks us to examine the supporting evidence for our beliefs. (2) How could I be wrong? As a leadership coach, this question is a favorite of mine (for myself and for my clients)! It is meant to open us up to consider other possible ways of seeing the world and recognize that multiple truths can exist simultaneously. The authors comment that “[w]hen used in the right way, this question is a high-energy packet of developmental goodness.” Yes! And: (3) Who do I want to be next? “If we have a sense of this new person we are growing into, it will be easier to spot – and avoid – the identity mindtrap.”
What other resources might “pair” well with it?
While it focuses primarily on the mindtrap of “simple stories,” there is a wonderful interview of Jennifer Garvey Berger about the book Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps on Amiel Handelsman’s podcast, The Amiel Show. Jennifer Garvey Berger’s other leadership development books are Changing on the Job (which is what made me such a fan of hers, starting many years ago) and – my favorite – Simple Habits for Complex Times. For more about Kegan’s theory of adult development, I highly recommend Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in You and Your Organization by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (Harvard Business Press, 2009).