Friday, February 14, 2020

Of developmental advice and the nature of wisdom

This blog claims to be on ‘HR, OD and Personal Effectiveness’. However, there are only a few posts on this blog on personal effectiveness (like ‘Passion for work and anasakti’, ‘ Job and Identity‘ , ‘Personal effectiveness and wisdom’, ‘Of shibumi, areté and personal excellence‘, ‘Of career development and sublimation‘ etc.). Of late, I have been wondering why this has happened. Was it just because most of my work is more directly related to HR and OD? Or is there something deeper, like the nagging feeling that ‘words might not outperform silence’ when it comes to talking about personal effectiveness?  

So, I decided to do an exploration of the nature of 'developmental advice' (any advice that is intended to improve the effectiveness of someone at the workplace or in life in general) and the assumptions underlying most of the developmental advice. This developmental advice can be provided by anyone (e.g. managers, mentors, colleagues, team members, coaches, teachers, parents, elders etc. and sometimes, they are represented by the generic term 'teacher' in this post).

The first thing that I realized was that we need to differentiate between two types of developmental advice - one that is more 'information oriented' and one that is more 'wisdom oriented'. 

Information-oriented development advice is more like development feedback - it provides a piece of information that the person receiving the advice was not aware of. It can be internal (e.g. 'pointing out a blind-spot'  that the person was not aware of) or external (e.g. related to a developmental option that the person was not aware of) in nature. This kind of advice, so long as it is factually correct, is indeed helpful for a person to get started on a development journey though it might not have any influence on how much progress the person is able to make on the journey.

Wisdom-oriented development advice is deeper and more complex. Process of gaining wisdom often involves struggling with (and some times even unsuccessfully struggling with) the complexities in life. 

When it comes to wisdom-oriented developmental advice, the basic assumptions are 
  1. that the person giving the advice has gained a higher degree of wisdom (regarding the particular aspect covered in the advice) through his/her life experience   
  2. that this wisdom can be communicated and 
  3. that the receiver is able to 'absorb' the wisdom and is also able to act on the wisdom
To me, the problem is mainly with assumptions 2 and 3. In general, wisdom is much more difficult to communicate as compared to information. Also, without going through the corresponding life experience, this wisdom, even though it is 'true', might not make sense to the receiver. There is a huge difference between knowing something philosophically and arriving at the same knowledge through experience! 

This brings to mind a Zen story that I came across in one of the books of Osho.  It is about the so called 'first principle of Zen'. The concept is that once you know the first principle of Zen, you become enlightened. The story is as follows:

Once, a beginner asked a Zen master, "Master, What is the first principle?". "If I were to tell you, it would become the second principle", replied the Zen master. 

Probably, it is this point (that wisdom can neither be 'stored' nor be 'communicated', in the normal sense of those words) is what limits the usefulness of most of the self-help books. Of course, self-helps books are often useful in providing hope (that there is light at the end of the tunnel) and encouragement. It is also said that the meaning that one derives from a great book often runs in parallel with or is even independent of what is written. May be, that holds true for all forms of developmental advice that we have been exploring in this post! 

It also makes me wonder if the 'wisdom-level consulting', that I was so keen to do, would really work (even if somehow I manage to 'become wise' in the future)! It is not that I haven't come across  HR consultants who are truly wise (See 'Truth and Beauty : Motivations and Elegance in HR' for an account of my interaction with one such gentleman). My concern is more about to the extent to which the clients would be able to 'absorb'  and 'apply' that wisdom. 

While wisdom can't be communicated, it can indeed be hinted at. While wisdom can't be given, it can be acquired. A wise teacher (or a wise coach or a wise manager) can 'create a field' or 'hold a space'  that maximizes the possibility that the learner is able to derive more understanding or even wisdom from the learner's own experiences (See 'Remarkable Encounters - Part 1: Teacher' for an example from my personal experience). Of course, we can't assume that the person giving the development advice is always correct or that the advice is the right one at the right right for the learner. This highlights the need for the learner to be discerning when it comes to accepting and absorbing developmental advice. This is a bit tricky as this discernment needs some kind of wisdom!

It is interesting to speculate what happens to this 'teacher-student'  relationship (that is so essential for the the above 'learning space' to materialize) when the teachers (or coaches) become (highly-paid/expensive) 'service providers' instead of being 'gurus'! Can the learners (especially when they are paying for it) hold the teachers/coaches accountable for results, and if yes, would that make the outcome (or Key Performance Indicators) move away from 'wisdom' towards 'information and skills'? Can this also lead to conflicts of interest between the teacher/coach and the learner?

While one can learn from the experiences of others, wisdom requires additional work in terms of 'personalization' before it can be absorbed and integrated. Yes, a certain degree of 'readiness' on the part of the student is required for welcoming the wisdom. If 'the teacher appears before the student is ready' the teaching (or coaching) is unlikely to work! When the learner is ready, wisdom might even appear unaided, like the proverbial butterfly that comes on its own and sits softly on one's shoulder. Now, developing this readiness is probably not just a matter of effort (and there is no algorithm for it), and, may be, some sort of 'grace' is involved in this process. Again, wisdom is more a matter of  'being wise in the moment' as compared to that of 'becoming wise for good'! 

Any comments/suggestions?

Note: It can be argued that there is another category of developmental advice called 'knowledge-oriented developmental advice' that comes somewhere in between the 'information-oriented developmental  advice'  and the  'wisdom-oriented developmental advice. This depends on how exactly do we define these three terms (e.g. information as 'processed data', knowledge as 'useful information gained through learning and experience' and wisdom as 'the discernment  to apply the appropriate knowledge to a particular situation'). Even if we bring in this additional category, it can be said that 'knowledge is useful only in those situations where it is almost superfluous'! Please see 'Driven to insights!' for more details.  


Ashutosh said...

A very insightful post, Prasad! The question that you ask is indeed the one that is at the heart of changing oneself and helping others change. Wisdom can't be transferred but it can be pointed to, like the Zen master in the anecdote did. One can also help the other person look closely at their own life experiences and derive new meaning that they missed. Coaching questions help in that way. After all wisdom is seeing it for oneself.

Maybe we can discuss more.

Anand said...

Perhaps wisdom is not communicable, but one can affectionately push a disciple into water after reasonably ascertaining that they will be able to learn to swim!

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you Anand. Yes, wisdom can be 'hinted at' and it is up to the disciple if he/she wants to (or is able to) 'take the hint'! Where possible, it also makes sense to throw them (initially, at least) into the shallow end of the pool of wisdom. Of course, wisdom is often non-linear!

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you Ashutosh. Completely agree. To me, the primary function of coaching is to enable the learner to derive more learning ('wisdom') from the learner's experience. Yes, it is the learner's own experience and learner's own wisdom. Yes, let's have a chat on this!!!

Meenalochani Kumar (Meena) said...

So well articulated Prasad. I loved the aspect of feedback from the place of wisdom. Don’t you think the receiver must also have the wisdom to identify with this? Emotional and experiential maturity would aid the process for the receiver I suppose. What do you think?

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you very much Meena! I agree; one has to be wise to acquire wisdom. It is is a bit paradoxical and appears similar to the so called 'Matthew Principle'of accumulated advantage: "the rich gets richer and the poor gets poorer"! To resolve this, it might be better to say (like you have mentioned) that a certain degree of maturity is required to 'welcome wisdom'!!

Unknown said...

Such an outstanding concept!
All developmental feedback, functional, informative or behavioral is given with the assumption that the Receiver will accept and use it with wisdom.
The person giving Feedback may carry some bias as well and Receiver need not accept everything like a Prasadam! This filtering requires wisdom.

Unknown said...

Interesting to note the categories of learning, coaching to my understanding relate more towards reflecting perspective of wisdom which the coachee was not aware of or was ignorant and hinted by the coach and serves well to the coachee as non linear learnings

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you. Yes! Receiving and integrating feedback (or any input for that matter) effectively requires both readiness and discernment on the part of the learner!

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you. Yes, throwing light on the blind-spots of the learner and inviting him/her to reflect on it is indeed a very tangible value that the coach can add!

Unknown said...

Thanks Prasad for sharing this. It definitely encourages one to ruminate.

It’s pertinent to ponder upon what is wisdom. Is wisdom epistemic humility (as Socrates suggested), or epistemic accuracy or is wisdom knowledge. Is it all the above?
OR Is it rationality? i.e. Is someone considered to be wise if she has a wide variety of epistemically justified beliefs on a wide variety of valuable subjects, has a wide variety of justified beliefs on how to live rationally (epistemically, morally, and practically), is committed to living rationally and has very few unjustified beliefs and is sensitive to her limitations.

I think the process of gaining or passing wisdom cannot have an advisory approach. It, as you said has leverage the learners experience and has to be primarily dialectical. And, for a dialectical approach, the learner’s willingness is of prime importance. Hence, if the “wise” person can focus on preparing the learner’s willingness instead of focusing on the change itself, the process will be far more effective.

And as the koan about first principle goes, sometimes the wise teachers should also be prepared to be like Kosen from Obaku temple – interacting with their bold pupils as themselves free of any pre-conceived ideas of wisdom.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you very much! To me, wisdom is more about how one goes about finding an answer than about knowing the answer (which is more like information or at best knowledge). By the same logic, passing on the wisdom cannot have a 'telling' kind of approach and is probably more about encouraging reflection by the learner in multiple ways. Yes, wisdom is in the moment and ideally free of preconceived ideas about wisdom itself. By the way, since you mentioned 'koans', it is said that each koan has a more or less unique solution. But the solution won't make sense unless once has worked with the koan for an extended period of time, 'broke' one's traditional intellectual approach and attained satori (enlightenment). That is why it doesn't do any good to tell a learner the answer to the koan. By the way satori is just about 'seeing things the way they really are' and not about seeing something new!