What You Missed In High School About Management

Talk to any manager long enough and you’ll hear them say something like, “I can’t get my people to….” While I’m prone to rant about the deficiencies of our education system, there’s something most of us already learned that can help.

In high school social studies, you probably came across Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development. It’s simple, brilliant, and underappreciated. At this time in history, and for any manager, it’s a useful thing to revisit. It maps a continuum of maturity for how an individual morally justifies their actions. Here’s a summary, from the lowest level of morality to highest.

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

  1. Fear of Punishment and Obedience: Actions evaluated in terms of possible punishment. “I won’t steal because I might get caught.” “I’ll do the task because I was told to.”
  2. Personal Usefulness: Moral thinking is based on rewards and myopic self-interest. “I’ll take credit for John’s idea because it will make me look better.”
  3. Conforming to the Group: Good behavior is that which brings approval from one’s immediate group. “I’ll say I care about the vision because all the other employees are.”
  4. Law and Order: Moral judgments are based on an understanding of social order and upholding the law. “I won’t steal because it’s against the law.”
  5. Social Contract: Understanding the relativity of laws and values, and that laws and rules require rational analysis and interpretation, and are not absolute. “It’s okay to speed when it’s not dangerous and you’re responding to an emergency.”
  6. Personal Conscience: Moral judgments based on universal human rights, and self-chosen ethical principles with a high value on justice, dignity, and equality. “

The lowest two are called “pre-conventional” and is morality strictly based on first order (immediate) consequences. The middle two are “conventional” and include concern about the perception of others. The highest two are “post-conventional” and are based on abstract thinking, self-reflection, and internally sourced principles.

Maybe you’ve noticed: most people never get to post-conventional. What we’re not taught in high school is how to move ourselves and others through this model. So you’re probably thinking, “How do you do that?”

Great question: it’s a long story, but the short answer is through mentoring that includes rigorous accountability that appeals to the healthy self-interest of the individual. I almost never see this occurring in business, and it’s the reason most employees operate at low levels of maturity, therefore low levels of morality, therefore low levels of engagement, therefore produce low levels of results.

Of course, leadership means you go first, so you must be radically honest with yourself about where you are in this hierarchy before attempting to evolve others.

When you observe yourself and others make judgment calls, see if you can place what you see in Kohlberg’s hierarchy. If you see employees operate below the post-conventional phase, then you have an opportunity to challenge them not at the level of the behavior, but at the level of the thinking behind it. That’s what creates evolution and excellence

All of the Clear and Open Curriculum can be boiled down to maturation, but one course in particular that helps you do this is the Accountability Path. Start a free trial to see for yourself. Stop “disciplining” your people, holding them at low levels of morality, and help them evolve to higher ways of thinking. If you treat them like children, they’ll act like it.

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