Book Review-Moral Disengagement: How Good People Can Do Harm and Live with Themselves – The Cases

In part 1 of this review, we talked about the mechanisms which allow good people to execute Moral Disengagement. In this part of the review, we’ll talk about the second half of the book, which discusses moral disengagement in a variety of topics. These are hot button issues in today’s society. Some of them are straightforward situations where moral disengagement is happening. In other cases, it could be that Bandura is using his platform to push his agenda.

More Than Just Entertainment

Bandura has had a persistent conflict with the media industry, particularly with television, because of his views that television violence leads to more violence in society. The Bobo doll experiment suggested that when children watched violence, they imitated it. Television is filled with gratuitous violence despite the awareness that situation comedies are the reigning champion of ratings.

Bandura starts a list of six foci on moral disengagement in practice with the impacts of television violence. He argues that television sanitizes immoral acts and repeated exposure desensitizes people. While there is research that children imitate what they see adults do, the research is less clear about the impact on adults. While Bandura makes a compelling point about needing to limit the amount of violence on TV, particularly for children, I’m hard-pressed to argue the point in either direction.

I watch almost no TV and very few movies. I’m simply not qualified to say whether TV is causing violence or isn’t. I can say, and Bandura confirms this, that the greatest incidence of violence comes in the form of cartoons. The Saturday morning favorites from my childhood had Wile E. Coyote getting blown up, thrown, flattened, etc., in seemingly every episode. Violence in TV has been a challenge for a long time, and in truth violence is going down in the US – even while there’s the perception that violence is going up and coverage of real violence has been more prevalent.

Grappling with Guns

The second industry that comes under Bandura’s focus is the gun industry and, in particular, the National Rifle Association (NRA). An organization that used to be focused on hunting and sportsmanship has lost its way as a lobbying group. The fight for gun rights has stopped being about hunting and sportsmanship and has become a fight for the right to protection.

Here, Bandura points out that interesting facts about gun ownership. There are more deaths due to gun suicide than by gun homicide. Most homicides are a result of heated disputes among family members, acquaintances, and relatives than criminal encounters. In short, you’re more likely to kill yourself or someone you know than the random criminal breaking in to your home. In an age of paranoia created by increasing news coverage of break-ins and harm wrought on home owners, it makes sense that more people are looking to protect themselves than ever before. The randomness of the crimes makes people feel it’s necessary to protect themselves.

Bandura makes some claims which I realize are not correct. He speaks of the need for police to escalate their level of armament based on the arms that criminals acquire. The police may have had to get access to armor-piercing rounds because criminals started wearing body armor but that isn’t responding to threat with threat. It’s responding to the greater defenses criminals started wearing. In reality, most police carry a 9MM weapon – or in some cases a 40 caliber weapon (which is larger). However, Bandura ignores the fact that the standard-issue military handgun in World War II was a 1911 – a .45 caliber weapon (bigger still than a .40 caliber).

He makes the point effectively that relatively few criminals get their guns illegally – but some do. He’s also quite right that we’re increasing our spending on housing criminals at a greater rate than on education. However, this ignores the impact of the “War on Drugs” on prison populations. (See Chasing the Scream for more.)

Conversely, the evidence that states with more lax gun laws have higher rates of gun violence is disturbing. However, a few minutes of deeper researching the topic reveals that there are many other factors that are also correlated with high gun death rates. None of the research or commentary I saw could convert the correlation to causation. As a result, it’s unclear whether more or less gun control leads to a safer – or less safe – environment. Bandura’s position is clearly articulated but not compelling to me.

Immoral Corporate Institutions

If you’re looking for moral disengagement, corporations are an easy place to start. There are so many scandals of organizations where the employees – and particularly the leadership – suspend their morals to worship at the altar of corporate profits. The financial markets meltdown that we had a few years ago was a result of the greed in the financial sector.

Subprime mortgages were being issued to people without the ability to pay. These were wrapped up and sold as financial derivatives – bundling of a bunch of different things. Ultimately, when people couldn’t pay for their houses, the mortgages went into default, the houses weren’t worth what was owed, and the system came apart at the seams. Warren Buffet called derivatives “financial weapons of mass destruction.” Given the carnage when the system fell apart, I can see why.

The problem is most (but not all) of the people involved in the creation of the mess walked away without any losses. They didn’t see the inside of a jail cell. They took their big paychecks and even bigger bonuses and walked away. Even after the government had to step in, they were still taking bonuses, even though the organization would have died had it not been “too big to fail.” There were no consequences for the bad behaviors leading up to – or during – the debacle.

Underlings do, in some cases, get convicted of fraud. Executives walk off scot-free. They leverage plausible deniability. In many cases, they actively avoided knowing what was going on. (Not exactly Servant Leadership or the kind of leader from In Search of Excellence.) We’ve created what William Black called a “criminogenic environment.” He said this term in the 1980s when we were bailing out the savings and loans.

The financial sector isn’t the only place where corporate greed runs rampant. The tobacco industry is the only industry where the product kills half of its users. It was targeted towards teenagers – because if they make it through their teen years without smoking, it’s unlikely that they’ll start later in life. The industry worked hard to undermine solid science that tobacco was killing people. They dumped in pseudoscience and tried to forestall the truth getting out. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for a perspective on pseudoscience.)

Moral Murder by the Name of Capital Punishment

Bandura shares his belief that capital punishment is wrong. Certainly, when looked at directly from a care/harm foundation (see The Righteous Mind), it’s pretty clear that killing is bad. However, I’m reminded of a story from Emotional Awareness, where the Dalai Lama relates a story of a bodhisattva on a boat with a mass murder who he cannot convince not to kill the rest of the passengers – so the bodhisattva kills him. The context of this is that a bodhisattva desires to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all living beings. The point is that the bodhisattva is – in the Lama’s estimation – operating under the principles of Buddha.

This for me establishes the moral bounds for which one could take another person’s life. Though it smacks of utilitarian moral disengagement, it remains true to the greatest good (care) and the least evil (harm). Despite Bandura’s admonishment that only 3% of shootings are in self-defense, I have no qualms about defending myself and my family from an intruder including, if necessary, taking the life of the intruder. (Note the linguistic cleaning by not saying “kill.”) So, it’s morally acceptable to defend oneself, and it’s potentially acceptable to prevent greater harm. Where’s the rub?

The rub is in the first step in the bodhisattva’s boat story. The first step was to attempt to convince the murderer to not murder. He attempted to change the mind of the murderer, to reeducate them in compassion for other human beings. The rub is we don’t know how to do that.

The more I learn about neurology, the more I realize that we’re literally of two minds. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow and Incognito for more.) Even if I could address the neurological issues, I realize that our understanding of psychology is primitive. We’re still fumbling around in the dark. House of Cards, The Cult of Personality Testing, Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, and even The Heart and Soul of Change all agree. We just don’t know what works. The best we can say is that if you like your therapist (perhaps because they’re using Motivational Interviewing), you’re likely to have greater success. Change or Die even covers the high rates of failure to change when a person’s own life depends upon it.

In short, we don’t have a reliable way of attempting to implore the death row inmate to change. This raises the question whether life in prison or a death sentence is the more compassionate thing. One could easily answer that a swift and painless death is more compassionate – except that it fails to account for the possibility of someone becoming remorseful. It also ignores the problem that there are innocent people on death row.

I’m not talking about the people who are guilty but are unable to accept that reality (when the ego and its defenses won’t allow it – see Change or Die). I’m speaking of the legitimately victimized people who went through the legal system and got a raw deal. How do you justify their death when they’ve done nothing wrong?

Bandura leans on Milgram’s work (which I discussed in my review of Influencer) to explain that the execution process is diffused among many people. Even the final injections are typically done by multiple people who have only a part of the deadly cocktail to minimize the moral self-sanctions that might prevent them from completing the execution. He correctly points out that if a single person (say a juror) had to be the one to “throw the switch,” they’d be much less willing to sentence a person to the death penalty.

In the context of Moral Disengagement, I believe that the system is designed to reduce the emotional burden on the workers who participate in the execution of convicted and sentenced criminals. They’re free to leverage the mechanisms of disengagement to make it easier to sleep at night.


My first real memory of terrorism wasn’t one of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombings, though certainly they were happening during my formative years. My first memory of terrorism was mixed in with my memories of my favorite airplane. It was the SR-71 Blackbird that took the pictures that proved that we had decimated terrorist training camps in Libya. (See The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird for more on the aircraft and 1986 United States bombing of Libya for more on that mission.)

Like most of the US, I thought that terrorism was something that happened “over there.” It wasn’t until the 9/11 attacks that terrorism felt real and close to home – though, admittedly, in Indiana I wasn’t close to any of the attacks. It was still close enough to be real. That’s the point of terrorism – to induce terror into people by creating fear that terror might strike them personally at any time.

Terrorist organizations need to recruit and train members who are willing to perform suicide actions in the name of their cause. They must be willing to accept the cause as greater than their own life for either secular or religious reasons. In the religious reasons, they’ve got to be able to cause recruits to look past the logical paradoxes that exist.

Most religions aren’t in favor of murder. Most are not supportive of torture or harming others. (Spiritual Evolution is a wonderful journey into why religions have standards that are useful to sustaining social life.) Somehow leaders must convince themselves and the recruits that those rules aren’t intended for times like these. They’re not intended for situations like theirs.

I suppose one condolence that can be offered for the suicide bombers is that they don’t have to live with themselves if they didn’t accomplish their mission. In that way, there wouldn’t be post-action self-doubt. However, with something so final, it’s important to be really sure that you’re right – which is why previous suicide bombers are revered as heroes whether or not they accomplished their mission. Not doing so would tear the fabric of the organization.

Environmental Sustainability

The idea that we’re creating problems for planet Earth isn’t new. My reading backlog includes Limits to Growth, which was originally published in 1972. There was much less data than was in Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, but the point is essentially the same. We can’t keep doing like we have been doing. It’s not sustainable. There’s too much population. There’s too much pollution. There’s just too much.

Donella Meadows and her colleagues were looking at the problem from a systems standpoint. (See Thinking in Systems for more.) We simply couldn’t expect that the environmental systems would accept the strain we’re placing on them. And it appears that they’re right.

From the perspective of Bandura, the question is less about the environmental sustainability problem and more about how people diffuse their moral responsibility. In this case, the indirect effects and the introduction of false “evidence” by those who have a vested interest in not addressing the environmental issues are powerful forces that lead too many people towards indecision and inaction.

On a personal level, I don’t drive a hybrid car. With the home office on the property here, I walk to work. I do have most (but not quite all) of the bulbs here in the house swapped over to LED. The furnace/heat pump combination units in both buildings are the most efficient I could buy. The windows in the office are as efficient as they come. Despite that, I’m quite clear that I’m consuming more energy than most folks. We look for ways to save, but the kids and the business require a lot of power.

I cautiously believe that there are issues to address with the environment and that we need to do them to maintain survivability on the planet – even when that’s a hard thought when we’re having colder winters than I can remember in 25 years of living in the Indianapolis area.

In Sum

While I don’t agree with Bandura’s assertions in every argument, I appreciate the fact that Moral Disengagement is willing to address hard topics and walk through why some of the topics are hard in the first place. Though it’s a difficult read, it’s worth looking at our own morality and making sure that we don’t get stuck into Moral Disengagement.

Book Review-Moral Disengagement: How Good People Can Do Harm and Live with Themselves – The Mechanisms

If you want to talk about moral behavior, at some point Albert Bandura’s name is going to come up. He’s done a great deal of work trying to understand people. His research in 1961 showed that children imitate the aggressive behavior they see adults doing. However, when Moral Disengagement: How Good People Can Do Harm and Feel Good About Themselves became available, it wasn’t immediately on my reading list – it was on Terri’s. Some of her mentors are quite the fan of Bandura’s work, and she was intrigued.

We both started reading it when she picked it up. Unfortunately, while Bandura is a great scholar and has advanced the field of psychology and morality greatly, he’s hard to understand at times. While I wouldn’t say that he’s as hard to read as Robert Greenleaf in Servant Leadership, there were definitely places when I had to reread the text a few times to make sure I knew what he was trying to say. Some of it may have been poor writing – but I found that, more often than not, it was the nuanced understanding and complex schemata that he has for the topic. It took me some time to discern what he was trying to tell me. (See The Art of Explanation for more about the curse of knowledge and complex schema.)

Because it was a hard read, I didn’t read it as fast as some other books. In a way, I’m glad. It allowed me to read The Righteous Mind, which provided a framework for the foundations of morality. This allowed me to see how morality was defined and based before watching Bandura explain how morality was systemically torn down by dictators and armies, industries and entertainment, and our disconnected nature. (See Alone Together for more about how we’re more alone and more connected at the same time.)

My review is broken into two parts. This first part will deal with the mechanisms of moral disengagement, where the second part will deal with the hot topics that Bandura writes about to demonstrate the mechanisms in action.

Evolving Morality

Before getting to how morality is specifically formed, it’s important to realize that morality is relative. It’s relative to the culture that we live in. It’s relative to the times that we’re living in. While (hopefully) most of us would find owning a slave morally reprehensible, it was (unfortunately) an accepted practice a few hundred years ago. This is a striking example of how our morality changes over time.

Morality doesn’t, however, evolve with our genes. Morality evolves as we have greater margin in our lives. We can have greater compassion because we ourselves are not struggling. We can have higher standards, because we’re not struggling for the necessities of life.

Prior to the mid-1940s, women were expected to have a role only in the home – and not outside the home. As we entered World War II and we needed more labor capacity due to the large number of men sent off to fight in the war, women were allowed and even encouraged to enter the workforce. “Rosie the Riveter” was a propaganda character that drew women into defense industries. When the war was over, many women lost their jobs, but the taste of independence and respect lingered in their souls. By the 1950s and 1960s, women started entering the workforce again, but this time for good. Before the 1940s, it was not socially acceptable for women to be working in professional careers outside the home. Today, it’s expected.

In the US, divorce rates in the 1920s were about 1.5 per thousand people. In the early 1980s it peaked at about 5.25 per thousand people before settling back down to a new level at about 4 per thousand people. (See Divorce for more of this data.) The greater independence of women, changing divorce laws (like allowing for those due to irreconcilable differences), and greater prosperity made divorce more socially acceptable.

Genes don’t evolve substantially in a single generation, but our sense of morality did – and still does.

Founding Fathers and Slavery

If you were to make a list of people that you felt like had a firm moral foundation, the founding fathers of the United States are likely to make the list. After all, they created the great American nation. They declared that all men were created equal and that they were born with certain inalienable rights – well, except in reality. The Three-Fifths
Compromise was worked out for how to represent black slaves as people.

In a strange twist, the Southerners wanted slaves counted for purposes of the House of Representatives representation: equally. This would have given them a larger number of seats in the House of Representatives. The Northerners wanted the slaves treated as property and thus not eligible for representation.

Patrick Henry, who is famous for saying, “Give me liberty, or give me death,” owned slaves. He admitted the contradiction in his values: “I will not – I cannot justify it, however culpable my conduct.” However, he’s not alone. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all owned slaves as well.

It seems that even our most heroic figures and pillars of morality would not fare well if their actions were evaluated with today’s standards.

Social Morality

Moral standards are formed personally but are influenced socially through both legal and social sanctions. We believe that things which are against the law are largely immortal. The law is a legal sanction that inhibits socially-undesirable behavior through its effect on self-sanctions. There are, however, some situations when lawlessness is seen as desirable and where legal sanctions lose their power, such as the situation described in Change or Die and the famous Delancey Street work.

Social sanctions were discussed in The Righteous Mind as “social conventions.” These are what society expects of its citizens but doesn’t legislate. Social sanctions have a less inhibitive effect than legal sanctions. Still, social conventions have a powerful effect on us. Few of us would stand with our backs to the door of an elevator voluntarily and without reason. We’re conditioned that the right way to face is towards the door which will open.

Legal and social sanctions are called “fear controls.” They function by fear of reprisal. Legal sanctions carry the threat of legal recourse, including imprisonment. Social sanctions carry the threat of being ostracized by the group – which historically meant death.

Moral control rooted in self-sanctions are called “guilt controls,” because they work on the avoidance of guilt that violating the standards will mean. Self-sanctions are the ultimate endpoint in moral disengagement. In the end, you need to be able to live with yourself in the morning.

Bandura makes the point that moral agency – that is, moral influence on behavior – can be either inhibitive or proactive. The inhibitive form manifests itself in the resistance from behaving inhumanely. The proactive form manifests itself in compassion. Compassion is that humanitarian ethic. It’s the care for other human beings. (See My Spiritual Journey for more on compassion.)

Disengagement Doesn’t Alter Morality

One of the key questions that everyone asks is “How can good people can do bad things?” This question is followed by “Don’t they believe it’s wrong?” The heart of these questions is whether the other person (or people) have the same set of moral beliefs that we have.

As we discovered in The Righteous Mind, it’s possible that they don’t have the same beliefs – or, more precisely, they don’t evaluate the moral foundations in the same way that we do. However, Bandura asserts that, in most cases of moral disengagement, they have the same moral beliefs that they started with.

They still believe, for instance, that killing another human is wrong. What they’ve done is they’ve changed the other person into a non-person. They’ve dehumanized them to the point where they don’t believe they’re really people any longer. This is just one of many ways that a person can at one moment believe that killing another human is wrong and to be able to kill a person. This is the same thing that we see in Change or Die. That is, our ego has a massive system of defenses that allow us to see ourselves as good – even in the face of the wrong we’ve done.


Self-efficacy, the belief that what you do matters, is critical to the development of morality. If your actions don’t matter because you’re not in control or because they will have no effect, there is no need for morality, which controls behaviors and thereby influences outcomes.

The Time Paradox speaks of those who are focused hedonistically in the present – seeing limited consequences for their choices today. Morality has a reduced impact on them due to their inability to connect how their actions change the outcomes. Mindset looks at it through the lens of whether you believe you are fixed or whether you can grow. If you are fixed (called “present fatalism” in the language of The Time Paradox), then you need not take responsibility for your moral indiscretions. The Psychology of Hope describes self-efficacy as the “waypower” component of hope. (The other component is willpower.) Self-efficacy is the ability to do something and be successful.

More importantly – and from a different direction – if you believe that you can succeed in the context of your moral values, there is no conflict. However, if you don’t believe you can succeed without disengaging your morality, you may very well just do that. Those who, in Reiss’ terms, are not strongly motivated by honor (see Who Am I? and The Normal Personality) will be relegated to expediency – and moral disengagement is expedient. Bandura describes people with a low honor desire as “people with weak commitment to personal standards.”


To proceed with your morals when you doubt that you’ll be successful – when the alternative is a quick and easy moral disengagement – takes grit. It takes a persistence to continue to try to make things work, even when it appears that they ultimately won’t. When you doubt that you’ll be successful without a bit of moral disengagement (notice the minimization in my language), you’re likely to eventually succumb to a bit of moral disengagement. (See Grit for more on persistence through grit.) After all, willpower is an exhaustible resource, and constantly having to press on in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds is exhausting. (See Willpower for more.)

Lewin’s Behavior

Kurt Lewin famously said that behavior is a function of both person and environment. That is, how people behave is the outcome of the relationship and interaction between their personality and the environment. You can create environments that lead to more moral behavior and in the case of savings and loans, Enron, MCI, and others, you can generate environments that encourage immoral behaviors. While neither of the environments guarantees the behavior will align with the environment, they do tend to lead in one direction or another.

There are three types of environments that people find themselves in:

  • Imposed – Environments where the person has little or no control
  • Selected – Those environments that they’ve picked
  • Created – The environments that they’ve created

This is interesting, because, in most cases, we’ve not been in an imposed environment after childhood. We’ve largely selected or created the environments that we’re in. Our jobs are selected, where we live is selected. Our rooms we’ve created. We controlled the furniture and the decorations. We’ve chosen our environments.

The fact that we’ve selected – or often created – our environments means that we have substantial influence in our behavior (but not absolute) and our behaviors are sometimes a result of longer-term decisions than we typically believe. The decisions we make about our environment influence our behaviors as well. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy where I speak about longitudinal situational decision-making.)

A friend of mine says that I have an uncanny ability to leave a situation before it started to get – in his terms – “wild.” I don’t know that I ever thought about it. I somehow, I have tended to unconsciously sense that an environment is going to turn into something bad and leave – before it actually got bad. Not that I’m not capable of bad behaviors, I just avoid situations that would lead me to them and try to exhibit emotional awareness to shape my behaviors. (See Emotional Awareness for more on emotional awareness.)

Loci of Disengagement

There are three basic loci – or foci – of disengagement:

  • Agency – Displacement of responsibility to others, or diffusing it so widely that no one bears responsibility.
  • Outcome – Minimization, disregard, distortion, or dispute of the injurious effects.
  • Victim – Divestiture of a victim humanity, or belief that one is a victim and therefore justified in retaliation.

I believe that these loci are actually very difficult to understand – and, in the case of victim, two radically different mechanisms are grouped together. From my point of view, the agency locus is about
responsibility. That is, agency deals with how individuals accept, reject, or defer responsibility for the morality of their actions.

I believe that the outcome locus is about negative effects. That is, it is about how the person sees the effects.

I believe that what Bandura describes as the “victim locus” really encompasses two concepts. First, there’s the compassion effect – that is, a lack of the compassion for others dehumanizes and devalues them to the point where you can do immoral things to them.

Second, there’s the vengeance effect – that is, I’m a victim because I’ve been harmed so I’m justified in harming others. Reiss speaks of vengeance as a basic desire. (Again, for more, see Who Am I? and The Normal Personality.) Vengeance should be clarified as different than “temporary insanity” or “amygdala hijack,” because it occurs over a much longer period of time. (See Emotional Intelligence for more about emotional or amygdala hijacking.)

Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement

Bandura highlights eight mechanisms which can disengage moral self-sanctions. They are:

  • Moral Justification – Attaching honorable purposes. I.e., “The ends justify the means.”
  • Palliative Comparison – Comparing their actions (or the proposed lack of action ) to the actions of others and the hypothesized negative results.
  • Euphemistic Labeling – Cloaks harmful behavior in innocuous language and removes humanity.
  • Minimizing Consequences – Minimization of the consequences of the action to minimize the violation of moral standards.
  • Ignoring Consequences – Completely ignoring the consequences of the action to make the behavior morally acceptable.
  • Misconstruing Consequences – Assigning the consequences to “externalities” rather than to one’s own behavior.
  • Dehumanization – Removal of the humanity of the victim and introduction of animalistic tendencies.
  • Attribution of Blame – Shifting of the blame to someone or something else.
  • Displacement of Responsibility – Focus on execution of tasks rather than the implications of the actions. I.e., “I was just following orders.”
  • Diffusion of Responsibility – Separating responsibility into so many parties as to make no one person wholly responsible.

Logical Paradoxes

Moral compromises lead to logical paradoxes. They seem to work on the surface, but if anyone would dig down deep into them, it would be impossible not to see that they can’t make sense together. Mastering Logical Fallacies provides a catalog of the kind of fallacies that others might attempt to use on us during a debate. Many of the arguments provided by terrorist organizations suffer from these situations. Radical religious groups use terrorism, which inflicts suffering and death on innocent people – yet their religion prohibits it. All causes – including those that use terrorism – must persuade people to join their cause or die out quickly.

Perhaps the best mechanism in use for avoiding the logical paradoxes is the use of projection. That is, the harm being inflicted by the terrorist is projected (or deflected) onto the perceived oppressor. The hostages would be home with their families if the oppressor had simply met our demands. It’s their fault that we’re having to hold the hostages so long – not ours.

This – and many other techniques – allow the logical paradoxes to persist despite their obvious falsehood. Somehow, there has to be a way to justify it – even if the justification is skewed.

Bad Means for Good Ends, and the Conflict They Create

“The ends justify the means” is an often-quoted saying. It’s a bit of linguistically-sanitary way of saying that we’re going to do bad – but for outcomes that are good. This is a utilitarian view of morality. So long as the end is good, whatever bad you do is acceptable. While this is convenient, it’s a house of cards that comes crashing down with great flair.

Consider the Vietnam War. All war is necessarily anti-moral at the most detailed level. The firmest foundation of morality is the care/harm foundation. War – in the traditional sense – means taking lives. This is typically justified because the cause is just. However, what happens when the cause isn’t just? What happens when an entire American culture decides that the war was wrong, it was unjustified, it wasn’t morally right? The veterans who faithfully served their country found out. They paid the price with greater emotional suffering as they returned from a war that the American people didn’t want or believe in. Veterans weren’t welcomed with open arms to fill jobs. Instead, they were shunned.

Deep in their own minds, they had post-traumatic stress disorder. They remembered the faces of the people they had killed – in greater numbers than those from prior wars. Their moral disengagement had been stripped, because the ends no longer seemed to justify the means.

The problem is that this disengagement is typically used in the absence of trying to get the ends without the negative means. Non-violent or more measured approaches are abandoned as being insufficient for change before they’ve been tried. (We’ve learned quite a bit about influencing change without resorting to violence or morally questionable behavior – Influencer is a good start to look for some of these tools.)

Second, the comparison tends to minimize the moral impact of the means and overestimate the moral benefits of the ends. We’re predictably irrational when it comes to justifying the beliefs that we want to cling to. (See Predictably Irrational for more.)

Training Terrorists

When most of us think about terrorists, we imagine the downtrodden teenager living in a middle eastern country whose family is barely scraping by. They set out to make the world more right by joining an organization that offers to change the world. Part of their mechanism for changing the world is through terrorism. The problem with this view of terrorism is that it’s wrong.

We think that terrorists are mentally unstable people who are willing to sacrifice their own life for no good reason. Their belief that their death is in service to a higher power eludes us. We can’t imagine how a sane person could believe this to be true, much less carry out an act of what we perceive to be senseless violence. However, terrorists are not, as a lot, lunatics who are constantly on the edge of breaking. Such instability wouldn’t be tolerated, since it would jeopardize the terrorist organization. This view, too, is wrong.

Terrorists typically come from middle- or upper-class families with a decent education and a desire to change the world to make it better. When coupled with a firm belief that you’ll be rewarded in heaven if you lay down your life for the cause of your God here on Earth, it becomes easier to see how terrorists are created.

Gears of War

These are the mechanisms of Moral Disengagement. These are the gears that allow wars to happen. In the second part of this review, we’ll walk through Bandura’s hot topics and see how we disengage our morals on those topics.

Book Review-The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

Failure is a gift? Well, yes. In The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, we are indoctrinated into the world of raising children and how we must sometimes allow failure to happen. We must accept that our children aren’t perfect and can’t be perfect any more than we are. Failure is a gift when it allows us to discover our perseverance. It’s a gift when it helps our children learn their ability to overcome the frustrations in their life. It’s a gift when it allows us to accept ourselves and our children as who they are.

Intrinsic Motivation

We believe we understand motivation. We’ve seen Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We’ve learned about carrots and sticks – or rewards and punishments. We’ve heard about how huge bonuses have motivated people to work under insane conditions to crush a goal and win the day. The problem is that much of what we know about motivation is just wrong. It does work – to a point – for those people whose lives are filled with meaningless repetitive tasks. It doesn’t work with what Richard Florida calls “the creative class” of workers. These are workers whose jobs are non-routine. They require heuristics and creativity to work. (Richard Florida is quoted in Theory U.)

Much of this awareness of how motivation does and doesn’t work was covered in Drive, which The Gift of Failure references. The more that we provide external motivators, the more that we destroy any internal, intrinsic drive that was in the person. It’s not that external motivation doesn’t work long-term, it’s that it breaks the engine for long-term motivation for the kinds of situations that we are facing in the world today.

Intrinsic motivation is essential to long term success. Carol Dweck describes in Mindset how we can see ourselves as fixed and unchanging, or we can see ourselves with the ability to grow through our hard work. We have a huge capacity for adaptation and growth but that growth is fueled through the intrinsic motivation to try and fail. When intrinsic motivation is gone, so is our desire to grow.

Ericsson explained in Peak that it takes purposeful practice to become the top of our game in any chosen arena. Flow is the vehicle through which we can achieve peak performance and that comes through the balance of our skills and the challenges at hand. (See The Rise of Superman, Flow, and Finding Flow for more.) If we’re not willing to stretch a little (4%) to become a bit better, we never will. The major roadblock on the road to success in life is the fear of failure.

Fear of Failure

In Rising Strong (my review has two parts: Part 1 and Part 2), Brené Brown asks the question, “What would you do even if you knew you would fail?” This question demonstrates the power that the fear of failure has over our lives. It has the power to stop us in our tracks. It has the power to prevent us from moving forward or even trying. In Find Your Courage, the true reason for the fear of failure is exposed.

The real reason that we fear failure is because we confuse failing at something and failure as a person. We have somehow attached a performance-based view of love and our value to our lives and can’t afford to take the risk of failing at something because we might be labeled a failure. (See The Road Less Traveled for more on performance-based love.) So pervasive is this illusion that the book we’re discussing is titled The Gift of Failure – not The Gift of “Failing”.

The Search for Significance explains that parental love is not supposed to be conditional. It’s not supposed to be performance-based. By getting caught in this trap of performance-based love, we’re making our children believe that their worth is only defined by what they can do. So, what happens when they can’t do anything valuable?

This is not to say that we should praise them even when they don’t do anything valuable. Rather, it’s saying that love is unconditional. They’ll be supported. As Dweck points out in Mindset we shouldn’t be constantly praising them – particularly for innate abilities. We should praise them for their hard work and celebrate their failures as much as their successes.

A Brief History of Childhood

It’s impossible for us to fully understand childhood and parenting as it was a hundred years or more ago. We, incorrectly, assume that the views on children and parenting have been stable; however, nothing could be further from the truth. Even with echoes of sayings like, “children should be seen and not heard,” we can’t quite believe that the way we’re trying to raise our children today isn’t the same as it used to be. Even with our parents quietly voicing their concerns with the hectic schedules that we keep for our kids, including their extracurricular activities and all the work towards college preparation, we somehow don’t believe that childhood and parenting were different.

It’s hard to remember that, in early colonial times, parents could expect to lose one of ten children, and that in many places the mortality rate was many times that. It’s hard to imagine that outbreaks of smallpox could wipe out 20% of the population in a few short years. The focus wasn’t on emotional well-being, competing for the top rung schools or jobs. This was a fight for literal survival.

As things progressed, the need for focus on survival faded, and names of children began to diverge from being names from their family, including aunts and uncles but mostly moms and dads and grandparents. Parent mortality was still high and one of your two parents – perhaps the one you were named after – would be gone by the time a child was of marriable age.

Children were working, too. One-sixth of the children between ten and fifteen were employed. Children were useful because they could squeeze into tight places that adults could not. Gradually, we shifted the laws to prevent child labor and created laws to require childhood education. We swung from expendable tools to help the family survive to children who could lift themselves up and perhaps reach back to help their family if they made it.

Permissive Parents

As we moved into the 1940s, the change in parenting “rules” prompted several books on how to parent. Instead of parenting being a thing that just happened, it became something that you needed coaching and professionals to help you with. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s book, Baby and Child Care, became a roaring success, and everyone wanted to follow his leadership on how to raise safe, well-adjusted children. He stated, “We need idealistic children.” His style was very permissive. The style was sometimes labeled as neglectful.

His advice spawned a whole generation of individualistic children who didn’t learn the same lessons of working for the common good that their parents had learned. (See America’s Generations for generational differences.) Later in his life he expressed some regret for not providing more guidance towards working together for the common good. (This is recorded in Finding Flow.)

Through Spock’s advice, the balance of power changed. Instead of the parents being the authority to be respected, they became the servants for their children. Instead of children recognizing that they are alive only because their parents decided to create them – and therefore there should be some reverence – they became ways for parents to relive their lives and potentially relive it in a different way. If only they could get their children to accept that the parents’ view of life was the right one.


The psychological condition of enmeshment is when a person can’t see where they end and another person begins. This is particularly common with parents who struggle to maintain appropriate boundaries between themselves and their children. With parents restructuring their lives in the service of their children, it’s little wonder why they might need to feel some greater sense of ownership – not just responsibility – for the outcomes that the children are achieving.

When Johnny wins the 400-meter dash, Dad can feel proud not just of Johnny but of himself. When Suzi becomes the county fair pageant queen, mom can finally feel vindicated at her loss from twenty-some years prior, when she lost to someone who has become an archrival (at least in her head). Instead of the sense of pride that their children are succeeding, they personally feel like they’re succeeding.

In Emotional Awareness, the Dali Lama speaks of how Buddhists regard pride as a negative (or afflictive) emotion, but makes a distinction that there is a pride in others that is non-afflictive. He makes mention that Yiddish is the only language he is aware of that has a word – naches – that distinguishes the feeling of pride for someone else without personal attachment. This is, per the Dali Lama, a good thing. Of course, the Christian tradition regards pride as the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins.

The problem is that when you’re living your life partially or totally enmeshed the boundaries between you and your children don’t exist. You look at each thing that the child does as something that you’ve done, and instead of being proud of what someone else has accomplished, you are proud of yourself. Instead of feeling warm-heartedness for them, you find some level of external validation that you’re a good mom or dad – and that you’re a good person, all at the same time.

Life on Life’s Terms

One of the phrases from the serenity prayer is “Taking this world as it is, not as I would have it.” That is the heart of living life on life’s terms. We can’t change the circumstances of our world. We can’t prevent the fact that we’ll all fail – and yet not be failures. We cannot deny the essential realities of life without diminishing our lives. We must live life on life’s terms – not ours – if we want to be happy.

This means that we need to be adaptable. We need to be able to accept our failures and redirect into a healthy response of growth. By attempting to deny our failures and to ignore the consequences, we are attempting to live life on our terms – and in the end, that never works.

Failure is Always an Option

When Dr. Glaser wrote Schools Without Failure, he wasn’t saying that no one should fail. He was trying to prevent the systematic disengagement of students through external labeling and a fixed mindset. He wasn’t saying that children couldn’t and shouldn’t fail. He was saying that students shouldn’t be labeled as failures. He was encouraging us to find more delicate ways of allowing children to fail. The end result was the development of grit. (See Grit for more.)

Being Strict

Holding kids accountable is no fun. It’s no fun to have to be the “bad guy” (or girl) and keep the kids from electronics or a game or something else. It’s not fun to apply the consequences that were clearly communicated when they’ve stepped outside of the lines. The Gift of Failure admits that kids don’t always build the closest bonds with parents who are “strict” and hold kids accountable, but at the same time acknowledges that some of the best parents are those who find a way to be strict and loving at the same time.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown says, “I believe that understanding the connection between boundaries, accountability, acceptance, and compassion has made me a kinder person.” She goes on to say that her mind was blown when she realized that the most boundary-conscious people that she met were the most compassionate. In short, the way to cultivate compassion is to recognize where the boundaries are. The better parents understand how to hold their children accountable while maintaining acceptance of them. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)

Finding Failure

Heading out on a journey to find failure may seem like a bad plan. After all, failure will find you. However, setting your course towards failure means that you’re striving, trying, working, challenging yourself, and ultimately developing intrinsic motivation. By setting your course towards failure, you can ensure that you won’t ignore it, minimize it, or give it more credence that it’s worth. Failure is truly a gift, because it allows you to grow, so long as you don’t believe that you’re a failure because you have failed. If you’re still looking for a way to walk through the nuance of failing without being a failure, perhaps you need The Gift of Failure.

Book Review-The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them

I’m always trying to find ways to better teach and train. I, just like you, have seen plenty of bad training courses, where you want to stab pencils in your ears and gouge out your eyes just to stop the pain of listening and seeing the training session. While not every teaching engenders this response, far too many of them do. My goal is that no one will ever feel that way in my teaching. I desire to create an experience that’s aligned with how adults learn and is based on everything we know about learning through research.

Getting back to the fundamentals is important. When I saw The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them it felt like I could get back to the fundamentals and review what I knew about learning.

Levels of Learning

If you’ve read this blog for a while you may have seen my review of Efficiency in Learning, which I felt was a powerful book about the process of learning design. It was primarily focused on the detailed level of what strategies to use to minimize cognitive load. In this way, it was focused on the instruction component of the learning process. I believe that these tools are as essential as learning your multiplication tables. It teaches the fundamentals you need to know no matter what strategies you use.

The ABCs of How We Learn looks at the problem from a much higher level. Instead of the fundamental skills of managing cognitive load, The ABCs of How We Learn is more focused on which tool to pull out of the toolbox when teaching. When the question is whether you use an analogy or a worked example, The ABCs of How We Learn has the answer. When you’re looking for what are the barriers outside the training which may prevent learning, The ABCs of How We Learn has the answers.

This is a still different dimension of looking at learning from Bloom’s Taxonomy. Instead of looking at the kind of thinking that is desired after the training, the view is from the perspective of how to ensure that the training stays with the student long after the training is over. It’s a dirty little secret in the training industry that, without reinforcement, 80% of the training a student receives will be gone within two weeks. Not even in baseball would a 20% success rate be acceptable – but in most training situations it is.

We’re All Adults Here, Right?

Most of my training work is with adults. While I support programs that educate children and teens, this isn’t the primary focus of my work. One of the questions that I ask when looking at materials is whether the target is for teaching adults or teaching children. Adults learn differently (see The Adult Learner). There are programs that work well for teaching children – but their child focus makes them not effective at teaching adults. (See “G” is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street.)

I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of the approaches and techniques described apply whether we’re talking about adult or child learners. Certainly, things like reward take on different context when working with adults compared to children. (Though food seems to be a universal motivator: children are more interested in candy, and adults are more interested in donuts.)

Admittedly, most of the research cited was with children; however, this is to be expected, since most of the educational research being done in the world is done for children rather than adults.

Spelling Learning

The order of the approaches was established by the alphabetic reference. They’re delivered in a strictly alphabetical sequence; however, what struck me is that some of the approaches precede teaching, and some of them are necessary after training. For instance, analogy is a tool used during the teaching. Belonging is used prior to training. Contrasting cases is another teaching approach and deliberate practice is a post-instruction item. Elaboration is something that is done as a part of education process. Feedback is what’s done to help the practice work effectively.

To see how the 26 approaches might look separated into categories of pre-, during, and post-learning, I’ve arranged the approaches in the following table. Note that the “pre” items are mostly setting the conditions for learning either in the environment directly or in the student’s perspective on learning. (See Mindset for more about how a perspective can impact outcomes.)

Pre During Post
  • B – Belonging
  • N – Norms
  • O – Observation
  • X – eXcitement
  • Y – Yes I Can
  • A – Analogy
  • C – Contrasting Cases
  • E – Elaboration
  • H – Hands On
  • J – Just-in-Time Telling
  • L – Listening and Sharing
  • Q – Question Driven
  • S – Self-Explanation
  • T – Teaching
  • V – Visualization
  • W – Worked Examples
  • D – Deliberate Practice
  • F – Feedback
  • G – Generation
  • I – Imaginative Play
  • K – Knowledge
  • M – Making
  • P – Participation
  • R – Reward
  • U – Undoing
  • Z – Zzzzz… (Sleep)

Obviously, ordering the items in this way destroys the neat ordering of the alphabet. However, it allows you to think about learning in a way that’s more connected to the way that students learn. The above table could be further refined by ordering the approaches within these three buckets. For instance, contrasting cases are particularly effective when paired with worked examples.

The Alphabet Song

Despite the relatively short length of this review, The ABCs of How We Learn is a great book to help improve your teaching. Each of the approaches is covered in a bite-sized chunk that you can easily read in a few minutes. That means in less than a month you can get through it. If you’re an educator – formally or informally – it’s worth learning The ABCs of How We Learn.

Book Review-Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results

It was a few months ago and I was speaking at a healthy workforce conference. The goal was to improve the conditions for employees in healthcare. I was listening to another speaker on the topic of emotional intelligence, and she strongly recommended Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, so I picked it up and added it to my backlog. It was interesting because I hadn’t heard of the book before; and I’ve at least heard of most of the conversation, dialogue, and emotional intelligence books.


Before I spend time with the content, I need to share a frustration with Conversational Intelligence. Perhaps it’s just me, but I prefer to approach my work and writing from the perspective best captured in the Isaac Newton quote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Most of my writings are book reviews, because they’re inspired by the books that I’m reading. While I may take large tangents from the book’s material, I want to credit, directly and indirectly, the book for prompting the thinking and the authors as being the giants whose shoulders I’m standing on.

Conversational Intelligence seems, at times at least, to take an opposite point of view. Let me provide one example where I should have seen parallels but instead saw a lack of attribution. The language was too close to be accidental but far enough away to indicate a desire for the ideas presented to be Glaser’s original idea – whether they were or not.

The most compelling example of this is the “Ladder of Conclusions”. I’ve written about Chris Argyris’ “Ladder of Inference” (most recently in my review of Choice Theory). Glaser’s Ladder of Conclusions seems to be a nearly direct rip off of Argyris’ Ladder of Inference. However, even the references are devoid of Argyris’ work.

The number of references are curiously short for each chapter and for the book itself. So, while there’s useful repackaging of content in Conversational Intelligence, it’s frustrating that the original “giants” aren’t credited.


Our ability to share intention (see The Righteous Mind) has led to the ability to communicate; ever since, we’ve been building on this firm basis of communication. While communication isn’t intent and it doesn’t allow us to capture a perfect representation of what someone else has in their head, it’s a starting point from which we can develop shared understanding – if we’re willing to put in the work.

Conversational Intelligence works backwards, from our quality of life through our cultures and relationships to our conversations. I prefer to build up from conversation and think about the relationships that develop (or emerge) from conversations. I think about our organizations and cultures as the network of the relationships that we have. For me, conversations are the foundation from which we can develop our relationships and become more connected.

Conversation Cornucopia

When considering how other books speak of communication, I was struck by the realization that nearly every book that I read places communication in a position of prominence. This is obvious in books with titles like Crucial Conversations; but communication is a thread that runs through the heart of nearly every book on leadership and management. Kotter spends a great deal of time in Buy-In discussing how to communicate with people who might block a proposal. More subtly, The Science of Trust focuses on simple communications strategies that couples can use to have better relationships and reduce their chance of divorce. The Dance of Connection talks about conversations as a way that we make connections with others.

All of this leads to the same place that Conversational Intelligence is going. That is, we want to have a real dialogue with people. (An excellent discussion of the distinction between communication and a true dialogue is available in the book Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together.) Conversational Intelligence speaks about dialogue as the natural outcome of high trust. While I don’t believe that high trust necessarily creates dialogue, I do believe it’s a prerequisite.


Trust is in and of itself a difficult topic to nail down. Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace and Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships and Life have two different approaches to breaking down the components of trust. Both have merit, as I discussed in Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy. However, more interesting than defining trust is exploring the impact that it has on societies. The degree of trust and the relative trust between different groups has a profound impact on the ways that societies develop, as discussed in Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order.

At an individual level, it’s trust that drives the capacity for vulnerability. At a societal level, it removes the friction associated with distrust. Contracts are easier and conflicts are quicker to resolve. Conversational Intelligence speaks of levels, with the lowest level being “ask and tell”, Level I, associated with low trust, progressing to Level III high trust, which Glaser calls “co-creation”.

Glaser provides a five-step model for building trust – which I’d argue is more about deep communication than the development of trust. My paraphrasing of the model appears below.

 Step Keyword Objective Getting Started Focus
1 Transparency Quelling Fear Acknowledge fears Communicate how those fears (concerns) can be worked through
2 Relationship Coherence Seek commonality Appreciate the person and the value of working together
3 Understanding Dialogue Suspend judgement and focus on truly understanding other perspectives as much as possible We don’t perceive the whole of reality, we need others to get a complete view
4 Shared Success Teamwork For all of us to succeed, we all must succeed We need to win together
5 Truth Telling Empathy and Truth Establish empathy for the perspective of the other person Seek and speak your collective truths

The development of trust does more than lubricate conversations and develop our societies. It changes our brains and our bodies as well.


The impact of stress on our bodies is the focus of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (see my three-part review: The Causes and the Cure for Stress, The Physical Impact of Stress, and The Psychology and Neurology of Stress. Much of stress is driven by our lack of trust – in others and in our environment. The release of cortisol (a stress hormone) can live in our bodies for 26 hours – and come back each time a stressful situation is “replayed” with a new person. We can quite literally keep ourselves in a state of anger and aggression and stress – if we choose to.

The long-term impacts of this stress have been shown to reduce the average lifespan. Literally, folks are stressing themselves to death because they don’t trust the people around them. Given that trust is a choice, choosing situations where trust isn’t an option or choosing not to trust isn’t good for your health.


Conversational Intelligence has many mnemonic acronyms as tools for having better conversations. One of them is STAR: Skills That Achieve Results. Specifically, the skills being referred to are:

  • building rapport
  • listening without judgment
  • asking discovery questions
  • reinforcing success
  • dramatizing the message

These skills are reminiscent of the skills that Motivational Interviewing uses. It reflects the knowledge that the best therapists have when they’re trying to get into deep conversations and create alliance. (See The Heart and Soul of Change for more on alliance.)


From my point of view, because of the lack of attribution and the desire to learn more about the sources of information, Conversational Intelligence isn’t the first book to pick-up on conversations. However, there is solid content and very little reason to disagree. If you’re finding that you’re not connecting with the language in books like Crucial Conversations, maybe you should pick up Conversational Intelligence and see how it goes.

Book Review-Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness

I’ve been a consultant for 25 years or so. In that time, I’ve seen some truly stellar organizations, a lot of so-so organizations, and a few that are seriously dysfunctional. When I was prompted in a session to take a look at the book Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness, I knew that I had to take a look. I wanted to know why some organizations operated one way, and others operated completely differently.

Colored Point of View

In Reinventing Organizations, cultures and organizations are stratified into colors and defining words based on their perceived maturity:

Color Keyword Description
Infrared Reactive There’s not much organization here, it’s simply reacting to what is around.
Magenta Magic The self is the center of the universe, and there’s little understanding of how things operate. The world is a magical place.
Red Impulsive The world is seen as dangerous and hostile. Survival depends upon being perceived as strong and tough.
Amber Conformist Rulers have come to power and survival depends upon your ability to fit in and not upset the rulers.
Orange Achievement The key is achieving things. The more that you have, the better you are. It’s about status and the brands you display. (See Affinity Groups.)
Green Pluralistic The concern here is fairness, universality, and the need to protect the future.
Teal Evolutionary Self-actualization and self-management are key. Organizations are places where people can bring their whole selves.

Theory U and Leading from the Emerging Future

One of the most pervasive thoughts when reading Reinventing Organizations is that there are parallels between Laloux’s work and Otto Scharmer’s views in Theory U – and particularly as the concepts are expressed in Leading from the Emerging Future. Specifically, Otto believes in four levels of organization, which are listed below with my mapping to Leloux’s colors:

  • State-centric (red) – hierarchy and control
  • Free market (orange) – markets and competition
  • Social market (green) – networks and negotiation
  • Co-creative (teal) – seeing and acting from the whole

The match in these models is relatively good. Otto seems to skip the amber/conformist stage but otherwise the stages line up very well.

Generational Evolution

Evolution doesn’t typically work in terms of a single generation; however, when I revisited my notes from America’s Generations, I saw a roughly similar pattern happening between Laloux’s organizations and the generations that Underwood describes:

  • G.I. Generation (red) – They conquered. They had their victories.
  • Silents (amber) – They did what they were told and expected to be rewarded later.
  • Baby Boomers (orange) – They were the original personal achievers.
  • Generation X (orange-green) – Most Gen Xers were still heavily invested in achievements of their own but a growing number of them were focused on more global concerns and wanting to make a difference.
  • Millennials (green-teal) – Millennials are high purpose and, having been trained in working together, they have the capacity to be self-managed. The struggle preventing real teal is a struggle with self-actualization, because they’ve never been held accountable.

While there’s some breakage at the end, in general the generations seem to fit into Laloux’s color identified models.

Joy and Creativity

Some organizations claim to have conquered the organizational evolution mountain. Pixar, in Creativity, Inc., is described as a healthy organization where everyone has a voice in the creative process – but stops well short of what Laloux would call “teal” because of the lack of self-management. Similarly, the software development consulting company, Menlo Innovations, claims to have cracked the code in Joy, Inc.. However, while their ideas are absolutely green, there’s some question about whether they rise to the level of an organization where people are self-managing. While Laloux has his own set of teal organizations, it seems some of the existing organizational darlings won’t make the list.

What this demonstrates to me is that not every organization that is effective would be considered effective. In fact, Laloux makes the point that one level isn’t better or worse than another. There are evolutions that are more adapted to the conditions of society or the market. Within each level, there are healthy and unhealthy expressions. This reminded me of the healthy and unhealthy expressions in the enneagram as described in Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery. For instance, giving everyone an equal voice – prized in green organizations – means that anyone in the organization can block the group if their whims and wishes are not incorporated.

Moving on Up

If we, for a moment, accept that the environment you’re operating in could support a higher level of operation, how do we get there? There’s no three steps to the next level. Instead there are factors that lead to the conditions needed to make the leap. Chief among the factors is the operating level of the leaders in the organization. If they’re operating at a red or amber level, there’s little hope that you’ll be able to get the power of teal unleashed for you. That is, after all, the unstated expectation that more productivity comes from higher levels.

Twelve-step groups will tell you that the pain of staying the same must be greater than the pain of changing. Laloux says that the person must feel safe enough to explore their inner conflicts. Together, this indicates that we need to make people aware of the current pain and how there’s a better life available. Then we must create the space for people to want to make the leap themselves.

Some won’t make the leap, and the organization will need to decide about whether it can wait for the personal growth of one of the members, or whether that person needs to find another opportunity at another organization.

Self-Control and Awareness

The cornerstone of Emotional Intelligence is self-awareness, which can be leveraged to reach self-control. This is much easier said than done. Building an ability to remain calm when confronted with aggravating situations is a life goal. Richard Moon (in Dialogue) points out that “centering” is an ongoing practice. It’s not, he says, that the great masters of aikido never lose their center. They only discover it sooner, and recover it faster, than novices.

Teal organizations require more emotional intelligence, self-actualization, and self-management to function properly. Simple rules like never using force (physical or emotional) against other people and honoring your commitments are very difficult. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more on honoring commitments.)

Being Yourself

At levels lower than teal (and perhaps green), work is somehow separate from who a person really is. To go to work, you must to put on your costume, including mental and emotional masks, and a uniform that’s approved by the organization. Teal organizations seek to accept that people are human and not cogs in a larger machine.

In my post How to Be Yourself, I explained the analogy of holding milk to your side and how exhausting the need to project a false image can be. Organizations that can be accepting of employees as they are – of employees’ whole selves – create the opportunity for the individuals to develop into the kind of employees that can function well in a teal environment.

Coaching for Everyone

I’ve long believed that coaching has the capacity to improve performance. Anders Ericsson explains in Peak how purposeful practice – especially in conjunction with a coach – can improve performance. Coachbook describes a set of tools that can be used to coach inside your organization. Laloux makes the point that, unlike other organizations who use coaching only for their executives and their high potential leaders, teal organizations make coaching a core practice. Instead of reserving the process only for a select few, they integrate it throughout the organization.

While I see this as a laudable goal, it’s an expensive proposition. The amount of time needed to perform individual coaching is why I created Discovered Truths as an alternative to needing individualized coaching for everyone. Certainly, if you can afford to do coaching for everyone it’s great, but most organizations struggle to push down coaching even to a management or supervisory level due to the cost.

Twenty Years and a Day

One of the profiled companies speaks of the need to look 20 years in the future and plan for the next day. This simple statement encapsulates a beautiful harmony between vision and planning. Vision is focused on the horizon and beyond. It’s about seeing where you want to be so long from now that there’s no way to know the exact path.

Effective planning is about organizing only the work which you can understand enough to prepare for effectively. That is only those things that you know well enough to anticipate the problems.

In looking 20 years into the future, we set our destination. By planning only for the next day, we focus on what we can plan for – instead of making plans that can never be executed because of the shifting sands of our world.

Purpose First, Financial Success Second

In the end, the teal organization is an organization where the purpose and the passion of the organization are so pervasive that success flows naturally. Like Red Goldfish, Reinventing Organizations says that, if we start with our purpose – or corporate responsibility – we find that success flows. Maybe it’s time for you to Reinvent Organizations by bringing your real, passionate self to work.

Book Revisited: Theory U

This post is a bit odd in that it’s not a book review – but it’s about a book and more broadly about a theory. This post is about Otto Scharmer’s Theory U. The book Theory U expresses the ideas from a personal context, and Otto’s subsequent book Leading from the Emerging Future expresses the same ideas from group, cultural and societal perspectives. Recently, I was given a chance to revisit my thinking on this material – and very shortly after that finished a book with strong correlation by another author. (That review is forthcoming.) This pressed upon me the importance of Otto’s work – and the need to make it more accessible. In this post, I endeavor to pull together the other places where echoes of Theory U can be found and attempt to weave together a concrete story about how people can grow through a process that looks like Theory U.

Seven Inflection Points of Theory U

My objective is to talk about the seven inflection points of Theory U, and more importantly how to move from one inflection point to another. The seven inflection points are:

  • Downloading – Reacting to patterns of the past and viewing the world from inside your mind.
  • Seeing – Suspending judgement and accepting that our perception of reality isn’t the only one.
  • Sensing – Seeing from the perspective of the system that we’re all a part of.
  • Presencing – Transitioning our thinking from the present to the future.
  • Crystalizing – Experimenting with our mental model and investigating possible futures. Identifying paths forward that are the “best.”
  • Prototyping – Developing small-scale tests that validate whether our mental models are right.
  • Performing – Implementing the changes we prototyped in to the larger systems of our lives and our world.

I’ll explore each of these in the following sections and talk about how to move from one inflection point to the next.


At this inflection point, we’re not really paying attention. Like the number of stop lights we passed while coming into the office the last time, we’re just not focused and engaged. We stop our car at stop lights automatically. We don’t have to pay attention – so we don’t. We use our patterns and our history so that we don’t have to engage our brains.

Engagement, or attention, is processed in a part of our brains called the reticular activating system. In addition to attention, it regulates our sleep-wake cycle. It’s the gas pedal that decides how much energy to use at any given time. The more engaged our reticular activating system is, the more engaged we are. It responds to conscious control at times, but also responds to pattern recognition. That’s why when you buy a new car, you suddenly recognize all the other people on the road who have the same car as you. The reticular activating system sees the pattern and pays more attention. (You can find out more about the reticular activating system in Change or Die.)

When the reticular activating system is in full power mode, we switch from a lizard-like, automatic stimulus-response processing into a more thoughtful, primate-like rational thinking. When we do this, we have the capacity to transcend our previous patterns and move towards making conscious decisions about how we see the world and how we listen. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for a detailed conversation about these different systems of thinking.) While research indicates that our brains have a power consumption cap, it’s a high-cap. They vary, but estimates of the brain’s power consumption generally fall into the range of 20-30% of our body’s entire energy processing. Contrast that with the roughly 2% of our body mass, and you can see why having a regulator for our energy consumption is an important tool. (You can find more about our brains having a fixed capacity for energy (glucose) processing in The Rise of Superman, and more about glucose problems in the brain in The End of Memory.)

We spend most of our time with the reticular activating system in the off position. Expressed in the language of Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis and Dan and Chip Heath from Switch, we have a small, rational rider sitting on the back of a big, emotional elephant wandering down the default path. That is, we believe our rational selves oversee our walk, but more often the elephant is the one walking – and she’s taking the easy path.

If we want to move from downloading to seeing, we need to press down on the gas and pay attention – so we can move to rational thought about what we’re doing. We must wake our rider and have them steer our elephant to more productive paths.


In our lizard brains, there’s no room for anyone else’s perspective. It’s simple pattern-matching. If we’ve seen the pattern before, then we’ll expect the same outcomes. This is particularly true if we felt fear when we saw that pattern before. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on what happens in our brains when we are stressed.) However, how we perceive reality isn’t reality. It’s a trick that our brain plays on us. It makes up any missing data and doesn’t let us know it’s doing it. David Eagleman in Incognito artfully explains many ways that our brains lie to us and keep us from realizing the holes in our processing.

Another scholar, Chris Argyris (whose book, Organizational Traps, is very good), applies a ladder to why we have different perspectives. In my review of Choice Theory, I mentioned Argyris’ ladder of interference and how we see the same data and experiences, from which we select the data that is important to us (thanks to our reticular activating system), we apply meaning to that data, then we make assumptions, draw conclusions, develop beliefs, and finally take actions. Since everything except for the first rung of the ladder is internally generated, it’s quite easy for two people can view the same incident differently. The easiest way to see this is to watch the commentary after a political debate. Amazingly, both sides will have both won and lost – if you listen to all the perspectives.

That’s at the heart of seeing, which is listening to all the perspectives and keeping space to pay attention to another person, and accept and appreciate that their perspective is different than yours and there’s some amount of truth to it. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on attention, acceptance, and appreciation – as well as affection and allowing.)

What moves you from seeing to sensing is an appreciation for the fact that we’re all related and that everything in life is a system of relationships – not just individual objects on which the laws of cause and effect apply.


When Gary Klein started researching fire captains, as he describes in Sources of Power, he was trying to capture their essential insight into the inner workings of fires and how they could direct firefighters. Much to his dismay, the fire captains resisted his assertion that they followed a rational decision-making process. They further frustrated him with an inability to explain what they were seeing, until he realized that they had developed a mental model of how fires worked and quickly simulated how the fires were operating and what they could do to change the outcomes. They had discovered the internal systems that drove the fires.

A more systematic approach to systems is decomposing the system into its component parts and understanding the relationships. This substantially more explicit approach is well covered in Thinking in Systems. It presents a detailed view of how the different stocks and flows influence systems. With an understanding of these components, it’s possible to simulate what might happen in the system the same way that fire captains could simulate what a fire would do.

Whether you’re walking down the implicit – sometimes called “tacit” – approach to understanding the world you’re in and how it reacts to an explicit approach, both lead to the same result. That is the ability to see changes in a system in a way that results in a positive desired outcome. (See The New Edge in Knowledge for more on tacit vs. explicit knowledge.)

Two words of caution are appropriate for systems thinking. First, Everett Rogers explains in Diffusion of Innovations that you can’t always predict the outcomes that you’ll get. Sometimes, introducing steel axe heads can degenerate an entire culture. Second, Horst Rittel describes “wicked” problems that are difficult to solve. Among other attributes, a wicked problem is one where the very actions you take to solve the problem change it. This means that the actual actions you take based on your awareness of the challenge makes it change – often in unpredictable ways. (See Dialogue Mapping for more on wicked problems.)

You move into presencing when you’re ready to use the mental model you’ve built to test ways to make your life – and your world – better. (Even if it means that you might not have accounted for all the things that you don’t know – like The Black Swan – that may come along.)


Presencing is about listening to the world around you, disconnecting from your ego and will, and just being present. Buddhists believe that inappropriate attachment is a bad thing. Detachment is a virtue to be struggled for. (The Dali Lama’s book My Spiritual Journey is a good way to learn more about Buddhist detachment.) Christians speak of pride, lust, and greed – basically valuing ourselves more highly than we should or than we value others. Christians are implored to become less connected to their ego. Paul’s writings in the New Testament about strength through Christ and stories like the good Samaritan lead to this separation of ego from the person’s behaviors. (Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership is a difficult but worthy read about being a servant through becoming selfless.)

From a mystical point of view, it’s connecting to “the source.” Fundamentally, this is about shutting down the right parietal lobe of our brains. This is the portion of our brain that draws the line between us and not-us. When this portion of the brain is shut off during flow or intense meditation, we literally feel like we’re at one with the universe. In this state, we’ve no separate ego from the ego of the universe and therefore it can’t impede our view of the world around us. (See Stealing Fire for more about neurology and how our brains get to altered states of consciousness.)

With the perspective of oneness, we can move towards problem solving, and moving ourselves and our society forward. We move toward crystalizing plans of action.


Every inflection point up to this point has been about the present. Each has been about our experience in the here and now. With crystalizing, we being to move towards shaping and creating our future. Instead of being aware of the gaps in our perception of reality and developing models to help us understand the current reality, we begin to push forward into the future. This starts by moving our models into the future and seeing what results those models generate. (The Time Paradox talks about individuals’ predisposition to see things in terms of the past, present, or future, so it may be that taking this step is difficult if you have a past or present focus.)

As we begin to crystalize our thoughts on outcomes we could expect with relatively small changes in input, we need to develop the skills to socialize those thoughts. We don’t need to create buy-in as much as we need to test our understandings to see what others believe. (The book Buy-In is a useful tool for generating buy-in when you’re ready to move past exploration.)

Tools like active listening (see Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training
for more on active listening) and techniques like motivational interviewing are good ways to begin to create the open and safe conversations necessary to effectively dialogue about potential futures. The book Motivational Interviewing is a good way to learn more about motivational interviewing. Ultimately William Isaacs wrote Dialogue to help us get into the state of dialogue with others that is essential to refining and socializing our ideas.

Moving from talk to action takes us to the next inflection point, where we prototype our proposed solution so we can test it.


In software development and Internet software as a service, there’s an “MVP”. The MVP is the minimum viable product. It’s what the organization needs to do to be minimally acceptable to the market – at least what they believe is minimally necessary for the market to adopt the product. This same concept applies to every idea we have for ourselves and our worlds. (See Launch! for more on the MVP.)

I love MythBusters – the Discovery channel show – where, invariably, they blow something up. My appreciation for the show isn’t exclusively the explosions. What I love is the process where they create a small-scale prototype and then scale up from there to their final experiment. What this does is allows them to learn and bring more knowledge to the end solution. When they’ve failed to prototype well, they’ve failed their experiments rather spectacularly. Prototyping, and accepting failure as a method of learning, is critical to anything we want to do in our lives.

Good prototypes even seek out failure modes. We create them with the idea that we’re looking to see what could fail, or how we could test our assumptions such that the failure teaches us something. With prototypes, we’re looking for high rates of failure and a high velocity of tests. (See The Righteous Mind for how we fail to test our assumptions for failure.)

Once our prototypes are done, once we know what will – and what won’t – work, we’re in the position to finally start performing.


Once we know what to do, it’s time to systematize the process of production. Gerber, in The E-Myth Revisited, talks about the need for systems and for the owner of an organization to make everything repeatable. Franchisors are successful because of their ability to create a system that anyone can follow for results, and that’s how we can perform in our life. That is not to say that we need to have an operations manual for our life, but rather we should instill the practices which work for us in a repeatable way. For instance, I’m reading and reviewing a book each week. That – for me – works to re-center, to think deeply, and to rejuvenate my soul. It’s a part of my weekly routine. It’s not rigid, but it’s a flexible framework that I use.

Performing for each person, and each organization, will be different. It’s important that performing provide you with the energy you need to find the next area of your life to get deeper into and to grow.

In Summary

I recognize that no quick article can do justice to a process as rich as Theory U; however, it’s my hope that this post provides a framework for thinking about Theory U that’s practical.

Book Review-Red Goldfish: Motivating Sales and Loyalty Through Shared Passion and Purpose

Goldfish aren’t the first thing that you think about when you’re thinking about growth or profit, at least if you’re not a goldfish farmer. Goldfish are the pets that you don’t have to walk or bathe. They’re safe for kids. But, as it turns out, they’ve got a story to tell about how to grow and be successful, and it’s not the growth that happens from a single-minded focus on something. Goldfish aren’t exactly known for their single-minded, unwavering focus. Red Goldfish: Motivating Sales and Loyalty Through Shared Passion and Purpose, however, takes the wanderings of a goldfish and explains how they’re powerful.

Inspiring Minds Want to Know

Is it a job? Is it a career? Or maybe, just maybe, is it a mission? Some of us get a chance to live out our professional lives not in a dreary job created to move another widget across the line, but instead getting to do something extraordinary. This isn’t the kind of white washing that Tom Sawyer did in Huckleberry Finn to get his friends to paint the fence for him. It’s a genuine belief that there’s a reason to what we’re doing.

A job doesn’t inspire. A career doesn’t truly inspire. While it may motivate us to do more and reach higher levels of status and prestige, it isn’t inspiring us. Inspiration is something different. Inspiration isn’t bound to where we’ll end up, but is instead focused on how we can grow the world.

Capturing this inspiration, this drive, is what every organization wants to do. The research shows that the more engaged a workforce is – the more inspired that they’re making a difference –the fewer negative events like turnover the organization will see and the more positive results like profitability they’ll see.

How to Inspire

Inspiration isn’t the result of a formula. It’s not a finely-crafted plan. It’s the result of the right conditions and a spark that ignites a fire. In the companies that Red Goldfish looks at, there’s a leader with a mission. That mission comes from deep inside of them and infects some of those people who are near them. These people join the organization, and before long the entire organization becomes focused.

At some level, organizations seek to hire those folks who are able to be inspired, and at another level they seek to hire those who are already inspired. They’re looking for the people who already have caught the same bug that their owner did. Not that every hire in every organization matches the profile of someone who can be inspired. However, many a leader has experienced what happens when we hire for skill instead of character or mission.

Inspiration comes from knowing – or at least finding – a purpose.


Today everyone, particularly millennials (see America’s Generations), are becoming more aware of how connected we are and more concerned with global and humanitarian issues. (See Leading from the Emerging Future for more.) There is the emergence of conscious capitalism and B Corps that move organizations from engines that drive capital to organizations that are a force for good on the planet. Instead of ignoring the downstream effects of the organization’s life, there is an awareness and focus on how to improve them and leave the world a little better place – in ways beyond creating value for the employees and owners.

For each of the organizations reviewed, that purpose is slightly different. The mark that they hope to leave on the world reflects the quirks of their founders and the people that join them. From the humble purposes of creating spaces for people to the more direct objectives of changing the way people think about the environment, organizations are pursuing their own purpose.

Pursuit of Wisdom and Money

In A Philosopher’s Notes, there is a small reference to the Hindu gods Lakshmi and Sarawati, which I recounted in my review of The Heretics Guide to Management. The short version of the story is that Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth who runs away when people pursue her. Her sister Sarawati is the goddess of knowledge. When you pursue her, the jealous Lakshmi comes running after you. In other words, seeking knowledge and wisdom leads to wealth but seeking wealth directly leads to nothing.

The same can be said of purpose. There are many organizations which have grown because people want to be a part of the good that they’re doing in the world. There are many organizations that benefit from their purpose. They are not profitable because they chase it. They’re profitable because they’re chasing their mission, and the profits come to them.

Limits to Growth

Back to our goldfish. Goldfish vary in size a great deal. The standard carnival goldfish is tiny. It doesn’t get large, because it doesn’t have much room and the food supply is limited. There are five factors that control the ultimate size of a goldfish from 3-4″ to nearly 20″. These five factors have business equivalents as shown in the table below:

Goldfish Business
Size of bowl or pond Market
Number of other goldfish in the pond Competition
Nutrients/cloudiness in water Economy
Its first 120 days of life Startup/New Product
Its genetic make-up Differentiation

The overall size of the growth of your organization is limited by these factors. Of these, the ones that you have the most control of are the launch of new products (see Launch!) and your differentiation. Can you use your purpose as a way of differentiating your organization – to allow it to grow?

Organization Types and Sub-Types

Red Goldfish breaks down the organizations that are driving passion and purpose into eight major categories – and several subcategories – as follows:

  • The Protector – “Those who protect what is important.”
    • Greenwashing
    • General good unrelated to the business model
    • Responsible manufacturing
    • Adding general good to an existing business model
    • Adding specific good directly related to the product to an existing business model
    • Building product and purpose in tandem
    • Starting with a desire to protect and build a product completely dedicated to the purpose
  • The Liberator – “Those who reinvent a broken system.”
    • Stakeholder Liberators – advocates with a focus on improving the situation for customers, vendors, stockholders, and employees. Here are the types:
      • Shaking off an oppressor
      • Liberate employees
      • Liberate customers
    • Business Practice Liberators – companies with a focus on better business practices. They seek to improve on innovation, workflow, process, and business operations. Here are the types:
      • Workflow liberators
      • Manufacturing liberators
      • Technology liberators
      • Product feature liberators
  • The Designer – “Those who empower through the creation of revolutionary products.”
    • Functionality designers
    • Artistic designers
    • Product feature designers
    • Customer experience designers
    • High-tech designers
    • Protecting designers
  • The Guide – “Those who help facilitate individual progress.”
    • Information empowerers
    • Teachers
    • Champions
    • Nurturers
  • The Advocate – “Those who advocate for a tribe.”
    • Advocating for an empowered constituency
    • Helping the misfortunate
    • Honoring service
    • Empowering through education
    • Empowering a cause
    • Defending the powerless
  • The Challenger – “Those who inspire people toward transformative action.”
    • General excellence as a goal
    • Build and empower a community
    • Lifestyle
    • Build a better system
    • Solve a problem
  • The Unifier – “Those who command individuals to join a movement.”
    • Community builders
    • Revolutionaries
    • Uplifters
    • Supporters
  • The Master – “Those on a mission to change lives and improve the world.”
    • Changing lives by building revenue models that pull people up from poverty
    • Changing lives through technical innovation
    • Changing lives through capital investment
    • Changing lives by connecting suppliers & buyers in more efficient ways
    • Changing lives through free enterprise philanthropy
    • Changing lives by providing healthy alternatives

Fish Food

One of the greatest challenges that I’ve personally had in my organization has been figuring out what the purpose is, the fish food that I’m going to feed the organization to allow it to grow to be what it needs to be. It’s not the lack of ideas but the need to refine them into compelling missions that has been the most challenging. In the end, Red Goldfish was some fish food – to help me grow my thinking about what our purpose is and what we can do to live it out. Do you need to get a Red Goldfish to find your purpose?

Book Review-The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Morality isn’t a place where most people stumble – or rather, it’s not a place where most people stumble into their reading. Plenty of people struggle with other people’s morality while quietly sweeping their own under the rug. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion doesn’t give away that the book is about moral principles and what is – and isn’t – moral. However, this is the core of the work. I stumbled on it while researching some other topics and realizing that Jonathan Haidt had written it. His previous work, The Happiness Hypothesis, contains the single-most useful tool in my tool bag for understanding myself and others. That is his Rider-Elephant-Path model. (The path is an extension by Dan and Chip Heath that shows up in Switch.) On this alone, I would have picked up the book.

However, I had another reason to read it. I was trying to reconcile Predictably Irrational’s statement that we love the stuff we have more than the things we don’t – and the knowledge that we have covetousness in our societies. While I didn’t resolve this discrepancy, I feel like I’ve made progress on understanding how one set of foundations can lead us to two different conclusions.

Morality isn’t a Bug

Before we set to understanding how morality works, it’s important to recognize that morality was built into humans. It’s the product of natural selection – not an unintended side effect. While Darwin believed in “survival of the fittest,” he was also fascinated with morality and how humans could develop it. The answer to Darwin’s puzzle seems to be that groups that collaborate internally are better prepared to compete with other groups who are not as good at collaborating.

Morality, it seems, is a system put in place to enhance our ability to work together as cohesive units. Group effectiveness is enhanced by collaboration and our ability to set aside our individual needs for the needs of the greater good. (For more on collaboration, see Collaborative Intelligence.) All things being equal, those groups of animals who are best able to collaborate and function as a single, multi-part organism are best suited for survival. Early human tribes and societies survived because of their ability to work together.

It seems that the idea of reciprocal altruism is woven into the fabric of our genes. Somewhere we picked up the skill of bonding into groups and leveraging our ability to give to others as a way for everyone in the group to gain more benefits. Something about this reciprocal altruism was different than our animal kingdom peers.

Crossing the Rubicon of Shared Intention

Points of distinct change are related back to the Roman army crossing the Rubicon river towards Rome – something Caesar did that broke Roman law. The Rubicon crossing became known as a defining moment or a signal of an important change. In searching for the moment when humans became collaborative, scientists and historians have sought this “Rubicon crossing”. Many scientists believe that it was the introduction of language that allowed us to start to work together and therefore collaborate. However, Haidt argues that the real Rubicon was slightly earlier, when we picked up a neat little trick of shared intention.

With the trick of shared intention, we could look into each other’s minds and see a singular idea that was shared. Our hunter-gatherer forefathers could suddenly work together on a hunt and reap the collective rewards. This was the true transition for us. Language came later as a natural consequence of our desire to take the shared intention we could visually communicate into something that was easier to achieve.

Partially Resolved Issues with Dunbar

With this, I struggle to resolve the claim that humans are the only animals with shared intention, and therefore the need to be hyper-social, as indicated by Robin Dunbar’s work equating neocortex size in primates with the size of their social groups. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on Dunbar’s number.) If you can predict the sociability of primates through neocortex size, then how can shared intention be a characteristic of only humans? At some level socialization has to be about shared intent, right?

Michael Tomasello, one of the world’s foremost experts on chimpanzee cognition, uttered, “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.” It seems like this would be a basic form of cooperation and collaboration, but chimps don’t do it. They can’t manage the neuro-social concept of shared intention. While it may be hard for you and your brother coordinate when to lift and where to set down a couch, chimps have no capacity for it at all.

To resolve this discrepancy, I reviewed Dunbar’s writings and found that his article “The Social Brain Hypothesis” raises the question about shared intentionality. He refers to the human capacity as “theory of mind.” Dunbar describes this as “intentionality 2.0,” with chimps being capable of something like “intentionality 1.5.” In short, I don’t feel as if this discrepancy is fully addressed, but do accept that it’s one of the contested areas of anthropology and one which hopefully will become clearer soon. After all, it can be that this discrepancy may be part of why humans have been able to control our planet.

Foundations of Morality

Haidt argues that there are six foundations for morality:

  1. Care/Harm – The need to care for others and minimize harm.
  2. Fairness/Cheating – The need to ensure that there’s a fairness, and no one is cheating the system.
  3. Loyalty/Betrayal – The need to ensure that we’re loyal to others and minimize our betrayals.
  4. Authority/Subversion – The need to accept authority and avoid subversion of that authority.
  5. Sanctity/Degradation – The need for cleanliness and respect for those things of deity and avoidance for those things which are figuratively unclean.
  6. Liberty/Oppression – The need for freedom and the prevention of oppression of others.

Interestingly, we each view these individual foundations with different importance. While nearly everyone accepts the bedrock foundation of care/harm as a formation for morality, political liberals lean more heavily on only the first two (care/harm, fairness/cheating), political conservatives rely on the next three (loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation).

It’s worth noting that the sixth foundation evolved after some of the initial research, so liberty/oppression isn’t represented in the comparisons of liberals and conservatives. Of the first five, care/harm and fairness/cheating were more highly regarded by all But when asked about endorsements, conservatives were more interested in authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression above the concerns for care/harm and fairness/cheating – at least in the very conservative camp.

The difference in the relevance and importance of these foundations seems to cause a great deal of conflict – particularly in politics.

Conflict Resolution

When I speak about conflict resolution, I argue that all conflict only has one of two causes. It either is because of a value difference or a perspective difference. In doing so, I typically use Reiss’ model from Who Am I? and The Normal Personality to describe the 16 factors that influence behavior. However, when I mapped out the alignment between Haidt’s morality foundations and Reiss’ model, I found that the care/harm foundation seemed to have no allegory in Reiss’ work, and several of Reiss’ basic desires seemed to have no moral foundation (curiosity, saving, romance, eating, physical activity, and tranquility).

It seems that these moral foundations don’t match Reiss’ research on motivations very well. While we may be moral creatures, our morality isn’t always defined as a basic desire.

Recognizing Morality

While researching morality, and when children first develop their sense of morality, it becomes apparent that a child’s conception of morality is incomplete – and it changes. When hearing stories or asked about morality, children initially base their sense of morality on whether the person is punished or not. Except, it seems, when someone in the story is directly harmed. However, quickly in childhood development they develop a sense between those things which are “special, important, unalterable, and universal” rules that must always be followed and which ones are seemingly arbitrary and changeable.

For instance, rules about hair styles, food, clothing, and the like are social conventions rather than something which is based on a strong moral foundation. This insight – the difference between moral imperatives and social conventions – is what allowed the Jesuits to so effectively navigate the waters of their initial posts into other societies. Heroic Leadership recounts that there were several situations where the Jesuits had to step outside of their traditional religious trappings like clothing and adopt an approach that was more socially acceptable – while at the same time remaining true to their core moral beliefs.

Nature vs. Nurture

If children’s views on morality seem to have some basis in what they’ve known since birth, but then change over time, where does that leave us on the nature vs. nurture question? An ingenious model for nature and nurture was devised by Gary Marcus. He says, “nature bestows upon the newborn a considerably complex brain, but one that is best seen as prewired – flexible and subject to change – rather than hardwired, fixed, and immutable.” That is, we start with something, but our experiences – particularly our peer experiences – can rewire the functioning.

He goes on to suggest an analogy: “The brain is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood.” I would add here that it’s not just the genes that influence the brain’s development. Prenatal conditions – particularly stress conditions – can dramatically influence the structure of the developing fetus, leading to non-genetic changes in the development. (Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers discussed fetal origins of adult disease – which explains how this works.)

It seems like genetics can account for one-third to one-half of the variability among people’s political attitudes – the rest of the differences in political perspective can be explained by their experiences in life. However, nurture – or our environment – plays a role in shaping genetics as well. It’s not a one-way street.

Genetics and Coevolution

Humans, as we began to live in agrarian societies, developed an odd genetic change. As we domesticated animals which produced milk consistently, we had access to lactose, the kind of sugar in milk. Typically, mammals lose their ability to use lactose after childhood. However, when there’s a ready supply of milk, those who can process the lactose in milk have an advantage against starvation compared to those who can’t process lactose. Thus, it is believed that humans (most of us) developed the ability to continue to use the sugar in milk, even as adults.

This is just one of the many ways where our genes coevolved with the way that we created societies. For instance, Tibetans have genetic changes to create blood more conducive to their high-altitude living. As we change how – and where – we live, our genes change.

The Need for Communities

There are some unique challenges that happen once we collaborate. The benefit of having a group of people working together creates additional value that spills over to every member of the group – even if one member of the group isn’t doing anything to help the group. More broadly, when we’re building communities, we must address anyone who isn’t helping the group. This can range from the slacker, who simply isn’t doing their share; to the free-rider, who is doing nothing; to people who are actively trying to extract value at the cost of other members, the cheaters who undermine the trust and altruism that drives the ability for the community to function. Collaboration calls this problem “social loafing”. The problem operates at every level of group, from the largest organizations to the smallest teams.

We evolved with a bias towards communities that were working, and therefore we developed a set of morals that supported the development of those communities. Trust discusses one of the positive factors for community development. Trust removes the friction of operating with others. The other side of keeping communities together is less glamorous. The need to punish members of a community for behaviors like social loafing that reduce the social capital of the community is an unfortunate necessary. (See Bowling Alone for more on social capital.)

Looking Good vs. Being Good

We develop a set of moral foundations that supports our ability to work together. While we personally only have the desire to appear good – not to actually be good – we collectively create a set of foundations to keep people to at least creating the appearance of doing good. If people are caught, they know there are punishments (or sanctions), so they maintain the attempt to appear good.

The foundation of community is reciprocal altruism, which amounts to “tit-for-tat.” That is, we are willing to sacrifice to the degree that we expect others will be willing to do the same for us. (See The Science of Trust for a more in-depth conversation of advanced models for cooperation.) For this to function, we don’t have to be good. We just must look good. That’s one of the reasons that we’re so interested in what other people think.

The reality is that none of us – whether we’re looking historically or into our own lives – are completely good. Research has proven that we’ll cheat to the level that we believe we can get away with it – and the degree to which we can convince ourselves that it’s OK.

Permission to Believe in Our Goodness

We are seeking permission to believe that we’re good. Typically, we’re not looking for ways that we’ve not been good but rather how we can justify our behaviors in the cloak of goodness. We don’t think of things that disprove or disprove our beliefs. We have a serious confirmation bias, which blinds us to things that don’t fit into our existing thoughts. (Confirmation bias is spoken of repeatedly in the literature. You can find out more by starting at Choice Theory.)

The truth is that you can find evidence for whatever you want to prove. Even if it’s wrong, someone will have produced some shred of evidence that you could refer to with the purpose of proving your point. For instance, though thoroughly discredited and retracted from publication, a single “study” showed a link between vaccination and autism. The stigma remains about vaccinations, despite all the work that has been done to reverse it. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more.)

We don’t want the truth; we want a truth that we can believe in. We want a story that we can tell to make it ok.

Press Secretary Rider

Our elephant, the emotional, most primitive basis of our mind, wasn’t equipped for working in a social world as large and complex as humans created. That’s why we have a larger neocortex, which accounts for 50-80% of our brain mass. The neocortex is our rational rider, our logical, thinking brain, except the rider isn’t exactly logical.

The rider is more like a press secretary who must justify, explain, and create stories for whatever the elephant has decided. It fills in the missing pieces with whatever happens to be around. (See Incognito for more.) This rider is useful in social circles – so the elephant keeps the rider around and transports it from place to place. After all, having your own public relations firm becomes a necessity when you need everyone to believe you’re good – when you’re not completely good.

Being social and truly committed to a group takes quite a bit of neurological work and it’s at the heart of nations.

E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One)

Printed on American money is the Latin phrase, E pluribus unum, which means “from many, one.” This is the essential magical act that every successful nation must perform. It’s the transformation of some – or all – of our will from individual-serving people to nation-serving people. This magical act transforms individuals into groups who are capable of supporting one another – and sacrificing for one-another.

The transformation from individuals who have their own selfish needs into one nation is powerful. It’s a conversion that most nations pull off only partially. We’re willing to commit some of our personal will and resources towards the nation – but only a portion. In contrast, ants and bees have E pluribus unum down.

Hive Mind

Ants and bees are interesting creatures. They work together in a single community where there is specialization of roles and massive selflessness. There is a queen bee who creates all the eggs but whose specialization makes her dependent upon the rest of the hive. Workers and drones manage production (pollen retrieval) and protection so that the queen can continue to lay eggs and grow the hive. Each member does their job – even if it leads to their own personal death – in service to the community.

Humans are all too often self-full creatures who are interested in their own needs and desires instead of the needs of their community. However, what if we could flip this on its head? What if, at times, our community instinct was so powerful that it could cause us to behave in selfless ways? As it turns out there is an evolutionary switch that does this. We can be selfless and serve the community.

In The Rise of Superman and Stealing Fire, Kotler (and Wheal) speak of group flow. In this state, the individual fades away and the whole team functions as a single unit. In the context of Navy SEALs, it allows them to be an effective team working for the good of the entire team (and the mission). The ability to switch a bunch of individuals into a single, multi-person organism exists, but it isn’t easy to get fully engaged.

It doesn’t require being a Navy SEAL and their power of group flow to flip the hive switch and feel connected to other members of your team. The armed forces do this through synchronized drills designed to align everyone’s physical movements into a single coordinated action. This synchronization helps drive the awareness of the larger group to which someone belongs. We’re wired to get happiness from our relationship with other people so flipping the hive switch is a solid way to improve happiness. This explains how armed forces in combat situations can feel good – despite external circumstances.

Happiness from Relationships – not Objects

In America, we live in a consumer culture, where you can be happy if you just own this kind of car, this kind of watch, these shoes, or the next gadget. Advertising is sending us the message that we’re not good enough – but we can be if we’re willing to acquire another object or two or three.

The problem is that this isn’t true, at least in a lasting way. The truth is that we’re happy when we’re connected to other humans. Study after study reveals that we have less health issues, we live longer, and by every survey instrument we’re happier – when we’re in a relationship. While we may be amused and interested in our latest “toy,” the luster quickly fades and the new car becomes passé, the shoes worn out.

The truth is that the “WEIRDer” we are, the more likely we are to see ourselves as separate from others and see the world as a series of objects. The harder it is for us to have true happiness.

Moral Literature is WEIRD

WEIRD is an acronym:

  • Western
  • Educated
  • Industrialized
  • Rich
  • Democratic

Most of the moral literature that has been written is based on studies that were performed on WEIRD people – they are, after all, the people who have the time to consider such things. Their peers and most accessible people to those studying morality are those who are similar to themselves and are WEIRD as well.

These sorts of people believe in reason and that reason is the root of morality; but the truth is that the rider follows where the elephant leads – not the other way around.

Intuition First, Reason Second

Our press secretary riders are constantly explaining and excusing what the elephant is doing. The elephant (our basal brain, including emotions) is evolutionarily wired to make snap judgements, and those judgements have a bias towards the negative. This was beneficial to our development as a species. However, it means that our intuition comes first and then we reason with a decision that has already been partially made.

We start by rationalizing and starting to verbalize our “gut feel” for a situation. Most of the time, it stops there. We develop some excuse for what’s going on. Too few people, too few of the times, have the capacity to peer into the intuition of the elephant to see the underlying meaning.

Haidt acknowledges that much of the Judeo-Christian Bible is about evolutionarily useful cleanliness practices. Raised in these environments, artifacts exist to warn us of harm that may not exist – or may no longer exist.


Perhaps the greatest advocate for morality is organized religion, and, at the same time, it’s organized religion that has done the most damage to the noble effort of morality. Gandhi once remarked to an English friend, “I don’t think much of your Christianity, but I like your Christ.” The things that organized religions have done in service to deities who are the pillars of moral certainty is frightening. Somewhere, religions have fallen into blind trust of religious leaders. (The quote is pulled from Spiritual Evolution.)

Budha remarked that, according to the Dali Lama, if religion is proven wrong by findings through investigation and experimentation, then religion must change. (See Emotional Awareness.) This is the heart of developing a religion rooted in reality and one for which the moral compass can be adjusted to accept the changing awareness of the world that we live in.

Perspective of Compassion

Religion is the engine for delivering up the kind of long-term social stability that has served our species so well. Religion was supposed to, and sometimes does, engender compassion. It’s this compassion that drives us to investigate The Righteous Mind of others.

Book Review-Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

It’s not unusual to perceive others as irrational. We can’t make sense of what other people do while assuming that we ourselves are completely rational. However, Dan Ariely points out in Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions that, not only are we, too, irrational, we’re predictably irrational. We make the same mistakes repeatedly. We don’t practice rational decision-making, we practice irrational decision-making.

Rational Decision Making

Gary Klein shares his studies of fire captains in Sources of Power and Seeing What Others Don’t, and how we internalize how things work and how they fit together. More important, he explains that we can’t articulate what we know about how we make our decisions, because they just seem to come to us. (This fits with knowledge management and the concept of tacit rather than explicit knowledge. See Lost Knowledge and The New Edge in Knowledge for more on tacit knowledge.)

However, Klein’s work is on how our “gut” and how our intuition works – not how it gets in the way of rational decision-making. He only acknowledges that intuition works before rational decision-making can be engaged. Rational decision-making is an expensive process and one that we try to avoid if we can. In fact, we try to avoid any difficult comparison. We prefer easy, relative comparisons because, well, they’re easy.

Everything is Relative

The actual size of your home or your actual salary is irrelevant – mostly. What matters for your happiness is how your home stacks up to your friend group. If your salary is larger than your sister-in-law’s husband, you’ll probably feel relatively good about your salary – that is, unless your sister-in-law’s husband is a bum and there’s no comparison. Our salary is good when it exceeds others’. Our marriage is good when it seems to show more love.

It turns out that every evaluation is a relative evaluation. We don’t truly evaluate things in absolute terms. Ariely mirrors what Kahneman says in Thinking, Fast and Slow that we get more value from our first dollar of gain than the second – and so on. On the loss side, which we feel more acutely, the first dollar lost is more painful than the second dollar lost. Losing a dollar – or a million – should be the same whether it’s the first or the fifth, but that’s not what happens with humans. We find familiarity less rewarding and less depressing than newness.

From the perspective of trying to be a “choice architect” (in the words of Nudge), this is important because it means that we can encourage people to purchase the product or services that we want them to purchase by offering them a slightly less attractive option that’s easy to compare to the option we want them to buy.

There’s an example about The Economist, where the Internet-only option was priced at $69 per year, the print was priced at $125 per year – and both were priced at the same $125 per year. This made the “both” option an easy sell. However, was it really a better deal than the Internet-only option if the subscriber would never open a single printed issue? No, not from a logical point of view. However, from a choice point of view it was a brilliant way of keeping print alive for a while longer.

Arbitrary Coherence

But who set the price for the subscription in the first place? Somewhere, somehow, all printed magazine subscriptions ended up being the same price. All the subscriptions that you buy tended to be in a range of prices. Most books that you buy tend to be in a relatively small range of prices. We don’t expect to pay more than about $35 for a book. Some mass-market books can be $10 or less but, excepting trade books and textbooks for class, that’s what we expect to pay for a book.

Given that the cost to print a book is somewhere between $1 and $10 depending upon size, quantity, etc., is there a formula to get to the sales price of the book? The answer is no. Pricing is set based on its anticipated demand and the price which will make the publisher and, secondarily, the author the most money.

The price of books is an example of arbitrary coherence. Once we’ve set our expectations with the price of a book, we tend to expect that the pricing will stay relatively the same over time. In the case of books, professional and textbooks are the exception. They’re seen differently and have a different “set point” of expectations.

We might expect to pay $100 or more for a professional book or a technical book. Are the production costs different? Not really. Are the development costs different? Not in most cases. Interestingly, the real difference is in the perceived marketability and longevity. Professional books have a smaller market. Textbooks have a much shorter longevity because of the expectations that they be updated frequently.

We may all grumble at having to pay $100 for a textbook or a professional book – but we still do it, because we’ve been conditioned to expect that this is what we do.

Breaking Coherence

The big implication of coherence is how to break it. The big game is how do you charge $5 for a cup of coffee instead of $1? The answer lies in our ability to distinguish the experiences sufficiently, such that the experience of a $5 coffee doesn’t feel like the same experience as a $1 coffee. By changing how the experience feels and our frame of reference, we break coherence and create a new standard that we’re willing to pay and an experience we desire.

Starbucks is famous for its ability to create an experience that we’re willing to pay $5 for. Is the coffee that much better? That’s certainly debatable. But few would argue that there’s an experience to a coffee house – whether it’s Starbucks or not. We’ll pay once for that experience. And then our neural shortcuts kick in and we’ll do it again.

Because we’re constantly seeking a shortcut, we’re always looking to simplify the problem. When we’re faced with the need for a shot of caffeine in a hot suspension fluid like coffee, we’ll ask ourselves what will work rather than what is most cost-effective. We ask the question where can we get it. We’ll evaluate what we’ve done in the past, and since we’ve tried Starbucks before, it’s an acceptable option.

So luring people in the door for their first cup works because, whether you make money on the first cup or not, a large majority are likely to come back.

Coherence, and breaking it, doesn’t just work in the low-cost world of coffee; it works in the price of priceless jewels. Literally, black pearls had no value before leveraged by an exclusive jeweler and advertising in the swankiest magazines. After that, a relatively valueless black pearl became an expensive option for those who thought that the pearls were the classiest way to distinguish themselves.

Environments, Knowledge, and Subjective Experiences

Starbucks broke our coherence by changing the environment. Instead of drinking from a cheap paper cup, they gave us a cup with texture. The condiments are displayed in nice jars. An atmosphere with wood tables rather than Formica countertops. It was enough to break our coherence on price. However, that’s not the only factor capable of knocking us out of our subconscious patterns. Sometimes what we know – or don’t know – can make all the difference in what we experience.

What if you don’t know anything about the dish that you’re about to taste? You’re in a foreign country and you don’t speak the language. Your guide shares with you that this is a local delicacy and it’s a privilege that your host is willing to honor you by sharing it. You taste it and decide that it is indeed very good. Later your guide shares that what you ate was eel, or monkey brains, cockroaches, bull testicles, or something else that you might squirm a bit to know that you’ve just eaten.

What if you reverse the situation, and your guide tells you what is in the dish before you taste it? It shouldn’t matter to how much you like it – but it does. It shouldn’t change your opinion of the taste – but it does. Our knowledge of the situation – and our preconceived notions of it – can and does change the experience. An astute guide will tell you only that it’s rare and that it’s an honor and neglect the ingredients – until after, when it won’t matter much.

It seems that we’re easily swayed by the environments that we’re in. We’re willing to break our coherence based on the presence of fancy jars and wood counter tops. We’re unable to stop our perceptions from being changed based on our preconceived notions about things – unless we don’t know until after we experience it.

Love the Stuff You’ve Got

Have you ever wondered why parent’s children are – to them – the most precious creatures known to man, while others wonder which would be worse, their children or a kraken? Perhaps that’s a bit of hyperbole, but the truth is that parents believe their children are the cutest, smartest creatures to ever walk the face of the earth. That is, at least until they become teenagers, when they believe that and the parents try to correct them.

There’s an affinity to the things that we have. While this affinity doesn’t prevent us from coveting the things that others have, especially if they have status attached to them, it does tend to allow most of us to be happy with what we’ve got. (See Who Am I? for more about status as a motivator.) Of course, if there’s something available for free, we’re going to want that.

Free is Different

I go to a lot of conferences and that means I get the chance to walk a lot of exhibit halls. The booths are interesting; but perhaps more interesting to me are the people. There are those folks that will walk from booth to booth collecting whatever they have available for free. If it’s pens, they’ll scoop up a handful. They’ll do this even if they know they won’t survive the ride home in their bags. Why? Well, it’s not because the conference is in a far-off place, it’s because free is a different place.

While we may not like to make rational decisions, we still do some form of cost-benefit analysis in the back of our heads (way away from our frontal lobes) to decide whether to do something or not. For most of us, however, there’s a short in the system. When someone says the word “free”, we don’t consider any costs – not just the monetary cost.

Most things in life have a non-monetary cost. There’s the cost to have all that space, and the cost to transport whatever we’re getting, and a thousand other ways that “free” may not really be completely free. However, when someone says that it’s free, we fail to consider any of the other costs. So, all we see are the benefits – and then of course we want it. That means things that are free are “purchased” at a substantially higher rate than those that have even a trivial cost.

Social vs. Market Norms

Free isn’t the only way to change the way we view things in a predictable way. Sometimes it’s changing a transaction from market norms to social norms. Consider, for instance, volunteerism. People volunteer their time, energies, and talents with no expectation of compensation every day. I’ll be running audio for services at church on a weekend with no expectation of compensation. An audio engineer might make $80,000 per year and be busy half the time so the services might be worth $80/hr.

If I was offered $80/hr to do audio engineering, I’d turn it down – it’s not a good use of my time. However, I’m happy to serve the church by providing these services. I’d also be happy to take out the trash, cook a meal or anything else. The difference is that I’m operating on a different set of norms. When I’m volunteering, I’m operating on social – not market norms.

Similarly, I’ve said that one of the greatest tests of love is when you’ll do something for someone else that you won’t do for yourself. I don’t like to strip wallpaper, but when my sister-in-law needed help as she moved into a new house, that’s exactly what we went to do.

The lesson here is that if you want to get folks to help for less than what they’re worth, or to do things they won’t do for themselves, engage their desire for social interaction and social agency.

Closing Doors

Our social worlds are filled with opportunities and possibilities. The rest of our lives can seem as if there’s a bit of scarcity. That is, there is a limit to what is available to us. As a result, we resist closing doors. In fact, we’ll waste quite a bit of our energy and resources protecting things that we’ll never use again.

We’ve filled all our closets and storage spaces with clothes and things that we’ll never use again. We are holding on to some of these things for sentimental reasons, but many will have no practical purpose for us ever again. (You might look at your high school year book – but do you ever really expect to do anything with it than wax nostalgic about your youth?)

If you, like the rest of us, aren’t ready to close a door to make your life more simple and less cluttered, perhaps you can open a door by picking up Predictably Irrational.