Ken’s Corner: What Does It Take to Achieve Self-Determination?

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Ken’s Corner: What Does It Take to Achieve Self-Determination?

What Does It Take to Achieve Self-Determination?

Recently a very wealthy member of our community approached me and requested me to give some thought to the issue of what it would take to give every single person on the planet access to an educational process (I presume he meant that it could be accessed electronically) that leads to self-determination (and, thus, he assumed, to self-reliance and a successful life). He is clearly moving into philanthropic mode and looking to leave a meaningful legacy for humankind. He made it clear that this is a question that requires a lot of thought and research, and that he expected that it would take years to even begin to formulate an answer that was better than superficial. By sharing my initial thoughts in this forum, I am hoping that the community can participate in this intellectual venture?

I undertook to begin thinking about this issue because it is something that interests me not only from the perspective of the challenges my grandchildren will face as they grow into adulthood, but also from the perspective of my experience in Africa and the struggle of many people there to survive, let alone thrive.

So here are my initial thoughts …

Fundamental to this issue is the belief that one has the power/capacity to change one’s situation. Where does this belief come from? From my perspective it comes from being taken seriously by another person at some stage of one’s life … someone who is respected, admired and hopefully loved. I think it is hard to take yourself seriously if nobody else has ever taken you seriously. The implications of this are huge for educationalists – if nobody in the family/community has taken the child seriously, in the early years of schooling a teacher can make a significant contribution to this aspect of a child’s life by doing so. Taking someone seriously, though, may mean confronting that person, as the colloquial term ‘tough love’ implies. Grant Allan (an MBT alumnus) in his PhD research identified what he called ‘intelligent caring’ as a key leadership practice that underpinned the achievement of technical innovation in two Google teams that had not produced any technical innovation over the previous three years. This practice entailed confrontation of poor performers (people who were not taking themselves or their team mates seriously) as ‘an act of caring’ because (it was explained as a prelude to the confrontation) nobody would go through the onerous task of confrontation of a team mate if they didn’t care. This practice (together with three other leadership practices that emerged from Grant’s research) led to the transformation of these two teams and the creation of four technical innovations (between the two teams) that are now appreciated by millions of Google customers.

So, belief that one can change a situation is the first step … in psychological language this is referred to as developing an internal locus of control. This means accepting responsibility for the outcomes of one’s action (or inaction). This is the first step towards problem-solving, whether the problems be personal, social, technical … whatever! The capacity to problem-solve is, for me, fundamental to a life of self-determination but I must believe that I can change a situation before I will attempt to solve a problem embedded in it.

Then there is the issue of how long do I devote to the problem-solving process when the problem appears to be intractable? Staying power when addressing complex problems is termed resilience in the psychological literature. Resilience is an admirable quality but how is it developed? From my work, there are two major factors that contribute to the exercise of resilience in problem-solving: firstly, how important is solving the problem to the person? Where there is a goal that is highly meaningful to an individual, the strength of the resilience will increase; it will take a lot more problem-solving failures for the individual to become demoralised and give up. Secondly, as I discovered in research conducted on jockeys many years ago, the level of social support is crucial to sustaining the level of individual resilience. In this study, we found that the most successful jockeys had a strong social network of support; people who cared about them and assisted them to take learning out of failure, and who re-energised them through encouragement to literally ‘get back on the horse’ after experiencing failure. Thus, an important aspect of self-determination is developing the social skills that underpin the ability to build a strong social network around one. Related to this is another leadership practice to emerge from Grant Allan’s research – one he termed seeing the self-in-the-other and the other-in-the-self – which emphasized the role of mutual empathy and shared identities in successful collective endeavour. It was only once team members identified with each other and were able to empathize with each other in ways that facilitated the interpersonal trust required before individuals would admit to the imperfection of their knowledge (a necessary admission before learning can occur – if one knows everything there is nothing to learn!), that breakthrough technical innovation (created through new collective learning) began to manifest in each Google team.

I’ll stop the article here … if interest is shown in it (measured by ‘likes’ and comments), I’ll continue this pattern of thought onto the role of factors such as confidence, breadth of experience, learning, etc. which my initial thoughts have identified as also playing a role in the development of self-determination.


  1. Royston Lobo says:

    Intelligent caring appears to have been given various synonyms in industry. An example is Radical Candor ( and it appears to have many of the same ideas behind the concept. It is becoming part of the organisational identity in certain organisations but otherwise is a largely individual quality.

    The aspect that intrigues me the most is how an internal locus of control is developed in childhood and early adulthood.

    Please continue sharing your thoughts on this, Ken.

  2. Ken says:

    Royston, an internal locus of control is developed when the people around the child/youth insist on him/her taking responsibility for negative outcomes of their behaviour (nobody struggles to take responsibility for positive outcomes!). This means not accepting excuses or the blaming of others when the outcome of one’s behaviour is not what was desired. This should not be a harsh confrontation but an invitation to reflect on the situation and to assist the child/youth to learn how to learn from experience (a vital skill!). I applied this strategy with my two daughters when they were little, by not condemning failure but by assisting them to work out what they did (or did not do) that contributed to the failure (irrespective of whatever role others played in the failure). It didn’t take long before they would approach me with news of a failure of some sort and before I could react they would say to me ‘Don’t ask … I’ll tell you what I learnt from the failure!’ Later on, we applied the same process to successes they experienced – they would have to tell me what they had done that had contributed to that success. In this way, I was getting them to take responsibility for learning from success (and thereby building self-confidence) as much as learning from failure (and thereby creating deeper self-knowledge).

  3. Great article, refreshing memories on few MBT subjects like ‘Leadership and people management’.
    Thanks ken as usual and Royston for the Radical Candor book reference.

    “How important is solving the problem to the person”

    From my experience in team and personal leading, finding how important the problem is to the person and or thyself, surprisingly is not an easy task:)

    Would be great if Ken, can shed some light on this as well!


    • Ken says:

      Good point, Tamer. Much depends on where a person’s passion lies but, as you mention, many people have not developed a passion for anything as a consequence of their life experience. Passion also varies according to life experience – technical people often have a passion for solving technical problems but run a mile from facing social/relationship problems (or vice versa, as in my case!). Sports stars and successful musicians are passionate about what they do so problem-solving is for them, part of the reason for their existence. However, the bulk of us have to take on work as a means of survival, without any passion for what we do, or for what the company does. The leadership challenge is to find something that people are passionate about and to try to align this with their everyday tasks at work. From 1993-1994 I was asked to transform the shopfloor at a Mercedes Benz plant in South Africa into a ‘Toyota-type’ lean and flat structure. The workers were all members of an oppressed group of people and saw the company as exploiting them and being in bed with their oppressors. I knew that what they were passionate about was the politics of liberation and South Africa was about to become a true democracy (early in 1994). I showed the workers how the Mercedes Benz plant contributed to the economy of South Africa and to employment within that region (a region with around 50% unemployment) and discussed with them how the new black government could not succeed if the South African economy failed. So, essentially, I was getting them to work for South Africa (their passion) and not for Mercedes Benz bosses (who they hated!). The result was unbelievable – their productivity went up 150% over the following two years. The challenge for leaders is to know their people well enough so that they know what their passions are – if these can be identified, the next leadership challenge is to imaginatively find ways of aligning that passion with their everyday work practices. Not easy, and sometimes impossible, but that is the leadership challenge!

  4. Bren says:

    Late to the party but…

    The internal locus of control would be first steps. A driving force of passion motivating a direction determined from within the individual. Based on their own passion/beliefs/view of what needs to be corrected around them.

    The locus of control is not easily directed from external to internal. If the individual finds themselves in an environment that enables/encourages external blame and no repercussions from their actions good or bad, the change of focus towards internal is unlikely to occur. They need the reason and something motivating them from an external factor, either encounter or situation pain and empowerment, that causes them to challenge themselves to find what it is they can do, take control. take responsibility, take ownership.

    experience isn’t something one can easily provide an education on.
    Once a person has experienced their own catalyst of change they will more likely begin seeking ways to improve and develop themselves so they are more capable of implementing the changes or developing the solutions they have identify as a result of what was behind the catalyst.

    Not sure how to really articulate clearly.

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