A Simple Tool For a Complex Problem

Cultivating Skills in Other People

A simple tool for growth built on a deep foundation: Applying Erickson's "Stages of Psychological and Social Development" to solve every day working problems.

​When people aren't "performing" the way we would like them to, you probably tend to deal with the situation pretty much the same way. That can be a tragic mistake, making the work of managing them even harder.

​Struggling with this problem over the years, I was introduced to the work of the developmental psychologist, Erik Erickson called “Life Stages.” Erickson recognized eight “psycho-social” stages humans normally pass through on the way from infancy to late adulthood. At each stage we confront new challenges we must overcome to arrive at the next stage. Each stage builds on the successful completion of the earlier stages an challenges of past stages that are not integrated into the personality will reappear, as problems in the future.

To master a new skill we have to pass through each stage of development successfully, as well, and in succession. No matter how skilled we are at other things, everyone is like a child the first time they do something.

Erickson's Life Stages

Take a look at the table below. It shows the challenges and conflicts facing the individual at each stage of development, based on Erickson's work.

Stages of Psycho-Social Development

Stage Challenge Inner Conflict
Infant (year 0-1) Learning to Trust (Hope) The need to establish trust that those in charge are reliable.
Toddler (age 2-3) Autonomy (Will) They need to be given carefully planned challenges to learn the limits of who they are, and what they can accomplish, and overcome guilt at failing.
Preschooler (age 4-6) Gaining Initiative (Purpose) Garnering initiative and overcoming guilt.
Childhood (age 7-11) Mastering Industry (Competence) Comparing self-worth to others. Can recognize major disparities in personal abilities relative to others.
Teenager (age 12-19) Role Definition (Loyalty) and Power. Who am I, how do I fit in? Where am I going in life? Allow them to explore and discover their “place.” Push them to conform too hard and they will rebel.
Young Adult (age 20-34) Commitment and Compassion (Love) Who do I want to be with? what am I going to do? What do I like? Making Conscious Choices.
Adult (age 35-65) Task Taking and Productivity (Care) Able to measure accomplishments/failures rationally. Integration of the inner with the outer world, less confusing of inner conflicts with outer causes. Wanting to do something of value.
Senior (>65) Integrity (Wisdom) Contemplating accomplishments and measuring failures.

Erikson’s work can yield a bumper crop of ideas for managing people better, deepening and enriching the quality of working relationships.

Why? Because we tend to pass through a kind of mini-psycho-social development, each time we learn a new task. Erickson believed we are hard wired that way. In a sense, we start as a child when learning a new skill. This is important to keep in mind as you decide how best to manage another person’s progress, or deal with someone who may not be performing the way you need them to.

Each of the different stages of development requires different tactics. By recognizing which stage someone is in, in relation to their work, or in relation to a skill, with time and experience, you can intuit the best way to help them grow into the next stage: you can make sure they stay on the road to mastery.

The developmental needs of any two people learning a new task aren't always the same. Many of the thorny problems one faces as a manager, the ones that keep coming back to haunt and aggravate, can be solved more easily armed with this understanding. There is no one size fits all.

There is no One Size Fits All!

An Example of What Goes Wrong Relying on Bonuses, Incentives, and Punishment

The recurring debate on the use of rewards and punishments provides a good example. Research has consistently shown that money is not the most effective motivator, at least, not once basic needs are met, and punishment is rarely understood as intended, leading to fear, cover your A__ mentality and hiding problems.

Seen through the lens of Developmental Stages, this is because the effect of a monetary reward or a punishment varies by the level of emotional maturity of those receiving it.

In the earlier stages, a person will have difficulty understanding the link between what they did and the reward or punishment. What they need instead is a predictable environment with clearly set limits, and daily engagement with those in charge in order to be able to grow into trusting those in charge and to build up their own self-confidence.

At the psychosocial maturity of an adolescent a person will equate money with a bribe, and punishment as a cause for rebellion. This stage, as you will I am sure agree, is quite common in the workplace. Everything done by someone in the adolescent stage is a power game, both in relation to management and each other –a game of positioning. (Note, the stages have nothing to do with age.)

Rewarding them can make them unbearable as employees, and as colleagues. Punishing them can make them worse: secretive and angry. Unlike the previous stage of “childhood,” they see what "authorities" do only as an attempt to control them.

They need to be respected as individuals, given space to grow to gain experience and, when needed, given coaching, not command and control. Their boundaries need to be respected for them to mature further. Coaching them hands-on, in the moment, and not over challenging them, will allow them to strengthen their sense of self, building a greater connection to world. Money just confuses them and in a short time they will just want more.

Only a person who has reached the adult stage can properly appreciate the link between his or her actions and a monetary reward. But, according to all the research, adults are better motivated by pride of workmanship and the opportunity to contribute to something worthwhile than by money (Dan Pink in his book puts it that adults, as long as they are paid a living wage, prefer activities where they can pursue autonomy (control over their own work), mastery (freedom to get better at what they do), and purpose (be part of something bigger).

A New Tool: Deep Understanding

I was first introduced to Ericksons ideas by a former boss who had been trained while working with the “Magic Pan,” a now defunct restaurant chain with an amazingly robust management training program. To help people bridge this understanding as managers (not as psychologists), I created a quick and dirty tool that evolved out of my work with clients, and my work experience.

It includes a Job Maturity Evaluation Sheet (pictured below) and a “ruler” in which to find the suggested approach. It works best when done on specific tasks or functions. For the whole person you probably would need a bit more than just this, like a string of psychological tests, a degree in psychology and many years experience in concealing, but for addressing specific working tasks it works well, in the same way that a thermometer will tell if you have a fever, but not what is causing it. Keep it simple.

You then take the result of the total of the evaluation above, divided by 10 and place it on the following "Task Maturity Scale", which gives you suggested approaches to try based on the numerical "result" of your evaluation.

job maturity scale

The assumption is that to master a new skill we have to pass through each of stages of development successfully, in succession. No matter how skilled the worker is at other things, everyone is an infant the first time they do something. Everyone should start with a detailed job description, clear limits, checklists to help remember and consistent, close monitoring until they grow enough to enter the next stage, even me when learning a new skill.

Below, you will find a link to get your own copy, or you can just use this one here. You are free to use it, and share it, as long as you do not use it for commercial purposes without express written permission from me, and you must always give me proper attribution. It is most often used in skills training, and professional development. The PDF consists of two pages, one for an evaluation of the person in relation to the skill, and one to use as guide on finding the most effective approach.​

Another way to look at it is that you have to give them the opportunity to pass through and learn the lessons of each stage fully, what they did not deal with will not come back to haunt you later. Instructions come with it. It’s easy, and it works, if you use it. Have a look, study, enjoy, and test for yourself.

Just sign up below and you will be transported to a page where you can download your free secret!

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About the Author

Dan Strongin works with medium to small companies, helping them master the art and science of managing.

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