Recently, one of the coaches I mentor asked for the sources of my distinction between first-order change and second-order change. My earliest influences were Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind and Watzlawick et al's Change; later, Senge's The Fifth Discipline and Hargrove's Masterful Coaching.The belief that one's own view of reality is the only reality is the most dangerous of all delusions. Paul Watzlawick.
While the terminology of these authors and I may differ, we share some common principles:
First-order change is a temporary "fix" to a problem without examining the underlying patterns that caused the problem; the typical result is "more of the same." Senge, for example, identifies archetypes arising from attempts at organizational change that feed the original dynamic.
Second-order change is a radical shift in worldview and consequent actions; it requires systems thinking, the ability to step back and intervene in the dynamics that have reinforced "more of the same."
Political satire, "more of the same"
First-order change in coaching similarly refers to learning new skills or capabilities that involve doing something better without examining or challenging underlying beliefs and assumptions. Second-order change occurs when clients step outside their current perspective, examine their frame of reference, and do something different. As a coach, you help them (a) observe the assumptions and behavioral patterns that have kept the same problems cropping up over and over, and (b) fundamentally reframe their worldview. As a consequence, they become less habit-driven, more open, and increasingly self-aware.
For example, Bill Danvers was V.P. of Sales, in line to be president of his company. The CEO had annointed him because of spectacular sales results, not realizing Bill had taken all the credit in spite of behind-the-scenes support from V.P.s of other functions. After agreeing with his peers on negotiation parameters, he would override those agreements to make deals with customers that other functions didn't have the resources to support in the expected time frame. So if customers became dissatisfied, Bill still looked like the golden boy and his peers took all the blame.
His underlying drive was to succeed at any cost. Consequently, the other V.P.s didn't trust him and wouldn't support his bid to be their boss. Because he wanted their approval, Bill agreed to tell customers his offers were tentative and to confirm with his peers before closing the deal. This first-order change might have temporarily satisfied others in the organization, but if his fundamental drive continued to serve his own achievements at the cost of theirs, nothing fundamental would have changed and he would again have lost their trust.
With a systemic view of his behavioral patterns, Bill Danvers began to acknowledge evidence of his competitiveness and his high need to be recognized for his successes. He became aware of childhood messages that his worth depended on accomplishment. With the goal of second-order change, I helped raise Bill's awareness when feelings of competitiveness and approval-seeking behavior began to grip him. He was gradually able to intervene with new responses and authentically collaborate with his peers.
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For a personality-based explanation, see "Breaking Out of the Box," especially the discussion beginning at the bottom of the fourth page (page 24 of my book with Clarence Thomson, Out of the Box Coaching). For more about first- and second-order change, see Tompkins and Lawley's When the Remedy is the Problem.