Adaptive Change Requires a Holding Environment

By Scott Cormode

August 15, 2020

De Pree Journal

A holding environment is a psychological space that is both safe and uncomfortable. Picture the stereotypic dad running alongside the kid learning to ride a bike. The kid is safe in that the dad is there to catch her if she falls. But the kid is uncomfortable because she is the one doing the work—the balancing, the pedaling, the steering. She is the one learning the new behavior. So long as dad is holding on to the bike, it is not a holding environment because he’s doing the work. But if he is only there with his outstretched arms not quite touching her, then it’s a holding environment.

Let’s define the concept more clearly because everything we do in adaptive change depends on our abilities to create and maintain a holding environment. Specifically, a holding environment is a psychological space uncomfortable enough that a person cannot avoid the problem, but safe enough that the person can experiment with a new way of being. We earlier said that you cannot pursue technical means to adaptive ends. Now we know what you should do. Every approach to adaptive change must include creating a holding environment.

Ronald Heifetz talks about two ways that people avoid doing adaptive work. They don’t do adaptive work when they don’t feel the problem strongly enough. And they don’t do adaptive work when they feel the problem too acutely—that is, when they feel crushed by the weight of the problem.

Think about the kid on the bike. As long as daddy is holding on, the kid does not need to learn to balance and steer. She can avoid the hard work and just enjoy pedaling. While daddy is holding on, it may feel like she’s riding a bicycle, but she’s not. Only when he lets go and she must do the balancing, only then is she learning to ride. And what happens when daddy first lets go? She gets scared and yells for him to grab on again. Think of kids you have known in that moment (perhaps even yourself). Some kids embrace the moment and learn quickly. That’s great! But remember the question that really animates: “How do you help someone change who desperately needs to change but desperately does not want to change?” The kid that embraces the challenge is not the one who desperately does not want to change.

There are two other ways kids react. Some kids shout for dad and keep pedaling. Then as dad runs alongside encouraging them, the kids are learning to ride—whether they want to or not. Those kids are in the holding environment. Dad’s presence makes it safe enough that they can try a new way of being, and because Dad is not holding on, it’s uncomfortable enough that they have to keep trying.

Yet there is another way that a kid might react. One of my children had a hard time learning to ride a bicycle. When I let go, she would stop pedaling. That kid felt the need to change so much that she panicked. I had to keep hanging in there with her. I would hold on for a long time, let go for a moment, and then I’d grab hold again. Next I’d let her go a little longer and then grab on again. Then I’d let go even longer. And so on. I had to keep it safe enough that she would keep pedaling, even if her first attempts lasted just a second or two. The holding environment is uncomfortable enough that the person cannot ignore the need to change, but it is safe enough to try a new way of being.

Notice the temptation for the father in this example. He has to be willing to make his child face her fears. In that moment it’s tempting to grab on to the bike and never let the kid feel uncomfortable. But if you do, you guarantee that she never learns to ride a bike. The same thing happens for leaders. People will say to the leader, “We will do whatever you tell us. Just don’t make us face our fears.”

Heifetz calls this “flight to authority.” It is like the child saying, “I promise I will work really hard to learn to ride this bike. I’ll ride for two hours today. But you have to promise never to let go of me.” Well, it’s obvious that can’t work. The child will never learn. But we leaders are faced with this problem all the time.

So, what do you do when faced with a flight to authority? You do the same thing that I did with my daughter. In Heifetz’s phrase, you “fail people’s expectations at a rate they can stand.” If my daughter told me she would practice for two hours if I promised not to let go, I would have said to her, “Let’s just keep at it.” Then I would run alongside her, holding on as if I had agreed to the bargain. But ever so slowly and carefully, I would let go for a moment and then grab it back—and so on and so on. In other words, I would keep her focused back on the task.

Scott Cormode

Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership, Senior Fellow

Senior Fellow De Pree Center Hugh De Pree Associate Professor of Leadership Development Fuller Theological Seminary Scott Cormode, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and is the Hugh De Pree Associate Pr...

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