Should


Photo by Jongsun Lee on Unsplash.

Only in quantum physics can something be in two places at once. Here on Earth’s human scale, we try our best through busyness, competing priorities, or positional interactions with one another. I want to highlight those interactions to prove a point: imposition or transcendence of one’s personal ambition unto another is a violation.

The decided lens through which I write is organization development (OD), the preeminent business consulting discipline. Two overarching points:

  1. Whether in the organization or individual situation that would do well with OD support, or for the consultant or mentor/coach providing OD support, should is an unacceptable course of action.
  2. We–in comparing ourselves, accepting differences or even looking to others with greater applicative or experiential history–may not allow the personal ambition of another to dictate our own personal ambition’s determination.

What I’ll get to is how “never should’ing on someone” helps make sense of the workplace and improves everyone’s careers.

“‘Never should on someone’ means that in business, one never outright tells someone what they should do.”

Organization Development (OD)

Let’s look at OD as the ultimate yet conspicuously if not metaphorically undefined consultative discipline in business. From there, we’ll learn how supplanting another’s position or circumstance with vehemence is an encroachment upon someone else’s situation. Ultimately, we’ll bring the concept of should into the management arena (NOTE: it doesn’t fit).

Well Defined By Being Undefined

Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash.

OD is defined in different ways. There’s troubling irony in that.

Chris Worley is a Professor of Organizational Theory and Management at Pepperdine University. His faculty profile reads that he is “a recognized leader in the field of organization development.” [1]

In 2021, Worley discussed the definition of OD in a YouTube video, Moving from Definitions to Action in OD: A Conversation with Chris Worley. He said, “the truth is that there are a lot of definitions out there…and the truth of the matter is they’re all the same.” [2]

From a strategy standpoint, there’s a fundamental problem with all definitions being the same. There are a lot of coffee cafés out there. As I wrote in Mapping Strategy, “if Starbucks and my local café as strategically constituted today were to switch places, then there’d be two words for the impostors. Failed strategy.” That’s just coffee I was talking about.

OD is a discipline employed by companies to fix, resurrect or alter their state of affairs. I understand the following phrase “there are a lot of definitions out there…and the truth of the matter is they’re all the same” to mean not unique; thereby, I would conclude that OD is not a strategy. That’s just not true.

I never did get a conclusive definition from the video. That made me think critically.

Does my receipt by omission concede that while there are a lot of definitions (“all the same”), there really isn’t one? In common sense terms, doesn’t acceptance of many definitions mean a passive acceptance that whatever is being defined is, in fact, undefined?

Nuanced, the idea I got was that in many ways OD is a broad discipline, much like the martial arts. What with so many styles, what is a martial art? It’s not singular.

Such an analogy allows the mind to accept. Different gyms and training centers teach martial arts through an expression or style. And those expressions are different. Of course, there are different martial arts such as karate, boxing, taekwondo and the like. Each philosophy is unique to itself despite many overlapping qualities.

In another analogy drawn for the sake of broadened refinement, a comedy show on television or a streaming service may have a different genre of humor than another show. Whether slapstick or improv or what have you, it’s still comedy.

In the end, OD is definitional, but not singularly defined.

Undefined, Still Commissioned

Irony associated with a lack of pure definition is compounded further, because the OD discipline is substantiated by its academic and fact-based standing.

Bushe and Marshak wrote in their seminal, 2009 paper, Revisioning Organization Development, “commitment to empirical, scientific inquiry may well be why OD is one of the few fields of consulting practice to also be recognized as a scholarly discipline. Very few recognizable fields of business or organizational consulting have resulted in that; there are not many, if any, masters’ degrees in Total Quality Management or process re-engineering, for example.” [3] Scholarship along with practical, systematic study of organizations gives OD practitioners a reputable foundation for their work – this despite exclusion of definition.

The Arrogance of Knowing It All

Inability to define OD is, in a way, funny. Its very serious potential for positive organizational impact makes it so. For comparison, isn’t it the same as saying environmentalism or healthy eating or customer service is funny? Inherently, they’re not. Those important topics do not have the issue of lack of definition, though.

A humorous example of OD’s resulting What it is? status takes into account Worley’s loud shout of arrogance in the field. He said, “there’s a bit of arrogance about organization development, because what we talk about is understanding the system and then intervening in the system in order to improve it – by working with people, systems and processes to increase effectiveness.” [2] Take note of understanding and intervener in the following, fictional example.

Comedian, Jimmy Fallon’s, IT Support character, Nick Burns, who appeared on Saturday Night Live from 1999-2001, insensitively directed internal customers to”Move!” away from their computers. Inevitably, the answer he got to “What’s your problem?” was unsatisfactory for his expert understanding. They weren’t good enough to operate a computer or its software with which he was so familiar. His intervention was an act of condescendence. How could they be so dense? Each skit would end with two spectacles. One, he’d sarcastically tell his customers “you’re welcome.” And two, he was in such demand at the company that he comically wore 4 or 5 beepers on his belt. One–he could never be sure which–would beckon him to the next office of “idiots.”

Familiarity to the degree of complete understanding of business is not a defining concept of OD, though. Actually doing the work in place of teaching others how for next time is not a good OD practice, either. (…oh, and maybe keep wearing 4 or 5 beepers down to less than 3.)

Organization Development: Both Art and Science

An MBA (Strategy), I can speak to being an organization development practitioner without being an expert at all that is business. That’s right. I report confidently, humbly and righteously both for myself and those who I have and will serve, including this audience. I do not know everything about business.

Master of Business Administration is more Halloween costume than practical truth. No one has familiarity or holistic knowledge unto only themselves. If they say they do, they’re lying through their teeth.

Business, like OD, is too broad of a branch of knowledge for one person to know it all. Anyway, unknown variables such as the market, customer tastes, burgeoning technology, influential factors, supply and more make business impossible to predict. That’s why in many ways business is more art than science.

OD encompasses both art and science, if you will, to boost success in producing a desired result at the organization’s design-, system-, team- and individual- levels. That’s why understanding and intervener are important OD functions.

Understanding and Intervener

One of the stops along my career was an office of those who quote-unquote understood and intervened. How do I know? There were 2 sayings repeated daily (no exaggeration).

  1. “They don’t understand,” or “They don’t get it.”
  2. “They’re stupid.”

The “they” was the client…

The implication made was that those who uttered these phrases understood, and saw themselves as necessary interveners to make our client less stupid.

What am I getting at?

Something must underlie an organization development practitioner’s power such that arrogance born of powerful positioning does not occur. For example, a doctor has exceptional understanding and position to intervene to diagnose, to prescribe medications that could disrupt sobriety or kill, to cut us open, to remove limbs, or even to deny treatment. They operate with a Code of Ethics.

With an understanding of and the ability to intervene in–a definitional circumstance reliant upon the ideology of the one(s) who understands and intervenes–there must be principled guides, figuratively speaking. Those guides are human values.

Organization Development Is Defined By Human Values

I’ll quote Chris Worley one last time here. “Yes, organization development is a value-based profession/field….What’s important–and I talked a little bit about the arrogance of the field…is that we don’t hide behind these values….I don’t think that we should be riding on some kind of high horse to believe our values are any better than anybody else’s.” [2] Later in this post, there will be a list of values held in the OD community.

(Mine are integrity, humility, people, conscientiousness and quality.)

So while I’ve had a little fun poking at OD’s lack of definition (“You’re welcome!”), and have shared personal experience in working with those who take advantage of its benefits, I believe OD is in a way purposefully undefined, and still healthily productive.

OD and its practitioners make no claims, the exception being the less humble of us, to have a better handle on another’s business than those within it. And, neither OD itself, nor those who practice it should on others.

With that, here are some industry definitions of organization development.

What Is Organization Development?

Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash.

From Academy to Innovate HR (AIHR) (https://www.aihr.com/); Erik van Vulpen, author:
“a critical and science-based process that helps organizations build their capacity to change and achieve greater effectiveness by developing, improving, and reinforcing strategies, structures, and processes.” [4]

From BetterUp (https://www.betterup.com/); Marie Stevenson, author:
“to understand how to maximize the effectiveness, potential, and capacity of both people and organizations. The science of OD combines industrial/organizational and adult developmental psychology.” [5]

From Organization Development Network (https://www.odnetwork.org/); Yabome Gilpin-Jackson and Julie Smendzuik-O’Brien:
“the interdisciplinary field of scholars and practitioners who work collaboratively with organizations and communities to develop their system-wide capacity for effectiveness and vitality. It is grounded in the organization and social sciences.” [6]

OD Values

The Organization Development Network (“OD Network”) went on to further that definition by declaring (I ‘bulletized’ the quote for ease of reading):

Organization Development is guided by strong values such as
・humanistic,

・organization-wide,

・inquiry-based and collaborative,

・developmental-focused,

・systems-oriented, and

・research- and evidence-informed. [6]

Observing Should: My Start In Organization Development

When I first found interest in organization development, I was working with a career counselor. It was 2013. I was living in Baltimore, Maryland.

Cold, I emailed a Johns Hopkins University professor of OD. Would she meet me for an informational interview? Over a cup of coffee, she told me about the discipline and a phrase I remember to this day.

“Never should on someone.”

Albeit boorish, it was obviously mnemonic.

‘Never should on someone’ means that in business, one never outright tells someone what they should do. Of import, the concept works for more than those directly in charge or in an influential position.

Should, itself, means “used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions; indicating a desirable or expected state…” [11]

Those definitions are bricks in a building that isn’t ours to build.

Should In Metaphorical Arenas

Wrestling, basketball and consulting as metaphors do well, I think, at practically explaining this concept of should – or “never should’ing on someone.”

As I go on, keep two things in mind.

  1. The rules governing understanding and intervening to occupy someone else’s space.
  2. Violating someone else’s personal ambition.

Wrestling

Two combatants’ grappling provides imagery for the violation I mentioned at the outset of this post, that imposition or transcendence of one’s personal ambition unto another is a violation. The goal in wrestling is to impose physical will unto the opponent, to use their space against them by forcibly occupying it and manipulating their physical form.

Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash.

United World Wrestling, the international governing body, says in its January 2022 rule book that a competition between two wrestlers “ends [by] a fall, [or] a disqualification by injury,…[or] the end of the regular time…[or] winning the match by superiority.” [7] It’s the closest human attempt at replicating quantum physics. Be in two places at the same time. Here on Earth’s human scale, it’s a violation.

Basketball

There is something called the principle of verticality that, such as like poles of a magnet, must keep players from inhabiting one another’s space – else it’s called a foul. From the International Basketball Federation’s 2022 Official Basketball Rules, the principle of verticality states that “each player has the right to occupy any position…on the court not already occupied by an opponent. This principle protects the space on the court which he/she occupies and the space above him/her when he/she jumps vertically within that space.“ [8]

The simplest example of violating the principle of verticality is a charging foul. The offensive player may not run through the defensive player whose feet are firmly set. That would be a form of wrestling, wouldn’t it? Two players may not occupy the same space.

An assumption, quantum physicists must be awful basketball players. At least Nick Burns told his clients to “Move!” I guess by that same logic, quantum physicists must be outstanding wrestlers. Nick Burns? ‘Maybe not so much…

Consulting

Professionally, I have worked in different capacities as a consultant. During each of these stints I was positioned to understand and intervene with a client. The concept of should was always something to avoid.

Truth be told, I failed in understanding this notion as a younger consultant. My background in basketball was that there was a coach. The coach understood the system and intervened as necessary to police players’ activities to remain guided by the system. Should was an ingredient in consultation to me.

I was wrong. I violated others’ personal ambitions as a result of my own experience (understanding) and resulting actions taken (intervening).

In my later experience, I learned that should is a form of encroachment or an intrusion.

Better words are may, might, consider,… Other professions and positions have their own substitutes for should:

  • Doctors provide.
  • The Military gives orders (else life or death consequences hang in the balance).
  • Teachers implore.
  • Managers ask.
  • Leaders guide.

Consultants give options and, at the extreme, advise, never should’ing on their clients. Why? The consultant’s personal ambition–the aggregate of his or her personality, character, motivation and aspirations–is unique; so too is that of the client.

Why Shouldn’t Should?

Displacement is a factor of competition. In wrestling and basketball, displacement may be encouraged or discouraged, respectfully. In business, companies may be displaced in the market by another product, provider or customer tastes, etc.

Supporting others is not a competitive matter. That’s key. I alluded to having to learn this lesson.

So what is the real lesson about the word should?

What Should‘s Definition Tells Us

I looked up the word should in the dictionary to find a surprise. Should is a modal verb.

Modal means “relating to mode or form as opposed to substance.” [9] What’s the practical significance? Should, as a modal verb, is superficial (“…as opposed to substance”). More to my point about violation, should’ing on someone cannot possibly take place at the level of another’s personal ambition.

For example, when might anyone tell anyone else your personality, character, motivation and aspirations should be…

…so why should on someone?

I subsequently looked up the word mode (from above: Modal means “related to mode or…”).

Mode means “a way or manner in which something occurs or is experienced, expressed, or done.” [10] In terms of business, the force of should may lead the receiver to experience, express or do something his or her personal ambition cannot reconcile with his or her values, assumptions, beliefs and expectations. There are benefits to thinking differently, of course. Ideating is not the point of should. Exerting one’s motivations and aspirations given personality and character–and their resulting worldview–unto another is the outcome of should.

My take is that is wrong.

Should, itself, means “used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions; indicating a desirable or expected state…” [11]

Those definitions are bricks in a building that isn’t ours to build.

Unsubstantial, insistent and obligatory are ways neither to describe, nor advise the personal ambition of others who are failing. Why?

Personal Ambition = Personal Strategy

Personal ambition is at the heart of this concept of should.

Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash.

One’s personal ambition is, again, the aggregate of his or her personality, character, motivation and aspirations. Each of us is unique – no one has the exact same personality; no one has the exact same character; based on those, no one has the exact same motivation; and based upon the previous three, no one has the exact same aspirations. So if each component is unique, then the aggregate is assuredly, too.

I expressed in my most recent post, Mapping Strategy, that strategy is uniquely interconnected. It is not a stretch, then, that the way we are unequivocally determines how we as individuals approach the workplace and our individual careers.

In other words, personal ambition is personal strategy.

The Conflict

Another’s personal ambition–their personal strategy–is not ours to determine or infiltrate.

Neither consulting, nor what OD offers definitionally is a means to should on others. Doing so rises to the level of arrogance of which Chris Worley spoke.

An “exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities” [12] is the definition of the word arrogant. In business and the workplace, only arrogance or a false sense of power over another may lead us to should on someone – or, in the inverse, accept that should from another.

Wait. Isn’t the notion of should‘ing on someone taking the idea of suggesting, recommending or advising a bit too far?

If I am the consultant, then I cannot change the personality, character, motivation and aspirations of another human being. I might have or assume influence over the motivations and aspirations given some form of urgency, logic, positioning or authority granted, or value-driven commentary. However, I can never embody or supplant the personality and character of that individual which, in part, lead him or her to view a situation, make decisions, or regard as truth his or her values, assumptions, beliefs and expectations. That’s the point, the extreme. Suggestions, recommendations and advising are all fair game.

Balance: How Do You Find It?

Over the summer, a text came through with an interesting question. It serves as a small, anecdotal example of organization development activity at a personal level.

Random question about something that I see in you that I am trying to improve in myself. How do you find the balance of work, getting rest from work, and being productive outside of work on your off days.

I can see the effort, research, reading, and work you put into your projects outside of work and pushing towards your…career passion. My question is how do you find that balance? [13]

Consider the definitions of organization development and the concept of should as you learn of my response.

My Response

My (abbreviated) response leans heavily on what I wrote in Self-Leadership: Managing Energy In Yourself, First. In that article, I offered, “it is imperative that one comes to understand one’s purpose, personal ambition and personal growth opportunities in order to be an effective professional – for the workplace and one’s own career.”

Of course, that concept of self-leadership is steeped in research on leadership itself.

From James G. Clawson’s book, Level Three Leadership, “leadership is about managing energy, first in yourself and then in those around you….At a deeper level,…people hold a set of values, assumptions, beliefs and expectations about the way the world is or should be.” [14]

Note how I immediately gave as Erik van Vulpen put it, “critical and science based” [4] credence to that person’s sense of self-leadership (leadership being the academically- and empirically-researched concept):

I believe you are at a point now of rejecting what doesn’t congruously agree or abide by your own sense of values and beliefs.

I then challenged the person to think in terms of end results, or as Gilpin-Jackson and Smendzuik-O’Brien offered, “effectiveness and vitality.” [6] I wanted this person to ask themselves, Will I approach a challenge identified passively or actively?

Yours is a choice to be made: “find” balance in your professional life, or “trigger” balance through activating new options.

My rhetorical intent was to, as Marie Stevenson defined, “maximize the effectiveness, potential, and capacity” [5] of this person to institutionalize balance in their work life.

How will you spend your finite energy? Which lever must be pulled to adjust for desired change?

This question in mind, I pointed out my own idea, as requested.

I blogged recently: “Ambition must be activated, not realized.”

Similar to how I conjured that phrase–and the short answer to your text’s question–I negotiate my finite energy through discovery. 

Important, I provided some resources for further reflection and thought to come to their own conclusions.

Here’s a plane metaphor. 

May I replace the landing strip, “balance,” with the runway of exploration (to take off). Willfully or unconsciously disallowing oneself the opportunity to discover balance is a “mistake”. Listen to my podcast on failure (just 2 minutes long).

Becoming inclined toward failure helps one strike or activate balance, or the discovery of greater harmony – or even better, flourishing.

By the end of my response, I asked some questions to really make the person think more about how to generate their own, more practical, effective ends by – as Erik van Vulpen put into words, “developing, improving, and reinforcing strategies, structures, and processes.” [4].

In summary, a few questions for you to think about:

  • Are you (in my terms) failing enough?
  • Is your work-life balance too focused on one thing?
  • Do you have subjects or endeavors or what not to discover that would provide that work-life balance, or that spend of finite energy?

Need to talk? Let me know.

If the Should Fits…

That section header is a play on words. If the shoe fits, or more to the point of occupying someone else’s personal ambition, walking in another’s shoes is a violation. So go my conclusions.

I’ve described how OD doesn’t have a definition; moreover, through lack of such purity, if you will, there is beneficially sensible understanding and intervention on the practitioner’s part. The result is not imparting one’s personal ambition upon another.

Organizational psychologist and academician from The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania, Adam Grant, recently tweeted about this:

A sign of character is focusing more on how you treat others than how they treat you.

Narcissists feel entitled to get respect. They aim to be the most important person in every room.

Humble people strive to show respect. They aim to make everyone in the room feel important. [15]

The uncertain themselves must determine what’s best. In my example, I didn’t know how that person who texted me should achieve balance. I never said should. Nor did I insinuate that the person should do anything other than consider perspectives. There was no hidden should, and no euphemism in place of should. Should is a determinant power the likes of which is not one’s privilege to give. No, should’ing is the responsibility of the person with the uncertainty.

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash.

What should I do?

That’s the appropriate use case. The response must be more sophisticated and responsible than imposition or transcendence of one’s own personal ambition.

  • Were this a business scenario, then the other person and I would determine in collaboration how the question resolves itself given our common or collective goals and strategy.
  • In a consultative scenario, the person would need to determine how the question and their option-based, reasoned, and considered answer fit into today’s or the future’s goals and strategy.
  • Given a mentorship or coaching scenario, the person would need to determine his or her own path – and that includes getting additional perspectives.

Again, should’ing is the responsibility of the person with the uncertainty. What should I do?

Fit is unto one’s own personal strategy. And as personal strategy is, in fact, one’s personal ambition, it is a violation to impose or transcend one’s personal ambition unto another.


[1] “Christopher Worley | Faculty | Pepperdine Graziadio Business School”. bschool.pepperdine.edu, https://bschool.pepperdine.edu/academics/faculty/chris-worley/.

[2] Quality & Equality. Moving From Definitions To Action In OD: A Conversation With Chris Worley. 2021, https://youtu.be/XvgnPne3oYIoY. Accessed 3 Sept 2022.

[3] Bushe, Gervase R., and Robert J. Marshak. “Revisioning Organization Development”. The Journal Of Applied Behavioral Science, vol 45, no. 3, 2009, pp. 348-368. SAGE Publications, https://doi.org/10.1177/0021886309335070. Retrieved from https://www.odnetwork.org/page/dialogic-od. Accessed 3 Sept 2022.

[4] van Vulpen, Erik. “What Is Organizational Development? A Complete Guide”. Academy To Innovate HR, https://www.aihr.com/blog/organizational-development/. Accessed 3 Sept 2022.

[5] Stevenson, Marie. “What Is Organizational Development, And Why Should Your Business Care?”. Betterup | Blog, 2021, https://www.betterup.com/blog/organizational-development. Accessed 3 Sept 2022.

[6] Gilpin-Jackson, Yabome. “What Is Organization Development?”. OD Network | What Is OD?, 2021, https://www.odnetwork.org/page/what-is-od. Accessed 3 Sept 2022.

[7] International Wrestling Rules. 1st ed., United World Wrestling, 2022, p. 20, https://cdn.uww.org/s3fs-public/2022-01/wrestling_rules.pdf, Accessed 3 Sept 2022.

[8] FIBA | Official Basketball Rules 2022. 1st ed., International Basketball Federation, 2022, p. 39, https://www.fiba.basketball/documents/official-basketball-rules/2022.pdf, Accessed 2 Sept 2022.

[9] “Modal”. Apple Dictionary. Apple, Inc., Accessed 3 September 2022.

[10] “Mode”. Apple Dictionary. Apple, Inc., Accessed 3 September 2022.

[11] “Should”. Apple Dictionary. Apple, Inc., Accessed 3 September 2022.

[12] “Arrogant”. Apple Dictionary. Apple, Inc., Accessed 11 September 2022.

[13] Unattributed for privacy.

[14] Clawson, James G. Level Three Leadership: Getting Below The Surface. 4th ed., Pearson Education, Inc., 2009, pp. 3, 33.

[15] Adam Grant [@AdamMGrant]. “A sign of character is focusing more on how you treat others than how they treat you. Narcissists feel entitled to get respect. They aim to be the most important person in every room. Humble people strive to show respect. They aim to make everyone in the room feel important.” Twitter, 16 Sept 2022, 7:12 a.m., https://twitter.com/AdamMGrant/status/1570777718794625024.


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