Leaving Yongsan Station. (c) Danleo (CC BY 2.5). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Elliott Jaques on Complexity, Simplicity and How It Won’t Get Easier

Forrest Christian Coaching 3 Comments

Sometimes I just get discouraged. The life that I am called to is too complex, too uncertain, too risky and too big. I long for what I have never had, a declarative lifestyle, where my arguments are not complex and doubts are few. I wish for the simple world, where “God said it, I believe it, that closes it” or whatever that phrase is. Or even “That’s wrong” or “This is what you should do.” Something where constants are constants and not constants only in particular physical environments. I long even for Newtonian physics without the confusion of Planck and Co.

According to the late Elliott Jaques, the psychoanalytical social psychologist who coined the term “midlife crisis”, I have no hope of getting this world back, if I ever had it. Jaques posited that we are born with a particular path of growth in our mental complexity and that we grow along this at a predefined path, unless psychological or physical damage prevents that growth. This is why you get to a particular point in your life and you not only realize you can do things that you never could before, but you also no longer like doing work that previously excited you. Jaques would argue that this complexity of thought is only going to get worse, only to increase.

It is an unpopular idea, but nonetheless true, that people mature along innately established, predictable pathways in potential capability (time horizon). [Elliott Jaques, Social Power and the CEO, p. 89.]

This causes problems for some people. As people age, those born with the potential for more complexity increase in mental complexity at a greater degree than those with less potential. My brother has mentioned how some people that he used to get along with now just seem so removed from his life. It’s not that they have such separate interests now where that wasn’t true. They have simply “grown apart.” The curve is not the same for all people. Persons who have been born with a greater potential for complexity will increase in complexity at a much higher rate (steeper curve going up) than those who have less potential. Those who have the least potential hit a peak at about 58, and from there on actually become less complex.

Jaques’s theories are complex and incredibly controversial. He is accused of being a Nazi, of supplying the basis for racial politics and discriminatory policies, for supporting “tracking” in education. None of which is true. Jaques believed in making organizations more democratic, more uplifting. We’re not happy in positions that we don’t have the ability to do nor are we successful. And his cross-cultural research says that all human communities, except for those who are damaged by some type of psychological or physical disaster (e.g., wars, famines, biological weapon attacks), will have similar ratios of people in each category.

We know this instinctively, which is why certain people are recognized as being successful “leaders”, a term Jaques and Clement go to lengths to describe as useless. A study of presidential nominees across several elections has shown that the most complex thinker (as judged by what the nominees said during interviews) of the two won every election. Kennedy was more complex than Nixon in 1960, Carter than Ford, Reagan than Carter or Mondale, Bush Sr. than Dukakis, Clinton than Bush Sr. or Dole. The only election where the most complex thinker didn’t win was the last one, between Gore and Bush Jr. They both had the same complexity and had the same future complexity of information processing, since they were about the same age. Which is why the American people has such a dickens of a time choosing between the two. Americans didn’t even seem to care that much about the Florida recount.

Still, if Jaques is right, you can never recapture that innocent belief that you once had. Your experience and knowledge of God will be different at different stages of you complexity development. Worse, I cannot expect that others can follow me into this new confusion. If I don’t understand what’s going on, I will move into a new complexity of thinking and try to talk to people with this new language. But my old peers may not understand me. Somewhere in this is a huge danger, a massive problem that we don’t have a language for. I have not been taught how to handle this. Very little that is written prepares me to handle this problem, to continue to have good conversations with people, putting my thoughts into language that they can comprehend. A threat of not only misunderstandings but of hurt.

Referenced in this post:

Image Credit: Leaving Yongsan Station. © Danleo (CC BY 2.5). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Comments 3

  1. Tremendously interesting. I can see his influence in how the Army ran personnel management. At the time I didn’t like it because it prevented rapid advancement. Advancement came with experience not ability, so I felt held back. Using hindsight, and experience since then, that is the right way to do it. Promotion after experience has tempered intelligence is much better, and I’ve been much more successful.

    Proof is in the pudding though, and time will tell in how the corporations who implement it perform. The biggest downfall is accurately identifying individual ability.

    As to applying it to the election, there is very little doubt, that Kerry is more able to handle complexity than Bush. However, Kerry will never win. There’s more to that equation than just this one model will cover.

  2. Post

    The US Army is actually a big implementer of Jaques’s theories. They had already been implemented when you were at the academy and would have partially guided any promotions that you would have had. You’re right that measuring someone’s Level of Capability (LoC) &#em; how far into the future you personally can work &#em; is tricky. However, once the organization is structured according to the Levels (only the right number of management layers) and you have people with sufficient LoC for each management role, the research shows that managers and the Manager-Once-Removed (MOR; also known as your boss’s boss) can evaluate their people pretty accurately. Which I find hard to believe.

    On Kerry, well, let’s see how complex he really is. I wish that McCain was running instead of Bush, even though I disagree with him on several areas, because I think that he has a tremendous amount of complexity. The good news for conservatives like J is that a complex leader is likely to have mixed policies &#em; that is, he will do some things that you agree with. A less complex leader will be more purely ideological. Ronald Reagan, a fairly complex president, actually pursued some fairly liberal policies even as he pursued more conservative policies elsewhere, or even in the same area.

    I wonder if anyone has done a study of the Army’s promotions since they started using a modified RQ. Certainly the current leadership had a better understanding of the military needs for conquering and occupying Iraq than the leadership in the Dept of Defense.

  3. In the Army, MOR’s opinion of you was life or death. In general, I didn’t see too many bad calls from them.

    Its the same in current job. Manager keeps you, MOR promotes you. More cronies in civilian world though.

    The problem with everyone but Bush is their continuing support for the farce known as the UN. Why we even remain as members is beyond me.

    Successful Army promotions historically vary greatly from peacetime to wartime. Invariably there’s a big dump of highly promoted folks either by Darwin (they get killed) or by successful commanders firing them when war breaks out. Read “First Battles” (sorry, I’ve long forgotten the author) for an excellent historical perspective.

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