The Is and the Ought in Development

A pervasive theme in individual and organizational development concerns judgment and the importance of not imposing judgment in a learning situation. The kind of judgment intended when we speak of it in this context involves an evaluation – and especially a de-valuation – of the person. The advice is usually to keep our discussion descriptive of behavior and its practical efficacy in achieving our aims.

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True, proper, and prudent as far as it goes. But we’ve also wrestled with the notion of “value-neutral” approaches to coaching and professional psychology. Is there really such a thing? Is eliminating the role of values in questions of what’s healthy, effective, or adaptive really necessary or desirable? Or perhaps it’s okay for the client to claim values, but not for the therapist or coach to question them.

Why and How an Is-Focus Helps

The word “is” is a verb, the present tense of the verb to be. By focusing on what is, we attend to the present temporal state, not some other desired or preferred future state, or a past state that has been. One reason mindfulness-based approaches to emotional self-management are so popular and effective is because they cultivate practices for staying in the present. It’s a natural anti-anxiety prescription.[1]

When we’re seeking to understand a person’s tendencies in thought, feeling, motivation, and behavior to assess what is working (adaptive) and what is not (maladaptive), it’s ultimately an empirical exercise. These are observable tendencies that can be measured with an instrument and described by a trained professional. Moreover, their association with outcomes will indicate just how adaptive they might be.

When a therapist or coach facilitates this kind of inquiry and helps a person distill a rather dispassionate description of their behavior and an objective appraisal of its efficacy, it makes all this available as data. It’s now “out there” for our examination. It frees us to “problematize” important situations that we’d like to handle better. We’re free to consider alternative ways of being in those moments.

We are even free to experience now, in the moment, what feels difficult or challenging about trying a different approach. Making this real-time struggle explicit tells us even more about what’s getting us stuck, and what might prevent us from acting differently in thought, decision-making, or overt behavior. We may recognize deeply rutted patterns, habits of mind that we must break or at least interrupt.

So, staying in the present, even as we consider past events, situations, and behavioral interactions, does give us power to learn, change, adapt, and resolve “problems of living.”[2] The more we describe rather than judge them and their consequences, the more we loosen their grip on us. Appraising instrumental efficacy, the cause and effect of behavior and outcomes is one thing, judgment is another.

When and How an Ought-Focus Helps

The ought that I have in mind has multiple meanings. It’s a principle grounded in values that makes a moral claim on us to do what is good, right, and proper for its own sake. Such moral values and beliefs form a fundamental part of our identity as persons. They are cultivated, articulated, observed, and preserved in our cultural traditions. As such, they can and should influence our judgment.

Our fidelity to these moral imperatives defines our character as persons. Fidelity to these value-based norms of conduct has implications also for the quality of our practical wisdom and prudential judgment. Some means of achieving our goals may be preferable, not because of any absolute superiority to others, but because they do more to realize common virtues affirmed by our moral values.

If we believe that we must treat all people as ends and never as means, to have regard for their dignity as persons, then we will choose ways of handling layoffs and performance appraisals that leave people feeling respected. We may not fully succeed, but we’re compelled to try. This gives us reason to focus on how we communicate (behavior), and to practice skills that will better express these values.

Focusing on what is and what ought to be are complementary avenues of reflection. Both are relevant in our ongoing development as leaders, as persons, as citizens, and as colleagues. Perhaps most important is that we consciously choose which line of self-examination to focus on at any given moment.

On the one hand, when vital decisions that affect others are imminent, ought-to-do’s provide essential guidance. On the other hand, if we’re stressed, strained, and overwhelmed, the mental and emotional capacities we rely upon to sustain fidelity to our moral ought’s can be depleted. And timely attention to behavioral dynamics and situational facts may inform how-to-do what we ought-to-do better.


[1] Most mood disorders involve rumination and being in some other state than the present one.

[2] Karl Jaspers, a renowned 20th century psychiatrist and philosopher, distinguished those mental and emotional problems that are attributable to underlying biomedical causes from problems of living, which are learned ways of being that become habitual and problematic but are amenable to change with insight and conscious effort.