Development and Relational Scaffolding

When we are striving to achieve personal develop goals that clear the path for bigger roles in management and leadership, we benefit greatly from help. I was pondering this topic recently while taking a walk through my neighborhood. I came upon a home renovation project. A beautiful old Victorian was being restored and upgraded, new roof and window seals. It was surrounded by scaffolding, with three men actively at work.

It made me think about the “relational scaffolding” that coaches try to provide to those they are helping. Here’s what I came up with.

How is it that really fundamental development occurs?

Development requires adaptive change. What makes change adaptive is its fitness to the current and emerging context of challenge we face in our organizations. What makes development fundamental is its implications for learning and unlearning at rather deep levels, levels of thought, feeling, and action that are habitual, grounded in long-standing patterns of behavior. Many of these patterns are co-original with our personality and identity development, and the social-emotional shaping influences of early life.

The more conscious, accessible levels of adult self-development, those pertaining to cognitive and behavioral skill and style, seem to emerge with greater ease as demanded. This is especially true when they are on the “critical path” to advancement and technical proficiency that define early career aims. Put a challenge before a smart, highly motivated, emerging leader, and they’ll go for it with gusto. They will learn what they need to in order to adaptively respond and excel in the role or project.

When we speak of “fundamental” development in the present context, what we have in mind goes a bit deeper. If reactive tendencies (“hot buttons”) are getting in your way, or if you find yourself retreating and avoiding certain kinds of issues or situations, these are often linked to basic dispositional factors. Dispositional does not mean “hard-wired,” but it does mean deeply rooted. Whether the theme be cognitive, emotional, or social, the change will be a bit more difficult.

It is unusual for developing leaders to not discover any such basic themes to address in the course of their careers. And if, upon discovering them, they find that they are resistant to their independent efforts at change, it probably indicates a need for getting some help. That’s where relational scaffolding comes in. It helps you “rewire” some of the more stubborn patterns of behavior that stand in your way, or that you wish to change.

The Role of Relational Scaffolding

Returning to the image of the majestic Victorian, I was struck by how scaffolding made the work so much easier. No need to work from ladders, which are a less stable, more limiting platform. With the scaffold we (not just me) can see the affected areas from multiple points of view. We can readily act upon the changes we wish to make, feeling safe, able to move about freely, to appraise and reappraise our actions with the full field of work in view.

Our collaborator can help hold things open to facilitate our examination of what lays below the surface. She may see something that we don’t see. Perhaps her prior experience on a different project stimulates a timely question or suggestion. Also, there’s the felt support and encouragement of having another person on the job with us. As we come upon what seems to be insurmountable obstacles, she reminds us that we’ve been in similar situations before; and experience tells us there’s usually a solution. 

Now, to the felt effects (psychological) of relational scaffolding. I find that I am in a safe situation with another who allows me time to delve into feelings and thoughts that underlie my experience of “stuckness.” Rather than retreat from or overlook what I am seeing, I find that I’m able to fully examine it and express all my concerns and fears about taking action. I have her encouragement and also the tools and strategies that she’s used before; I feel more confident, more able.

It’s often the case that what we struggle with is what we learned to avoid or fear when we were young. This usually includes feelings and thoughts that were not welcomed or expressed freely in our home of origin, and particularly in primary relationships that shaped us. It’s call “defensive exclusion.” That is, we simply learn to exclude expression and even awareness of these feelings and thoughts from our field of consciousness and our interactions with others.

Therefore, fundamental development frequently involves recovering a capacity to notice, acknowledge, express, and work through these “forbidden” themes in experience. As they are revealed, explored, and spoken of in our helping relationship, they become more available for our use, and they lose their toxic effect in inhibiting our actions and creating blind spots.


Of course, disclosing our personal concerns, fears, insecurities, and doubts about ourselves is different and more difficult than acknowledging limitations in technical home improvement skills. Still, just as the apprentice must make himself vulnerable to learn from the master carpenter, so we as developing leaders must reveal our vulnerabilities in the trust and confidence of the helping relationship.

Even if you might eventually be able to address some if not all of your needs for growth independently, I hope it’s clear to you that accomplishing fundamental development is much easier and the results are much greater if you can do so in the company of a professionally qualified helper (coach).

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As always, we're happy to discuss any questions you may have about how the topic in this blog might be relevant to you and others in your organization, and your ways of being helpful to them. Contact me by phone at 401.885.1631 or by email at