Falling in love with complexity

As the idea of vertical development in the workplace takes hold, it’s important to be aware of a potential problem—falling in love with complexity.

In college it’s a common thing. Students, exposed for the first time to the complex ideas of philosophers, psychologists, and scientists, fall in love with complexity. They want, more than anything, to be able to think like their heroes, and many assume that the best way to do this is to emulate their language. Big words, complex sentences, and abstract ideas—the more abstract the better—abound. Once-competent writers temporarily lose their own voice. Students who have not already developed solid writing skills produce gobbledygook (complexity without integration). Good professors provide constructive feedback and support learning that will eventually tame the gobbledygook and unleash more mature voices.

Falling in love with complexity is now common in adults. Vertical development is a popular idea these days, and many adults are jumping on the complexity bandwagon, which is fueled by an abundance of popular books that tout the superiority of systems thinking, dialectical reasoning, etc. What the authors of these books often don’t tell their readers is that learning to think in a more complex way usually requires years of study in a particular discipline*. Readers are led to believe that all they need to do is read a book, take a course, or learn to meditate and they will emerge as more complex, integrated and capable persons. Unfortunately, they often learn the language of complexity, but don’t do the nuts and bolts learning, doing, and reflecting that’s required for robust learning.

In our assessments, I frequently see evidence of this problem. Check out this example: A successful manager should be able to apply transformational leadership and various frameworks to gather, interpret, weigh, balance, and align different individual and institutional perspectives and interests, as well as psychological and sociological aspects to allow for the emergence of the successful determination of an ideal resolution process for this cultural context. Such an approach would require emotional intelligence and dialectics to determine a set of guiding principles that will lead to an introspective and interactive process of finding a solution that is appreciative of the interdependence and significance of all perspectives.

True love, in this context, breeds chaos.

When college students fall in love with complexity and rapidly learn the vocabulary of complexity without developing a deep understanding of its meaning, they generally have a few years to recover before they enter the workplace. When working adults fall in love with complexity, it’s another story. Chaotic thinking interferes with the quality of workplace decisions.

If you are considering implementing or participating in a vertical development program, beware of programs that promise immediate transformative change*—these programs are more likely to provide the vocabulary of complexity than they are to support deep understanding. This kind of learning is superficial and potentially harmful—especially when it comes to decision-making.

My colleagues and I deal with the falling in love with complexity issue in two ways. First, we teach adults how to learn in a way that supports embodied, enduring, and useable knowledge rather than superficial knowledge. Second, when we measure the complexity of an individual’s thinking, we also independently evaluate quality of argumentation. This allows us to differentiate highly skilled complex thinkers from individuals who have learned the vocabulary of complexity without deep understanding. Then, we steer the latter group toward activities designed to build understanding by networking their knowledge more robustly.


*In adulthood, one full level of development takes about 8–10 years of dedicated reflective study and practice.

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