Exploring the OD concept of 'use of self'

?The concept of use of self (UoS) has been core to the practice of organisational development since the beginning

We know when working with a vibrant living system where individuals and groups all operate in their own behavioural patterns, making decisions based on their unique paradigm and making reference to their national and corporate cultural setting, any expert-led, pre-determined design and formulaic approaches can sub-optimise the desired outcomes of the system.

To be effective and action flexible OD, practitioners need to be sharp in observing what is happening, making discerning judgement in the here and now moments while staying mindful of which intervention may work best in what context.

What is OD?

The future of the organisation and implications for OD

Exploring the OD concept of 'use of self'

The role of people-centric groups in organisation design

This calls for a level of self-awareness and confidence in trusting our own inner resources based on cumulative integrative work we have done on who we are – pulling ourselves together as a sharp instrument to serve others.

According to Tannenbaum and Hanna (1985) the use of self (UoS) requires:

  • social sensitivity
  • an ability to accurately read the environment
  • having a high degree of action flexibility – i.e. having the capacity to act in different ways as appropriate to the situation.

To them, UoS is an approach (not a technique) "that emanates from the core of the practitioner and is developed as both a mindset and a skillset over time".

Who gave birth to the concept?

We can't do justice to the term UoS without going back to both the field and theories of Gestalt psychology and Gestalt therapy. Both fields emerged from the 1800s as an effort to put psychology on the map of investigative science.

This, together with a well-intended departure by a group of philosophers, psychoanalysts, and scientists from the 19th century medical view of psychoanalysis, gave birth to most of the central tenants behind the formulation of the UoS concept.

It is worthwhile to note that the confusion around the origin of UoS stems from the fact that Kurt Lewin who was hailed as a father of OD was also a Berlin School scholar (Gestalt). His pervasive influence on both fields makes it difficult to say which bit comes from where.

Definition of UoS

There are many definitions for UoS. Here are a few:

  • “Use of self is the conscious use of one’s whole being in the intentional execution of one’s roles for effectiveness in whatever the current situation is presenting. The purpose is to be able to execute a role effectively, for others and the system they’re in, without personal interference (e.g. bias, blindness, avoidance, and agendas) …” Jamieson, Auron and Shechtman (2010:5)
  • “To be able to be relevant in the here and now takes a person who is centred, sensitive, flexible, who has tolerance for ambiguity and who can stay with the immediate situation and help those with whom s/he is working to flow once again with the river.” Tannenbaum (1997:173)
  • “Use of self consists of intentional, conscious and deliberate choices which result in action/behaviours taken to bring about change.” Seashore, Shawver, Thompson and Mattare (2004:44)
  • “Use of self is acting on feelings, observations, and thoughts to advance the work of the client.” Rainey and Jones (2014:107)

Why is UoS important to HR practitioners?

After decades of having a seat on the top table, many HR directors and senior HR partners know they cannot simply rely on their content knowledge to navigate the organisation through complexity.

That realisation led to a flurry of 'how to'-type HR capability development programmes, for example 'how to lead transformation change', 'how to grow a high-performance organisation' etc. While these programmes help to shift the HR profession from being mainly content-driven to also process-driven and increase its value to the organisation, something is still missing.

In OD there is a term called the 'BIG I intervention' – which means the deliberate deployment of self regardless of who the others or the environment are, in the here and now moment to create the impact the system requires. This is the concept of UoS. We will discuss in part two how we grow that sense of instrumentality.

Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge is founder of Quality and Equality, author of several books on OD, a senior visiting fellow of Roffey Park Institute in the UK and at the Singapore Civil Service College, a distinguished-scholar-practitioner guest faculty at St Thomas University in the US, and second on HR magazine's Most Influential Thinker's list 2019