27 January 2009

A Review of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People"

Stephen Covey argued principles “are bigger than people or circumstances,” have been verified in history, and will prove themselves in an individual’s experience

His book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" points to nearly universal recognition of fairness, human dignity, integrity, etc. And he calls for a paradigm shift—from the “personality ethic” to the “character ethic”—“based on the fundamental idea there are principles that govern human effectiveness.”

A person’s “center,” Covey says, is “comprised of our most basic paradigms, the lens through which we see the world,” and a person’s security, guidance, wisdom, and power flow from whatever lies at the center. A person might be spouse-centered, friend/enemy-centered, money-centered, work-centered, etc. A work-centered person, for example, would tend to define himself by his work, make decisions based on work needs, and find role models at work.

Covey's argument for right action centers on the individual, even as he discusses “interdependence.” Covey likens trust to an emotional bank account. An individual makes a “deposit” by trying to understand the other person, by exercising small courtesies, by keeping promises, by clarifying expectations, by demonstrating consistent loyalty and honesty, and by sincerely apologizing when he or she has caused offense.

When conflicts arise, Covey adopts the other individual's emotions as the standard for when a person has breached trust. A win/win process requires an individual to see the situation from the other person’s perspective, recognize the real issues, identify what results might satisfy the parties, and look for possible solutions.

The fifth habit—“seek first to understand, then to be understood”—requires an individual to get past the other person’s behavior and words and discern what the person means. And the sixth habit, “synergize,” brings others into the deciding process rather than building a construct and expecting others to respond.

Though this apparent subjectivity might seem to contradict Covey's principle ethic, it makes sense in the context of his individualism. The problem with society is that individuals do not understand these principles, do not communicate proactively, and fail to build trust-based relationships.

In the final chapter, “sharpen the saw,” Covey envisions human nature in four dimensions—body, mind, heart, and spirit—and emphasizes the need for rest and renewal in each area. Then he closes by envisioning an upward spiral of continual improvement as an individual educates his or her conscience and then acts in accord with “correct principles.”

But Covey begins the first habit—“be proactive”—with Victor Frankl's experience in Nazi concentration camps

In "Man's Search for Meaning,Frankl argues the question of life's meaning can be reversed: "In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible." Thus, Frankl believed meaning in life would be different from person to person and from time to time but that it would always exist. 

Frankl continues, "By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic 'the self transcendence of human existence.'" In short, Frankl argues individuals experience meaning not by looking inward but "(1) by creating a work or doing a deed, (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone, and (3) by the attitude...toward unavoidable suffering."

Covey too argues each individual has freedom to choose how he or she will respond to life. But Frankl sought meaning; Covey sought effectiveness. And this distinction puts a different spin on everything. 

Taking relationships as an example: where Frankl wrote, "Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality," Covey encourages readers to identify their roles—as spouses, parents, employees, etc.—and to think through each role as they develop and revise their personal mission.

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