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Lines and Stages in Vertical Development: Why Assessments and Coaching Models Are Valuable Maps, But NOT The Territory
As a coach, I’ve long accepted that no two clients’ paths to growth and change will be the same. An approach that works wonders for one will have zero impact on another. I found that to be a sobering realisation, bound to keep you humble and always on your toes in coaching, as you’re constantly reminded it’s not your ‘art and skill’ that creates transformation. It’s a dance between yourself, your client and the context. And no two dances are the same.
As a trainer, mentor and assessor of coaches, I’ve noticed how tempting it is, particularly in the beginning of one’s coaching career, to rely on psychometrics for determining a client’s developmental stage/strengths/personality and regarding the results as a sort of ‘diagnostic’. I’ve also noticed how attached trainee coaches can get to theories/models that help bring clarity to the process, such as the famous G.R.O.W… To be clear, I think all of that is perfectly normal and we do need tools and models to help us make sense of the complex landscape of coaching. At the same time, I think we should always be mindful and wary of our inherent human tendency to over-simplify.
While I believe there is much value in measuring different aspects of a client’s psyche and having a map for coaching, the practice has taught me it’s crucial to remember that the map is NEVER the territory. People are intricate in themselves and, to add to the mess, they are embedded in unique contexts that shape their behaviours day by day. Striving to never pigeonhole our clients should be, to my mind, a cornerstone to any coach’s philosophy and ethics, as well as a daily practice. This, I think, holds true not just for coaching, but for leadership/education/parenting - you name it! For the purposes of this article, however, I will focus on coaching as the context for my reflections, with an invitation for you to extrapolate to other areas of your life/career, where you think it might be useful.
So what can we learn from the ‘maps’ we use to determine and work with vertical development stages? And what are their limitations?
Vertical development assessments are an interesting class of psychometrics. Most of them are different from the typical ‘multiple choice’ tests people are used to. They often come as ‘sentence completions’ - where test-takers receive the beginning of a sentence, which then they complete in any way they like (they can also be interviews or a combination of multiple choice and sentence completions). The scoring is done (most often manually, sometimes with AI assistance) by trained scorers, who use a rigorous set of manuals/scoring rules. The results place the test-taker somewhere along the continuum of developmental stages. For an overview of reliable tools in this space, check out the “Theories and Measurement” section on VDIs Research Page.
Through my research work, I’ve been exposed, as a test-taker, to most of the major developmental assessments on the market. I have also scored and written commentaries for hundreds of such tests and debriefed tens of clients after taking a developmental assessment. What I have learnt is that understanding your current, emerging and fallback developmental stages can be a deeply insightful experience. At the same time, I’ve learnt that coaching clients whose test shows the same stage often have profoundly different developmental needs.
Two clients come to mind, let’s call them John and Anna. Both are successful executives. John, an entrepreneur whose company had just been listed on the stock exchange. Anna, a partner in a large consultancy. Both had received the same score on their developmental assessments, which placed them at a stage called (in that particular model) “the Achiever”. As the name suggests, individuals navigating this stage tend to be capable of independent thinking, driven, concerned with achieving goals and leading their teams towards meaningful outcomes. The “Achiever” stage is described as:
(…) open to feedback and realising that many of the ambiguities and conflicts of everyday life are due to differences in interpretation and ways of relating. They know that creatively transforming or resolving clashes requires sensitivity to relationships and the ability to influence others in positive ways. Achievers can also reliably lead a team to implement new strategies over a one- to three-year period, balancing immediate and long-term objectives.
Quote from David Rooke and William Torbert’s HBR Article “7 Transformations of Leadership”
Working as a coach with John and Anna, I soon discovered they could not have been more different people.
John was very introspective. He was highly observant of both the world outside of him and also when prompted, he could easily direct his attention inward and analyse his own motivations, thoughts and behaviours. He was very pragmatic and driven to get results and he applied the same principles when it came to changes in his own behaviour. John would gain insight during a coaching session and then go out and turn it into practice. No postponing. No excuses. He had spent decades building his business, had cultivated a lot of patience in that process and found it easy to shift from thinking about the next 25 years to thinking about what he needed to act on next week. He was a man of few words, always seeming to want to go to the essence of whatever problem he brought to our sessions, unpack it, find a new perspective on it and then act on that. He was very clear on what his values were and found it hard to accept or empathise with people who seemed to operate by very different value sets. He was a risk-taker, who tended to give people in his team free rein to experiment with new things, yet could get very critical when they didn’t do what they promised to do, as that conflicted with his values.
Anna was a very sharp thinker, easily grasping complex concepts. She was deeply analytical - loved to understand every angle of a situation before she felt she could act. She was very empathic and caring towards her team and, at the same time, she felt the need to be present in every meeting and oversee every detail of her team’s work. Her biggest worry was that, if she didn’t, people would make mistakes and they might suffer, or the team as a whole might suffer. As a consequence, Anna was always working, perpetually in a struggle with time, always exhausted, trying to hold all balls in the air with little help. Anna could see what she was doing, but she found it very difficult to explore why she was doing it, and she didn’t like questions that invited her to introspect. Her attention seemed always focused on what others did (or didn’t do), how it was affecting her team, and what the impact on the client might be. Anna was highly appreciated by clients for her great ideas, exceptional customer service skills and her ability to deliver results under pressure. She was the go-to person in any crisis, as she was great at figuring a way out of gnarly situations and she had outstanding social skills, managing everybody else’s emotions in the best possible way. Yet all this reliance on her only made Anna feel more burdened, always feeling alone, despite having a large team. She always felt she was too busy and time went by too fast. Internally, she was struggling. As clearly as she was able to see others, she wasn’t able to fully see herself.
How can a developmental coach best support these two very different clients?
Their developmental stage can tell us some things about what is important to them, yet their personal stories seem to speak about very different and nuanced needs. John needed to become better able to put himself in the shoes of others, to empathise with and effectively work with people whose rhythm was very different from his own. Anna needed to become better able to direct her attention inwards, to acknowledge and reflect on her own feelings - even the uncomfortable ones - to explore her need to hold power versus relinquish it and come to terms with the idea of not being able to do it all alone.
If stages of development can be likened to the octaves on a piano - each subsequent stage allowing an individual to ‘see more’ of themselves and the world and ‘play’ a more complex ‘melody’ - you might say that with each of these octaves, there will be different ‘notes’ - themes or lines - of development which a coach can become attuned to and utilise in their work with the clients. Some clients are simply better at accessing certain ‘notes’ over others - all within the same ‘octave’ of development.
Take the following five lines of development: “Self Awareness”; “Social awareness”; “Attention”, “Power” and “Time”.
Self-awareness allows you to observe your own behaviour, and its impact on others, analyse your motivations and tolerate the discomfort of finding out things about yourself you might not like.
Social awareness is very similar to ‘self-awareness’ - but the focus is on others. Socially-aware individuals are very attuned to what is going on around them - others’ reactions, feelings, and relationships between people.
Attention is a very interesting line of development which describes your capacity to flexibly direct the light beam of attention inwards (observing your own behaviours, thoughts, motivations, and intentions), outwards (noticing the impact on others, their reactions, and broader context) or the capacity to pay attention to both at the same time.
Power is a line of development particularly important in leadership contexts. It describes people’s understanding and use of power. Is power something people have? Hold on to? Share? Do they think of it as a finite resource? Something that needs to be held with care lest it becomes destructive? Or do they think of it as an energy that grows when it is collectively held? Leaders’ relationship to power can have countless implications on the decisions they make or the way they manage their teams.
Time is yet another line of development with huge implications in organisations. It refers to how people understand and use time. Like power, time can be viewed as finite and scarce or as abundant and flexible. It can be viewed as something that likes outside of us - something that influences us but which we cannot control - or something that is more internal, a subjective dimension of our being in the world. It might be something people think they ‘have’ or ‘don’t have’, something people ‘struggle with’ or something people ‘create’ whenever they need to.
Reading through this brief description of the previous lines of development, can you go back to the vignette on John and Anna and see what you might notice about their developmental strengths and opportunities?
As you might have noticed, John seemed more self-aware than Anna, while she seemed more socially aware than him. He had a harder time empathising with others, while empathy was one of Anna’s strengths. He was less judgemental of himself and didn’t feel crushed when he discovered his own intolerance of values other than his own. She avoided self-reflection as it meant facing aspects of herself she might not have liked and her self-criticism made that a very painful process. He was a risk-taker and didn’t mind sharing power while accepting that others will make mistakes. She in turn had huge internal standards and a hard time tolerating her own mistakes, which made her keener to hold on to power, over-protect and manage her team to make sure they didn't get it wrong either. He had an easier time directing his attention inward, she was really good at keeping hers focused on the outer world. He felt more in control of his own time and as a result tended to set firmer boundaries around his calendar, while she felt perpetually rushing to complete an urgent and important project for which she didn’t have enough time.
Both were extremely bright. Both were extremely successful. Both had been assessed as operating from the same developmental stage. Their context was markedly different too. He was the owner of his business and had always been an entrepreneur. She was a top executive working for a large, high-performing company, always feeling compared with others at her level and under constant pressure to prove herself. Would Anna have had the same challenges had she been in John’s place? Who can tell? It would be impossible to separate their contexts from their developmental challenges.
As their coach, it helped to remember that the developmental assessment was a good map - informative but not exhaustive. Their stage of development could only tell me so much about the way John and Anna made meaning of their world. I find staying deeply curious about clients’ particular contexts and specific strengths and opportunities around their various developmental lines can make a huge difference to the quality of my coaching. Most often, lines of development evolve asynchronously - which means some will be more developed than others. A client like Anna might be highly aware of her social network and not so aware of herself and vice-versa for a client like John. Or you might work with clients who are highly complex thinkers but whose emotional line of development is not at the same level of maturity as their cognitive. The diversity can be endless.
John and Anna are just two coaching clients. They are also the only ‘John’ and the only ‘Anna’ I will ever work with. There will never come others with exactly the same story and exactly the same needs. With every new client comes another interweaving of developmental patterns. Another opportunity to discover a unique human being. With it also comes an invitation to forget what I think I know as a coach. To let go of other clients’ stories. To hold all theoretical models lightly and to stay fully present and deeply curious in listening for the themes that emerge, the strengths, and the opportunities. To pay attention to context and how profoundly it influences my clients’ capacity to fully utilise the potential of their developmental stage.
If you are a coach or leader reading this, you might think of your own lines of development and how they play out in your work with your clients or your team. You might also consider the people whose growth you are supporting.
What does each of them need? How are their contexts different? What ‘maps’ have you been using in your coaching? How are psychometrics/models/theories helping you in your own growth/work and when do you sense they might become limiting?
As with most things in life, this is not an either/or conversation. It’s a ‘yes, and’. Having a thorough understanding of the research behind our coaching approaches can make a huge difference. Utilising validated tools to illuminate aspects of our own and our client’s development can help put words onto elusive patterns and guide a coaching process. Relying on any kind of assessment as a replacement for inquiry is, I dare say, always risky and potentially damaging. So let’s keep on learning and experimenting, yet holding our knowledge lightly. Supporting the development of human beings is both science and art. Let’s try honouring both!
To engage in a deeper exploration on lines of development and how they might play out at different stages or be utilised in developmental coaching, watch our webinar: “What Develops in Vertical Development”.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. If you are curious to dive more deeply into learning about Vertical Development and how it might impact your work and life, check out our online library of webinars and courses accredited by the International Coaching Federation. Note that admissions to our Foundation Diploma in Developmental Coaching are now on for the group starting in February 2024 (groups limited to 12 participants).
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