Discover more from Vertical Development: How Grown-ups Grow Up
What develops in ‘vertical development’?
Vertical Development unfolds in predictable stages, with every stage being an evolution from the one before - including and transcending it - very much like Russian dolls - each larger one containing all the others. Researchers have different opinions regarding what it is exactly that develops through these stages.
Some, such as Robert Kegan, emphasise cognitive complexity as ‘the thing’ which evolves.
In his ‘subject-object’ theory, Kegan proposes that the mind gets ever more complex with each stage, as people become aware of perspectives which they once were subject to but which, with development, become objects which they can look at and reflect on. In practical terms this means that mindsets and assumptions once unconscious become conscious and with that shift comes more choice. This approach to development is rooted in the work of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who studied how children’s minds evolve to make sense of the world and assumed such development ends in adulthood. Unlike Piaget, Kegan showed that these shifts in the complexity of mind continue over the course of a life-time. Like Piaget, he too considered vertical development as the result of a ‘construction process’ - where human beings interact with their environment, are challenged by it, forced to make meaning in ever newer, more complex ways and, as a result, grow ‘vertically’.
Thus, an individual’s complexity of mind evolves from the self-centredness of childhood, when the mind is capable of one perspective - ‘mine!’ - and can’t even imagine other people might have different needs, towards the ‘socialised stage’, where conforming and belonging to a group become really important to the point where individuals have little awareness of who they are outside of their group. Later the mind shifts again into the ‘self-authoring stage’, where individuals start developing a clear sense of self as an independent being, while also being aware of relationships and connections with others. Few individuals progress into the even later stage of the ‘self-transforming mind’ - where they become capable to critically reflect on their own assumptions and realise their worldview is but one of many.
Each of these shifts comes with new mindsets turning from ‘subject’ to ‘object’ and represents a breaking-down of old ways of thinking and breakthrough into a new, more complex and nuanced perspectives - with them comes more choice and freedom to act with awareness.
Other researchers focus more on the self as the narrator of one’s experience and suggest it is this narrator which keeps on telling an ever more complex story as people grow through the stages. Enter Jane Loevinger’s ‘Ego-Development’ Theory.
Jane Loevinger did a lot of work on what she called ‘ego-development’ - which later inspired much of the modern vertical development work developed and popularised in organisations by William Torbert , Susanne Cook-Greuter, David Rooke and others. Loevinger’s approach was grounded less in cognitive theories and more in psychosocial /psychoanalytic theory. When she wrote about the ‘ego’, she referred to a process within the human psyche - that part of us which makes sense of our experiences - a sort of inner narrator who constantly tells a story about what life means and what the best way to live might be. Loevinger’s ‘ego’ comprised character, the way we engage in relationships and the way our sense of identity evolves over time (she was also the author of the first Sentence Completion Test - SCT - used to measure adult development - the WUSCT - which lay the foundation for most modern SCTs used today).
With ego-development come self-awareness and a higher capacity to curb reactivity, to reflect and take on multiple perspectives. Ego-development essentially means more maturity and wiser ways of being in the world.
While Loevinger did much for our understanding and measurement of ego-development, it was Dr. Susanne Cook Greuter who took her work to the next level by illuminating our understanding of later stages, as well as of the dynamics of development from one stage to the other.
Beyond these two main schools of thought there are others, equally valuable, albeit perhaps less directly relevant to the worlds of work and leadership. Among them, it’s worth noting philosopher Ken Wilber’s integral theory, which holds the very bold ambition of offering a unified understanding of the human psyche, both at the individual and collective level. Whether it has accomplished that or not is debatable, but one idea Wilber brings to vertical development, and which we’ll come back to in subsequent articles, is that of stages versus states and lines of development.
Wilber reminds us that vertical development stages are achieved over time and they are not to be confused with momentary peak states - those special, transcendent moments of utter awe or wisdom which might trick people into believing they have actually grown into superior level of consciousness. And he also explains that there are multiple lines of development that make up each stage - so for example a person can be highly advanced in their cognitive development but not at all that mature in their emotional or interpersonal development. The stereotype of the anti-social genius might have something to do with lines of development actually not evolving at the same pace.
Other ways of understanding vertical development: a life-time journey, a moral journey, a values-evolution journey
Another thinker who has broadened our understanding of development are Erik Erikson, who looked at the way human beings mature over the course of their life-time and did much to inform our view of the huge generative potential of old age - as a time of creativity, wisdom and legacy building.
Also worth noting is the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, who looked at vertical development from the perspective of morality and showed that people who operate at the later stages are more likely to have a strong internal moral compass and embrace a world-centric perspective that upholds universal values such as human rights or justice. In a world plagued by ethical dilemmas, late-stage thinkers might be more needed than ever.
Finally, getting back to the world of organisations, let’s not forget the contribution of Clare Graves, the father of Spiral Dynamics - who prompted people to think of development on an organisational or collective level or, more recently, applied contributions of people such as Frederic Laloux and his famous book of case-studies on late-stage organisations: Reinventing Organisations (an exceptional read for any leader who wants to better understand vertical development and how it might apply to their team or whole company).
Hopefully this short trip across the vertical development landscape has offered you a glimpse into how complex and nuanced this field is and gotten you curious to explore more. We’d love to hear some of your reflections, if you’re keen to share in comments - what is it that you feel is developing during vertical development? Thinking of your own process of growing more mature, what is it that you feel has changed?
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