Adult Development: A Leadership Imperative

The Stages of Life

If you’re a parent–or if you’ve learned about child psychology–you’re probably familiar with descriptions of the stages children move through until they reach adulthood. According to these theories, once we become young adults the development stages end–and for the rest of our lives we’re “adults.”

This picture of development–in addition to being a bit depressing–is also untrue. Just as the last decades have revealed that our brains change throughout our lives–that neuroplasticity is not something that ends after childhood–we’ve also learned that there are stages of adult development, which are just as significant as the stages of child development.

Adult development theory can help us to understand the very nature of the work required to become a leader who can thrive in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. Adult development theory describes the evolution of our capacity to see ourselves more clearly, to genuinely appreciate multiple perspectives, to become actors and authors of our lives–while at the same time increasingly understanding the ways in which we are part of larger systems.

In Over Our Heads

Robert Kegan, author of several books that include the aptly titled In Over Our Heads, is pioneer in the field of adult development theory. Much of what I’ll share in this post draws on Kegan’s work. In a later post, I’ll explore some of the other resources that you can explore to learn more.

The stages of adult development, unlike the stages of child development, are not an evolutionary mandate. Whether we continue to evolve beyond the “entry-level” adult stages depends on the experiences we have and the way that we respond to those experiences. What questions do we ask ourselves? Are we willing and able to see different perspectives? Can we start seeing relationships, patterns and systems?

Kegan argues that our thinking must become more complex if we are to address the existential challenges we face ranging from climate change to global terrorism. Our capacities must evolve so that we are not in over our heads. This message is also vital for organizational leaders–people who, day in, day out, face multi-faceted problems that defy easy answers. In the words of Albert Einstein: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” To address the challenges we face, we must expand our consciousness.

The Move from Subject to Object

Our capacity to evolve from stage to stage depends on our ability to take that to which we are “Subject” and make it “Object.”  If something is Subject, it is invisible, a part of our self that cannot be seen, probably can’t be named and most certainly can’t be reflected upon. We can’t stand back and observe it–we aren’t responsible for it. That which is Object is visible, can be observed, can be reflected upon and, as a result, can be acted upon. Now we have choice and, as a result, we can change. In Kegan’s words: “We have Object; we are Subject.”

Here’s an example: If you are Subject to feeling anger, then it’s likely that you believe that someone else made you angry–it wasn’t your choice to be angry. It just is and it was inevitable. Your anger “has” you. You’re likely to act out of anger–whether that serves you or not. If, on the other hand, you can see your anger as Object, a shift occurs. You notice it as it arises, you can not only name it, but you can explore its sources, other feelings and thoughts that lie behind the anger, how it is like or different from experiences of anger.  You can see patterns. As a result of it not “having” you, of being able to see your anger as Object, you’re now able choose your response to the situation you’re in, to shift your emotional state, and to act in ways that serves you and others around you.

How We Make Meaning

Our evolution as adults occurs as increasingly complex elements of our lives move from Subject to Object. Emotions, thoughts, patterns and whole systems become visible rather than invisible. Blind spots are revealed. Gradually, and over time, these shifts from Subject to Object are significant enough that they give birth to new stages of consciousness or awareness. Each of the three stage shifts that Kegan describes opens up new possibilities for understanding ourselves and the world around us. Each shift “transcends and includes” what was learned before.

Coming Up Next

In the next post, we’ll look at these stages of consciousness. We’ll explore the stages that Kegan calls socialized mind, then self-authoring mind and finally self-transforming mind. We’ll also look at ways that we can develop the capacity to see more and more as Object and shift our level of awareness–regardless of our starting point on this journey.

In the meantime, take time to reflect on this view of adult development. How does it resonate with you? Think about your own work on becoming a more effective leader. Where can you see that you’ve made the shift from being Subject to seeing something as Object? What might that mean for other areas that you are trying to develop as a leader? What possibilities could emerge?

Small Shift–Big Impact: A Deep Dive into “Yes, And”

There’s a good chance that at some point you’ve learned about the distinction between using  “yes, and” vs. “yes, but.”  The thing is, there’s more to it than you think.

I was first introduced to “yes, and” in Difficult Conversations (still one of my favorite books) by Stone, Patton and Heen. A “yes, and” stance validates rather than undermines what another person is saying. A “yes, but” essentially means that anything before the “but” is rejected. Stone and team focus on the value of the “and” in demonstrating that you’re really listening, hearing another view and acknowledging that there are two potentially true ideas on the table. This makes it a very valuable tool in the difficult conversation–which is the focus of their work. But that’s not all…

The moment you say “but,” you are ruling out the possibility of seeing or doing something differently–of seeing multiple perspectives. When you shift from the “but” to the “and,” you allow possibilities instead of shutting them down. You have the opportunity to see a situation and the world a little differently.

If this is your first exposure to this idea–or if you’ve heard it before and realize that you’re still “yes, butting,” then take some time and notice your “yes, buts” and see how frequent they are, notice what (and who) you’re saying them to. Don’t be surprised, when you stop and notice, that you’ll discover yourself “yes, butting” quite a bit. For some of us, the word “but” is almost a reflex, something that shows up almost like an “um” in our conversation.

Now, if you think you’ve got the “yes, and” down, it’s time to take it to the next level. In Conversation Transformation, Benjamin, Yeager and Simon (notice: another book about conversations written by a team!) demonstrate just how much more there is to the “yes, but.”  They suggest a great exercise–identifying all the “stealth” versions of “yes, but” in our speech. Our stealth “yesses” might include: “You could say that” or “that could be true” or “that’s one way to look at things” (can you keep going?). The stealth “buts” might sound like: “However” or “still” or “it’s just that”…

Getting the idea? So, listen not only for the actual “yes, buts” but the stealth ones. And, go even further. Listen for the times when the “yes, but” remains even when you’ve replaced the words. You can sense in your body, perhaps, a holding back, a clenching that is the “yes, but” that you haven’t yet fully eradicated. This is a sign that you might be saying the words “yes, and” while not actually being open to the other person’s words or ideas.

I’ve also noticed my tendency to “yes, but” my own ideas…close off options before I’ve given them a chance–an equally limiting practice. This shows up for me in both words (when I actually say “but” or one of its cousins to myself) or when I sense that I’m drafting all the objections and not giving the idea (often my own idea) a chance. Rejecting it out of fear, perhaps.

Benjamin (and team) suggest a great practice for build our “yes, and” muscle. It’s called “build and explore.” Instead of just changing your language, you actually stop and think of three things about the idea that you are about to “but” that you genuinely like, agree with or can add to. The authors provide a simple example: Your spouse suggests that you go on a two-week vacation and your response is “but we don’t have that kind of time.” Before going to the “but” think of three specific things about the idea that you like (it would be great to go on a two week vacation; there’s so much we could do and see that one week just isn’t enough for.) Three is important–it’s a lot harder than two and that’s a good thing. And, you can build and explore on your own “yes, buts,” of course. You still might not go on the vacation–though you’re likely to see it differently and perhaps come up with a new idea altogether. You’ll definitely feel differently.

So, start practicing. First step, as with most good practices, is simply noticing. Don’t be alarmed if you discover a lot more “yes, butting” and its variants than you expected. That’s a critical first step. As you notice and shift–either through stepping back from the “yes, but” (which often happens when you notice) or through practicing “build and explore,” you’ll start noticing that you’ll be “yes, butting” with less frequency and that “yes, and” will become a new habit. One that is very good for you as a leader and as a human being.