Adult Development: Part Two

Adult Education ConceptThere’s nothing as practical as a good theory. Kurt Lewin

Until very recently I kept what I was learning about adult development theory “behind the scenes.” While it guided my coaching and the programs I design–it was not something I shared directly with clients. Increasingly, I have been introducing it to clients, friends and family. If I was finding it to be such a valuable lens through which to understand my world–perhaps they would too. And, almost to a person, I’m finding that to be true.

These posts are my attempt to provide an introduction to this work–in hopes that you, too, will find it of value.

I’ll start off by recapping my last post:

  • Adults develop too–development doesn’t end in adolescence. Our brains and capacity change and grow throughout our lives.
  • We develop as adults by being able to see more as Object rather than as Subject. Seeing something as Object means seeing it outside of ourselves being able to notice, reflect upon and have choices about what we perceive. When something remains Subject, it “has” us…when something, be it an emotion, a thought, a point of view, a pattern or a system, is Object, we have agency.
  • As we develop, we are able to make meaning of the world in increasingly complex ways–because we are able to see more and more as Object and expand our perspectives.
  • Because the world is becoming increasingly complex and demanding–increasingly complex ways of making meaning are required if we are to address the challenges ahead of us in our lives, our work and our world.

The Stages of Development

Development is not a race to the finish line. There’s no prize for being the most self-transformational on your death bed or the first in your high school class to become self-authored. Development isn’t just about this theory or these forms of mind; it is the journey of our lives, the way we come to see and re-see the world around us.    Changing on the Job, p. 17

The stages of development described here are based on Robert Kegan’s model and his language for describing the patterns that adults follow as their systems of making meaning increase in complexity. Each stage represents a qualitative shift, or expansion. Because the range in each stage is fairly broad, we can be in a stage for long time and can be “in-between” stages as well. In addition, even as we progress stages of meaning making, we may think and act in ways that are more typical of previous stages.

The risk in any stage theory is that we will see the “higher” stages as inherently better. As you read this, remember that there is no inherently bad or good stage. The reason to work on one’s development and to make the effort to extend one’s meaning making system is to match one’s capacity to the requirements of one’s life. For leaders, increasingly, the world demands greater capacity–so the work of growing into new stages may be not only useful, but essential.

And, also keep in mind that while these stages are useful ways to think about development, each individual evolves in unique ways. So, even as we look at the different stages, remember that growth happens in our moment-to-moment capacity to see that which we were Subject to as Object. Those moment-to-moment shifts in seeing are as important–if not more important–than the big shifts in stages.

A note: I describe these stages here with the help of Jennifer Garvey Berger–any quotes are from her very wonderful book, Changing on the Job, especially from the appendix. I also am a big fan of her second book, Simple Habits for Complex Times. 

Sovereign Mind

Typical of older children and adolescents, some adults still operate from Sovereign Mind. At this stage, children know that objects stay the same even as our relationship to them may change (the distant building is not actually smaller) and the world, as a result, is less magical and more complex. Feelings and beliefs stay constant too–we develop likes and dislikes–and so do other people. True empathy is not yet possible at this stage because we don’t see or understand the minds of others. Rules are followed because of the fear of being caught rather than an actual sense of right and wrong. Children—and adults—at this stage are self-centered–seeing others only in terms of how they can help them get what they want.

Socialized Mind

If you operate from socialized mind, you recognize that you can control your impulses, needs and desires. They have become Object. This is a key distinction between being an adult and being a child–and most adults do reach this stage. People who operate from socialized mind “internalize the feelings and emotions of others and are guided by those people or institutions  (like an organization or synagogue or a political party) that are most important to them.”  And, while they can be self-reflective and can think abstractly, “There is no sense of what I want outside of others’ expectations or societal roles.” So, when you operate from socialized mind, you try to do what others want or expect of you and your identity is shaped by what you perceive as the approval or disapproval of others.

While many adults can remain in this stage over the course of their lives, for many (and especially for people who are in leadership roles) it is not sustainable. When one operates from socialized mind one’s sense of self is reliant on others “because they are, in many ways,made up of those people, ideas, or ideals around them.”  In simpler times, one could live one’s life from socialized mind–following the rules and following the leader. In the world we are now in, the socialized mind can be very limiting.

It’s estimated that almost half the adult population operates from socialized mind.

Self-Authored Mind

About 35% of adults will transition, at some point in their lives, to self-authored mind. Just as it sounds, at this stage one creates a self that stands alone–outside of its relationship to other people. “The opinions and desires of others that they internalized and that had great control over them when they were making meaning with more of a socialized form of mind are now object to them.”

Operating from a self-authored mind, one has an internal compass from which to make decisions or manage conflicts. True empathy is now possible as the self-authored mind is able to genuinely consider what others think and want. When faced with different and conflicting opinions and views, the person with a self-authored mind can navigate these views and use their own system to make decisions.”These are the people we read about in the literature who ‘own’ their work, who are self-guided, self-motivated, self-evaluative.”

The limitations of the self-authoring mind emerge when a person’s values are in internal conflict, and one’s internal compass is not sufficient to handle a situation that is more nuanced and even less black and white. While the self-authored mind sees shades of gray, there are still limitations. A person with self-authored mind may not be an excellent diplomat, because: “when other people don’t understand or see the need to follow her rules, she may be so invested in her own way of doing things that she cannot easily see connections between her ideas of what is right and other people’s ideas of what is right.”

Self-Transforming Mind

This form of mind is relatively rare–though, as complexity grows in our world, more people are evolving to this level of complexity in their thinking. Adults with this form of mind “have learned the limits of their own inner system—and the limits of having an inner system in general. Instead of viewing others as people with separate and different inner systems, those with a self-transforming mind see across inner systems to look at the similarities that are hidden inside what used to look like differences.” What this means is that people at this form of mind are likely to see a spectrum of grays. This form of mind creates the capacity to see the systems at play and mediate between seemingly opposed views to find common ground.

Why Does Understanding The Stages of Development Matter?

Understanding the stages of development has helped me to both understand myself, work more effectively with my clients (help ensure that I ask the right questions,) and make sense of the world around me. It enriches my life by helping me see and grow in new ways.Significant development doesn’t happen because we have more knowledge, but because we have better meaning making systems. In a world where we can never “know” enough–I find this comforting.

I hope that what I’ve shared in these two posts has given you some things to consider as you think about your own meaning making systems.




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?