Connecting the Dots on Adult Development Theories

Photo by Justus Menke on Unsplash

In late 2018, I got introduced to the adult development theory of Robert Kegan by my colleague and friend Chen Bin. Instead of reading a book written by Kegan, I ended up reading "Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World" by Jennifer Garvey Berger, a student of Kegan. In the book, she explores "people’s capacities to make sense of the complex world in which they find themselves and the way those capacities grow and change over time. While we do not often consider the growth of people’s minds in the same way we consider the growth of their skills, both kinds of growth have a vital part to play in a person’s success and effectiveness."

From an educator lens, I found these ideas interesting as it helps us extend child developmental psychology and look towards a more long-term target of how student will continue to develop throughout adulthood. In my work, I help guide students through challenging group projects while facilitating their learning in collaboration, self-awareness and self-regulation. I realized that when discussing with students, I often find myself trying to understand out how they make sense of the situations and problems they encounter. This experience helped me to connect with these theories.

Adult human development is a field with many complementary theories coming from different backgrounds. Robert Kegan come at this from a Western psychology perspective, while others like Michael Commons combine his background in psychology and mathematics. There are also many non-Western theories of adult human development, such as that of Sri Aurobindo, but most of which I am not familiar with. Others like Ken Wilber have tried to integrate these various theories into his Integral Theory, but not without criticism for misinterpreting various teachings.

Robert Kegan

Kegan's theory center on five stages of human development, which from his observations, is a general pattern of how people's capacity to make sense of the world changes throughout their life. The five stages, in order to progression, are:

I will go through each stage below while connecting it to my other areas of interest and learning, such as Nordic history and politics, societal development and cultural differences. In order to focus more on my own insights and experience while still making the theory justice, I will refer to a post by Natali Morad which contain a great summary of the Kegan's theory. These references will be in the form of "theory boxes", as seen below. Let's start from the Self-Sovereign mind where we begin to find a part of the adult population.

Stage 2 - Self-Sovereign mind

In Stage 2, the emphasis on one’s own needs, interests and agendas is primary.

Relationships are transactional. Stage 2 individuals view people as a means to get their own needs met, as opposed to a shared internal experience (how we feel about each other). They care about how others perceive them, but only because those perceptions may have concrete consequences for them. For example, when Stage 2 friends do not lie to each other, it is because of a fear of the consequences or retaliation, not because they value honesty and transparency in a relationship.

Moreover, individuals follow along with rules, philosophies, movements or ideologies because of external rewards or punishments, not because they truly believe in them. For example, a person in Stage 2 won’t cheat because they’re scared of the consequences, not because it goes against their personal values.

Written by Natali Morad.

I often find it difficult to understand whether a friend or a student of mine is at the second developmental stage. However, in the complex world of our urban society, it is challenging to make sense of the world from this perspective. I learned from leadership coach Jennifer Garvey Berger that in order to help people grow from this stage to the Socialized mind, trying to take other people's perspective is a key practice. In her book Changing On The Job, she writes "The key developmental outcome in any curriculum for someone seeing the world through a self-sovereign form of mind is simply to begin to see that he is part of a bigger world than he understood before. One element of this is for him to understand and take in the perspectives of others. This is a time to learn the benefits of subordinating your own needs to the needs of others, and so any teaching that asks this person to take and hold a really different perspective than his own is extraordinarily helpful."

When I see her write "developmental outcome in any curriculum", I think about education and the development of Nordic societies. In the book The Nordic Secret, Thomas Björkman and Lene Rachel Andersen writes about how the Nordic countries developed to become the successful welfare societies we see today. Björkman comes with the perspective of "ego development" using Kegan's theory, while Andersen looks to the German concept of bildung.

"Bildung refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation wherein philosophy and education are linked in a manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation. This maturation is described as a harmonization of the individual's mind and heart and in a unification of selfhood and identity within the broader society"

Some Wikipedia editor

Bildung was often discussed in the philosophical circles in 18th and 19th century Germany, but it wasn't until the concept traveled to Scandinavia that it was put into practice for the benefit of all people. This practice took the shape of the Folk High School, with the first school founded in Denmark by the intellectual force of Danish pastor, author, philosopher and historian N. F. S. Grundtvig and the practical work of educator Christen Mikkelsen Kold. The Folk High Schools were targeting adolescence and young adults from the rural areas of Denmark (and through later expansion, also Norway and Sweden). The program usually lasted between four to six months and focused on three areas: personal development, political organization and new agriculture technology of the time. The youth would then come back to their villages with a new found personal mission, and a practical know-how of improving their farming practice and how to make their voices heard politically. It's estimated that about 10% of the Danish rural residents went through the Folk High Schools at it's peak, most often funded by the families themselves. The Nordic Secret argues that the Folk High Schools helped big parts of the population to transition from Stage 2 onwards to Stage 3 and thus develop a strong national identity as opposed to identifying with your village.

Stage 3 - Socialized mind

In Stage 3, external sources shape our sense of self and understanding of the world.

Whereas in Stage 2 the most important things were our personal needs and interests, in Stage 3 the most important things are the ideas, norms and beliefs of the people and systems around us (i.e. family, society, ideology, culture, etc.).

For the first time we begin experience ourselves as a function of how others experience us. For example, we take an external view of our ourselves ("They’ll think I look stupid”) and make it part of our internal experience ("I am stupid”).

More characteristics:

Written by Natali Morad.

The most interesting metaphor I have heard about adult development is the "boardroom in your head". In Stage 3, you have a big boardroom in your head with important people and ideologies present. Imagine your family, friends, political belief, cultural norms and ideology sitting around this table discussing and making decisions for you. It's also from Berger's book Changing On The Job where I have read the best description of this stage:

"Rita, an unmarried graduate student in her mid-20s, discovered that she was pregnant. The father of the unborn child was her live-in boyfriend of more than a year. He was delighted about the news of the baby, and he urged Rita to marry him—something they had been talking about already—and begin their family at this time. Rita’s mother, Susan, on the other hand, had a very different perspective. Susan had married young and given up her career aspirations on behalf of starting a family, and she felt that loss in her own life deeply. Susan counseled her daughter to terminate this pregnancy so that she could be in control of her destiny, finish graduate school, and begin a family on her own timetable. This fantastically weird music video might give a visual feel to this experience. Rita, loving and trusting both of these voices, had no way of knowing which direction to choose. She talked to each of them again and again, writing down the things they said and agonizing over the difference. When asked about how she would finally come to a decision, she was at a loss. Pushed to name some way out of this quandary—which was tearing her apart and causing her to be unable to eat or sleep or concentrate on her classes—she said that the only recourse she could imagine was to "flip a coin.” Rita, with a socialized mind, is not to be faulted for this perspective. Her life became more complex than she could handle at this stage of development, and the intense pressure on her to grow would not speed her growth quickly enough to work her way out of this most wrenching decision."

from Changing On The Job by Jennifer Garvey Berger.

What I find fascinating with this scenario is that the problem facing Rita is both tearing her apart, as well as helping her grow. However, we can clearly see that the process of growth takes time, and that the time frame she has to make a decision is not enough to help her growth a stronger sense of self. This feeling of being "teared apart" is the painful process of growth that I have observed in people around me. From my experience of living in China, I often see this process taking place slightly later in life than in the Nordic societies. While I am certainly no expert in this, here are a few of my thoughts for why this takes place later and seem particularly painful to many of my Chinese peers.

The cultural and developmental gap between generations are huge compared to the West China has experienced an incredibly fast growth in wealth for the average person. Young adults today are spending their lives in the hyperconnected world of smartphones, instant interaction and globalization of culture, while their parents grew up during or right after the cultural revolution and got married in a time when a man was desirable for marriage if he had an apartment with a fridge, radio and perhaps a television set. Therefore these two generations will have very different values and priorities, putting the children between their global culture and their parents values of security and stability. In the tradition of filial piety, it can be harder to find your own voice, thus making it hard to develop further.

Chinese culture is more collectivistic than individualistic Growing up in Sweden, I have always been encourage by my parents to pursue what I find interesting and explore what that might be. If I had grown up in China, I would likely have been urged to study incredibly hard (even though I dislike it) to score well in the university entrance exam, since that would guarantee a spot at a top university thus providing a solid stepping stone to climb the social ladder. This is turn would bring up the social status and living standard of my family, although I might not be happy with the path or position I find myself in. Hence, there is less opportunity to explore and find ones own direction and purpose to develop further.

The Chinese social graph versus the Western organizational model In the first book on the sociology of China, From the Soil (xiangtu zhongguo), Fei Xiaotong writes about the difference in association between the Western and Chinese culture. In China, the individual see themselves as in the middle of a vast network graph where they have line of connections (relationships) to each individual in this network. These relationships are often not mutual, but rather "boss-employee", "son-father" or "girlfriend-boyfriend". Each role of these relationship come with different expectations that are shared within the culture. On the other hand, Westerns tend to think of themselves as parts of different groups and organizations (can be visualized as circles). For instance, I am part of my family organization, my work organization and my football club organization. It works more with membership rather than direct relationships. Perhaps this is why my Chinese ex-boss occasionally kept asking me for favors (or work tasks) after I had quit the job. Focusing on relationships and the expected behavior of that relationship can also make it harder to stand up to the norms as a person begins to find their own voice and values.

Even as a person is growing past the Socialized mind, there are these cultural feedback loops keeping a person feeling that their value depends on external factors and validation from others, as well as fulfilling these social roles in the "network graph". It's also worth stating here that growing to a higher stage of making sense of the world has it's good and bad. When a person grows to a stable point in their next stage, it can cause new tensions in, or even lost, relationships with family, friends and partners.

Stage 4 - Self-Authoring mind

In Stage 4, we can define who we are, and not be defined by other people, our relationships or the environment. We understand that we are a person, with thoughts, feelings and beliefs that are independent from the standards and expectations of our environment. We can now distinguish the opinions of others from our own opinions to formulate our own "seat of judgment”. We become consumed with who we are — this is the kind of person I am, this is what I stand for.

We develop an internal sense of direction and the capacity to create and follow our own course.

More characteristics:

Written by Natali Morad.

As a person reaches towards Stage 4, they open the door to that board room in their head, walk in and pull out the chair on the short side of the table and take a seat. In Stage 3, this board of your mind was trying to look out for you, but finally you are able to lead this boardroom meetings. Sitting at the table, you are able to see all the influences that is a part of you and decide who speaks at what time before making a decision.

Tomas Björkman, one of the authors of the Nordic Secret, often mention in speeches and lectures that the Folk High Schools (folkhögskolor) of the Nordic countries also helped the youth on the path to become self-authoring, thus laying a solid foundation for the strong democracies of the Nordics. With a higher proportion of the population able to define their own values, rather than what is accepted by the culture and norms, the society is able to grow towards new and better directions without being held back by the feedback loops of cultural preservation. Thus Tomas argues, the Nordics went from the poorest part of Europe in the end of the 19th century to become the most prosperous by the middle of 20th century.

From my own experience, having a strong sense of your own values and ideas can also lead to trouble. In work situations, I have found myself determined to push my own ideas forward to challenge the status quo. However, this sometimes leads to conflict with others who are more protective of the current state of affairs. This clash can lead to damaged relationships and misunderstandings, and will continue in that fashion until a person is able to take on and emphasize with more perspectives than themselves. This is the long and never-ending practice to continue the developmental journey beyond the self-authoring stage.

Warning! - From here on, this is very much a work-in-progress

Stage 5 - Self-Transforming mind

In Stage 5 one’s sense of self is not tied to particular identities or roles, but is constantly created through the exploration of one’s identities and roles and further honed through interactions with others.

This is similar to the Buddhist concept of an evolving self — a self that is in constant flux, ever changing.

More characteristics:

From my understanding of the self-transforming mind described by Kegan, rather than just holding one identify as in the self-authoring mind, we can hold and play with several different identifies. Instead of having one boardroom, there is a whole hallway of different boardrooms we can enter as we make decisions.

Based on this understanding, I can't help but to make the connection to the work of Donella Meadows and the 12 Leverage Points. The highest point of leverage according to Meadows is the power to transcend paradigms as a culture, perhaps the identify of a culture. It seems to me that individuals who are able to create radical societal change might also be far along their psychological development.

Instead of seeing things as black or white, as I described myself trying to push for the one solution I believed in, one would rather begin to see things as moving along a spectrum. Rather than just a single idea being the right one according to certain values, this the self-transforming mind opens up for seeing an idea in the light of its context, people involved, culture and other circumstances. No idea can be correct, but one idea might be more suitable in the context based on many factors, including the developmental level of the people involved in the context.

Michael Commons (and Hanzi Freinacht)

Combining an academic background in mathematics and pyschology, Michael Commons have developed a developmental theory with more than a dozen stages mapped against various concrete tests at each stage.

This approached was further expanded on in The Listening Society by Hanzi Freinacht. Freinacht, a student of Commons, incorporated his developmental stages as one of four indicators of human development alongside cultural code, state and depth.

Fredrick La'loux

In this book Reinventing Organisations, Fredrick La'loux look at the developmental stages of organisation, and how it relates to the individuals developmental process.

Jonathan Nylander © 2020