A Fresh Perspective: Stages of Development

Russ Volckmann

In the January 2002 issue of the Integral Leadership Review (Self Management) I briefly discussed developmental psychology and mentionedSusann Cook-Greuter’s work. A few days ago, I asked her the following question. Here it is with her response.

Question: “I have been reviewing the materials from the LDP (Leadership Development Profile) and your “Descriptions of Ego-Development Stages of Action Logics.” I realized that I have a fundamental question: Why is it important to think of these as stages, as opposed to elements/preferences/ competencies/etc. in the human personality? Is one ever totally in one of these stages? Isn’t it likely that context influences the individual to shift among these levels? How could it be both/and? How could it be stages and elements…?”

Susann Cook-Greuter: You are asking the eternal questions we developmentalists debate among ourselves. When writing promo or explanatory material the choice between scientific rigor and accuracy and reader-friendliness always arises.

Of course stages are not a clear-cut affair. People do have multiple ways of meaning making at their disposal. The more developed, the more choices there are, or the greater the repertoire since we include and transcend. Earlier ways of meaning making are still available to us. That is why we can be empathetic with young children just discovering the “me, me, me” and asserting it in a tantrum. It’s less tolerable when adults show pre-conventional behavior, although even in that case we can put ourselves into the purely self-centered position mentally. Development in childhood is maturationally driven and occurs automatically and in sequence under normal conditions. There is tons of research showing this. There is no preference or choice involved.

One of the main distinctions between the conventional and the post-conventional tier of meaning making is the issue of choice. At the earlier…tiers choice is precisely what is not yet available to people. They act out of the frame that explains the world best to them. Once we have found a better, more comprehensive map for our experience we tend to prefer it over simpler maps which leave more things unexplained or as discrepancies.

I like to use the word “stage” because development, overall, does seem to be stage-like and follow an invariant sequence. Good support and challenge will tend to move people along the spiral to deeper insights and more behavioral choices in ever more areas of influx. Those who can look back on their developmental trajectory generally agree with the sequence. Their very recognition supports the face validity of the stage progression. Short of rare instances of permanent enlightenment, people do have to go through each identification at each stage, then disidentify with that level on their way to an even more spacious understanding of themselves, others and their experience.

I disagree with Spiral Dynamics on people shifting around a lot or being made up of a stacks of Vmemes. This is so because ego development focuses at the level of consciousness or self-awareness a person has not just at their behavior and values. I value many things that I do not myself manage to manifest in my life. I recognize them when I see them, but that’s a far cry from living them myself.

Another way of expressing the difference between stage and preference is that to me a real “Diplomat/Conformist” [one of the stages in the LSP model based on the work of Loevinger-ed.] has no choice about the way s/he acts, feels and interprets experience. I am sure I behave occasionally like a Diplomat as well, especially in certain life circumstances or under stress, but I am aware of this as I am executing the behavior. My center of gravity in terms of self-awareness and my preferred way of handling life remains at a higher level.

In my view, that is a major difference in perspective — and a serious problem with SD in explaining individual development. SD lends itself better to the social macro level. Also using life circumstances as the main motor for development cannot explain the achievement of high-end, or even transcendent insights by rare individuals throughout history.

Stages, too, are part/wholes. Each lower stage becomes part or a subset of the next level, on and on throughout the spiral.

I tend to not think of stages as preferences only because as Fingarette, my favorite author on the topic said 40 years ago, “The ego is the automatic drive towards meaning.” It is its orchestrating, synthezising function that is so important, not the changing identifications of the distal self or the many masks we wear and eventually drop.

On another level, and for being more transparent in the commercial world, I sometimes call action logic behavioral preferences as well as capacities, only these are fundamentally of a hierarchical nature. As long as higher is not confused with automatically “better,” this is not a problem. The tendency of conventional minds to read stages that way is inherent in conventional meaning making. Conventional is bound by understanding reality in linear terms and to automatically read higher = better. This is deeply engrained in language. Up = good, down = bad etc.

…in my lectures…[I give] a hint of the distinction between higher is better and higher has more capacity. Higher has also more capacity for evil as well as more capacity to recognize evil and shadows in themselves.

I don’t tend to describe meaning making in terms of competencies. Because each stage gives rise to new competencies, but a competency by itself does not make a stage. Again, one could talk about development that way to help others have easier access to the material. As a scientist, I am trying to keep distinctions clear at least when I talk to my peers. And I am conscious of them even when I talk to clients. Making new distinctions is fundamental to differentiating and growing! And yet not to insist on making subtle distinctions may also sometimes be the kindest and most integral way to proceed. As always, finding the best fit is an art!

I am in the process of preparing my first e-course lecture for Naropa Institute. So all of these issues are very much on my mind. I don’t believe any of these maps and theories will ever do justice to the variability, wonder and mystery of life!!!!! On some level all of this doesn’t matter when it comes to living.
(Published with Permission)

> Russ Volckmann