Setting Yourself Up for Growth With Vertical Development

Can you think back on a time when your fun­da­men­tal view of the world changed? What if you could track an ide­al­ized map of devel­op­ment that could lead to a wis­er, more authen­tic ver­sion of yourself?

I recent­ly explored what this map might look like and one per­spec­tive of how it occurs. My inter­est was piqued while speak­ing with Beena Shar­ma, in an inter­view for our pod­cast Learn­ing at the Edge. For many years, Beena has been both a col­league and a guide, as I “learn at the edge,” espe­cial­ly when it comes to ideas about adult devel­op­ment.  Beena uses the lens of ego devel­op­ment, a the­o­ry that “describes how human beings con­struct their under­stand­ing of them­selves and the world by mak­ing mean­ing of life experiences.”

Research shows that adults can con­tin­ue to evolve and mature through­out life, acquir­ing more per­spec­tive and greater com­plex­i­ty in every stage.  Adult devel­op­ment occurs in two ways: hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal.  Hor­i­zon­tal devel­op­ment occurs as we learn new skills and acquire new knowl­edge, fill­ing in the gaps and mak­ing us more capa­ble with­in an exist­ing under­stand­ing of our­selves and our con­text.  Ver­ti­cal devel­op­ment, on the oth­er hand, implies a more fun­da­men­tal shift in how we com­pre­hend the world and respond to challenges.

“These shifts occur in defin­able stages,” Beena says in Matu­ri­ty Coach­ing: Enabling Ver­ti­cal Devel­op­ment in Lead­ers. “With each stage, (peo­ple) learn wis­er ways of being, by expand­ing the depth and breadth of what they per­ceive and believe.  Ear­li­er stages are char­ac­ter­ized by a nar­row, sta­t­ic, con­straint-dri­ven, pro­tec­tive stance.”

She con­tin­ues: “As a result of for­mal and infor­mal learn­ing through life expe­ri­ences, peo­ple devel­op new world­views, each one a mile­stone in their devel­op­ment.  A broad­er, more dynam­ic, con­text-dri­ven, explorato­ry per­spec­tive char­ac­ter­ized the lat­er stages of adult devel­op­ment.”  Stages can gen­er­al­ly be grouped as pre-con­ven­tion­al, con­ven­tion­al and post-conventional.

These shifts show up in a myr­i­ad of ways in every­thing from our feel­ings, sense-mak­ing, log­i­cal rea­son­ing, and behav­iors. Take, for instance, the way peo­ple per­ceive and use feed­back. Learn­ing about your effec­tive­ness, while some­times uncom­fort­able and hard to take, is essen­tial to grow­ing as a pro­fes­sion­al and as a per­son. And feed­back is an essen­tial com­po­nent to a learn­ing mind­set and a learn­ing culture.

Let’s con­trast three ver­sions of one per­son, Li, as she pro­gress­es through pre-con­ven­tion­al, con­ven­tion­al, and post-con­ven­tion­al stages of ego devel­op­ment, exam­in­ing her rela­tion­ship to feedback.

Pre-con­ven­tion­al Li: At this gen­er­al stage, Li takes feed­back as a per­son­al attack or gen­er­al dis­ap­proval.  When she can, she avoids it alto­geth­er.  One thing is sure, she takes neg­a­tive feed­back per­son­al­ly, and will either try to get even or to please the giv­er of feed­back, depend­ing on the pow­er posi­tion in Li’s life.

Con­ven­tion­al Li: With more matu­ri­ty, Li begins to use feed­back to change her behav­ior, achieve her goals and uncov­er blind spots for per­son­al growth. She works in an orga­ni­za­tion that pro­vides quar­ter­ly reviews. Because she wants to advance in her job, she wants to be clear about what it takes to achieve pro­mo­tions, and Li works to become better.

Post-con­ven­tion­al Li: With even more matu­ri­ty, Li adopts an even more expan­sive view.  Now she invites and wel­comes feed­back as a means of uncov­er­ing nat­ur­al ten­sion.  Here, Li expects feed­back and con­flict to be part of any healthy, grow­ing sit­u­a­tion or rela­tion­ship. She is able to observe her own process as she inter­acts with oth­ers, and to make adjust­ments in the moment.

Can you see the dif­fer­ence in Li’s expand­ing perspective?

Through the lens of Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing The­o­ry, as Li brings her per­son­al knowl­edge to her deal­ings in the social sys­tem, she uses her own spe­cial­ized form of learn­ing (focus­ing on Reflect­ing and Think­ing), cre­at­ing con­di­tions that can allow her to take a unique path of devel­op­ment based on her learn­ing style preference.

Ego Devel­op­ment The­o­ry pro­vides a frame­work that describes dif­fer­ences in per­son­al mean­ing-mak­ing and per­spec­tive-tak­ing from sev­en dif­fer­ent stages that fol­low the log­ic of Piaget’s the­o­ry. Hav­ing an aware­ness of how per­spec­tive can change, and the ben­e­fits and chal­lenges of assum­ing these per­spec­tives can help us under­stand our cur­rent home base and what changes as one tran­si­tions or trans­forms to lat­er stages.

You can exam­ine your own oper­at­ing sys­tem and stage of devel­op­ment in the Matu­ri­ty Assess­ment for Pro­fes­sion­als (the MAP), devel­oped by Susanne Cook-Greuter and based on the ear­ly work of Jane Loevinger.  The MAP, avail­able through the Ver­ti­cal Devel­op­ment Acad­e­my, describes dif­fer­ent maps of real­i­ty as expressed in our use of lan­guage. Through such clues as sen­tence struc­ture, con­tent, com­plex­i­ty, under­stand­ing of con­text, and self-aware­ness of habits and choic­es, we reveal our world­view. The MAP not only mea­sures one’s capac­i­ty for com­plex rea­son­ing; it offers a more com­plete, holis­tic view of human growth poten­tial and the ben­e­fits and chal­lenges that cor­re­spond to each stage of development.

How do we con­tin­ue to change and grow through­out life?  Accord­ing to David Kolb and the Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing The­o­ry, “learn­ing is the process where­by devel­op­ment occurs.”  By using the learn­ing cycle as an approach to life, we can set our­selves up to con­tin­ue to develop.

Over time, devel­op­ment can occur in two ways: by build­ing more com­plex­i­ty to use increas­ing­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed capa­bil­i­ties asso­ci­at­ed with each of the modes and styles, and by using both the dialec­ti­cal­ly opposed modes and styles (such as Act­ing and Reflect­ing, Expe­ri­enc­ing and Think­ing).  As David Kolb says in Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing: Expe­ri­ence as the Source of Learn­ing, “Com­plex­i­ty and the inte­gra­tion of dialec­tic con­flicts among the adap­tive modes are the hall­marks of true cre­ativ­i­ty and growth.”

“As a result of for­mal and infor­mal learn­ing through life expe­ri­ences, peo­ple devel­op new world­views, each one a mile­stone in their development.”

Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing is not just a the­o­ry of learn­ing, but also of devel­op­ment. David Kolb drew on the work of Carl Jung and oth­er foun­da­tion­al schol­ars for a holis­tic, mul­ti-lin­ear approach, sug­gest­ing that devel­op­ment occurs over three gen­er­al phas­es:  acqui­si­tion (birth through ado­les­cence for basic learn­ing abil­i­ties), spe­cial­iza­tion (career train­ing and ear­ly adult­hood to devel­op com­pe­tence in a spe­cial­ized mode of adap­ta­tion), and inte­gra­tion (midlife and beyond, if one choos­es to devel­op non-dom­i­nant modes of deal­ing with the world). These phas­es gen­er­al­ly cor­re­spond to the pre-con­ven­tion­al, con­ven­tion­al and post-con­ven­tion­al phas­es of Ego Devel­op­ment Theory.

For Li, giv­en her pref­er­ences for Reflect­ing and Think­ing, it may mean that she builds reflec­tive and sym­bol­ic com­plex­i­ty for spe­cial­iza­tion.  To con­tin­ue to inte­gra­tion, she will need to build sim­i­lar com­plex­i­ty in Expe­ri­enc­ing and Act­ing to use a both/and approach to the learn­ing process.

A 2002 study on learn­ing flex­i­bil­i­ty and adapt­abil­i­ty showed that both were linked to lat­er stages of devel­op­ment, prov­ing the con­nec­tion between expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing and devel­op­men­tal stages.  Using Jane Loevinger’s Sen­tence Com­ple­tion Test (a pre-cur­sor to the MAP), the study indi­cat­ed that “to the extent that Ego Devel­op­ment The­o­ry is a mea­sure of inte­gra­tive devel­op­ment, researchers con­clud­ed that adap­tive flex­i­bil­i­ty is also indica­tive of inte­gra­tive devel­op­ment. The study not­ed that Loevinger’s instru­ment was more attuned to devel­op­ment of the Reflect­ing and abstract adap­tive modes than in the con­crete and active ones.”

The devel­op­men­tal process is a dynam­ic and some­times messy one, requir­ing ongo­ing work to observe your own process and inte­grate unex­plored aspects of yourself.

By using expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing as a process by which she approach­es life, Li will under­stand her pref­er­ences for using the process and have a map of the stretch zone that she may con­tin­ue to add to her repertoire.

It can help to sur­round your­self with oth­ers who con­tin­ue to mature and exam­ine their own per­spec­tives, and to work with a coach who under­stands the devel­op­men­tal frame­work and expe­ri­en­tial learning.

You might want to think of your devel­op­ment as the inside-out expe­di­tion of your life.  Are you out­fit­ted with the MAP (Matu­ri­ty Assess­ment of Pro­fes­sion­als), your com­pass (the learn­ing cycle process), and your coor­di­nates (your learn­ing profile)?

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Kay Peter­son is CEO of the Insti­tute for Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing. She is the author of How You Learn Is How You Live: Using Nine Ways of Learn­ing to Trans­form Your Life and is host of the pod­cast Learn­ing at the Edge.