Setting Yourself Up for Growth With Vertical Development

Kay Peterson

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.