Glitches in The Matrix: A Demand for Lifelong Development

adult development

When you were 18 months old, you had the world all figured out. You could see, hear, feel, touch, and taste things. You could walk. You could make sounds that caused things to happen. The world was magical. Interesting stuff appeared out of nowhere, right here, right now. You dealt with what was in front of you. Life made sense.

But then you began to notice glitches in the Matrix. You started to wonder if that toy that used to magically appear under the couch had actually been there the whole time, even when you weren’t looking. It started to occur to you that mom was not just blinking in and out of existence, but that she was actually still in the house, just in the other room. She was still there, but not with you! What does this mean?!

Just when you had life sorted out, it all came undone! Your “out of sight, out of mind” understanding of the world worked so well—until it didn’t. This new complexity where things are “out of sight, but not out of mind,” was way harder. It felt like starting all over. You were only two, after all, and this was terrible!

What happened?

Around age two, toddlers move through a mental transformation. Their way of making sense of the world gets bigger and more complex. They achieve what the pioneering psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) called “object permanence.” We recently introduced the idea of the subject-object shift, and that is exactly what has occurred.

Before age two, children are subject to their sensory experience. Piaget calls this the Sensorimotor Stage. Around their second birthdays, however, children begin to understand that they have sensory experiences that they can think about as objects, and the world around them exists independent from their sensory perceptions.

As we exit the Sensorimotor Stage, we move into what Piaget called the Preoperational Stage (approximately ages 2-7), “preoperational” because children are still learning to perform mental “operations” like understanding that the amount of water is conserved when it is poured into a glass of a different shape. From there we move into the Concrete Operational Stage (approximately ages 7-11), and ultimately the Formal Operational Stage as adolescents.

Each transition represents a tectonic subject-object shift, not in what we know, but in how we know it. Our entire cognitive structure must change in response to the ever-more-complex demands of our environment.

Interesting, but what does this have to do with work?

Did life’s complexity stop increasing when you graduated from high school? Is the complexity of your job static and completely manageable? Probably not.

Piaget’s theory has us entering our final form of mind as adolescents, but Piaget was wrong. Okay, not exactly wrong, but incomplete.

We are by no means “done” with cognitive development when we reach legal adulthood. We are not even done with physical brain development at that age. The final brain region to fully mature is the frontal cortex, critical to executive function and emotional regulation. The frontal cortex is not fully developed until our mid-twenties. Teenagers are not “little adults.”

To make sense of the demands of work and leadership, we must continue to develop not only beyond our adolescence, but throughout our lives. The subject-object shifts that we view as natural and inevitable in childhood continue (hopefully) through adulthood.

The difference is that the major milestones get farther apart, more variable in timing, and more abstract as our meaning-making expands to deal with our more complex adult world, including a now globally interconnected work environment. Most importantly, adult development is neither inevitable nor automatic. We can easily stagnate; if that occurs we will quickly find ourselves in over our heads, unable to make sense of a world or workplace more complex than our understanding.

Leadership demands that we get bigger and more complex.

Enter Robert Kegan.

Robert Kegan is a developmental psychologist and retired Harvard professor. We consider him one of our teachers. His work is called Constructive-Developmental Theory, “constructive” because it is about how we “construct” reality in our minds, and it is central to Retexo’s approach to coaching and training.

Kegan picked up where Piaget left off, and defined additional stages of adult development. Each is associated with a fundamental subject-object shift, and each stage represents an increasingly more complex (and more complete) way of making sense of the world.

Kegan proposes five developmental stages, with the first two overlapping Piaget’s model. We will introduce them briefly here, and explore them more fully in future articles.

  1. Impulsive Mind - the mind of a young child, usually ages two to around six.
  2. Self-Sovereign Mind - also called “Imperial Mind,” i.e., the mind of an emperor, children typically enter this stage around age six and exit in their teens. Some remain “stuck” in this stage well into adulthood.
  3. Socialized Mind - where most of us reside, often throughout our adult lives.
  4. Self-Authoring Mind - in midlife, many (but not most) of us author our own ideology or personal authority.
  5. Self-Transforming Mind - a small percentage of adults, rarely before midlife, find a new form of understanding where they can hold even their own self-authored systems as “object.”

In the real world…

In practical terms, most of us operate from Kegan’s “Socialized Mind,” and leading an organization from that form of mind is tough. A business of almost any size is too complex.

An example:

Sales are sluggish. Market data indicates that customer expectations have shifted. The way the research was conducted aligns with what you learned from your favorite professor in MBA school. You can almost hear her talking about the need for a change in strategy in an eerily similar case study.

Your senior team, who you deeply respect, disagrees. When you talk to people throughout the company, half of them seem concerned and anxious for you to take action. The other half send clear signals that they will not react positively to the changes you are considering.

A leader operating from the Socialized form of mind will identify with each of these crucial voices—their MBA mentor, their senior team, and the company's broader workforce—but these voices are in dissent.

They see through (are subject to) the expectations of others, but this presents conflicting demands. The socialized form of mind will struggle to resolve this, because it actually cannot be resolved from that level of complexity. The leader might seek additional, more authoritative opinions, but this will likely only add confusion. They will feel stuck, and might fail to act before it’s too late.

A situation like this demands at least Self-Authored Mind, Kegan’s next stage, from which the leader can step outside the external demands, consider all the inputs, and make an independent decision.

Kegan's Model

You can download our PDF summary of Kegan’s stages for a high-level view of the developmental landscape, but this comes with a disclaimer:

You will be tempted to locate yourself (and others) in this hierarchy, but this is a tricky business. We do not simply stair-step from stage to stage. You cannot easily place others based on their observable behavior, nor is there a simple assessment. What matters is not what someone did in a given situation, but how they made sense of the situation.

Adult development is not about “landing” on the next plateau, but rather continuing to move forward, always looking for what Jennifer Garvey Berger calls your “growth edge.”

Importantly, development cannot occur in isolation. We can only develop in an environment that creates a “pull” for our growth. As children, our parents, teachers, and communities hopefully created that for us.

As adults, an environment that supports ongoing development can be hard to find. This is likely why some of us get stuck, but as leaders, this is your opportunity. You can create, in your business, department, or team, an environment that supports lifelong growth. It is not easy, but we can help, and if you are successful, everyone wins.

Retexo’s coachingpeer groups, and workshops are all designed to support a lifetime of growth. We hope you check them out.


Much more to come,

Greg and Martha

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