Socialized Mind: Moving the Goalposts

adult development

We humans take socialization seriously, and for good reason. In the wild, humans cannot survive outside our social groups. Socialization is the process of learning to live with other humans, and it is arguably the “goal” of childhood and adolescence. If our ancestors had not learned to live together and cooperate in groups, we would not be here now.

It is therefore not surprising that Robert Kegan’s third stage is called Socialized Mind, because it is where adolescents "land” as young adults and where we reside much, if not all, of our adult lives.

Meet Cara, Age 8

Let's again create a hypothetical subject, Cara. At age eight, Cara has taken on some simple chores, including rinsing off her dishes after dinner and loading them into the dishwasher. On a beautiful fall day, Cara can hear her friends in the neighborhood outside already playing as she takes her last bite.

This presents a dilemma.

Clearly Cara is anxious to join the fun, but then, without being asked, she takes her plate to the sink, rinses it off, and puts it in the dishwasher. Her parents are rightfully proud.

Just a couple years ago, the impulse to run out and play would have been too strong, and Cara might have just bolted, her chores quickly forgotten. But now she has internalized a durable rule, one she can follow even if no one is actively enforcing it: if I put away my dishes, then I can go out to play.

This ability is one of the key achievements of Kegan’s second stage, Self-Sovereign Mind.

Cara the 9th Grader

Now fast forward six years. Cara has started high school, age 14. She has homework and is anxious to get it done so she can watch an episode of her favorite show (on her phone, of course, not the 50” TV in the next room). After dinner, she rinses her dishes, loads them in the dishwasher, and makes a beeline for her room.

But this evening Cara’s grandparents joined the family for dinner, so there is more clean-up than usual. Dad says, “Hey Cara, you can’t leave yet! You need to help clean up the kitchen.”

[Eye roll. Exasperated sigh.]

“Dad, that’s not fair! I cleaned up my dishes. Why do I have to help with everyone else’s mess?” Mom and Dad are not proud. They are irritated. Is it not obvious that there is more work to be done and everyone needs to help?

No! For Cara’s Self-Sovereign Mind, it is not obvious, and if we take Cara’s perspective, we can understand why. She followed the rule, “if I clean up my dishes, then I am free to do what I want.” Her logic is sound, albeit me-centric. She did not use all those other dishes. Why should she have to clean them up? Her behavior did not change. It is her parents’ expectations that are different. 

Cara is not wrong; the goalposts have been moved. But neither are her parents wrong to move them. Their demands that she consider the needs of the group will at first seem unfair and confusing, but over time they will help Cara make the essential subject-object shifts, restructuring how she knows what she knows into Socialized Mind.

This transition takes years. Nonetheless, most (but not all) of us manage to get there by the time we are young adults. What happens if we do not?

Cara's First Job

Fast forward another eight years. Cara is 22 and in her first job. She is part of a project team with an important deadline. The team is behind, still at work as Cara heads out the door at 5:00 p.m. “Hey Cara, what’s up? We need to stay and get this done.”

Cara responds, “No, you need to stay and get your work done. I finished my tasks. I should not have to stay late just because the rest of you haven’t.”

Have you ever had a Cara on your team?

Now we have a more serious issue. Cara's coworkers and her boss will definitely take notice. Cara is not a team player. Cara is making career-limiting moves. Yet again, Cara’s sense-making and resultant behavior have not changed. It is the demands of life, the expectations that are different. 

Cara's if/then, concrete, rule-centric, Self-Sovereign Mind was an achievement at age eight. It was a bit frustrating at age 14, but we expect this of teenagers. Now, at age 22, the failure to make progress into Socialized Mind is going to create significant problems for Cara.

The Achievements of Every Stage Are Also Its Limits

The eight-year-old’s embeddedness in their own interests, needs, and desires was developmentally appropriate, but as adolescents move into young adulthood, we expect them to find a way to hold those same needs and desires as objects, examine them, and—most importantly—subordinate them to the needs of the group.

The ability (and desire) to subordinate one’s own needs to the needs of the group, the ability to “fit in,” is the central accomplishment of Socialized Mind, and from this stage we are appropriately identified with, or subject to, the expectations of and our roles in the group.

Socialized Mind is why we respond to “tell me about yourself” with a statement of what we do and the groups to which we belong. We are stating our role in society. I am a teacher. I am an engineer. I am a business owner. I am a mother, father, Democrat, Republican, Cubs fan, vegan, Catholic, atheist, skateboarder, artist, nonconformist, athlete, scientist, and so on. This list of our groups and our roles in society is not merely what we do or who we hang out with, it is who we are. We are defined by these roles and we are subject to the expectations, values, and norms of these external influences. 

We have strong beliefs, but those beliefs were authored by other people.

The Demand and the Opportunity for Leaders

Leaders should recognize the Socialized Mind's dependence on authority outside themselves as both an advantage and a limitation.

While these individuals are often great team players, their reliance on external validation can hinder independent decision-making. Most importantly, leaders should recognize that this stage of development is necessary and normal for adults, especially younger adults. It is incumbent on leaders to communicate with Socialized Minds (40-50% of adults!) in ways they can hear. It is doubly tricky because odds are good that the leader is also making sense of the world from this same form of mind.

With this challenge also comes an opportunity to create in your organization an environment that facilitates growth in and through this essential form of mind. You can get the best from those in Kegan’s third stage by providing clear expectations, structures, and explicit guidelines.

You can help them grow in complexity through coaching, mentorship, and assignments that require them to stretch, resolve conflicting inputs, and make decisions on their own.

To do so is to provide a great service not only to the individual, but to society, because while this embeddedness in external influence is good and right for a time, Socialized Mind is no longer a suitable final destination for our species.

What Got Us Here Won't Get Us There

The Socialized structure of knowledge suited our not-so-distant ancestors perfectly, but our modern world demands more. In evolutionary terms, it was only yesterday that our little band of a few dozen other humans was effectively our entire world. We did not need to understand more than the social structure of our group and our role in it, because we rarely, if ever encountered anything else. But today, our entire world is... the entire world.

The other side of the planet is physically less than a day away by air, and is virtually connected to us in a few milliseconds. We did not evolve to deal with that complexity. Fortunately, the evolution of our minds is no longer linked to the evolution of our genes. For millennia, Socialized Mind served Homo sapiens perfectly. That is no longer the case. We have to get bigger, and as we shall soon see, we are fully capable of doing so.

Retexo’s coachingpeer groups, and workshops are all designed to support a lifetime of growing complexity to help ensure you thrive in this much bigger (and smaller?) world. We hope you check them out.

Stay tuned to learn more,
Greg and Martha

These ideas build on several earlier articles. Find them here.

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