Why Work with Developmental Models?

In our lives and work, we come into contact with individuals and groups who view themselves and the world from perspectives different than our own. Sometimes we believe we can simply "write them off," because their interaction with us is so tangential that their beliefs and actions will have no lasting impact on us. On other occasions, we have no choice. We have to work with, and through, the differences. At the end, there is something that either one or both of us want. And, an effective outcome requires that we bridge the gap to coherently communicate to craft a successful outcome.

I am fascinated by these differences. The opportunity to engage with another, to explore our differences, to find what we have in common and to better understand the things that divide us, is an exceptionally important part of life. I always feel that it leaves me better equipped to deal with the world. I make it my practice to repeatedly engage the differences. By doing so, I have developed greater flexibility, resilience and acceptance, which allows for relationships to develop and creative solutions to arise.

I use developmental models to build a bridge from my world to that which is foreign to me. The models are tools. They are not truth. I don't grasp one or another too tightly lest I fall into that trap - "to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Models offer me the opportunity to develop alternative perspectives on how I might approach an engagement.

Developmental models are the creations of psychologists. They describe stages through which an individual, an institution or a society passes to deal with increasing complexity. A developmental stage is the lens through the observer sees and interacts with the world. A stage is often characterized by specific language, metaphors and operating modalities. For example, I readily can distinguish between the operating principles of a company engaged in the mineral extraction industry from those of the resort industry, even though, both are part of the real estate industry. They view the use of land differently. To one, it offers something for harvest. To the other, it offers a setting. The father of the developmental model is psychologist Abraham Mazlo. In 1943, he published his theory of the "hierarchy of needs," describing levels or stages of individual psychological development. The theory was represented as a pyramid consisting of five levels, the first four of which were characterized as "deficiency" needs (physiological, safety and security, love and belonging, sexual intercourse and esteem), all of which had to be met prior to realizing the final level of "self-actualization," which allowed the individual to realize his own maximum potential.

In the 1970's, Jane Loevinger proposed nine sequential stages of ego development, each providing a frame of reference to organize and give meaning to an individual's experience. In 1982, Harvard education and psychology professor, Robert Kagen, presented a model of psychological development consisting of six "equilibrium stages" in The Evolving Self.

Labels aside, each of these developmental structures shares a number of common elements. First, the successor stage is seen as "more evolved" than the predecessor stage. The successor stage allows for higher levels of functioning in increasingly complex world systems. Second, each successor stage includes the predecessor stage as a part of it. That is, old stages are never abandoned, rather they are subsumed under a successor stage. Third, life circumstances (i.e. the environment) are at least as responsible for allowing development as the individual's capacity.

Finally, the stages don't always evolve "upward." In times of extreme disorder and distress, an individual can devolve to a predecessor state where he or she might remain or again evolve to even higher levels of development.

Do I know where someone stands just by knowing his or her employment or use of language? Not precisely. But with some background information and personal exposure, I can estimate a range of communications and interactions beyond which I should not go, if I expect to reach a solution. In their book Personal and Organizational Transformations, Dal Fischer, David Rook and Bill Torbert approached the developmental stages from an organizational development perspective, combining levels of individual management style into an analysis of institutional levels of development to illustrate how the development level of individuals advance or constrain the nature of institutions.

Then, psychologist Clare Graves recontextualized individual development models, to apply them to societies at large. He argued for a system of stages defined by how cultures and societies adapt to changing environmental conditions through the construction of new, more complex conceptual models that allow them to handle new problems.

Graves' work was adapted by psychologists Don Beck and Chris Cowan in their book, Spiral Dynamics. Cowen and Beck applied Graves' theory in extended consulting engagements in South Africa prior to the end of apartheid. Due to the severity of racial tension, they developed a color scheme, rather than possibly volatile nomenclature, to delineate the different developmental stages.

The Spiral Dynamics stages include survival/instinctive (beige); tribal (purple); egocentric (red); authority (blue); strategic (orange); consensus (green); and ecological (yellow). According to Spiral Dynamics, so called Third World societies, for the most part, are constituted with cultures varying from the instinctive to the authority stages. Second World societies are most often characterized by the authority stage, whether from the left or right. First World nations are centered in the strategic stage, as the new value systems of consensus and ecology emerge in post modernism.

According to Spiral Dynamics, individuals in cultures do not clearly fall into any single category. Each person or culture embodies the mixture of the value patterns with varying degrees of intensity in each. But they observed that it would be difficult for individuals to develop beyond the predominant societal stage. Politics in Afghanistan are illustrative of this point.

From Maslo to Beck, each of these systems has come under attack for reasons ranging from the methodological (bad science) to the hierarchical (elitist) nature of the models. Some of the criticism is well founded. However, models are only models. They are conceptual; they are metaphorical. If they work to advance our thinking, our relationships or outcomes, without doing harm, they can be put to use, provided there is a conscious awareness of their limitations. When they are no longer useful, like the various developmental stages, they are superseded by more effective models.

How do I apply these models? It depends on the circumstances. In one case recently, I researched the nature of the industry of one disputant to understand the perspective it might bring to the table. I then analyzed its communications to its investors (it is publicly traded) and to the regulators to ascertain how it perceived its place in the industry and the regard which it gave to those with whom it deals. A lot can be gleaned from press releases, Web site content and Securities Exchange Commission filings. I then determined who were the likely company decisionmakers on the issue and reviewed their biographies and publicly available pronouncements.

By the time of our first meeting, I had a possible composite "sketch" of how the disputant might approach the issue based on the culture of the industry, the apparent developmental level of the company and the possible personality types of its executives. But, I held the sketch lightly. Based on my composite, I designed our approach and communications in a manner likely to be heard and appreciated by company decision makers. And, my composite was close - very close.

Even though models imply judgment, they actually serve to keep me from reaching judgment too soon. And, frankly, the more models that I carry with me, the more and varied inquiry I can make before reaching a conclusion. Models don't have to be entirely consistent with one another. If I detect conflicts, I view that as an invitation to consider why they exist and what additional perspectives the conflict itself brings to the table.

Finally, the process of applying the model suggests the antithesis of reactivity. The more I inquire, the greater my curiosity. The longer I am processing, the less reactive I become and the more likely that the people with whom I am engaged will know that I are making an effort toward understanding.

The intent to understand is a powerful tool in and of itself in problem solving. If the problem cannot be solved now, I at least have a framework for understanding the people with whom I am dealing.

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