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Robert Kegan’s Developmental Perspective

In his book In Over Our Heads, Robert Kegan writes (p. 318) that most contemporary approaches to conflict resolution and leadership focus on helping contending parties to understand and respect the interests and positions of the other and to seek “win-win” solutions.  This is an important step forward from traditional approaches that focus on threat, deterrence, and force.  But Kegan asserts that some other contemporary approaches, in particular “those who come to the field from family therapy theory and the Chris Argyris wing of organizational theory” (p. 321), take a fundamentally different stance.  He sees these approaches as seeking “a process that uses the conflict to transform one’s identification with one’s own ‘side,’ one’s sense of its inevitability or intractable integrity, one’s need to have that side ‘win’ even if the other side also wins” (p. 318).  These approaches, he continues, “focus on ways to let the conflictual relationship transform the parties rather than on the parties resolving the conflict” (p. 320).

Kegan sees the first set of approaches, those that focus on helping the parties respect each other’s interests and find win-win solutions, as based in what his developmental theory identifies as the fourth order of consciousness.  This stage of development has become increasingly necessary in the modern world as adults face demands to be self-responsible initiators at work and in their personal lives rather than simply doing what they are told or following tradition.  One of the dilemmas we face as a society is that, according to developmental research, fewer than 50% of adults ever reach this fourth order of consciousness.  It is in this sense that Kegan sees most adults as “in over their heads” in today’s world.

The dilemma becomes more acute as we consider Kegan’s argument that yet a higher stage, a fifth order of consciousness, is becoming more necessary in today’s world.  Kegan speaks of this as “the ‘honors track’ in the culture’s curriculum:  the mental burden of postmodernism” (p. 335).  It is this fifth stage that he sees as underlying the approach to conflict resolution and leadership represented by Chris Argyris.

Kegan offers both a critique and a caution.  The critique is that with the exception of Bill Torbert, theorists of conflict resolution and leadership do not focus explicitly on developmental stages.  From Kegan’s perspective, this makes it difficult for them to assess people’s readiness to learn what they offer.  As he points out, Argyris has reported that people have considerable difficulty in mastering what he teaches.

The caution Kegan offers is that most adults, even those who are highly educated and from advantaged socio-economic backgrounds, still face the task of entering and mastering the fourth order of consciousness.  According to Kegan’s theory, people must do this before they can begin to move toward the fifth stage. Educational and intervention approaches, he argues, must speak to the transformation that people are poised to make and not talk “over their heads.”  This suggests that an approach such as that represented by Argyris is developmentally too advanced ever to be adopted by more than a small fraction of the population.

From my perspective, I do see our practice at Action Design as congruent with what Kegan describes as the fifth order of consciousness (although I’m not so sure about myself—I seem to bounce around!).  And I do see that as differentiating our work, with its focus on reframing and on transforming one’s own action model, from approaches to conflict resolution that focus on understanding each other’s interests in order to “get to yes.”  But I would add, Kegan’s approach also seems based in his fifth order consciousness.  This does not preclude it from being useful in working with people at different developmental stages.

In working in the midst of contentious situations, we (Action Design) often focus on helping the parties to understand and respect, or grant legitimacy to, the perspectives of others.  This is what Kegan describes as a hallmark of a stage four approach to conflict resolution.  Our practice also offers the possibility of creating a process in which the conflictual relationship transforms the parties—Kegan’s stage five marker—but this is not always, or even usually, our emphasis.  Or, put differently, the process by which we help people to understand and grant legitimacy to each other’s perspectives is how we use the conflictual relationship to transform the parties. 

—Bob Putnam