“Adulthood is not an age, but a stage of knowledge of self.” -John Fowles
Adults Are Still Developing
Gone are the days when we believed that we stop developing when we reach adulthood. To paraphrase a chapter title from Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X, we are not “dead at 30, buried at 80.” True, we do not typically grow physically beyond the age of 25, but we do develop throughout our lives. An adult has an ever-evolving self.
Adult development theory over the past three decades describes distinct developmental stages in adults, much like in children. A popular framework for that has been proposed by Robert Keegan, a retired professor in adult learning and professional development at Harvard, whose work with Lisa Lahey and others presents the adult as going through a succession of stages and advancing towards higher states of consciousness and self-awareness.
Three Stages of Adult Development
Kegan and Lahey’s model distinguishes three stages of adult development: the socialized mind, the self-authoring mind, and the self-transforming mind.
Only a small number of people reach the highest level of adult development, the self-transforming mind, which allows them to accommodate multiple, often conflicting perspectives and operate on high levels of global awareness and interconnectedness. This is the realm of top industry captains and extraordinary political and social leaders. The remaining majority falls into one of the two other stages.
75% of the general population live mostly with a socialized mind. They tend to seek external direction, are shaped by definitions and expectations of their environment, and try to adhere to identities they formed earlier in their personal and professional lives. They try to fit into the world as opposed to shape it. Managers with a socialized mind like to follow rules, feel comfortable with the status quo and seek confirmation of their actions by others. They seek predictability and safety, and they offer reliability and loyalty in return.
Compare that to the self-authoring mind, where people align with an internal sense of direction and inner seat of judgment. These people are able to step back enough to question expectations and values, take stands, set limits, and solve problems with independent frames of mind. Self-authoring managers can truly operate independently and lead people authentically based on their core principles within the limits of the organizational values and mission. They also respond to change through leadership that rests on their own values and sense of purpose, as opposed to fitting into external expectations and executing someone else’s agenda.
Moving to a Self-Authoring Mind Through Peer Learning Groups
Helping managers to move from operating out of a socialized mind to a self-authoring mind will bring your organizations the many benefits that were mentioned above. However, this is not a trivial process. It involves a commitment, structure and process.
Peer learning groups – small groups of managers working on solving their common challenges in their workplace – offer the necessary commitment, structure and process. The peer groups operate on the principles of trust and equality, giving the managers the opportunity to put themselves in a position of self-authority and command. Through structured dialogues with peers, the managers clarify and act on what they know is true for them, honor a sense of self, explore their interconnectedness with others and the world, and reflect on the limits of their personal beliefs and ideologies. Each peer learning cycle, regardless of the topic of discussion, ends with the managers making a committed action to do something differently, which gives them an entry point into practicing a self-authoring mindset.
Peers can do what trainers and coaches typically cannot do: they provide an ongoing support system that is rooted in the common organizational culture. They challenge one another and grow together. The peer pressure of seeing others move to a self-authoring mind is a powerful motivator for acquiring one’s own self-authoring mind. Additionally, peer groups give the participants a sense of belonging and camaraderie where they can find space for personal growth and freedom to find their own voice. Piercing through a culture of socialized work-to-rule managers is not easy to do on one’s own. Working in a peer learning group will bring the necessary power and momentum that will drive personal and professional growth.
Reaching higher levels of adult development has its benefits. Kegan’s research shows that people who are more conscious and self-aware are better problem-solvers, collaborators and leaders. Companies led by leaders at higher levels of adult development are more profitable, have larger market shares and better respond to competitive challenges. Managers who reach higher stages of awareness fare much better in dealing with complex challenges, forging innovative solutions and taking risks. There’s a strong correlation between a person’s effectiveness as a leader and that person’s way of processing mental complexities, such as different points of view or competing objectives. Therefore, using peer learning groups to help managers and leaders move to a higher stage of development offers measurable benefits to organizations large and small.
Peter Korynski, Co-Founder and Chief Program Officer
The Peer Learning Institute