Developing development

February 6, 2012 by
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA, Uncategorized 

Did you hear about the car aerial that married a satellite dish; the wedding was a bit boring but apparently the reception was brilliant. Sadly, I can’t apply this adjective to the response I received for my set of posts over the New Year about entitlement. Yet, unabashed by the evidence that the longer I talk about an issue the less convincing I become, I am this week planning to write a series of posts on aspects of human development…..

Last Thursday I chaired an event at which Richard Sennett spoke about his new book Together. As tends to be the case with Richard’s work the book is often fascinating, sometimes inspiring and occasionally baffling. His core thesis certainly struck a chord.

Sennett joins many other thinkers in identifying both the importance of collaboration to human prospects in the 21st century but also the challenges of living and working with people – often very different to ourselves in values, backgrounds and lifestyles – in a fast moving, shrinking world. He suggests three attributes which people need to be able successfully and enduringly to function together (and alongside these, three apparently similar attributes they must supplant).

First, we must seek dialogic rather than dialectic communication (in essence this means conversation which accepts and negotiates different perspectives rather than seeking to find a single shared view). Second, we should aim for a subjunctive rather than a declaratory form of expression. Sennett writes:

‘The subjunctive mood counters Bernard Williams’ fear of the fetish of assertiveness by opening up instead an indeterminate mutual space, the space in which strangers dwell with one another…’.

Third, the sentiment that suits modern togetherness is empathy rather than sympathy:

‘Both sympathy and empathy convey recognition, and both forge a bond, but one is an embrace the other an encounter…Sympathy has usually been thought a stronger sentiment…I feel your pain puts a stress on what I feel; it activates one; own ego. Empathy is a more demanding exercise, at least in listening; the listener has to get outside him- or herself’.             

Rather like the objects in an impressionist painting the edges of Sennett’s concepts tend to blur into each other, but what struck me was the congruence with the idea of self-authorship developed by developmental psychologist Robert Kegan. Using a similar framework to Jean Piaget’s pioneering work on child cognitive development,  Kegan’s masterwork is The Evolving Self, in which he describes the stages of psychological development, each subsuming the one before, which take place not just in childhood but throughout life.

Kegan argues not just that we should aspire to greater self-awareness but that we need to reach a higher, more empathic, level of functioning to meet the practical requirements of twenty-first century citizenship. In particular, successfully functioning in a society with diverse values, traditions and lifestyles “requires us to have a relationship to our own reactions, rather than be captive of them”. Kegan writes of an ability to “resist our tendencies to make ‘right’ or ‘true’ that which is merely familiar and ‘wrong’ or ‘false’ that which is only strange”. In a 2002 overview of survey evidence for the OECD, Kegan concluded than only one in five people across the world have achieved the competencies necessary for what he termed a ‘modernist’ or self-authoring order of consciousness.

The view that there is both the need and the scope for human beings to develop to a ‘higher’ level of functioning has many adherents. Another version lies in my articulation of the RSA strap-line ‘twenty first century enlightenment’. But many questions arise?

How distinct is such a view from well-meaning but vacuous view that it would be a better world if we were all better people?

Among the different accounts of human beings need to develop to thrive in the modern world, what are the important similarities and differences?

How credible is the view that human development can enhanced. Perhaps it happens anyway (cf the Flynn effect or Steven Pinker’s recent evidence of declining violence) or perhaps, as John Grey would no doubt argue, we flatter ourselves with the idea we can somehow transcend the flawed character of our species.

Broadly, what routes to enhanced human development hold out the greatest promise: education, culture, institutional innovation, spiritual awakening?

Specifically, what examples are there of sustained improvements in human psychological and behavioural development and can these examples be scaled?

As a strong advocate of a necessary human development thesis, my aim here is to sharpen the case rather than find holes in it. I was excited last week to be contacted by Robert Kegan himself who has said some very generous things about the RSA’s 21st century enlightenment thesis. But I am also impatient of making the same broad case time and again but not yet feeling it carries sufficient conviction let alone a concrete set of policies and practices.  Of the questions above my sense is that the last is both the most important and the hardest.



  • Matthew Kalman Mezey

    Hi Matthew,

    You ask whether there might be examples of enhanced human (consciousness) development across “education, culture, institutional innovation, spiritual awakening”.

    That’s a huge question (and a lot of ‘sharpening the case’ is needed!), but here are my quick thoughts. The recent RSA report ‘Beyond the Big Society – psychological foundations of active citizenship’ did point to a number of pertinent examples of such development, in its final section. (More about the report/link is here: ).

    In education, we mentioned recent research on a US HE curriculum which had had strong success in enabling self-authoring (and active citizenship) in students, compared to a control group. As well as an Australian 10-week course that had had a similarly positive impact, compared to a control group. (Also mentioned were Jake Chapman FRSA’s promising findings on transformations of top public sector leaders’ ‘ways of knowing’, at the National School of Government).

    Culture-wise, a large developmental effort was made in the Dutch Antilles some decades ago – with extensive training across the workforce there, 5,000 developmental assessments etc. It appears to have been broadly successful.

    (Lawrence Harrison’s work outlined in his book ‘The Central Liberal Truth’ is an important look at culture change efforts around the world. The culture change centre at his US university is doing pioneering work worldwide.)

    Institutional innovation. Not sure of the best quick examples off the top of my head (though modern workplaces often tend in themselves to encourage a shift from socialised/conformist ‘ways of knowing’ towards more self-authoring ones). The developmental stage of the leader seems crucial here, whatever the particular innovation may be.

    I tend to go along with the view that organisational (and personal) transformation that could lead to responsive and open ‘Enterprise 2.0′ organisations or ‘Networked Nonprofits’ requires the kind of deep, long-term (difficult!) changes that the pioneer of Organisational Development Chris Argyris describes. Most organisations aren’t really up to this. (This was the conclusion of Andrew McAfee’s book ‘Enterprise 2.0′ – I blogged about some of these issues before I started working at the RSA: )

    Perhaps the widespread use of Kegan’s ‘Immunity to Change’ exercise, and approach, enables organisations to develop?

    A minor point re Kegan – I find his more recent book ‘In Over Our Heads’ particularly relevant to all these questions, more so than his The Evolving Self. And the first chapter of his recent book ‘Immunity to Change’ is well worth reading, as it surveys the role of adult development/growth in organisational change.

    Other things that seem worth noting: a later – more complex – stage of cognitive complexity isn’t necessarily ‘better’, nor does research find such people to be ‘happier’! If only things were that simple… ;-)


    PS And what to say about ‘spiritual awakening’! (As one who isn’t awakened!). My feeling is that the most expansive and authentic empathy and autonomy may in fact fully emerge (only?) from what we currently label as ‘spiritual awakening’. (Confusingly though, many people who are making the shift from socialised/conformist thinking to a more self-authoring ‘inner compass’ use the word ‘spiritual’ to describe how this shift feels to them. Though they use the label ‘spiritual’, I don’t think this actually means they are all turning into the Dalai Lama…!)

    PPS The current normalisation of Buddhist meditation as ‘Mindfulness’ practice may be playing a very positive role at the moment too, perhaps…?

    Matthew Kalman Mezey
    Senior Networks Manager – Online & International

    Tel 020 7451 6825
    A live dashboard webpage showing RSA online activity is here: (online community)

  • Sara Wolcott

    You ask about real life examples of whole-person change that can change the whole-system in a developmental fashion.
    I am currently in the midst of an evaluation project about whole-person and whole-system development in the Southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu. I have never witnessed anything like it. They are transforming the beureacracy from the bottom up (not exactly easy in this state). When I come back to London, I would like to share what is happening here with whomever is interested. I’m applying a Values Analysis to this real-life project (not dissimilar to Spiral Dynamics). My work thus demonstrates key insights for monitoring and evaluating development that is informed by a framework complimentary to Integral work. Even more important, we are highlighting how a beaureacracy can be transformed.
    This weekend, I will be presenting the basics of our findings to a national-conference on organisational transformation for Integrated Water Resource Management. While much more work and a much richer evaluation is necessary, we can offer some key insights into creating real, sustainable change within the government for England and other countries.

    The basics might not surprise any of us. It takes courage, dedication, and a willingness to really believe in one another and ourselves. It requires a fundamentally new space that can enable human development. This project shows that it is possible.

    If it can be done in Tamil Nadu, there is hope for the West.

  • Simon Strong

    You ask if anyone is listening… I, for one, am enjoying the dialogic, subjunctive and empathetic posts. Currently mulling it all over…

  • Stuart Black

    I think a real practical tool would be a simple means of finding such people and appointing them to leadership positions.

    My own small contribution to this effort as someone who works with organisations seeking to transform themselves, which involves building and developing teams, is to try to develop interviewing questions that seek to identify if candidates are at later stages.



  • Matthew Taylor

    Thanks for these kind responses. My colleague Matthew Mezey shows how much more of an expert he is than me. Sara your work sounds fascinating – it would be great to read more about it. I will be blundering around a bit more in this territory in another post later today (I hope).

  • Jonathanrowson

    Hi Matthew,

    While the examples matter (see Matthew Mezey’s comment above) for me there are four main political/positional battles to be won in this area before the evidence will carry weight:

    1) We need a shared recognition that ‘our way of knowing’ and not merely what we know continues to develop beyond adolescence. i.e. this language form has to be opened up and not reduced to something over-familiar like ‘skills’ or ‘personality’ or ‘experience’.
    Your most helpful comment on the ‘Beyond the Big Society’ report was not to lose sight of the specificity of the argument.

    2) We need to make the case, with a combination of theory, empirical evidence and practical examples of why this perspective is of central importance to social policy..not merely an afterthought or an intellectual game. You need to show the internal coherence of the ideas before their external relevance will look plausible.

    3) We need to be less scared of fluid hierarchies. I think people stay away from this stuff because while they accept a natural boundary between childhood(immature) and adulthood(mature) which is really fairly arbitrary…we are needlessly scared of comparing development levels in adulthood. While making the case for measurement…we need to be clear that such ‘levels’ are not fixed(‘performs inconsistently’) and it is NOT like getting an IQ score that is never supposed to change. This was the most difficult part of the report to write.

    4) We need to recognise that the map is not the territory. I like Kegan’s model a lot because the mechanism of change (subject-object relationships) is so sophisticated and yet so clear… but even that is just a map to help us find our way….the full reality of mind, identity, culture etc…remains beyond our grasp….we need to ‘walk the talk’ of maturation and speak about models of development in the full knowledge that they are models….it is a post-positivist view of the world. ‘Development’ is something we construct to make sense of human experience…it is not real in the same way that tables and chairs are real…this might sound a bit ivory towerish, but it’s important because if we turn development into yet another technocratic goal, we risk undermining its value.

  • Jules Evans

    I think you need to go from the theoretical to the practical. What practical, actual policies are you proposing? How are you going to say to a free adult who is not in prison: you do not have the cognitive capacities for modern citizenship, now sit still while we enhance them?

    I do think what Jonathan and Matthew have correctly identified is the enormous potential for adult education, for lifelong learning etc, which places like the RSA, the School of Life, intelligence squared etc tap into.

    I would suggest we work towards some way of combining insights from science with the values and methods of the humanities: philosophy, theatre, literature, cinema, music, play. And keep it open-ended, rather than prescriptive. If the conversation is too abstract and technocratic, you will never draw the general population in.

    all best


  • Matthew Kalman Mezey

    Great to see all these development-related examples, suggestions, pitfalls etc :-)

    I forgot to mention two potential ways forward that I talked about briefly at the end of my blog post – ‘How to understand active citizenship’ – about our ‘Beyond the Big Society’ report:

    The suggestions were, firstly, to do a 80-country international survey of the landscape of self-authoring/active citizenship capacity. (There is a sneaky, cheap way to do this, that could well work!). I think this would also in fact be a survey of good parenting capacity too, and other things…!

    I think actually seeing the location of the peaks and troughs of ‘self-authorship’ might concentrate the minds of thoughtful people globally. Suddenly the concrete policies and practices that are already out there might get the boost they need?

    Secondly, I thought there might be space for a self-development/active citizenship 10-week course – a sort of secular version of the ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Alpha Course, which is hugely popular, and community-building activity.

    I think 16 million or so have done the Alpha Course (which has now gone worldwide). What can we offer?

    Jules is spot on that technocratic/abstract won’t gain widespread traction!

    I’m currently reading the Maslow-based book ‘What Makes People Tick – the three hidden worlds of Setterls, Prospectors and Pioneers’ (about Pat Dade’s Values Modes model):

    It’s a great reminder of how the kind of ‘Pioneer’-styled solutions people like us tend to come up with as THE answer, will often not wash for the Settler and Prospector majority in the UK!


    Matthew Kalman Mezey
    Senior Networks Manager – Online & International

    Tel 020 7451 6825
    A live dashboard webpage showing RSA online activity is here: (online community)

  • Steve Jordan

    Isn’t the 64 thousand dollar question (showing age), why don’t the vast majority of people identify with this discussion. The discussion seems to to be ascending the ladder of a society governed by those with the most merit (against what value system?).

    Our economies are based on consuming more and more and this drives our value systems. We have to collaborate more to consume more efficiently and we do this on the occasions where we have a shared objective, usually a shared business or commercial objective. So we are willing to accommodate others, be less confrontational (to peoples faces) when we share an objective.

    To move forward it is necessary to articulate what is the shared objective that the vast majority of citizens recognise and buy into. From the discussion so far it tends to sound like a small group of people saying the world would be a better place if everyone thought like me, an exaggeration but I was trying to have some empathy with someone outside the discussion who it is trying to influence! So on the scale of global problems facing us where does this rank and why should I care?

    Finally on the matter of empathy I do not believe that you can have empathy without shared experience. Without shared experience you can only sympathise. You can only offer sympathy (not without its value) to someone who has experienced a bereavement until you have experienced it yourself, then you can truly have empathy. So the importance of empathy is about shared experience and if society becomes more and more stratified with less interaction between those strata then there will be less empathy. Thus empathy is merely a marker for shared experience which is the real key and the heart of the problem. Perhaps we are back at bankers bonuses and executive pay…

  • Seanán Kerr

    “Kegan argues not just that we should aspire to greater self-awareness but that we need to reach a higher, more empathic, level of functioning to meet the practical requirements of twenty-first century citizenship. In particular, successfully functioning in a society with diverse values, traditions and lifestyles “requires us to have a relationship to our own reactions, rather than be captive of them”. Kegan writes of an ability to “resist our tendencies to make ‘right’ or ‘true’ that which is merely familiar and ‘wrong’ or ‘false’ that which is only strange”. In a 2002 overview of survey evidence for the OECD, Kegan concluded than only one in five people across the world have achieved the competencies necessary for what he termed a ‘modernist’ or self-authoring order of consciousness.”

    This sounds awfully like an argument against the conservative and in favour of the liberal mindset, which surely in and of itself is self-defeating, if only because it obtusely encourages exactly what it opposes?

  • Dr Mike Munro Turner

    Matthew T – great to see Kegan’s work being discussed within the RSA – he’s one of a number of people exploring the world of adult development. One manifestation of this is the growing interest in the stages of leadership development – both in how to support the development of leaders with the mental complexity to deal with the increasingly interconnected and fast moving world they operate in, and in how to align peoples current levels of complexity with the tasks and challenges they face

    A couple of people have mentioned using values-based approaches to explore social priorities and development. From 1990 to 2001 Benjamin Tonna carried out annual values surveys of the people of Malta, noting the shifting priorities of the nation over that time. What was particularly interesting about his approach is that the values were mapped onto a developmental framework covering similar territory to that used by Kegan, thus showing how the centre of gravity of people’s values systems shifted over time.

    Matthew M – I like the idea to the 10-week course in active citizenship!

  • Marthica

    Very important thuohgts here. I heard Matt Chandler say once, Too many Christians are living vicariously through the lives of their pastors. It was that line that encouraged me to dig into God’s Word on my own.Thought: Is self-authoring a stage that one must reach consciously or does it require the Spirit releasing them?Another thought: Is this idea the influence of Western individualism? What role does community play in healthy spiritual development?Good conversation!