Robert Kegan is a psychologist who teaches, researches, writes, and consults about adult development. Robert is one of the pioneers of developmental psychology, and his stage model of the evolution of consciousness is widely used and talked about today. He is the author of The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development
(Harvard University Press, 1982) and, with Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization
(Harvard Business Review Press, 2009). Robert’s work explores the possibility and necessity of ongoing psychological transformation in adulthood, the fit between adult capacities and the hidden demands of modern life, and the evolution of consciousness in adulthood and its implications for supporting adult learning, professional development, and adult education. In this dialogue with Thomas Steininger, Robert talks about his view of current societal challenges. A surprising look at the dark sides of development and the possibilities of overcoming entrenched polarizations.Thomas Steininger: We are in a civilization crisis of a dimension that we haven't experienced in our generation before. To meet this challenge as individuals, as communities and as societies it needs our inner development. You are one of the pioneers of a psychology of development that allows us to think about what we need in order to meet complex situations. Do you think that the uniqueness of the situation that we are in as a whole civilization needs also a unique set of capacities to be able to prevail in this?
Robert Kegan: This is a terrific question. There's a way to address your question first at a very high level, which would place this current remarkable planetary situation within the history of human evolution over the last several hundred years. And we can perhaps first speak about it briefly at that level.
For the benefit of any of your readers who may not be familiar with the trajectory of the evolution of consciousness, as we have been studying it over the last 40 years, I want to summarize some of the qualitatively different ways in which people construct reality. There is a stage of development that people can move into through the years of adolescence in which they develop the capability to internalize the values and expectations, mores and beliefs, of their surroundings as it might be delivered through society at large, or the family, or a faith community. The ability to internalize those values, align oneself with them, identify oneself according to one's alignment with those values, enables psychological membership in a tribe. This is a very important evolutionary move in development in my framework. I call it the socialized mind, because the psychological dynamics of socialization are that you're able to become a part of society because society has become a part of you. You've actually internalized it.
But there's a stage of development possible in adulthood beyond this capability to be psychologically the member of a tribe, and that is the ability to step back from “the socially given” and to develop an internal seat of judgment and personal authority. That allows you to interrogate those values, to revalidate or revise them and make them your own. Now you are validating them through their alignment with your own gradually developing internal code, personal ideology or belief system. This way, one constructs an independent psychological identity. I call this the self-authoring mind, because the self is now able to author its own identity instead of being inscribed by the culture.
EVOLUTION THROUGH PANDEMICS
Thomas: When do you think the self-authoring mind began to appear in human history?
Robert: I would say that it likely emerged in the Middle Ages and was accelerated by the Great Plague. Prior to The Plague, which unfolded off and on for more than a century, there was widespread acceptance of a social order in which the high- born were presumed to rule and assume their privileges by Divine Right. Something extraordinary and inescapably visible occurred at a widespread level during The Plague: Death came to all social stations! The high-born and their children were no more able to defend themselves from The Plague than the serfs. It would be impossible to sustain a belief in Divine Right in the face of such democratic devastation. I think The Plague hastened the arrival of the Middle Class, and that the psychological enabler of that social evolution was the evolution of consciousness from the socialized to the self-authoring mind.
Thomas: And today we find ourselves in the midst of another Great Plague?
Robert: Exactly! In a time ordinarily dominated by unusually short attention-spans we find ourselves again experiencing something extraordinary and inescapably visible. The whole planet is looking at, and galvanized by, the same thing, and—
over time—it is possible this could be yet another accelerator of evolution in human consciousness. Remember, this is the high-level long view. I’m talking like 100 years from now. I’m wondering if, a hundred years from now, there is a greater degree of a level of consciousness that goes beyond even the self-authoring mind, and if there is, if it may not be because our own plague eventually forced us to realize the limits, not of the socialized mind, but of the self-authoring mind.
Thomas: How so?
Robert: Beyond the self-authoring mind lies the self-transforming mind. It has the ability to step back, not just from the culture's expectations, but also from our existing ideologies and constructions, from our own internal authority. Here people are able to take their own system as an object of attention and see that it is inevitably partial because it tends to preserve itself. The emergence of the self-transforming mind might be a saving grace for humanity, since most of the intractable problems that we face as a species are very difficult to successfully engage from the self-authoring mind. Just as the Great Plague in the Middle Ages may have shown people the limits of their belief in the existing social order, our own COVID plague could over time show us the limits of our national sovereignties and public institutions which, operating in their self-preserving way, independent of some larger system of cooperation, are pretty clearly not up to the task. The self-authoring construction of the world, for all its benefits, might prove inadequate by itself to meet the demands of our planetary pandemic. Einstein said we can’t solve our problems with the same order of consciousness that created them.
SHADOWS OF DEVELOPMENT
Thomas: What is the underlying dynamic of this developmental trajectory? And how can an understanding of those dynamics can help us today?
Robert: The fundamental transformation in adult development even today is the gradual move from tribal consciousness, where one is captive of the values of one’s surround, to the ability to construct a greater degree of personal authority, personal initiative, critical thinking, to interrogate the limits as well as celebrate the benefits of one's cultural inheritance—that is, the move from the socialized to the self-authoring mind. If we move away now from that broad view of human evolution over centuries to the developmental challenges we face right now today in our day-to-day living, it’s clear that before we can develop more of the self-transforming mind, it remains necessary for more and more people to develop the psychological independence and personal authority that characterizes the self-authoring mind.
For the last 50 or 60 years now there has been much more widespread support in modern societies for larger numbers of people to evolve the self-authoring mind. This has been fostered by the rise of non-dominant subgroups—women, people of color, people who don’t fit favored genders and sexualities, physically challenged people—and their allies. Over this period “countercultures” have emerged, creating communities of support for people who were not part of the dominant culture. They have enabled people to claim their own identity, construct a new narrative, whether it's Black Power, feminism, gay rights, or some other identity politic. From a developmental point of view, these communities serve as precious crucibles supporting people to claim their own voices and move from the socialized mind to the self-authoring mind.
But the other side of the triumphal aspect of this movement has been a shadow or backlash for many people still constructing the world through the socialized mind. The invitation to stand apart from the existing social arrangements, interrogate them, and evaluate them can be unwelcome and threatening, if you are still firmly embedded in the socialized mind, and if you don’t experience the given arrangements as problematic. These energies can be triggering because it can feel like the falling away of the ground on which you walk. That can generate a lot of fear, like a push to grow and change when you're not ready. All that you can see on the other side of that push is a loss of your ways of knowing, understanding yourself, your own identity and community.
That fear and hunger for the protection of community can easily be picked up by political forces and leveraged into a very reactionary social movement. In the U.S. the current Trump-oriented Republican Party draws its energy and its power from the fear of a very large number of people. They are threatened by these forward moving developmental dynamics that began well before the pandemic and the promise of Trump to Make America Great Again. Listen to the underlying message of this political movement: “They are coming for you!” The government is coming to take your guns, the immigrants are coming to rape your women, the educators are coming to brainwash your children.
These are very powerful dog whistles because they have strong resonance to a large number of people who are threatened by the same developmental dynamics which have been liberating for another large group of people. The whole notion of “wokeness” (a sister of “political correctness”), and the way that term is differently regarded by the two groups is an expression of exactly these dynamics.
FEAR OF LOSS
Thomas: How can we respond to this shadow side or backlash?
Robert: The implication of the shadow side of adult development is that reactionary forces have actually done a much better job responding to the forms of threat that are experienced by a large number of people. The more progressive forces tend to look at people who are suffering under these threats with a form of disdain.
On the day after the 2016 election most of the people in my social group were completely stunned by Donald Trump's election. But for various reasons I spent the day after the election not with a group of liberal academics, but with a much more heterogeneous group. It included a number of people who looked favorably on the outcome of that election. I was struck that among those people there was no sense of boastful triumph. They were expressing extraordinary relief. They were basically saying that they felt their country had fallen asleep, that it had abandoned them. With whatever misgivings they might have about Donald Trump as a person, they felt that the result of the election was that the country had woken up again. Now there was a chance that the country that they thought they had lost might actually return.
That sense of relief bespeaks a level of fear and threat we who have an interest in supporting development would be more sympathetic and responsive to if it were appearing to us not in the guise of a political movement, but in a single individual who feels too much pressure to develop faster than they are able to. As a counselor, educator, or therapist, we have all seen that phenomenon and we would have compassion for it.
Some time ago I had the opportunity to work with a number of clergies, who were interested in the ways in which adult developmental theory may be useful to their current situation. The situation they were most interested in was the way in which the church or the synagogue or whatever the faith community might be could reach the rising generation of adults. These people in their thirties were finding that the worship services were fitting their parents’ generation but they didn't fit their own.
Many of the younger adults who would be the future of that faith community were moving out of the socialized mind into a self-authoring mind. If they were going to be engaged, they would need to have some way of participating in which they were not just faithful, receptive believers who are hearing the word from the minister on high. This led these clergy to reconstruct the nature of their worship services. They made them much more conversational. Instead of the minister delivering a sermon, for example, he or she might engage the congregation in dialogue. And these changes enabled people to design how they express their religious belief. And this was reviving these faith communities.
This is the very positive side of the story, but there was a rabbi who came to me in some distress. He said he was very pleased with a lot of the things that were now happening from the changes that he had made. But he had a conversation with a young woman that haunted him. She was in her early 30s, and she said: “Rabbi, I have come to this synagogue since I was a child. I sat with my parents at a certain spot in the synagogue and I worshipped with them. And as they became older, I took them to synagogue and helped them walk down the aisle to find our familiar spot. When they passed on, we grieved them together in this synagogue, and I continued to attend the services and sit where I sat with my parents. I experience a closeness to them every time I come back to the synagogue and sit in that seat. But now you have completely changed the service, that my parents were a part of, that I was a part of as a small child and as a growing person. I just have one question for you, and I ask this as somebody who trusts you: Rabbi, is the way that we prayed all these years, the way I prayed as a child sitting next to my parents, the way I have prayed since they passed on, is the way that we spoke to God wrong? Was it all wrong?”
The rabbi was conveying his sense of compassion for the kind of loss that this woman was experiencing. Her way of constructing this can be belittled, but it can also be taken as an expression of the power of the socialized mind. It was her sense of her own identity and how it connects to her parents and her faith community. The rabbi's shifts in the service were welcomed by the members of the congregation who had grown beyond the socialized mind. But this woman experienced a “replacement”. This is a word that has become very salient and toxic in American sociopolitical parlance. Maybe one of its most powerful recent virulent expressions was in Charlottesville during the Trump period when a group of Neo-Nazis marched through the streets saying that the Jews will not replace us. There is a lot of conversation in the U.S. about “replacement theory,” the idea of rewriting history and the idea of “canceling” and “cancel culture.” It is very easy for progressive people to disdain all of that. But when you think about it in the context of this woman, she was basically experiencing the replacement of a way of worshipping, which had become precious to her, connected to her own identity and to her connection to her parents.
If we are to heal the divisions we need to find ways of better responding to the threat and loss that so many people feel at the very same time that others feel empowered. Unless we find some way of more compassionately connecting with that loss, we're going to be in a situation that we call “the immunity to change”. We have one foot on the gas moving forward with the developmental journey that is the destiny of our species, but another foot is on the brakes. We can call it reactionary, but the very term reactionary has a negative valence. We have to unpack it and understand the kind of threat that it connects with.
ONE FOOT ON THE GAS, ONE FOOT ON THE BRAKE
Thomas: The question that arises not only on the concrete level but also on the social political level is, how can we respond to both at the same time? The capacity to do both at the same time seems to be the riddle that we are in. Can you see a starting point for a resolution of this?
Robert: In our work with leaders and organizations we deploy a very practical method for helping people improve, called “the immunity to change” approach (ITC). It is based on the theory of adult development we have been discussing but it is especially oriented to practical changes and the inner dynamics of transformation. Someone realizes she is a micromanager and wants to be a better delegator. Or he may be somebody who shies away from conflict. Or they may need to do a better job supporting their direct reports.
The immunity to change approach helps you to understand that, while one part of you genuinely wants to grow and change in some direction which might make you a better leader or even a better person, there is a whole other part of you that is threatened at the prospect of making these changes. One part of you genuinely wants to be a better delegator. But there's another part of you, typically unvoiced, and we may not even be that aware of it, that worries that if I delegate people might screw it up and then it'll be all my fault. Or if I delegate the people will do such a fine job that I'll become irrelevant. Those fears rest on certain fundamental assumptions like “if I delegate, I'll have less control,” or “I'll get less credit” or whatever it might be.
Now in just even hearing this brief description can you begin to hear, at a psychological level, echoes of the bigger sociopolitical discord and divide we have been talking about? ITC shows you how you typically have “one foot on the gas” (you really want to make the change) and “one foot on the brakes” (but you don’t want to suffer some unacceptable loss). In this way, ITC shows us how we are at work on the two Big Endeavors of being a human being: The first endeavor is To Grow, to honor the miracle of being a potentially evolving being, to fulfill our destiny to further unfold. A caterpillar is destined not just to be a bigger caterpillar, but to grow wings and transcend its earthbound captivity.
But there is a second endeavor to being a human, and that endeavor is essentially To Not Die, to not suffer what feels to us like unacceptable loss. That endeavor is as important, respectable and powerful as the first endeavor to grow and develop. We are as successful a species as we are precisely because we practice both endeavors, what you might refer to as a progressive endeavor and a protective, or reactionary endeavor. We have both “a progressive” and “a reactionary” inside ourselves.
ITC indirectly helps us learn to put our arms around our whole project—the progressive and the protective. Instead of just being at the effect of these battling forces, the ITC approach is literally “wholesome,” as the English word suggests, because it holds on to the whole self, and gets the two sides in friendly conversation with each other instead of the stuckness and loggerheads, which we see today at the sociopolitical level. Instead of two countervailing energies leading to no forward motion, we come to see a path out of this very riddle, as you called it. That path explores the assumptions that are preserving the current position. It is fueled by curiosity more than fear. We run experiments to see what the world wants to tell us about our imagined threats. We learn in almost all cases that some aspects of those threats are phantoms and imaginary. And that leads to a personal liberation from some of these limiting assumptions, which enables us to grow and change our behavior.
Maybe in this approach there is a seed of an answer to your good question, how can we put our arms around both the progressive and the protective forces in society? We know that unless we find ways to welcome and respect the second endeavor—to not die—it becomes very difficult for the individual to grow. We need to find ways to hold on to both sides of the human project as they are now expressing themselves in a sociopolitical context. Instead of capturing the free-floating fear and anxiety and leveraging it into a political tool which energizes one political group, there needs to be a way in which we are collectively able to respect and hold onto both endeavors – the endeavor to not die as much as the endeavor to grow – and not let them split off into the separate and warring political factions of progressivism and self-protection or reaction. Unless we find ways to welcome and respect the endeavor not to die it will be difficult for us to grow as a society.
The interview was conducted by Thomas Steininger. It was first published in German in evolve Magazin
no. 33 in February 2022.