Background constructive developmental approach

The theory and corresponding practices developed by Kegan and Lahey and refined and applied by many of their colleagues at Harvard University and beyond, are grounded in a number of notions about our ways of being and acting in the world and about adult learning.

Different levels of adult mental complexity exist

  • Our way of making meaning of the world actually constructs the world that we live and act in. The terms that we set on reality is for a large part driven by a combination of our often unconscious thinking and feeling (mindset) in service of self-protection.
  • Our meaning system – through which all experience is filtered and understood – can be presented as a way of knowing, a developmental level with a certain mental complexity.
  • A lower mental complexity draws fewer and sharper lines to separate the safe from the dangerous in the world we create. A higher mental complexity draws more and fuzzier lines, allowing for more shades of gray. This opens up more curious ways of relating to the world, showing up being less ‘right’ while still being safe enough.

Higher mental complexity correlates with greater personal and professional effectiveness

  • Higher mental complexity is not always needed. The developmental challenge occurs when the demands of more complex jobs, roles or life are not matched with the complexity of mind.  This idea is connected to other developmental concepts such as  ‘our growth edge’ or ‘our zone of proximal development’, or ‘our zone of productive disequilibrium’.
  • Higher mental complexity correlates positively with greater personal and professional effectiveness – this has been researched for a wide range of occupations.
  • Robert Kegan en Lisa Lahey write about this in their book Immunity to Change (2009):
    “In reality, the experience of complexity is not just a story about the world. It is also a story about people. It is a story about the fit between the demands of the world and the capacity of the person or the organization.
    When we experience the world as “too complex” we are not just experiencing the complexity of the world. We are experiencing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and our own at this moment.
    There are only two ways to mend this mismatch – reduce the world’s complexity or increase our own. The first isn’t going to happen. “

Adults can develop higher mental complexity

  • Development does not stop with adolescence: Adults can (and do) develop gradually towards greater mental complexity as they move through adulthood.
  • Development of mental complexity can be facilitated and accelerated through a specific coaching process ( which, accidentally, is the coaching process that I apply in my work…)

Transformative learning helps to develop higher mental complexity

  • Informative vs Transformative LearningInformative learning focuses on what we know. Though helpful for technical challenges, it is not sufficient for adults who face an adaptive challenge. This is when transformative learning is needed; learning that focuses on how we know. Most challenges come mixed, by the way.
  • Adult learning then requires a combination of challenge and support over time.  Enough challenge so that adults themselves take ownership for doing the hard work of resolving their inconsistencies and want to be held accountable for it.  Support means, among others, receiving empathy over a period of time, because giving up a way of understanding oneself and/or one’s world can be painful and feels vulnerable.