Constructive Developmental Theory

Hello! We will see one very interesting theory about consciousness development. This is one of the theories that I will use in my PhD research for the development of conscious leadership for sustainability.

Researchers in the past thought that just children could develop mind, then Robert Kegan (a psychologist researcher from Harvard University) developed a theory of adult development that defines five stages of mental complexity or “orders of consciousness”.

To better understand this theory, first we will see the concept of object-subject relationship. In Kegan words:

Subject-object relationship is a fundamental distinction in the way that we make sense of our experience—a distinction that shapes our thinking, our feeling, our social relating, and our ways of relating to internal aspects of ourselves. The subject-object relationship is not just an abstraction but a living thing in nature. What I mean by “object” are those aspects of our experience that are apparent to us and can be looked at, related to, reflected upon, engaged, controlled, and connected to something else. We can be objective about these things, in that we don’t see them as “me.” But other aspects of our experience we are so identified with, embedded in, fused with, that we just experience them as ourselves. This is what we experience subjectively—the “subject” half of the subject-object relationship.

In short, subject is “me” and object is “not me”. For example in a baby there isn´t a subject-object distinction, for instance in the source of discomfort caused by bright light or hunger in the belly. There´s no distinction between self and other.

Kegan’s theory describes five developmental stages or orders of consciousness:

The Impulsive Mind (1st order of consciousness): the first stage is what mainly characterizes the behavior of children, who are unable to distinguish objects from people in the environment. This is the basic level of development. The person and the environment are linked.

Instrumental Mind (2nd order of consciousness): Individuals in this stage (usually until adolescence) are self-centered and see others as facilitators or obstacles to the realization of their own desires. At this stage, the human being has only one perspective, his own.

The Socialized Mind (3rd order of consciousness): at this level of consciousness, the person identity is tied to living in relationship with others in roles determined by his local culture.  Such a person is subject to the opinions of others and is therefore strongly influenced by what he believes others want to hear.  Such a stance tends to be reliant on authority for direction and less likely to question, making one a loyal follower. Approximately 58% of the adult population is until this level of consciousness.

The Self-Authoring Mind (4th order of consciousness):  is able to take a step back from its environment and hold it as object, regarding his culture critically.  The Self-Authoring mind is able to distinguish the opinions of others from one’s own opinions to formulate one’s own “seat of judgment”.  The result is a “self-authoring” of one’s own identity that is independent from one’s environment.  Guided by their own internal compass, such a person then becomes subject to his own ideology.  These individuals tend to be self-directed, independent thinkers.

The Self-Transforming Mind (5th order of consciousness): is the highest level of consciousness in Kegan’s model.  From this point of view, one is able to regard multiple ideologies simultaneously and compare them, being wary of any single one.  This multi-frame perspective is able to hold the contradictions between competing belief systems and is therefore subject to the dialectic between systems of thought.  Less than 1% of the adult population is at this level of development.

According Kegan, the ultimate end state of this story—of this process of gradually but qualitatively shifting more and more of what was subject to object—would be a state in which the subject-object distinction comes to an end again, in the opposite direction than in the first minutes of life. There are two different ways that you can get out of the subject-object split. One way is by being entirely subject with no object—this is a baby. And the other way is through the complete emptying of the subject into the object so that there is, in a sense, no subject at all—that is, you are not looking out on the world from any vantage point that is apart from it. You’re then taking the world’s perspective.


“The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes, in seeing the universe with the eyes of another, of hundreds of others, in seeing the hundreds of universes that each of them sees” – Marcel Proust.

For more about the work of Robert Kegan:


About Ana Marques

Woman, scientist, consultant. But above all, a common human being, willing to help, share, transform!
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8 Responses to Constructive Developmental Theory

  1. Hi Ana.

    Your posts are always very interesting.

    When I have read it I remind for instance what says masters zen like Taisen Deshimaru about “subject” and “object”.

    Perhaps it will be interrelations between sustainability and spirituality?

    Best wishes.

    • Ana Marques says:

      Hi Jordi,

      Thank you for your kind words.

      You really get the point! I think that Robert Kegan did the connection between the philosophies of west and east in a very elegant way. And my research is about connecting it with sustainability.

      Thanks to share this very interesting link.

      Kind regards, Ana

  2. Otto Laske says:

    yes, there is more to do about Kegan’s theory, but the most important task now, in my view (Otto Laske), is to end the supremacy of the theory and link it to insight into cognitive development from which it was separated in Kegan’s work (and later in Wilber’s, Torbert’s, Cook-Greuter’s, etc.) This theory, in its dominance, has now become its own obstacle, as it often happens. (Nevertheless, I continue to teach it, but with due caution.)
    In my 20 year experience as a coach and psychologist, a social-emotional score by itself does not say very much about a person since she is not her stage. The importance of such a score has been and is being vastly exaggerated (if you only have a nail, you see hammers). The score only begins to “speak” when linked to the cognitive profile of a person (and even better, to the psychological profile, too), assessed independently.
    In my view, it is essential, after all this time, to link social-emotional scores to cognitive scores, for instance in the way done in my CDF (constructive developmental framework) and taught at the Interdevelopmental Institute (IDM; since 2000. (We are now in 2012.)
    So, as a student of Kegan’s (1992-1997), I invite you to enlarge your inquiry, or at least take note of a different strand of adult development, that leading from logical to dialectical thinking. The real issue is how the social-emotional and cognitive profiles of a person relate, not the separate profiles by themselves.
    For further questions, see where you find an entire instruction program and many resources, also on dialectical thinking.

    • Ana Marques says:

      Dear Otto,
      Thank you so much for your inspiring words, it´s an honor for me to have your comments in my blog.
      I have read some of your articles and of course I will use others theories in my research.
      My main purpose is to connect consciousness and sustainability.
      Kind regards, Ana

  3. Anne Caspari says:

    Dear Ana, I like your direction. Are you aware of Barrett Brown’s work on integral sustainability leadership? He researched in his disseration how late stage action logic leaders design sustainablity initiatives, based very much on Susanne Cook-Greuter’s and Bill Torbert’s work.

    Click to access Brown_2011_Conscious-leadership-for-sustainability_Full-dissertation_v491.pdf

    kind regards, Anne

    • Ana Marques says:

      Dear Anne,
      Thank you for your message.
      I already know the Barrett Brown´s work, he is one of the references that I´m studying.
      Kind regards, Ana

  4. Jim Loving says:

    Hi Anna. I just found your blog and saw this post from LinkedIN. Glad to see you at work on this! In regards to conciousness, Integral, and sustainability, you may want to check out the work of Barrett Chapman Brown. He published his own PhD dissertaion: “Conscious Leadership for Sustainability: A study of how leaders and change agents with postconventional consciousness design and engage in complex change initiatives”, and also briefed the Advanced Political and Sustainability Leadership through Integral Theory Briefing for the Institute for Democracy and Sustainability in São Paulo, Brazil in January. His work is based on Integral Theory as developed by Ken Wilber. See the Integral Institute and Spiral Dynamics Integral.

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