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Constructive developmental theory

Dr. Simon Moss

Kegan (1982, 1994) has characterized a series of six developmental stages through which individuals progress in order. The principal motivational forces at each stage--such as egocentric needs at the imperial stage, social norms at the interpersonal stage, or personal values at the institutional stage--become the object of analysis and reflection at the next stage. Individuals proceed from one stage to the next only when the extant mental schemas and processes do not represent their experiences sufficiently or to alleviate a sense of threat.

This theory can explain some of the shortfalls that individuals demonstrate. For example, some leaders have reached only the interpersonal stage and, as a consequence, can not promulgate an inspiring, consistent vision of the future.

Description of the theory

One of the most comprehensive and accepted theories of cognitive, affective, and moral development was expounded by Kegan (1982, 1994). According to this framework, as individuals mature, they become increasingly aware of the assumptions and forces that dictate their choices and behavior.

Childhood stages

During the first 21 or so months of life, individuals progress through the incorporative stage, when they begin to conceptualize physical objects as separate from themselves. After about 21 months, and usually ending at 6 or 7 years of age, individuals operate at the impulsive stage in which they perceive the world as revolving around their wants and impulses. They do not significantly differentiate the different roles of various individuals.

Imperial stage

From about 6 to 15, individuals tend to operate at the imperial stage. During this stage, the behavior of individuals is primarily governed by their needs, interests, and desires. In particular, these needs, interests, and desires are referred to as the subject, because individuals are subjected to these forces. Any stimulus event that thwarts these forces will be deemed as a threat. If individuals experience the need to prevail in a tennis tournament, for instance, a superior opponent will be perceived as a threat.

During this stage, individuals begin to recognize the perceptions and goals of other people might depart from the perceptions and goals of themselves. Nevertheless, individuals define everyone else--friends,colleagues, and strangers--as how each person can assist them. They do not incorporate the perspectives of someone else into their own viewpoint. For instance, these individuals might be angry that two of their friends are fighting, only because they are concerned their own interests--a supportive social environment--might be disturbed. They might recognize their two friends are upset or regretful, but this awareness does not impinge upon their level of anger.

Interpersonal stage

Many needs, interests, and desires are obstructed by the demands of other individuals: family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and customers. During the imperial stage, therefore, other individuals often represent a potential threat--an impediment to personal fulfillment. To attenuate the incidence of these threats, a person who operates at this stage begins to recognize the need to anticipate and shape the behavior of other individuals. They form mutual relationshipsin which they offer--as well as receive--support, assistance, and resources, ultimately diminishing the frequency with which their needs, interests, and desires are impeded.

These mutual relationships signify the beginning of the interpersonal stage. During this stage, individuals are able to modify or defer their needs, interests, and desires to fulfill the expectations of other individuals. These needs, interests, and desires, hence, become the object rather than subject of their cognitive operations. Instead, they become subjected to the expectations and demands of other individuals. Whenever they feel they have breached these expectations, they anticipate that one of their mutual relationships might dissolve. Hence, stimulus events that signify the violation of social expectations, such as irate managers, are especially likely to be conceptualized as a threat. For example, they might feel anger if a teacher punishes another pupil unfairly, because some actions violate their own expectations of this role.

During this stage, individuals do not perceive any other person, such as friends and acquaintances, as merely entities that can facilitate or obstruct their needs, interests, and desires. They recognize that otherindividuals experience their own needs, interests, and desires--an awareness that facilitates empathy and reciprocity.

Institutional stage

Any changes to the social structure represent another set of expectations that individuals feel they must satisfy. These changes, such as unanticipated demands from supervisors, represent an incessant source of threat. To prevent this threat, over time, individuals distil a coherent set of principles that underpin most of the social norms to which they are expected to observe. Rather than fulfill the social expectations that characterize each dyad or collective, they apply a uniform collection of values--referred to as their ideology--to every context.

The formation of this ideology symbolizes the institutional stage, which can begin in the mid to late 20s, 30s, 40s or sometimes never in some individuals. At this stage, individuals forcefully challenge, rather than unconditionally follow, social expectations and demands, which now represent the object, not subject, of their cognitive operations. They can now modify, discard, and reflect upon their relationships. Instead, they become a subject of their own ideology.

Their perception of themselves is now separable from the evaluations of other individuals. They refer to their work roles, duties, and careers to define themselves, often closely identifying themselves with the institutions and organizations in which they operate.

Inter-individual stage

During the institutional stage, individuals experience a sense of threat whenever they feel compelled to breach their own set of values and principles. Any changes in the environment that curb their autonomy, and thus limit their capacity to institute their ideology, are conceptualized as a threat.

The final inter-individual stage represents an attempt to accommodate these societal incursions. During this stage, individuals develop th ecapacity to form and observe more than one ideology, depending on the constraints of their social context. These individuals can thus follow a generic set of values, while accommodating societal impositions. Individuals do not feel defined by their roles, careers, values, and aspirations but recognize they have chosen these frameworks. The formation of multiple ideologies reduces the perceived incidence ofthreats.

Refinements to the original theory

Torbet (1987, 2004) has applied Kegan's theory to formulate seven developmental styles that can impinge upon leadership in organizations.

Empirical evidence

Evidence of stages

Lahey, Souvaine, Kegan, Goodman, and Felix (1988) constructed an interview schedule, referred to as the subject-object interview method, to identify the stage at which individuals operate. Participants receive a series of 10 words or phrases--anger, success, moved, change, important to me, strong stand, and so forth--and are instructed to describe an experience that is related to each of these probes. Probing questions are asked to characterize the schemas or processes thatindividuals apply to interpret these episodes.

Several studies have established the proposition that individuals do indeed tend to progress through the stages in order. Lahey, Souvaine,Kegan, Goodman, and Felix (1988) and Kegan (1994), for example, reveal that progression from the imperial to the interpersonal stage seems to coincide with late adolescence. In contrast, Bartone, Snook, Forsythe,Lewis, and Bullis (2007) as well as Lewis, Forsythe, Sweeney, Bartone,Bullis, and Snook (2005) show this progression seems to coincide with college years.

Implications of stages

Bartone, Snook, Forsythe, Lewis, and Bullis (2007) also revealed that progression from the imperial to the interpersonal stage was positively related to various measures of leadership in a sample of military cadets. Specifically, this progression was associated with peer ratings of whether cadets were sensitive to the feelings and needs of other individuals, showing a capacity to accommodate these emotions and desires, and whether cadets could delegate tasks effectively, utilizing the talents of colleagues.

Strang and Kuhnert (2009) showed the developmental stage of individuals is associated with leadership performance, even after controlling personality. To gauge their development level, participants completed a semi-structured interview, over the course of approximately one hour, conducted by a trained psychologist, in accordance with the techniques outlined by Lahey, Souvaine, Kegan, Goodman, and Felix (1988). Specifically, participants received the following prompts:

To identify the developmental stage, interviewers focus on the subject, as defined by constructive developmental theory, and the means by which participants conceptualize and organized the world. The interview tests various hypotheses about which stage applies to the participant. Typically, participants are first assigned to a specific level--and then, in some studies, to one of the five sub-levels.

Leaders who were assigned to higher stages were deemed to perform more effectively than leaders assigned to lower stages. These leaders, that is, were rated more favorably in a 360 degree feedback process. These relationships persisted even after personality, as represented by the five factor model, was controlled. Personality, however, was not related to the stage in which individuals were assigned.


Bartone, P. T., Snook, S. A., Forsythe, G. B., Lewis, P., & Bullis,R. C. (2007). Psychosocial development and leader performance of military officer cadets. Leadership Quarterly, 18, 490-504.

Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kuhnert, K. W., & Lewis, P. (1987). Transactional and transformational leadership: A constructive/developmental analysis. Academy of Management, 12, 648-657.

Kuhnert, K.W., & Russell, C. J. (1990). Using constructive developmental theory and biodata to bridge the gap between personnel selection and leadership. Journal of Management, 16, 595-607.

Lahey, L., Souvaine, E.,Kegan, R., Goodman, R.,. & Felix, S. (1988). A guide to the subject-object interview: Its administration and interpretation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University School of Education, Subject-Object Research Group.

Lewis, P., Forsythe, G. B. Sweeney, P., Bartone, P. T., Bullis, R. C.,& Snook, S. A. (2005). Identity development during the collegey ears: Findings from the West Point longitudinal study. Journal of College Student Development, 46, 357-373.

McCauley, C. D., Drath, W. H., Palus, C. J., O'Conner, P. M. G., & Baker, B. A. (2006). The use of constructive-developmental theory to advance the understanding of leadership. Leadership Quarterly, 17, 634-653.

Merron, K., Fisher, D., & Torbert, W. R. (1987). Meaning making and management action. Group and Organization Studies, 12, 274-286.

Rooke, D., & Torbert, W. R. (1998). Organizational transformation as a function of CEO's developmental stage. Organization Development Journal, 16, 11-28.

Strang, S. E., & Kuhnert, K. W. (2009). Personality and Leadership Developmental Levels as predictors of leader performance. Leadership Quarterly, 20, 421-433.

Torbert, W. (1987). Managing the corporate dream: Restructuring for long-term success. Homewood, IL: Dow-Jones Irwin.

Torbert, W. (2004). Action inquiry: The secret of timely and transforming leadership. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

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Last Update: 5/26/2016