What is vertical development?

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As an adult we are grown up, right?

Every now and then something happens in your life that changes who you are and how you think. Major life events or crises such as starting a first job, becoming a parent, divorce, burnout, loss of a loved one,…an een dierbare,…  create shifts in who we are.

Does that sound familiar?

It is a universal story of development that we all experience throughout our lives. At different times we make progress, start to plateau, get stuck, and then have a breakthrough.

The first researcher to notice this was the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. He showed in a series of experiments that as children grow, the way they think advances through predictable stages. Piaget noticed that at each higher stage, children could think in more complex and sophisticated ways, meaning they were able to deal with increasingly difficult problems.

For a long time, conventional wisdom assumed that these stages of development would stop once you reach adulthood. After all, you are a grown-up, right?

We now know this isn’t true.

You may be moving through different stages of development

Contemporary theorists Robert Kegan, Susanne Cook-Greuter, and Bill Torbert have extensively studied the ways adults grow and evolve, even after they are chronologically mature or ‘grown-up.’ Working on their own streams of research, but coming up with similar results, these three mapped the distinct stages through which adults can grow, if the conditions are right. Yet, it is not the same as in children; adults go through the stages differently.

Adults continu to grow, yet differently to children

Whereas children move rapidly through the stages, an adult’s pace of development slows dramatically, almost to the point of plateauing. We spend most of our adult lives between two stages. In addition, while a child’s development appears to happen automatically, it is not so in adults.

Research into adult development tells us that there are broadly two ways development happens. First, life does it to you. Difficult life experiences can have significant developmental benefits. And secondly, you deliberately engage in your own development and invite others to support you in the process.

Invest in your own development

Like ever-expanding rings of a tree, these stages offer people the chance to grow into more extensive and more complex versions of themselves while still holding on to the inner rings or earlier stages through which they’ve developed. Thus we call it a ‘transcend and include’ model, much like nested Russian dolls that are successively bigger but still include successively tinier versions of themselves.


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Evolving through these stages of mental development is called vertical development. It’s about changing your mindset, transforming the way you think, affecting what you do and how you behave. Vertical development means rising to a higher level of thinking. It requires you to look at your beliefs and assumptions with a magnifying glass and look at the world entirely differently. That does not always come easy. Yet, it is gratifying and rewarding to engage in your development for yourself, your environment, and the world.

Vertical development enables you to understand and hold multiple insights and viewpoints. It gives you greater adaptability, more self-awareness, and a greater chance for good relationships and efficient cooperation with others. You become wiser and leave an (often unconscious) mindset that you may have been stuck in for a long time.

Vertical development is about examining how you think and what your beliefs are.

Deciding to engage deliberately in your development is challenging and stretching, but also incredibly rewarding. Just like working on your fitness creates discomfort, deliberately engaging in your development is uncomfortable, but the benefits and rewards make it worthwhile.

Berger, J. G. (2020). Changing on the job. Stanford University Press.

Ellison, S. (2020) ‘Understanding Vertical Development’, Ellison Consulting Group.

Kegan, R. (1998). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Harvard University Press.

Petrie, N. (2011). Future trends in leadership development. Center for Creative Leadership white paper5(5), 36.

Petrie, N. (2014). Vertical leadership development–part 1 developing leaders for a complex world. Center for Creative Leadership, 1-13.

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