Biography:Robert Kegan

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Short description: American psychologist

Robert Kegan (born August 24, 1946) is an American developmental psychologist. He is a licensed psychologist and practicing therapist, lectures to professional and lay audiences, and consults in the area of professional development and organization development.[1]

He was the William and Miriam Meehan Professor in Adult Learning and Professional Development at Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he taught for forty years until his retirement in 2016.[2] He was also Educational Chair for the Institute for Management and Leadership in Education and the co-director for the Change Leadership Group.[3]

Education and early career

Born in Minnesota, Kegan attended Dartmouth College, graduating summa cum laude in 1968. He described the civil rights movement and the movement against the Vietnam War as formative experiences during his college years.[1] He took his "collection of interests in learning from a psychological and literary and philosophical point of view" to Harvard University, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1977.[1]

The Evolving Self

In his book The Evolving Self (1982), Kegan explored human life problems from the perspective of a single process which he called meaning-making, the activity of making sense of experience through discovering and resolving problems.[4] As he wrote, "Thus it is not that a person makes meaning, as much as that activity of being a person is the activity of meaning-making".[5] The purpose of the book is primarily to give professional helpers (such as counselors, psychotherapists, and coaches) a broad, developmental framework for empathizing with their clients' different ways of making sense of their problems.[6]

Kegan described meaning-making as a lifelong activity that begins in early infancy and can evolve in complexity through a series of "evolutionary truces" (or "evolutionary balances") that establish a balance between self and other (in psychological terms), or subject and object (in philosophical terms), or organism and environment (in biological terms).[7] Each evolutionary truce is both an achievement of and a constraint on meaning-making, possessing both strengths and limitations.[8] Each subsequent evolutionary truce is a new, more refined, solution to the lifelong tension between how people are connected, attached, and included (integrated with other people and the world), and how people are distinct, independent, and autonomous (differentiated from other people and the rest of the world).[9]

Kegan adapted Donald Winnicott's idea of the holding environment and proposed that the evolution of meaning-making is a life history of holding environments, or cultures of embeddedness.[10] Kegan described cultures of embeddedness in terms of three processes: confirmation (holding on), contradiction (letting go), and continuity (staying put for reintegration).[11]

For Kegan, "the person is more than an individual";[12] developmental psychology studies the evolution of cultures of embeddedness, not the study of isolated individuals. He wrote, "One of the most powerful features of this psychology, in fact, is its capacity to liberate psychological theory from the study of the decontextualized individual. Constructive-developmental psychology reconceives the whole question of the relationship between the individual and the social by reminding that the distinction is not absolute, that development is intrinsically about the continual settling and resettling of this very distinction."[13]

Kegan argued that some of the psychological distress that people experience (including some depression and anxiety) are a result of the "natural emergencies" that happen when "the terms of our evolutionary truce must be renegotiated" and a new, more refined, culture of embeddedness must emerge.[14]

The Evolving Self attempted a theoretical integration of three different intellectual traditions in psychology.[15] The first is the humanistic and existential-phenomenological tradition (which includes Martin Buber, Prescott Lecky, Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Ludwig Binswanger, Andras Angyal, and Carl Rogers).[15] The second is the neo-psychoanalytic tradition (which includes Anna Freud, Erik Erikson, Ronald Fairbairn, Donald Winnicott, Margaret Mahler, Harry Guntrip, John Bowlby, and Heinz Kohut).[15] The third is what Kegan calls the constructive-developmental tradition (which includes James Mark Baldwin, John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, William G. Perry, and Jane Loevinger).[15] The book is also strongly influenced by dialectical philosophy and psychology [lower-alpha 1] and by Carol Gilligan's psychology of women.[18]

Kegan presented a sequence of six evolutionary balances: incorporative, impulsive, imperial, interpersonal, institutional, and interindividual. The following table is a composite of several tables in The Evolving Self that summarize these balances.[19] The object (O) of each balance is the subject (S) of the preceding balance. Kegan uses the term subject to refer to things that people are "subject to" but not necessarily consciously aware of. He uses the term object to refer to things that people are aware of and can take control of.[20] The process of emergence of each evolutionary balance is described in detail in the text of the book; as Kegan said, his primary interest is the ontogeny of these balances, not just their taxonomy.[21]

Evolutionary balance Culture of embeddedness Analogue in Piaget Analogue in Kohlberg Analogue in Loevinger Analogue in Maslow Analogue in McClelland/Murray Analogue in Erikson
(0) Incorporative
  • S: reflexes, sensing, and moving
  • O: nothing
Mothering culture. Mothering one(s) or primary caretaker(s). Sensorimotor Pre-social Physiological survival orientation
(1) Impulsive
  • S: impulse and perception
  • O: reflexes, sensing, and moving
Parenting culture. Typically, the family triangle. Preoperational Punishment and obedience orientation Impulsive Physiological satisfaction orientation Initiative vs. guilt
(2) Imperial
  • S: enduring disposition, needs, interests, wishes
  • O: impulse and perception
Role-recognizing culture. School and family as institutions of authority and role differentiation. Peer gang which requires role-taking. Concrete operational Instrumental orientation Opportunistic Safety orientation Power orientation Industry vs. inferiority
(3) Interpersonal
  • S: mutuality, interpersonal concordance
  • O: enduring disposition, needs, interests, wishes
Culture of mutuality. Mutually reciprocal one-to-one relationships. Early formal operational Interpersonal concordance orientation Conformist Love, affection, belongingness orientation Affiliation orientation (Affiliation vs. abandonment?)
(4) Institutional
  • S: personal autonomy, self-system identity
  • O: mutuality, interpersonal concordance
Culture of identity or self-authorship (in love or work). Typically: group involvement in career, admission to public arena. Full formal operational Societal orientation Conscientious Esteem and self-esteem orientation Achievement orientation Identity vs. identity diffusion
(5) Interindividual
  • S: interpenetration of systems
  • O: personal autonomy, self-system identity
Culture of intimacy (in love and work). Typically: genuine adult love relationship. (Post-formal; Dialectical?) Principled orientation Autonomous Self-actualization (Intimacy orientation?)

The final chapter of The Evolving Self, titled "Natural Therapy", is a meditation on the philosophical and ethical fundamentals of the helping professions.[22] Kegan argued, similarly to later theorists of asset-based community development, that professional helpers should base their practice on people's existing strengths and "natural" capabilities.[23] The careful practice of "unnatural" (self-conscious) professional intervention may be important and valuable, said Kegan; nevertheless "rather than being the panacea for modern maladies, it is actually a second-best means of support, and arguably a sign that the natural facilitation of development has somehow and for some reason broken down".[24] Helping professionals need a way of evaluating the quality of people's evolving cultures of embeddedness to provide opportunities for problem-solving and growth, while acknowledging that the evaluators too have their own evolving cultures of embeddedness.[25] Kegan warned that professional helpers should not delude themselves into thinking that their conceptions of health and development are unbiased by their particular circumstances or partialities.[25] He acknowledged the importance of Thomas Szasz's "suggestion that mental illness is a kind of myth", and he said that we need a way to address what Szasz calls "problems in living" while protecting clients as much as possible from the helping professional's partialities and limitations.[26]

The Evolving Self has been cited favorably by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ronald A. Heifetz, Ruthellen Josselson, and George Vaillant.[27] Despite the book's wealth of human stories, some readers have found it difficult to read due to the density of Kegan's writing and its conceptual complexity.[28]

In Over Our Heads

Kegan's book In Over Our Heads (1994) extends his perspective on psychological development formulated in The Evolving Self.[29] What he earlier called "evolutionary truces" of increasing subject–object complexity are now called "orders of consciousness". The book explores what happens, and how people feel, when new orders of consciousness emerge, or fail to emerge, in various domains. These domains include parenting (families), partnering (couples), working (companies), healing (psychotherapies), and learning (schools).[30] He connects the idea of orders of consciousness with the idea of a hidden curriculum of everyday life.[31]

Kegan repeatedly points to the suffering that can result when people are presented with challenging tasks and expectations without the necessary support to master them.[32] In addition, he now distinguishes between orders of consciousness (cognitive complexity) and styles (stylistic diversity). Theories of style describe "preferences about the way we know, rather than competencies or capacities in our knowing, as is the case with subject–object principles".[33] The book continues the same combination of detailed storytelling and theoretical analysis found in his earlier book, but presents a "more complex bi-theoretical approach" rather than the single subject–object theory he presented in The Evolving Self.[34]

In the last chapter, "On Being Good Company for the Wrong Journey", Kegan warns that it is easy to misconceive the nature of the mental transformations that a person needs or seeks to make.[35] Whatever the virtues of higher orders of consciousness, no one should expect us to master them when we are not ready or when we are without the necessary support; and we are unlikely to be helped by someone who assumes that we are engaged at a certain order of consciousness when we are not.[36] He ends with an epilogue on the value of passionate engagement and the creative unpredictability of human lives.[37]

In Over Our Heads has been cited favorably by Morton Deutsch, John Heron, David A. Kolb, and Jack Mezirow.[38]

How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work

Kegan's next book, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work (2001), co-authored with Lisa Laskow Lahey, jettisons the theoretical framework of his earlier books The Evolving Self and In Over Our Heads and instead presents a practical method, called the immunity map, intended to help readers overcome an immunity to change.[39] An immunity to change is the "processes of dynamic equilibrium, which, like an immune system, powerfully and mysteriously tend to keep things pretty much as they are".[40]

The immunity map continues the general dialectical pattern of Kegan's earlier thinking but without any explicit use of the concept of "evolutionary truces" or "orders of consciousness". The map primarily consists of a four-column worksheet that is gradually filled in by individuals or groups of people during a structured process of self-reflective inquiry. This involves asking questions such as: What are the changes that we think we need to make? What are we doing or not doing to prevent ourselves (immunize ourselves) from making those changes? What anxieties and big assumptions does our doing or not doing imply? How can we test those big assumptions so as to disturb our immunity to change and make possible new learning and change?[41]

Kegan and Lahey progressively introduce each of the four columns of the immunity map in four chapters that show how to transform people's way of talking to themselves and others.[42] In each case, the transformation in people's way of talking is a shift from a habitual and unreflective pattern to a more deliberate and self-reflective pattern. The four transformations, each of which corresponds to a column of the immunity map, are:[42]

  • "From the language of complaint to the language of commitment"
  • "From the language of blame to the language of personal responsibility"
  • "From the language of New Year's resolutions to the language of competing commitments"
  • "From the language of big assumptions that hold us to the language of assumptions we hold"

In three subsequent chapters, Kegan and Lahey present three transformations that groups of people can make in their social behavior, again from a lesser to greater self-reflective pattern:[42]

  • "From the language of prizes and praising to the language of ongoing regard"
  • "From the language of rules and policies to the language of public agreement"
  • "From the language of constructive criticism to the language of deconstructive criticism"

Immunity to Change

Immunity to Change (2009), the next book by Kegan and Lahey, revisits the immunity map of their previous book.[43] The authors describe three dimensions of immunity to change: the change-preventing system (thwarting challenging aspirations), the feeling system (managing anxiety), and the knowing system (organizing reality).[44] They further illustrate their method with a number of actual case studies from their experiences as consultants, and they connect the method to a dialectic of three mindsets, called socialized mind, self-authoring mind, and self-transforming mind.[45] (These correspond to three of the "evolutionary truces" or "orders of consciousness" in Kegan's earlier books.) Kegan and Lahey also borrow and incorporate some frameworks and methods from other thinkers, including Ronald A. Heifetz's distinction between technical and adaptive learning,[46] Chris Argyris's ladder of inference,[47] and a reworded version of the four stages of competence.[48] They also provide more detailed guidance on how to test big assumptions.[49]

The revised immunity map worksheet in Immunity to Change has the following structure: (0) Generating ideas. (1) Commitment (improvement) goals. (2) Doing / not doing. (3) Hidden competing commitment (and worry box). (4) Big assumption. (5) First S-M-A-R-T test: Safe, Modest, Actionable, Research stance (not a self-improvement stance), Testable.[50]

The immunity to change framework has been cited favorably by Chris Argyris, Kenneth J. Gergen, Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, and Tony Schwartz.[51]

An Everyone Culture

The book An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization (2016) was co-authored by Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey, Matthew L. Miller, Andy Fleming, and Deborah Helsing.[52] The authors connect the concept of the deliberately developmental organization (DDO) with adult development theory and argue that creating conditions for employees to successfully navigate through the transitions from socialized mind to self-authoring mind to self-transforming mind (described in Kegan's earlier works) "has a business value", at least in part because they expect demand for employees with more complex mindsets "will intensify in the years ahead".[53] Three different and successful DDOs are introduced and analyzed throughout the book. These DDOs are Next Jump, Bridgewater Associates, and The Decurion Corporation. Kegan, along with his fellow co-authors, explore the successful business practices that promote a culture where individual growth and personal satisfaction can flourish.

The book elaborates on three concepts that the authors believe to be critical to the success of a DDO. These three concepts are what they refer to as "edge", "groove", and "home".[54] The "edge" of a DDO is the drive of the organization to uncover weaknesses and to develop. The "groove" is the practices or "flow" of the company from day-to-day that foster development. "Home" is the supportive community within a DDO that allows people to be vulnerable and trust each other. The authors emphasize that underlying each of these parts of a DDO is the idea that adults are truly capable of continuous improvement and development. The authors also explain that for DDOs, the goals of adult development and business success are not mutually exclusive, but both ultimately become one objective.


Adult education professor Ann K. Brooks criticized Kegan's book In Over Our Heads. She claimed that Kegan fell victim to a cultural "myopia" that "perfectly reflects the rationalist values of modern academia".[55] Brooks also said that Kegan excluded "the possibility of a developmental trajectory aimed at increased connection with others".[56] Ruthellen Josselson, in contrast, said that Kegan "has made the most heroic efforts" to balance individuality and connection with others in his work.[57]

In an interview with Otto Scharmer in 2000, Kegan expressed self-criticism toward his earlier writings; Kegan told Scharmer: "I can go back and look at things I've written and think, ugh, this is a pretty raw and distorted way of stating what I think I understand much better now."[1]

In the 2009 book Psychotherapy as a Developmental Process by psychologists Michael Basseches and Michael Mascolo—a book which Kegan called "the closest thing we have to a 'unified field theory' for psychotherapy"[58]—Basseches and Mascolo said that they "embrace both Piagetian models of psychological change and their organization into justifications of what constitutes epistemic progress (the development of more adequate knowledge)". However, Basseches and Mascolo rejected theories of global developmental stages, such as those in Kegan's earlier writings, in favor of a more finely differentiated conception of development that focuses on "the emergence of specific skills, experiences, and behavioral dispositions over the course of psychotherapy as a developmental process".[lower-alpha 1]

Key publications

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Kegan cites the dialectical psychology of Michael Basseches, and Basseches in turn was influenced by Kegan.[16] In (Basseches 1989), Basseches argued that structural developmental stage theories such as those proposed in (Kegan 1982) and (Kegan 1994) are best understood as general philosophical frameworks, not as psychological constructs that explain the complexity and diversity of individuals' meaning-making. Later, Basseches and Mascolo explained: "Although we embrace both Piagetian models of psychological change and their organization into justifications of what constitutes epistemic progress (the development of more adequate knowledge), there are several aspects of Piagetian theory that we find limiting and attempt to transcend in our view of the nature of development. Most prominent among these are (a) the theory of global stages, (b) imprecision in identifying levels of psychological development, and (c) a lack of emphasis on social and cultural relations as constitutive of developmental change."[17]

Short citations

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Scharmer & Kegan 2000
  2. Berger 2016
  3. HGSE 2006
  4. Kegan 1982.
  5. Kegan 1982, p. 11
  6. Kegan 1982, p. 3; Scharmer & Kegan 2000
  7. Kegan 1982, p. 28
  8. Kegan 1982, p. 30
  9. Kegan 1982, pp. 107–109
  10. Kegan 1982, pp. 115–116
  11. Kegan 1982, p. 118
  12. Kegan 1982, p. 116
  13. Kegan 1982, p. 115
  14. Kegan 1982, p. 110
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Kegan 1982, pp. 3–4; Scharmer & Kegan 2000
  16. For example: Basseches 1984 and Basseches & Mascolo 2009.
  17. Basseches & Mascolo 2009, p. 32.
  18. Kegan 1982, pp. 5, 108
  19. Kegan 1982, pp. 86, 134, 164, 190, 226
  20. Eriksen 2008
  21. Kegan 1982, p. 114; Kegan, Lahey & Souvaine 1998
  22. Kegan 1982, pp. 255–296
  23. Kegan 1982, pp. 256–262
  24. Kegan 1982, p. 256
  25. 25.0 25.1 Kegan 1982, pp. 290–296
  26. Kegan 1982, p. 291
  27. Csikszentmihalyi 2003, p. 32; Heifetz 1994, pp. 288, 310; Josselson 1992, p. 276; Vaillant 1993, pp. 365, 370
  28. Kegan 1994, p. 2
  29. Kegan 1994
  30. Kegan 1994, table of contents
  31. Kegan 1994, pp. 10, 47, 77
  32. For example: Kegan 1994, p. 244
  33. Kegan 1994, p. 201
  34. Kegan 1994, p. 203
  35. Kegan 1994, pp. 335–352
  36. Kegan 1994, p. 351
  37. Kegan 1994, pp. 353–355
  38. Deutsch 2005, p. 11; Heron & Reason 1997, p. 283; Kolb & Kolb 2005, p. 207; Mezirow 2000, pp. 11, 26
  39. Kegan & Lahey 2001
  40. Kegan & Lahey 2001, p. 5
  41. Kegan & Lahey 2001, p. 78
  42. 42.0 42.1 42.2 Kegan & Lahey 2001, table of contents
  43. Kegan & Lahey 2009
  44. Kegan & Lahey 2009, p. 56
  45. Kegan & Lahey 2009, pp. 16–20
  46. Kegan & Lahey 2009, p. 29
  47. Kegan & Lahey 2009, p. 187
  48. Kegan & Lahey 2009, p. 273
  49. Kegan & Lahey 2009, pp. 256–272
  50. Kegan & Lahey 2009, p. 280
  51. Argyris 2010; Gergen 2009, p. 314; Kets de Vries 2011, pp. 178, 273; Schwartz, Gomes & McCarthy 2010
  52. Kegan et al. 2016.
  53. Kegan et al. 2016, p. 77
  54. Kegan et al. 2016, p. 85
  55. Brooks 2000, pp. 161–162
  56. Brooks 2000, p. 162
  57. Josselson 1992, p. 264
  58. Statement is from a back-cover blurb for Basseches & Mascolo 2009


Further reading

External links