Vertical development arrows on wooden blocks

7 stages of vertical development

How our internal programming governs learning as adults

4 minute read
Vertical development arrows on wooden blocks

It’s a common refrain amongst leaders that a person is never finished learning, but for developmental psychologists, how we put that learning to use is largely governed by our internal programming.

Understanding adult developmental psychology and how we change our wiring can benefit from examining the way we understand development in children, according to Institute for Developmental Coaching Director Angela Williamson FAIM.

“We actually don’t all get to 30 and stop maturing. We can continue to develop through very significant, vertical leaps, where our capacity to see, understand and navigate the complexity of our environment expands.

“In the same way a five-year-old cannot be expected to do the same things a 20-year-old can, someone at an earlier stage of development in adulthood cannot be expected to do the things someone at a later stage can do with ease, and yet we expect them to.”

Maturing in adulthood, often called vertical development in developmental psychology circles, is a notion not too far removed from the way a computer’s hardware and software can affect its speed in processing data, according to Ms Williamson.

“Our human internal operating system – our ego – determines everything we can do as a human system,” she said.

“At each stage, we have a capacity. When that capacity fills up, we have to upgrade to the next stage if we want to be effective in more complex environments.

“Vertical development is like upgrading your system to the next stage. When we upgrade, our view of reality completely transforms.”

The Institute for Developmental Coaching teaches seven levels of thinking to manage this development, called the Opportunist, the Diplomat, the Expert, the Achiever, the Individualist, the Strategist and the Alchemist.

The Opportunist

In a brief overview of the stages Ms Williamson said people at the Opportunist stage viewed everybody and everything as competition and a threat, but when the healthy aspects of the stage were utilised the individual could be more effective at pursuing opportunities.

The Diplomat

At the next stage, Ms Williamson said the Diplomats moved to the mindset of ‘us against the world’, with a strong emphasis on relationships and not standing out from the tribe.

“From a leadership perspective, this stage can create a positive and harmonious environment, and here we develop our capacity to join and belong,” she said.

“However, Diplomats often struggle to make difficult decisions or take ownership.”

The Expert

At the Expert stage, the focus is on being technically excellent and solving complicated problems, according to Ms Williamson.

“If I’m a doctor, it’s not just that I practice medicine – I am doctor in my sense of identity and my sense of self,” she said.

“They will invest their life in mastering their craft and solving really difficult problems.

“As leaders they can be great teachers or mentors, but can miss the importance of broader organisational challenges.”

The Achiever

Those who move past the importance of being technically accurate and excelling are known as Achievers – people who ask themselves, ‘what’s the result I’m trying to produce here?’, but who tend to miss the forest for the trees.

Ms Williamson likened this stage to being the driver of a speeding car. “You are driving down the freeway as fast as you can to achieve your goal – which is great for successful performance – but often you cannot see what’s out the window,” she said.

“One of the challenges at the Achiever stage is it delivers the results, but the person doesn’t yet have the capacity to engage with the system or the culture, though they often think they do.”

The Individualist

Ms Williamson said the biggest leap in the framework was between the Achiever and Individualist stages, because this was the first time we had to take a development leap counter-culturally, paving the way for the final stages of development.

“At the end of the Individualist landscape, I’m beginning to understand my strengths, my dark side, what I’m not, my values and what I can be relied on for,” she said.

“I’m getting comfortable in my own skin and I’m discovering who I am because I’m actively seeking feedback from my community.

The Strategist

“The Strategist stage is where we begin to engage more deeply with the questions of purpose. Leaders at this stage are able to operate with a more strategic systems focus.

The Alchemist

“The final stage, the Alchemist, engages with change as an essential part of moving through life and, although capable of bringing about large-scale social change, they often demonstrate real humility.