Robert Kegan (born August 24, 1946) is an American developmental psychologist, author, and consultant. 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. Additionally he was the Educational Chair for the Institute for Management and Leadership in Education and the Co-director for the Change Leadership Group. He is a licensed psychologist and practicing therapist, has lectured widely to professional and lay audiences, and consults in the area of professional development and organization development.
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. 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.
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. "Thus it is not that a person makes meaning, as much as that activity of being a person is the activity of meaning-making", Kegan wrote. 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.
Kegan described meaning-making as a lifelong activity that begins in earliest 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). Each evolutionary truce is both an achievement of and a constraint on meaning-making, possessing both strengths and limitations. 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).
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. Kegan described cultures of embeddedness in terms of three processes: confirmation (holding on), contradiction (letting go), and continuity (staying put for reintegration).
For Kegan, "the person is more than an individual";developmental psychology studies the evolution of cultures of embeddedness, not the study of isolated individuals. "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."
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.
The Evolving Self attempted a theoretical integration of three different intellectual traditions in psychology. 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). 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). 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). The book is also strongly influenced by dialectical philosophy and psychology and by Carol Gilligan's psychology of women.
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. The object (O) of each balance is the subject (S) of the preceding balance. 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.
|Evolutionary balance||Culture of embeddedness||Analogue in Piaget||Analogue in Kohlberg||Analogue in Loevinger||Analogue in Maslow||Analogue in McClelland/Murray||Analogue in Erikson|
||Mothering culture. Mothering one(s) or primary caretaker(s).||Sensorimotor||--||Pre-social||Physiological survival orientation||--||--|
||Parenting culture. Typically, the family triangle.||Preoperational||Punishment and obedience orientation||Impulsive||Physiological satisfaction orientation||--||Initiative vs. guilt|
||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|
||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?)|
||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|
||Culture of intimacy (in love and work). Typically: genuinely 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. 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. 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". Helping professionals need a way of evaluating the quality of people's evolving cultures of embeddedness so as to provide opportunities for problem-solving and growth, while acknowledging that the evaluators too have their own evolving cultures of embeddedness. 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. Kegan 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.
The Evolving Self has been cited favorably by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ronald A. Heifetz, Ruthellen Josselson, and George Vaillant. 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.
Kegan's book In Over Our Heads (1994) extends his perspective on psychological development formulated in The Evolving Self. What Kegan earlier called "evolutionary truces" of increasing subject-object complexity are now called "orders of consciousness". In Over Our Heads explores what happens, and how people feel, when new orders of consciousness emerge, or fail to emerge, in the domains of parenting (families), partnering (couples), working (companies), healing (psychotherapies), and learning (schools). He connects the idea of orders of consciousness with the idea of a hidden curriculum of everyday life. 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.
In addition, Kegan 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". Kegan's writing in this 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.
In the last chapter of In Over Our Heads, titled "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. 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. He ends the book with an epilogue on the value of passionate engagement and the creative unpredictability of human lives.
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. 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".
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?"
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. 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:
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:
Immunity to Change (2009), the next book by Kegan and Lahey, revisits the immunity map of their previous book. 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). 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. (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,Chris Argyris's ladder of inference, and a reworded version of the four stages of competence. They also provide more detailed guidance on how to test big assumptions.
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), Test.
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. The authors connect the concept of the deliberately developmental organization 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".
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". Brooks also said that Kegan excluded "the possibility of a developmental trajectory aimed at increased connection with others", which is contradicted by Ruthellen Josselson's statement that Kegan "has made the most heroic efforts" to balance individuality and connection with others in his work.
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."
Psychologists Michael Basseches and Michael Mascolo's 2009 book Psychotherapy as a Developmental Process, which Kegan called "the closest thing we have to a 'unified field theory' for psychotherapy", stated that Basseches and Mascolo "embrace both Piagetian models of psychological change and their organization into justifications of what constitutes epistemic progress (the development of more adequate knowledge)", but they rejected theories of global developmental stages, such as 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".