As a practicing coach and supervisor, I am always interested in the ways in which the idea of human development is framed. One frame of reference that has become a central pillar in my own practice is the idea of vertical development.

At the heart of vertical development is the notion that humans have the potential to access different capacities of thinking, feeling and acting in order that they might engage differently in their lives. This core idea is backed up by research [1] into the way that adults learn and has identified some clear and distinct developmental stages that people can move through as they grow through life. One way we can describe these ‘stages’ are that they are ways in which adults make sense of themselves, their relationships and the world around them.

As people move through the course of their lives, they are confronted with experiences that challenge their existing sense-making apparatus. If this new experience is sufficiently different from the person’s previous ones, the result can be disorientation, confusion and agitation. As the new experience persists over time, the mind begins to reconfigure itself, developing a new way of perceiving the world.

In vertical development terms, development can be considered to be the growth of a new perspective [2] so that we perceive our self, others and the objects around us in a different way. As practitioners, we can use the idea of people taking different perspectives to help us map the development shifts that are possible for adults (see below for overviews of the 1st to 5th person perspectives). It can also help us to notice the types of capacities someone might be able to access from different perspectives.

  1. The first person perspective places the individual at the centre of their world and views everything around them (including other people) as objects designed to satisfy their needs. It is very rare [3] for adults to routinely hold this perspective as their primary mode of engaging in the world, although under stress many adults ‘fall-back’ to this world-view. At the early end of this perspective, adults act impulsively and are unaware of the impacts they can have on other people. At the later end, adults act in an opportunistic manner, and can martial their resources in powerful ways to achieve their own ends.
  2. The second person perspective places the surrounding collectives (e.g., family, work and social groups) as the primary focus of attention and the individual acts to try to satisfy the needs of these groups. At the early stage of this perspective, the individual can easily be overwhelmed by the differing demands that they experience. At the later end, adults can lead or champion specific groups and are become adept at enforcing group norms and rules. The shift from a 1st to 2nd person perspective is often accompanied by a move into the workplace and a sizeable proportion of organisational employees will be acting from a 2nd person perspective. The 2nd person qualities of compliance could be even be viewed by some organisational leaders as the embodiment of an ideal employee.
  3. Adults who hold the 3rd person perspective view themselves as an independent observer of the relationships between objects, including the relationship between self and others. This scientific stance to life sees the individual making connections between causes and effects and predictions about what the future state of a system will be. At the earlier end of this stage, people tend to take a black and white view towards things, investing time and energy into knowing what the ‘right’ way is to do things and trying to avoid the ‘wrong’ way. At the later end of this perspective, people are able to make more refined judgements, seeing the world as shades of grey and being able to imagine and work towards achieving more complex goals. In management populations, over 60% [3] of people profile at this stage of development — in part explaining how much of the management discourse is focused on linear, mechanistic, hyper-rational approaches.
  4. People acting from the 4th person perspective view themselves as a participant-observer in life and see that all relationships are influenced by the context they are situated within. Sensitivity to context includes sensing the collective field of groups, organisations and society and this can be overwhelming and confusing at the early end of this stage. Individuals also see the myriad parts of their own self arising within them in different contexts and they begin to hold a preoccupation with authenticity. At the later end of this perspective, individuals see after the fact how they project their undigested psychological material onto other people. Torbert’s work [4] on leadership development suggests that this later stage of development (often called the Strategist or Transforming stage) is one which someone attempting to lead an organisational transformation needs to be at in order for the work to be successful [5]. Few people (<10%) profile at the later end of this stage of development [3].
  5. The fifth person perspective is a very rare stage of adult development, with <1% of people being profiled in a general population [3]. People who hold this perspective see more and more how they are projecting onto others and the world. This is often one of the most difficult transitions for adults to move through as they encounter so few people who are able to normalise the instability and groundlessness that they experience as they start to see the individually constructed nature of reality. At the late end of this perspective, people can be incredibly creative, blending apparently disparate fields into something new and generative.

It is important to note that the perspective that someone takes on the word is hyper-contextual and can shift from moment to moment. Most people have a centre of gravity — a vantage point from which they view the word — and this remains relatively consistent across a number of contexts.

Some contexts and situations, however, can trigger undigested psychological material from an earlier time and create a ‘shadow crash’ — a fall back into an earlier version of themselves. This can create problems for people as the earlier perspectives have a much more limited capacity to make sense of the world. For example, it is unlikely that someone acting from an earlier sense-making perspective would be able to resolve some of the complex problems faced in the workplace and modern living. Understanding the implications of Brexit on our lives being a very current example.

As a professional practitioner, there are a number of implications of adopting a vertical stance to human development. Firstly, having an understanding of the different stages of adult development can help us to assess our own client’s centre of gravity — the typical perspective they adopt in everyday situations. This can help us to adapt our interventions to match their developmental perspective.

With dedicated practice, practitioners can also track a client’s moment by moment shift in perspective and begin to see what the leading edge of their developmental capacities is and where they crash to in certain situations. The ability to diagnose in the moment opens up a real possibility of supporting a client with all the different personality states that show up in development sessions.

As we develop our expertise with the vertical development maps we can see how important it is to explore three different directions:

  • an upwards trajectory where we support clients to access the new capacities that higher perspectives offer,
  • a downwards trajectory where we help clients to come into contact with and digest their shadow material;
  • a horizontal trajectory where we support clients to broaden out the skills they hold at their current stage of development.

As a vertical development practitioner, the primary intention is to support people to become more integrated. And as practitioners it feels critically important that we understand our own stage of development so that we can begin to see how this influences the way we perceive the world and the way we work with clients. Taking a vertical stance also allows us to hold a developmentally ethical perspective in our work — not everyone grows into a later stage of development and there is no correlation between happiness, satisfaction and later stages. Attempts to ‘grow people up’ quickly can therefore be inappropriate as one typical pattern of growth is for people to undergo a period of significant perturbation to self and surrounding relationships.

The more I have explored the field of vertical development, the more insights are revealed that inform how I support my clients to live as healthy a life as possible from whatever stage of development they happen to be living from.