The definition of developmental stages in humans has so far included childhood and young adults. But what is the stage of development of adults who are over 40 years old and in the middle of their working lives? Can they also develop further? How do you recognize the developmental stages and what happens if employees have a higher developmental stage than their boss?

I interviewed Dr. Darren Stevens, who dealt with these questions in his doctoral thesis. He was able to describe how people construct their thinking. He has come up with some astonishing insights for companies, managers and employees. In addition, he has invented a completely new field of psychology.

Jürgen Wulff: Welcome, Darren. You just received your PhD a few weeks ago. So now it’s Dr. Darren Stevens. Congratulations!

Darren Stevens: Thank you, that’s right.

Jürgen Wulff: In your doctoral thesis you analyzed the meta-programs that are the basis for the Identity Compass questionnaire. I personally have been using the Identity Compass for more than 20 years for managers, employees, as well as for team analyses. What exactly did you find out?


Darren Stevens: Well, first of all I had to link meta programs with existing psychology because it comes from the NLP world and in the academic world NLP is not really well regarded. So I added this link. That was the clever part. I applied it to Piaget’s schemes. That’s when I found out that a meta program doesn’t mean anything in the first place. But if you look at it as a shortcut from a thinking perspective, the meta program ‚Internal‘ is really a shortcut in your thinking. The meta program ‚External‘ is pretty much the opposite heuristic.

I realized that meta programs don’t really mean anything. And the name doesn’t do them justice either. So after I assigned them to the psychology of Piaget and Vygotsky and Bruner and others, I decided that I had to reframe them. So I called them Cognitive Intentions, because each of them contains an intention. Whether or not you are aware of this intention is really crucial, because it is a measure of your self-knowledge.

I have taken the Identity Compass as a measure of a person’s current self-knowledge. And I looked at what their intention is. How aware are they of that intention? What choices does that intention create? And how does it react at that moment?

I have mapped all this onto something called stages of adult development. Researchers Robert Kegan and Otto Laske have found that there are levels that determine how complexly we think. I looked at their research out of personal interest and thought that we could map these developmental stages onto the metaprograms as they appear in the Identity Compass. And that’s what I did.

“How Aware are you of your self-awareness?”

I created the Thinking Quotient™. Now you can call it the self-awareness quotient, because that’s what it really expresses. How aware are you of yourself? Are you so aware that at some point you can change your reaction, and instead of acting automatically in a habitual way, you say, no, I will do it differently now? This is the core of my theory. It’s called Constructive Development Theory. It’s about how you are able to think at every moment and then react differently at choice. That was the answer.

Jürgen Wulff: I think managers have to be much more aware of themselves than employees, because they have to determine what they want and how they can achieve it with the employees in the team. Are the meta programs necessary for this or are they just a vehicle because you can measure the meta programs and thus self-knowledge?


Darren Stevens: Constructive Development Theory focuses on how people use shortcuts in their thinking. And I created Dynamic Intelligence, which is the process by which we construct our thinking in the moment. This is where Intention, Awareness, Choice and Response come into play. The greater our awareness of our intention, the more choices we create in our responses, thus the greater our Dynamic Intelligence. Intention, Awareness, Choice and Response are the Four Pillars of CDT and are integral to the theory. They cannot be replaced, as that is a different meaning-making exercise.

I would say that a manager has to be half or maybe one level above the employee in terms of Dynamic Intelligence. And that is measured by the Thinking Quotient™ Scale.


In other words, with an employee who is 80% ‚External‚ but only 50% ‚Internal‚, I would like the manager to be more balanced in his Internal/External, because then he can offer a perspective that the employee cannot see. An employee who is so distinctly ‚External‚ needs information from his manager. They rely on other people to tell them who and how they are. The manager can say that I am a bit more ‚Internal‚ than they are, so I can actually offer a different perspective. And that is a specific growth that allows the employee to expand their thinking. This means that their Thinking Quotient™ score increases.

Jürgen Wulff: So in the future it would be possible to take two profiles as input, for example the profile of a manager and the profile of an employee and then find out that a manager can coach an employee or that he just can’t. Would that be possible?


Darren Stevens: I gave a talk at the NLP conference last year. I talked about my research. But one of the things that comes out of my research and is on my website is that a coach needs to be one developmental level above the person she is coaching. Well, I’m not the first person to say that. Dr Otto Laske has found that if someone who is at a low level (like his Stage 2) tries to coach someone who is at his Stage 4, it doesn’t work because he cannot see the patterns of the Stage 4 thinker. They cannot see how others on a higher level construct their world. They misinterpret Stage 4 thinking using their Stage 2 filters.


Jürgen Wulff: So they can even cause damage.

Darren Stevens: That is indeed the problem.

Jürgen Wulff: What does that mean for companies? Should they measure the appropriate level for managers already in the assessment?

Darren Stevens: I have done exactly that. I have seen cases like this in the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK. It was really interesting that three people in a large team were higher-level thinkers than the manager. [I change he to she here] The manager was looking for an assistant and interviewed her team. But she didn’t give the role to the woman who was at the highest level because she didn’t understand a word the team member said. Instead, she gave it to an employee who was on the same level as herself because she understood her. She should have given it to the person on the higher level and expanded her own thinking as a result. But she was not able to see that perspective.

Jürgen Wulff: You could also use that for agile teams. We could say there are different roles, but if there is a team member who has more awareness in one area than another person, he or she could lead the team to get the job done.

Leaders need to stop, step back and look at the bigger picture

Darren Stevens: Yeah. There is a lot of research that shows that some people have a higher thinking ability in their field. When I wrote my thesis, there were friends who were better at ‚Procedures‚ and ‚Detail‚ than I was. So I asked them to fix my cross-references and footnotes because I would not do them well. So, I know where my limits are. I would like managers to have high scores on ‚Abstract‘, ‚Global‘ and ‚Observer‘ because these kinds of Cognitive Intentions allow a person to pause, step back and look at the bigger picture because employees might not. So they need to recognize their limitations. I know my limits. I have many of them and if I were a manager, I would give some ‘Detail’ work to someone else. But managers think they are the manager, so they have to do it themselves.

Jürgen Wulff: So it’s not good to think in hierarchical levels, but rather in the kind of partnerships with different roles.

Darren Stevens: Yes, absolutely.

Jürgen Wulff: That sounds like a revolution for companies. But you told me that it is also a revolution or a big step in psychology.

Darren Stevens: Yes. I created the Zone of Dynamic Development, which is taken from Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. When you look at stage development, it always talks about children. But I am not interested in children’s development. If you look at Piaget and other psychologists, they stopped at the age of 18 to 24 in their research.

To develop, we need people who are more complex than we are

I am interested in my age group, the over forty’s. So I have created something called the Zone of Dynamic Development, which says that we need a ‚More Complex Other‘. Vygotsky called it a More Knowledgeable Other. But in reality, we don’t want knowledge. We do not want data. We want strategy. We want ‚Abstract‘. We want ‚Observer‘. So we need a more complex other that guides our thinking upwards. And then I realized that maybe it’s not about stages. It’s about this: If you focus on Internal because you’re always External, you eventually create balance. I developed the so-called Developmental Onion because your growth is like an onion and you concentrate on one thing for a short time until you get it. In the image below, you can see that I used Options all the time, but in order to write my thesis, I needed to be more Procedural, so I focused on this to develop my Awareness and Choice.

This is the turquoise ring near the centre. See the bubble?

And then later when I needed it again, I don’t need to relearn it, I just need to revisit it. Notice the second, larger turquoise ring. This idea was very well received by my listeners in my lectures and also by my examiners, who said that this will indeed have an impact on the theory of stage development, on psychology and also on stage transition psychology. Because if you ask somebody how we get from stage three to stage four, they can’t tell you exactly. When I look at the Cognitive Intentions ‚InternalExternal‘, ‚TowardsAway-From‘, that’s one thing we can change and optimize to facilitate growth. And no one has ever done that before, especially not by using cognitive shortcuts and heuristics.


There was one more thing that came out of my thesis. When we think about our thinking, it’s called metacognition. But from an adult perspective, we don’t think about our thinking the way children do. I’m going to offer people a different shortcut, like you do with the Identity Compass, a different way of thinking about their thinking. That’s how I came up with what’s called adult metacognition. It’s currently under investigation. But now we have something that we change psychologically. My theory provides a foundation for adult metacognition. At the end of my doctoral thesis, I was a bit bold and wrote that if Constructed Development Theory becomes a separate field of psychology, there is no reason why someone cannot become a Constructed Developmental Psychologist. So, I not only created a theory, but also created a new job title, which is pretty daring.


I also addressed Emotional Intelligence. From my point of view, if you allow for an habituated emotional response, Kegan would call this level 3, the socialized mind, just like Otto Laske. If you do this without thinking, you’re not in control. In other words, you have a low Dynamic Intelligence. So when I talk to people about Emotional Intelligence, they talk about qualities like Introvert, Extrovert. You’re probably familiar with the Big Five model – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. If you ask someone, how do you do that with neuroticism? Can you tell me how you ‘do’ neuroticism then I can copy that and be neurotic too? They will say that they don’t know how they do it because the Big Five only describes what’s going on. The tests also say, „I like to party.“ That’s problematic. There is something called psychometric isomorphism, where ‚I like to go to parties‘ becomes the reason why you go to parties, and that’s not how it works. Where are the choices? Where does it say I don’t like parties today, but I might tomorrow? Or you could say that today I choose to be an Introvert, or an Extrovert.

They never ask you questions like that. So I say in my thesis that Emotional Intelligence is a facet under Dynamic Intelligence. When you begin to incorporate Intention, Awareness, Choice and Response™ into Emotional Intelligence, it becomes a completely different thing. I say that you have to move through emotion into cognition in order to think at a higher level. So to all those executives who think EQ is important, which we see all the time on LinkedIn, I would say that they are limiting their perspective.

Jürgen Wulff: Some people stop their development at the age of 25. And there are people who are 60, 70 or 80 years old and are still developing. Your doctoral thesis shows that this is possible. It depends on the degree of Awareness that you described in your work.

Darren Stevens: Yes. We all know somebody who reacts angrily or emotionally and doesn’t think before he reacts. People like that just scream or they’re just yelling at everybody. They have a low Dynamic Intelligence. They are not Aware and you can hear that, and you can hear their Cognitive Intentions, as I called them. You can hear which ones they lack in order to grow – if they are capable of growing. Because when they are at a very low level then they are already perfect. They do not need to grow (sarcasm). Then we know how to optimize their thinking and change it just a little bit. And then their whole world view changes. They are no longer so ‚Internal‘.

Jürgen Wulff: When I think about companies and what you have found out, then we need a different kind of coaching. Maybe we would even need our own psychologists in companies?


Darren Stevens: I have a PhD, but I know that there are people out there who are just as learned, just as smart, just as educated as I am, without a PhD. Do you think they need a psychologist? I have a friend who’s got three therapists right now. And he says, „Darren, they keep trying to put me in boxes. But you don’t.“ What I do is, I listen to how they construct themselves. How does he construct his thinking? And basically, a therapist or a psychologist will try to impose his worldview on you. I, on the other hand, listen to you and then I model your constructed world. I ask myself, how do you construct your world instead of me imposing my construction on you? I look at you and ask you to do this. And then I take a grid, I call it the ‚development grid‘, and I take your key phrases (words).

As a business leader, I would listen to your key phrases and ask you to tell me on this grid where you think this phrase belongs. What I really mean is: Where is your thinking? You tell me where your thinking is. So if somebody thinks that it’s a low level, they tell me that it’s a low level. When people think that they can think quite well at high levels, they tell me that they can think well. And the grid shows how they do. It’s a really cool process. So you don’t necessarily need a psychologist, but you need somebody who is able to see your patterns and somebody who is on a higher level to coach these people properly according to Constructed Developmental Psychology.

I think it would be useful to show you some examples of how people speak at the different stages of development. This is in my fourth study within my thesis.

Level 5 – all about me

Participant 1: It’s nice but if it comes down to the crunch, I’m going to do what I’m going to do.
Participant 1: I know I’m doing it because I get narked.
Participant 2: I am quite sort of black and white on certain things.
Participant 3: …preparing something is quite often making sure that nothing is wrong

Level 6 – all about the other person

Participant 1: because I’m passionate about people feeling empowered…
Participant 4: actually, everyone says I’m not good at this stuff.
Participant 5: because I’m external and, quite external and I’ve been told repeatedly that I need to stay…
Participant 6: And I have to be reassured by other people, to make sure that I’m doing it correct.
Participant 3: I will quite often need the guidance of people to tell me that I am on the right track…
Participant 7: Thinking about all the examples of ‘Externalness’, and actually I do lack confidence in quite a lot of things. I do something, but I’m not sure. … Maybe I’ll just let someone else look at it.
Participant 8: That’s exactly right. Exactly right. I need other people to tell me.

Level 7 – about me, but from a position of awareness

Participant 5: I guess, where I would struggle is if I can’t see what are the benefits [values-based judgement] Participant 5: Quite honestly, I’m not really motivated by either the carrot or the stick.
Participant 9: It would be a complex mix of factors, if I’m honest. It would depend on my perception of the other person’s authority, a perception of how much I should be trying to influence the situation versus accept it, on a spectrum. You evaluate it in the moment.
Participant 6: Yes, depends on who’s telling me, if I accept the information.

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Jürgen Wulff: So personnel development and leadership development should be very different in the future. So should we first concentrate on managers because they are so important for leading all teams?

Darren Stevens: I would start at the top, with the board of directors. If I focus my work now, I would target the board level and the CEO, because that filters down. Now I have no problem working with the managers and the high level managers as long as they are able to expand their thinking. Do they know that they have to be more complex because the world today is much more complex? The only way to develop as managers is to increase their complexity.

Let me tell you about Elliot Jacques. He created a management guidance system, called Requisite Organization. Basically, every role in an organization has a degree of complexity associated with it. From factory floor worker to CEO. As an individual, can you match the complexity of your role? If you work on a factory floor and you only have to think about the next hour, you don’t need to be so complex in your thinking.

But if you are the CEO and you have to make decisions that last 20 years, you need a high Dynamic Intelligence to be able to take into account many different factors of the current situation to think about the decision-making process. Not about the decision, but about the decision-making process.

So this will require a person with high Dynamic Intelligence. There is something called the Peter Principle. That’s the point where you are promoted to the level of your incompetence, beyond your competence. If you have High Dynamic Intelligence with High Dynamic Awareness, you would know where your limit is in the organizational structure. So as far as I am concerned, I would work with people who know that they need to expand their thinking. These could be the managers. That could be the board of directors. That could be the entire HR team. And the good news is that the Identity Compass will allow us to profile each one and give them a Thinking Quotient™ score so that we know exactly how to develop them.


Jürgen Wulff: Then the board of directors, the top level managers, must be open to it.

Darren Stevens: That’s exactly how it is. What we want to say and what Elliot Jaques said is that you need top level people on the board of directors. If you have a low-level person on the board, they’ll derail the conversation. They’ll focus on themselves because it’s all about them. Or it’s all about money. When you get to the higher levels, it’s more about social enterprises, they’re not so concerned with profit. They’re more concerned with making sure everyone is doing well. So it depends on what kind of organization you have.


Jürgen Wulff: In my experience, you can be successful even if you don’t have a high degree of awareness about yourself. If you only focus on money, you can be very successful. Of course, it could be even more successful if you develop people as you have described. But the people in charge don’t think about it because they don’t even understand it.

Darren Stevens: I can give you an example. Before I did my doctorate, I created a profile of about 50 entrepreneurs. Two of them were worth more than 10 million pounds. What level do you think they were at? In fact, the woman who had the most money was also the lowest on the scale. She was at level 2.4 on my old scale. She was very low, because for her it meant ‚It’s all about me. How much money can I make now? Can I make more money for me now?‘ That was all. So, of course you can be very successful. Her focus is so limited that she only thinks about money and herself. When you start getting to the higher levels, it’s more like a social enterprise, like I said.

Jürgen Wulff: But isn’t that a contradiction for companies? Companies have to make a profit. If they don’t make profits, they go bankrupt and cease to exist. So they attract people who want to make money. But we also have to attract people who not only want to make money, but also want to develop themselves and the people around them.

Darren Stevens: I agree with that. For example, if you sell cars and own a car dealership, you can be level 2. You could have a low level. But you have to hire people who are level 3, because level 3 is about the socialized mind: how are we doing? What is our relationship? Are we okay? It’s a family environment. So you hire these people because they’re the backbone of your business. Because when customers come through the door, they want to be greeted by a Level 3 person who is more ‚External‘, empathetic.

They don’t want a level 2 person, they don’t want a level 4 person, so if you’re smart, you can still be level 2 and rich because you’re hiring level 3 people. But if you start to leave level 3 and move towards level 4, you change your world view and money is not so important anymore. You are no longer valuable to the organization because your personal values have changed.

Jürgen Wulff: That’s exactly how it is. For this it is necessary that people can move up in the hierarchy. But it would also be necessary for them to resign if necessary because they have not developed enough. If we need an organization that continues to develop, it may be that we cannot keep a person in a certain role. Either the person leaves the organization or resigns.

Darren Stevens: You are absolutely right. There are two possibilities. The person is being promoted into the role and they can’t fill the role sufficiently. So they burn out. Or they get bored because the role is not as complex as they are. Then she gets bored and leaves. But whether they’re bored or burned out, they’ll leave. You have to match the person to the role that’s right for them at the time. And if it’s a large organization, when you develop that person, you have to have a role for him or her to grow into and fit.

Jürgen Wulff: So you need role finders for the employees in the HR department. You have to develop employees and they have to be willing to develop so that they can say, I’m in the role I always wanted to have, this is the right place for me. From there they have to develop.

Darren Stevens: The point is, the moment they say they don’t have to develop, you stop dealing with them. And that’s the flip side. That’s the negative side of what I’m talking about. There are people who are not capable of evolving. And we have to acknowledge that, because they are happy that they are doing what they want to do and they don’t want to go any further. But in reality they can’t go any further either. So we look at the capacity and the capabilities: Where are you now? Where do you think you can go? If they say I can’t go any further, they probably can’t. We have to be adult enough to accept that this is true for them. And we can’t force development on them.

Jürgen Wulff: Right. And you have to be adult enough to accept that for yourself. Some people are not, they are afraid of losing face. They are really embarrassed when they realize that they cannot develop further. I think that shouldn’t be a problem anymore, because you should be able to deal with different roles. And we have to find a role that suits them better.


Darren Stevens: You have 20 years experience with Identity Compass. You and I both know that if we were to create a profile of a young woman and a young man, we could say that one person was really good at nursing and the other was really good at accounting. Something that I always ask my MBA university students in London, the business people, is: „My wife works in a bank. Is she a banker because of how she thinks, or does she think that way because she’s a banker?“ Most of the time they get it right and say she got the job at the bank because that’s how she thinks. And that’s true. If we know that, then our job is to tell these people you’re going to be a nurse. You will always be a low-income earner. Because nurses don’t get paid much money in Britain. That’s the idea.


Jürgen Wulff: So we must also think about what is valuable, what is important for society. It doesn’t depend on how much people earn, as we saw with the Corona pandemic. The nurses are very important. Even more important than many managers.

Darren Stevens: Yes. From the nurses‘ perspective. I’ve seen nurses being promoted to the role of manager in the National Health Service. And although they were fantastic nurses, they were terrible managers. Why? Because of the way they think.

Their Thinking Style is a combination of what I call Cognitive Intentions. The combination of those Cognitive Intentions produces the Thinking Style that’s perfect for a nurse. But as soon as they get to the management level, they need more ‚Achievement‘, they need more ‚Towards‘, they need more ‚Internal‘, more ‚Observer‘, more ‚Future‘. And they don’t do it because they focus on ‚External‘, ‚Partner‘ and ‚Relationship‘.

Jürgen Wulff: So we need different career paths. Why shouldn’t you be an excellent nurse?

Darren Stevens: Yes. And the problem in Britain is that all nurses now need degrees as a minimum standard. They’re told when to change a bedpan, which means they need to know when someone has gone to the toilet. They think now because they have a degree that it is below their level or not part of their job description. It’s still part of the job, but the perception is different.

Jürgen Wulff: Even managers often do things that seem to be below their level.

Darren Stevens: Yes, exactly. So it raises all kinds of questions. How did the government think about it when it imposed these kinds of rules? And when the nurses start doing some of the minor procedures that doctors usually do, that thinking has to change. We can encourage that rethinking by asking questions like in the Identity Compass, and using Constructed Development Theory and Dynamic Intelligence.

Dynamic Intelligence is the key. Because it is my theory, I apply it everywhere. I pay attention to how we construct our thinking in the moment. So if you are a manager in an organization, how do you construct yourself in the organization, but also, how do you construct you within the organization, the market? How do you construct the EU, the global perception perspective, and so on. I apply it everywhere. And when you start working with people, when you hear how they speak, you automatically listen for ‚Internal/External‘, and ‚Towards/Away From‘. When you listen for how developed they may be in their thinking, then you get a different picture of the employees, the people in their roles.

Jürgen Wulff: It is complex for companies to understand and implement all this and to integrate it into their personnel development team and into the company itself. Is there a recommendation you can give companies on how to get started?


Darren Stevens: I have a program that I would offer to organizations called the Three Leaders Program. We take a scenario that is tailored to the industry in question. We look at exactly the same problem three times, from three different perspectives. The problem also has to be your manager’s manager’s problem so it is at an organizational level higher than you’re used to dealing with. I break down the problem by using the level 2 thinking and language on the first day, then the level 3 thinking and language on the second day and finally level 4 thinking and language on the third day. The good thing is that everyone reacts to the level 2 language because it is so terrible: „Oh my God. I can’t believe anybody thinks like that.“ But when they come back the next day and they realize, ah, here I am, they see the growth and they realize it’s exactly the same scenario but on a different level of thinking. And when they come to level four of thinking, they say, I can’t do that yet, I don’t understand it. And people are very honest. They are very happy to tell you that they are at level two, level three or sometimes four. Whether it’s the HR team, whether it’s the managers or the CEOs, if we show them how they think, then the journey takes them to the right place. If we apply a process that guides their thinking, that’s fine.

Jürgen Wulff: It’s a complex thing that is not easy for me to understand, even with the background of the Identity Compass. Nevertheless, I can see how much potential there is in this theory and the application of the theory. Is there more research to be done?

Darren Stevens: Yes, there is. I mentioned levels 2 through 5. This is Robert Kegan and Otto Laske. I left them because I want to use my own system. My system goes from 5 to 10. That’s because the calculations behind the Identity Compass work that way, scoring 5 to 10. So there’s more work to do because I have a new working scale. I’ve also analyzed the data and I’ve done all the research for this new scale and it works. But also longitudinal studies, because I want to show how specifically someone grows over time. So the Constructed Development Theory is proven over time. That makes it more robust from a psychological perspective. So there’s a lot of work to be done. I have the studies, but I have to write them up as research papers and publish them.

But there’s no reason why we can’t profile, for example, a whole company or a whole year group of students, a PhD cohort or MBA cohort, and develop the theory from a position of Intention, Awareness, Choice and Response™. I’m sure I could go on forever.


Jürgen Wulff: Darren, last question. Maybe a bit ironic. Is it possible for you to talk to people without thinking about thought structures, about intentions and so on, without seeing the theory behind it all? Is it possible for you to talk to other people like a normal person?

Darren Stevens: That is a really good question. What tends to happen is that I turn off my analysis. But then a key phrase catches me. I’m aware of it and what I do then is, instead of implying that the other person is at level 2, 3, 4, I apply it to myself and make sure that I can react differently right now so that I’m not such an asshole. I apply it to myself and not to the person talking. But you’re right. It’s hard to talk and listen without thinking about how capable they are or whether I’ve lost them.