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The Three Levels of Adult Development

Gusto Editors  
Female senior leader presenting to colleagues on glass white board in window facing meeting room

How do we improve our ability to lead through difficult situations?  

To answer this question, Gusto, along with our partners at CPA Academy, hosted a webinar titled “How to Increase Your Leadership Effectiveness” with coach Amber Setter. You can watch the entire webinar here.

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Amber Setter worked for 13 years as an accountant within public accounting firms before completing her Master’s in leadership and becoming a certified coach. She has been practicing for eight years, drawing on her personal leadership journey, together with her lessons, while coaching others.

In Part One, we talked about how to discover your performance potential by exploring the subconscious and its effects on performance. In this article, we’ll look at the three levels of adult development. Last, in Part Three, we’ll learn how to understand your leadership effectiveness.

The central focus of this webinar is understanding leadership effectiveness and how it could benefit your firm or small business. This article covers the three stages of adult development theory:

  1. The Socialized Mind
  2. The Self-Authoring Mind 
  3. The Self-Transforming Mind

In each stage, we will understand their importance, identify which level someone is in (both for yourself and others), and explore how it improves your ability to lead through complexity.

If you have not read Part One yet, it is essential to note that adult development is how we make sense of the world and form our identity. As we move through life, experiences shape our thinking, which informs what level we are currently on.

“This framework gives us a construct for seeing how information flows in an organization, what information people send, to whom they send information, and how they take in and receive messages that others send to them.”

Amber Setter

The Socialized Mind

To understand each stage, we’ll use a car analogy. In this case, imagine being in an Uber. The first level has a sense of self that is being driven unconsciously around by others. Take college students as an example—their questions predominantly revolve around their life path.

  • What should my major be?
  • What direction should I choose for my career path?
  • What company should I apply to?
  • Where should I live?
  • What would be an excellent job for me?

They are searching for the answers that exist outside of themselves.

When an organization is at this level, they copy another organization’s best practices. Copying might be one way to relate to a specific problem, but it is not necessarily effective nor guaranteed to translate into your organization.

Male colleague  with glasses looking to colleague at a table

The Socialized Mind manifests as a sense of self that is overtly externally oriented. It relies on the input of others above anything else.

There are benefits to this level, as these people tend to be faithful followers and team players who align easily with their objectives. However, some of the challenges and negative costs associated with this level are being dependent on seeking direction from others. Being outwardly influenced creates a lack of dedicated focus when pursuing personal goals. They can easily be distracted by the butterfly in the room—that is, switching from one goal to another just because someone shared it with them. This behavior is highly unproductive and often allows for plans to become derailed.

“I saw this with someone looking for coaching before the pandemic, and then using the pandemic as an excuse why not to pursue it anymore when the reality is they probably need it more than ever.”

Amber Setter

Usually, this consciousness level is where people associate themselves with their thoughts. They think, “I am my thoughts.” They are defined by their work and accomplishments—always looking to get along with others and fearing a lack of acceptance.

This sense of self is often in a very reactive state, creating ineffective leadership behaviors. When we place too much emphasis on external factors outside of our control, we divert our focus from controlling what we can: ourselves.

Self-Authoring Mind

Once you shift to this next level, you are in the driver’s seat of your own life. The orientation moves from outward to inward. By looking within, you realize that you have thoughts versus you are your thoughts. You begin to see their patterned ways of thinking.

An example of this is when people realize their whole life and identity has been about their performance.

“I am my performance, I am my work, and I have these patterned ways of thinking that are always telling me I’m not that smart. This thinking leads them to work extra hard, triple-checking their work making sure everything is perfect, but that is inefficient and often leads to burnout.”

Amber Setter

Somebody starts shifting from a Socialized Mind to a Self-Authoring one when they are at this place in life where they have done everything that everyone else thinks is a good idea. They have the degree, certifications, the job, they are doing something that has been deemed prestigious, and on the outside, everything looks good. But on the inside, they feel empty. People experience less purpose or intrinsic rewards.

This emptiness can lead to the question, “What would a successful life look and feel like for me?”

At an organizational level, we see the Socialized Mind uninterested in an industry standard. It turns inside as an organization, and their leadership says, “What do my unique employees need? What is the value of what we are bringing to the world? What do my clients need?”

What other organizations do becomes less important.

These authorship questions spur creativity to get to the answers to these questions. This state is creative and less reactive to circumstances.

There is more of an emphasis in creating a future based on what is essential to the individual or organization. It’s about fueling decision-making towards challenges (what most of us do not like), instead of running away or ignoring them.

This scenario is where leadership effectiveness becomes increasingly higher.

From this space, the information people provide is likely to be a function of what they think others ought to hear or need to hear to advance their agenda. There are benefits and costs to this level.

A Self-Authoring Mind’s benefits are its efficiency and ability to filter out unnecessary information to formulate a plan of action. It can independently solve problems and remain highly focused.

Man thinking while sitting at desk in front of his computer

The challenge and costs associated with this autonomy, however, is being susceptible to blind spots. When a problem arises, there might be an idea, and you go for it, but without getting enough input from other people in the system, plans can be flawed, and that can be a recipe for disaster. These problems are not guaranteed but are worthy of your attention.

The Self-Authoring Mind can step back enough from an environment and generate an internal set of judgment or personal authority. The key here is the word “authoring.”

The Self-Authoring Mind builds an identity around who it is and what it wants. It creates a map based on where it is and how to get to its destination. When it has this internal set of judgment and personal authority, it uses that to evaluate and make choices that are not as concerned about others’ external expectations—a clue you might be in the stage or working with others here. Again, this is a person who has moved from being authored by others to being authored by themselves.

As a leader, you may recognize these employees as people asking more important and relevant questions around their roles and how to apply themselves. They might even suggest role modifications.

“Sometimes when people hire me to coach them, it’s because they are working in an organization and they want to create their own company. [They’re] authoring themselves and knowing who they are and what they want to do and be of service in the world. They are very empowered by being the source of their results.”

Amber Setter

Are you conscious of the thoughts that you have? Are you beginning to see your habitual patterns of behaving, thinking, and feeling? At this level, you’ll begin to see you have independent opinions and are no longer driven unconsciously by the opinions of others.

During stressful circumstances, there are all kinds of things coming at you. Can you take a step back, pause, and survey the landscape? You will be able to determine what the best course is before taking action.

At this level of leadership, leaders are looking at the bigger picture. It is as if they have reached “the balcony,” a phrase used to describe the practice of strategic thinking.

[It’s the] ability to slow down, do a quick assessment of the lay of the land, and choose the most effective course of action, which might not always be taking that same path that you’ve driven down time and time again. – Amber Setter

The Self-Transforming Mind

This developmental stage is exceedingly rare and a powerful way to exist in the world. We are talking about the 1% here. Like the Waze GPS navigation app, this state of mind is open to new routes and destinations simultaneously. People in this stage are leading to learn and never claim to know everything—they’re always using the input to adapt. They can be the driver or stay in the back seat if they wish.

In an organization, they see the road bump and investigate the bump for possibilities to improve.

This is the thinking of a meta leader. They are much more interdependent.

An interdependent leader operates strategically higher than the Socialized Mind—which focuses externally by analyzing competitors’ behavior to copy—and the Self-Authoring Mind—which focuses internally about what is most important to their employees and clients

“An interdependent is a systems thinker, meaning it is going to elevate above their primary business, maybe above their industry, and see their contribution in the business community or the world at large. Big balcony perspective there.” 

Amber Setter

Clues you are dealing with a Self-Transforming Mind is watching the movement from envisioning best practices to having a distinct vision. Here is where the word “transform” comes in. It is about creating something new, whether possible or potential, that has never existed before. It takes strategic thinking to bring it to life and can begin from external feedback or internal misalignment. Either way, it sees vulnerabilities as a prime opportunity for growth.  

Instead of lamenting that there is a bump in the road, the Self-Transforming Mind tries to uncover any richness or possibilities it possesses.

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Learn more about leadership to unlock your potential and effectiveness

In summary, the three levels of adult development are:

  1. Socialized Mind – I am being driven around by an Uber.
  2. Self-Authoring Mind – I am the driver of my own life.
  3. Self-Transforming Mind – the ego has dissolved; I am Waze, open to new routes and destinations. I can be the driver or the passenger.

As you can see, it is crucial to understand each of these levels to understand employees’ performance capabilities, how these levels affect leadership effectiveness, and finally, how an organization operates in line with its mission. We’re starting to get the picture of how effective leadership transforms a business—we start moving away from traditional leadership towards servant leadership. 

Remember to check out Part One on how to discover your performance potential if you have not already. Otherwise, head over to Part Three in the series to learn how to understand your leadership effectiveness. You can also watch the entire webinar here.

To our Gusto partners, we provide the tools that will help you expand your accounting practice and offer clients new insights. Feel free to visit our resource center, where a quick search on “leadership” will unlock more valuable insights to help you in your business or firm. 

Updated: August 17, 2021

Gusto Editors
Gusto Editors
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