There’s been a kerfuffle about ‘stage theory’. What do you think?

Benjamin P. Taylor
2 min readAug 19, 2021

Can we really say that people progress through different levels of ability to deal with #complexity across their life?

And that we can measure and identify what level people are at? Predict how they’ll develop? And select and promote people based on that?

Or, as Nora Bateson said when she began the tango, will it be coopted to be just another form of kyriarchical privilege?

Nora put it more succinctly:

Stage theory…

Is BS.

Always was.

And it is colonial as hell.

Sorry, but that has got to go.

So, this has provoked a LOT of debate.

Stage theories cover things like:

  • childhood development: all basically begun by Piaget

(Nora says his research assistants documented him deliberately ignoring context in naming and evaluating ‘levels’)

  • #adultdevelopment: that we develop through different distinct phases post-childhood, in our ability to comprehend complexity, in our moral frameworks and in our sensemaking and logic of action

Many have worked in this space of ‘#verticaldevelopment’ (as distinct from normal skills training), from Jaques to Cook-Greuter, Kegan to Torbert, Graves to Wilber etc.

This is sometimes applied at an organisational level too.

  • world development: from Vico to Hegel and Marx to ‘the end of history’ etc

And, it’s true, that as soon as we say ‘this stage is distinct from that’ and ‘this is superior from that’ (however much we say ‘the Wizard level /transcends and includes/ the Diplomat level or whatever), we are doing that core colonialist thing of placing one thing about the other.

We are most likely doing it from the perspective of some hierarchy as well, whether privilege or dominance or esteem or radical critical hierarchies, too.

And with hindsight, judgement, our current state lense.

The best of these theories recognise it’s not strict boundaries but ragged transitions, dependent on circumstances. And that ‘developed’ does not mean ‘better’.

We know that there *is* something that it is like to look back and say ‘I used to reason differently then, and now I understand that perspective, but I seem to have a broader understanding now’.

It certainly doesn’t seem to be ‘only’ stage progress. So much depends on context and state. And is saying ‘stage theory is BS’ also presenting a stage theory?

So — do you think there’s value in these ‘stage theories’, or only danger?

#leadership #culture