Vertical development & leadership skills

What is vertical development?

In our view, learning involves two interrelated processes—the accumulation of knowledge and the organization of that knowledge into mental maps and the neural nets that support them. Over time, if we engage in activities that promote development, our mental maps become increasingly complex. More complex mental maps allow for more complex thinking. This increasing capacity to handle complexity is sometimes called vertical development.

Vertical development and leadership

As leaders move into more senior positions, the task demands of their role increase in complexity. They must juggle more (and more complex) perspectives, cope with more ambiguity, and make an increasing number of adaptive decisions. It's no surprise that more complex thinkers are more likely to rise into senior management roles.

For 15 years, we've been building learning tools that support vertical development by diagnosing leaders' current capabilities and making targeted learning recommendations. The first step in this process is measuring the developmental level of leaders' skills on the Lectical® Scale. The figure below shows how the performances of lower-level (n=1108) and senior managers (n=222) on the LDMA (our decision making assessment)are distributed on this scale. As you can see, the distribution of senior managers is higher on the Lectical Scale than the distribution of lower-level managers. In fact senior leaders, on average, are several years ahead of lower-level managers in their vertical development. This means they are considerably better at working with complexity.

management level by Lectical Level

Lectical Assessments are designed to advance vertical development—to help build the capacity of individuals and teams to meet the demands of an increasingly complex world. In the hands of competent coaches, mentors, and educators, Lectical Assessments double the rate of vertical development that typically occurs in effective leadership programs. This is possible because they support the natural learning cycle by providing learning suggestions that are "just right."

To learn more about the relation between vertical development and job complexity see the post: Task demands and capabilities.

To learn more about the way we think about learning and assessment, listen to this interview with Dr. Dawson: The ideal relationship between learning and assessment.

To learn more about the research with Lectical Assessments, visit our Validity and reliability page.

Source: 2014_0339_all_LDMA_scores.xlsx

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Mental development in organizations

Aside

Mental development involves the dynamic integration of thoughts and feelings through interactions with the social and physical environment. It takes place in “virtuous” cycles of learning, application, and reflection that are accompanied by natural learning emotions like eager anticipation, mild frustration, and satisfaction. When components of the cycle are missing or the natural learning emotions are replaced with negative emotions like dread, severe frustration, anger, or fear—virtuous cycles of learning are disrupted and mental growth stalls. An organization that wants to create a learning culture needs policies and programs that support virtuous cycles of learning.

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Task demands and capabilities (the complexity gap)

For decades, my colleagues and I have been working with and refining a developmental assessment system called the Lectical Assessment System (now also an electronic scoring system called CLAS). It can be used to score (a) the complexity level of people’s arguments and (b) the complexity level—“task demands”—of specific situations or roles. For example, we have analyzed the task demands of levels of work in large organizations and assessed the complexity level of employees’ thinking in several skill areas — including reflective judgment/critical thinking and leadership decision-making.

The figure on the left shows the relation between the task demands of 7 management levels and the complexity level scores received on an assessment of decision making skills taken by leaders occupying these positions. The task demands of most positions increase in a linear fashion, spanning levels 10–13 (a.k.a. 1000–1399).

After work level 2 (entry level management), the capabilities of leaders do not, for the most part, rise to these task demands.

This pattern is pervasive—we see it everywhere we look—and it reflects a hard truth. None of us is capable of meeting the task demands of the most complex situations in today's world. I've come to believe that in many situations our best hope for meeting these demands is to (1) recognize our human limitations, (2) work strategically on the development of our own skills and knowledge, (3) learn to work closely with others who represent a wide range of perspectives and areas of expertise, and (4) use the best tools available to scaffold our thinking.


We aren't alone. Others have observed and remarked upon this pattern:

Jaques, E. (1976). A general theory of bureaucracy. London: Heinemann Educational.

Habermas, J. (1975). Legitimation crisis (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bell, D. (1973) The coming of post-industrial society. New York: Basic Books

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