Are You Limiting Your Growth and That of Others?

Subject Object Theory

Kegan vs Von Forester

Yesterday, I re-read Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change and thought I would take a time-out from my current study of the process philosophy of Heraclitus, Alfred North Whitehead, and Charles Peirce to share some meaning making that happened for me


Robert Kegan’s Stage Development Theory

In his book In Over our Heads (1994), Kegan describes his theory of human development, which is based on his subject-object theory. The metaphor of a fish swimming in the water illustrates the concept that we are living “subjectively” in our situation. Only when the fish jumps out of the water can the fish realize it was immersed in the water all along. By being detached from the situation, the fish can look at the situation as an object. Kegan proposes 5 levels of consciousness that we can take as object—sort of like being in the lake, then in the air above the lake, then in the clouds above the lake, then in the stratosphere above the clouds, then in orbit around the earth. In Immunity to Change Kegan and Lahey argue that leaders need to develop ever higher levels of consciousness to be effective in a complex, ever-changing, increasingly connected world.

Von Forester et al’s 2nd Order Cybernetics

As I was reflecting on Kegan’s subject-object theory, I was reminded of Heinz Von-Forester’s 2nd-order cybernetics. There were more people involved in forming the concept of 2nd-order cybernetics than Von Forester alone, but I will use him as the label for the group. Cybernetics is the idea of a system with feedback. Von Forester extended that to form an epistemology (way of knowing) that includes the observer in the frame of what is observed.

Subject-Object vs 2nd Order

I thought it is interesting that Kegan and Von Forester et al. are coming from exactly opposite directions; Von Forester saying we have to recognize we are subjectively swimming in the water rather than observing from outside, and Kegan saying we have to jump out of the water to observe objectively; the commonality being that both are saying we need to pay attention to the lens and look at the lens, rather than through it. Of course, the different perspectives can be explained by Von Forester coming from the direction of the natural sciences as an electrical engineer and Kegan from the social sciences as a psychologist.

It’s also interesting how much overlap there is in so many theories. Many people come to the same conclusions, even though they start in different places, have completely different epistemologies, and may be completely unaware of each other’s theories. If Cartesian truths exist, perhaps those theories qualify.


Infinity MirrorIn discussing this with my systems theory professor, Dr. Fred Steier, he reiterated that an essential principle of 2nd-order cybernetics is the concept of recursion. That is, we see what we do because of the lens we are looking through, and the lens we see through is partially formed by the views we develop from our observations. It’s like looking into an infinity mirror.

That recursive component is why I conclude 2nd order cybernetics encompasses more—or, in Bradford Keeney’s (1983) terms, “is at a higher level of recursion”—than Kegan’s subject-object theory. But, the real distinction between the two is in Dr. Steier’s description, “We do this [look at how we are looking at something] (but without the solipsistic or narcissistic reduction of this) by participating, being part of (rather than apart from) our worlds.”

While Kegan likely fully appreciates subjectively swimming in the water, he argues that we cannot fully know the water and everything in it, until we take ourselves out of it. Perhaps another way to think about Kegan’s model is that every higher level of consciousness is a higher order of recursion. But, for whatever reason he doesn’t express it that way. He sees it more as having climbed to a higher place on the mountain. You can still see below, but now you can also see over trees you couldn’t at a lower level on the mountain.

This seems to get at one of my other professor’s criticism of Kegan’s theory—it privileges the higher level of development and, when taken to the extreme, borders on the narcissism Dr. Steier mentioned.

Therapeutic Epistemology

That’s why I like Keeney’s description so much. My reading of Keeney is that he basically says, “We’re all in this together, co-inventing our reality as we go. There is no right or wrong, nor higher or lower, just a recursive, emergent, co-becoming.”

That philosophy, or what Keeney calls, “cybernetic epistemology” fits the contextualist purposes of my change leadership theory much better than stage theories like Kegan’s—and is why I’m so excited about Keeney’s view that I call it the underlying “therapeutic epistemology” of my theory of change leadership. I use “therapeutic,” rather than “cybernetic,” “process,” or something else because there is a change leader helping someone change—it’s not a peer-to-peer relationship.

That said, I fully appreciate Kegan’s thesis that the world would be a better place if we help people develop higher orders of consciousness. We just need to keep our post-modern hats on tight if we are to pursue his recommendation. …which would bring us back to Keeney.

The One Big Thing

What is, to use Kegan and Lahey’s term, “the one big thing” to take away after sorting through all of this theory piled high and deep? There are too many to mention here. But the one I will highlight is that we greatly influence the world that we experience. Kegan and Lahey eloquently tell the story of how a CEO’s behavior was influencing the behavior of his staff. Only after the CEO changed his own behavior—that is, only after the CEO advanced his own development—was his staff able to grow their own capacities and exhibit the behaviors he desired.

Do you want your staff to “get better”? Then, as Kouzes and Posner say, “Model the way.”

…And with that, I’ll get back to studying process philosophy:  that the reality of our world is change, energy and experience, rather than the dualism of “dead” matter and “live” consciousness. Fodder for a future post!


Keeney, B. P.(1983) Aesthetics of change. New York: Guilford Press

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

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization. Harvard Business Press.

Von Foerster, H. (2003). Understanding understanding essays on cybernetics and cognition. New York: Springer. Retrieved from

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