An Introduction to Robert Kegan


August 24, 1946-Present

Robert Kegan is a psychologist who teaches, researches, writes, and consults about adult development, adult learning, and professional development. His work explores the possibility and necessity of ongoing psychological transformation in adulthood; the fit between adult capacities and the hidden demands of modern life; and the evolution of consciousness in adulthood and its implications for supporting adult learning, professional development, and adult education. (Harvard Directory, 2011)

Many people find Kegan's writing style difficult. Here is an example: "What is an object? People frequently find the term "object relations" strange or distasteful. What we are most of all speaking about, they say, is other human beings, and the notion of persons as things seems unfortunate. And yet there is a meaning to the word "object" that must not be lost and that no other word conveys. We can start by looking for this in its very etymology. The root (ject) speaks first of all to a motion, an activity rather than a thing-more particularly, to throwing. Taken with the prefix, the word suggests the motion or consequence of "thrown from" or "thrown away from." "Object" speaks to that which some motion has made separate or distinct from, or to the motion itself." "Object relations," by this line of reasoning, might be expected to have to do with our relations to that which has been thrown from us, or the experience of this throwing itself. Now I know this preliminary definition sounds peculiar, but it has more in its favor than a Latin pedigree: it is the underlying conception of object relations to be found in new-Piagetian theory." (Kegan, 1982, pg. 76)
Kegan does make some profound connections with Piaget and Kohlburg's theories of development as he explains the way they function. Being a true theorist, Kegan ties these development stages into the classroom as he uses epitomes, archetypes and examples from his own teaching experience to demonstrate his thinking. Below are two videos explaining Kegan's theories. The first "In English Please" attempts to address the complexity of Kegan's thinking.

Kagen, R., (1982). The Evolving Self; Problem and process in human development. Harvard University Press., Cambrige, Mass.

Who is Robert Kegan?

Kegan is considered a postformal thinker. As a postformal theorist he considers that “knowledge is actively constructed from interaction with one’s world.’ (Kasworm, p. 36)
“Development is generally associated with individuals’ movement in a positive direction. Meaning ‘to unfold, to grow into latent potential,’ development is more encompassing than maturation. Development includes sociocultural expectations and interactions as well as movement toward greater complexity and self-organization (Kegan, 1994, Tennant & Pogsen, 1995, In Kasworm, 2010 p. 49)
Constructive-Developmental Models include Perry, 1998, Belenky et al, 1986, and Kegan, 1994. Kegan’s, (1994) “orders of consciousness” model is presented Kasworm et al. 2010, as a meta-model” that incorporates essential elements of the other two. All three models propose that adult development moves toward increasingly complex ways of making meaning, though this does not always occur. (Kasworm, p. 55)

Kegan's Stages of Development in a simple format


Source: Adapted from Robert Kegan, In Over Our Heads (Harvard University Press, 1994), pp. 314-15.


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Links to videos explaining Kegan's theories

Videos that explain Kegan

Kegan, Torbert and Kohlberg's stages outlined




1) Kegan's Orders of Consciousness

What is object?
Enduring needs and dispositions
Interpersonal relationships
The autonomous self

What is subject?
Interpersonal relationships
The autonomous self
The transforming self

2) Torbert's Stages

Action logic
Norms rule needs
Craft logic rules norms
System effectiveness rules craft logic
Relativism rules single system
Most valuable principles rule relativism
Deep processes and intersystemic evolution rule principles

Main focus
Socially expected behavior, approval
Expertise, procedure, and efficiency
Delivery of results, effectiveness, success within system
Self in relationship to system; interaction with system
Linking theory and principles with practice, dynamic systems interactions
Interplay of awareness, thought, action, and effects; transforming self and others

3) Kohlberg's Stages of Cognitive Moral Development
Mutual expectations
Law and order
Social contracts
Universal principles

Motives for moral action
Anticipation of disapproval from others
Anticipation of failure of duty
Concern to maintain self-respect and respect of the community
Concern about self-condemnation for violating one's own principles

Definition of “right”
Being concerned about other people and their feelings; Being motivated to follow rules and expectations
Upholding social order and maintaining the welfare of the society or group
Upholding the basic rights, values, and legal contracts of society
Guidance by universal ethical principles that all humanity should follow

Source: Table 1, McCauley, 2006.

How does Kegan's development theory work?

Magolda, B.

Resources and Annotations

Kasworm, C., Rose, A., Ross-Gordon, J. (2010) Handbook of Adult and continuing Education. Sage. Los Angeles, CA.
Kagen, R., (1982). The Evolving Self; Problem and process in human development. Harvard University Press., Cambrige, Mass.
  • Annotation: This book, dedicated to Jean Piaget, examines the evolution of moral meaning making and the growth of the self through life's emergencies as divined by Robert Kegan. It delineates the growth, from inside the individual, which as progresses, includes the loss of an earlier stage as one gains a later state. The order is; Incorporative, impulsive, imperial, interpersonal and institutional selves and in culmination the individual achieves the interindividual self. Through examples taken from Kegan's middle school classrooms, his theory is exemplified along with other developmental theories, notably Piaget and Kohlberg.
Kagen, R., (1994). In Over Out Heads; The mental demands of modern life. Harvard University Press., Cambrige, Mass.
  • Annotation: Creating a bridge between adolescents and the parenting of adolescents, Kegan examines individual development through the lense of his developmental theories. Kegan's years of experience as a middle school teacher are the basis for his connections to his theory. I found some of the connections rather disconnected from adult eduation. Middle school aged students are certainly not adults.
Kegan. R., (2000). Interview.
  • Annotation: A general overview of Kagen's theoretical structure in addition to an indepth interview exploring the underlying thinking that is foundational to Kagen's developmental stages. This is a good place to begin understanding the developmental stages as outlined by Robert Kegan.
Kegan, R. & Lahey, L. (2001). How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.
  • Annotation: In a collaborative effort this text brings the case examples that help instructors work toward personal growth and change. A main focus in on helping teachers step back from a specific vantage point, theory of the conflict and personal theories about other persons. Lahey the co-author and a research director, has grounded Kegan's theory which makes it more accessible and usable by educational practitioners.
Harvard Directory. (2011). Retrieved from:
McCauley, C., Drath, W., Palus, C., O'Connor, P., Baker, B. The use of constructive-developmental theory to advance the understanding of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly Volume 17 issue 6, December 2006.
  • Annotation: This article discusses adult development and how the constructive-development theory is incorporated into todays problems of how mangers deal with their employees.
Magolda, B diagram of the developmental helix. · DOC

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