Kegan stage 4 as a cope

I claim that Kegan stage 4, for some people at least, is a cope—or starts as a cope. Furthermore, I think the cope-centric view of Kegan stages is interesting and useful. Here goes.

How is it a cope?

At stage 3, you deal with everything that comes up. If somebody is upset around you and you don't do anything—something is wrong.

Maybe you will feel guilty—"I should have done something". Maybe you will feel angry—"how dare they spoil my mood". Doesn't matter. What matters is that you can't simply disregard any demands put on you—they bruise you one way or the other.

Some people can handle this, and can stay at this stage forever. Some people can't handle this, and they start creating rules.

Every Kegan stage 4 rule is designed to remove a piece of the burden:

  • It can be empathy burden: "Such and such things are not my problem".
  • It can be decision burden: "You have to do such and such things in this situation".
  • Probably other burdens as well.

The boss story

Example: you're the boss. Your subordinate is having a depression spell, and their productivity is down.

If you are at Kegan stage 3, you have to get emotionally involved somehow. Maybe you'll shout at them—but let's say you're not that kind of person. You might try being more friendly with them, giving them easier tasks, etc—but let's say this doesn't help. What do you do?

You're trapped now. You have to be their friend, more than ever, but also still their boss. The situation is pulling you in different directions. What do you do?

You might start covering up for them. You might start doing some of their tasks by yourself. You might do some sort of intervention, or try any other non-shouty-but-still-coercive ways to solve their depression spell.

This is bad for you, because perhaps you already have enough on your plate. You don't have the energy for another relationship in your life, and one with complications to boot.

At some point later, you quit the job for unrelated reasons. Phew. But you remember how bad it felt to have an unwanted problematic relationship on your hands, and from a distance it is more obvious that it was unwanted. You could not have admitted it before, but you can now.

So you resolve: "I will not get into this kind of situation again". And you start thinking about a rule that could have saved you in this situation. Kegan stage 4 begins for you here, at least for workplace situations. Your trailing edge of development might still be somewhere else, but your leading edge of development is Kegan stage 4.

You might come up with a lot of different rules, as long as they save you from a) having to decide and b) having to get involved. I will give two examples. There are more examples possible. These examples can be mixed and matched.

    • Every problem has to be solved using the standard "normal modern worksplace" tools.
    • If somebody is not productive, you suggest it's good for them to take a vacation. Using up their vacation days, of course.
    • If this is not enough, they can take a medical leave. Now they have to find a medical professional who can diagnose them with depression. Or something. Maybe you will even help them find such a professional.
    • And if nothing else works, they have to leave the job, because of course this makes sense, "you are a professional and you must understand".
    • Your job as the team lead is to be a shield between the team and the upper management.
    • If somebody can't work, they take a break, and everyone else on the team has to work harder.
    • If somebody's not willing to work harder, they are not a team player (and might face consequences).
    • Perhaps the team lead will start working longer hours—note that this is not an option anymore, but an obligation to preserve the "shield between the team and the upper management" invariant. You have to work more but at least you don't have to get involved emotionally or make any decisions.

Note how these only work well if everyone else is willing to play by the rules. Otherwise you have still managed to escape emotional responsibility, but you will have to fight anyway, and fighting is tiresome. Kegan 4 people and Kegan 3 people don't play well together.

My own stories

A friend asked me recently:

— It can be any rule or set of rules that let you choose between competing demands
— Do you have any, off the top of your head?

So here are two example rules I found at the top of my head. 

I didn't like my parents much when I was growing up—but my mom in particular demanded that I like her. So, after I ran off, I decided that it was an ironclad rule that any relationships you didn't choose could be completely ignored. Literally, somebody could be absolutely wonderful to you, but that still entitled them to nothing if you didn't actually ask them to be wonderful to you.

I had also decided that the progress of humanity was the most important thing, and everything else could be dismissed as long as you could connect it to progress. Example: social justice? Well, those people don't care about progress, they care about justice, they would probably take a just world over a fast-moving world any day, so they can be ignored and I don't have to get emotionally involved with anything they say. Woohoo. This was a powerful weapon.

I think it was partly a reaction to my depressed ex-girlfriend once saying that she would choose wireheading over me. I got so scared and upset about it that I had to convince her that wireheading was not fine, and I did it via the "progress" route. Probably. And then it stuck with me, because it was such a good weapon—it could be used against anything at all.

What is happening?

What I described above is not stage 4. It is a butchered transition from stage 3 to stage 4:

  1. It is incomplete—I use rules in a few places, and still stick to "how do I deal with the social demands placed on me" everywhere else.
  2. Furthermore, stage 4 is not only about using rules as a cope, but also observing that following rules can work better than following your social instincts. I haven't done that nearly enough.

The second bit is particularly important. A well-adjusted stage 4 can work very well.—if you have done enough things in your life, you will probably come up with useful rules, not merely rules that let you cope with social demands. And if you have found enough other stage 4 people around you, it will be easier to cope with social demands, because there will be fewer of them. You'll be getting "do X", but no longer "do X or I will hate you".

I don't think stages are actually stages. I think they are skills, preferences, and accumulated experience:

  • On the road to stage 4 you acquire a skill to shut/numb emotions down when you have a particular rule in play.
  • On the road to stage 4 you acquire a preference to create rules for every situation you encounter.
  • On the road to stage 4 you acquire a set of good rules to use in work situations, relationships, parenting, etc.

And my guess is—if your life hasn't been very diverse, if you haven't had enough practice living, you won't end up in a good place. You won't have a set of good rules. Your skill to apply rules will be underdeveloped. You will end up in a butchered state, like I ended up in.

After stage 4—you will find that you don't need to create rules for every situation you encounter, and you will discover the value of experimenting. But this will be later.