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4 January 2017

Changing on the Job: Why does adult development matter to you?

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

Author’s note: This post is actually a draft of the preface to the Mainland Chinese version of Changing on the Job. My colleague and collaborator, Joey Chan, has asked me to say why I wrote the book in the first place and offer a glimpse of what draws others to the world of adult development. So here this is with a request for your stories, your questions, and your thoughts.


Many years ago I began writing that book that would become Changing on the Job because I felt like I had access to a secret that I wanted to tell other people about. These were ideas that changed my life and could change the lives of everyone who knew them—but that was too small a number because the ideas were locked up inside in graduate courses, difficult books, and arduous research protocols. I spent six years getting a doctorate, studying with Robert Kegan and his colleagues at Harvard, and trying to make sense of these ideas and their application. I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge of making those ideas accessible, bringing them out of the research project and graduate school classroom, and into an easier or more readable guide. It took me another six years to write the book you have in your hands, and then nearly that long for Joey Chan to translate it for you. But we hope you’ll agree that it was worth all that effort.

You see, this is far more than just a theory of adult development. It is a way for us to understand ourselves, to understand those around us, and to be in the world in a more helpful and compassionate way. Let me explain.

Learning this theory has helped me see into myself in a way I could not have imagined. More helpful for me than any other form of psychology, spirituality, or leadership theory, adult developmental theory has made me visible to myself—in my splendors and my limitations. It has helped me see the ways I have boxed myself into a corner and given me clues about how to find a way out. It has helped me make sense of the ways I can do great things when I am in my biggest self and get so reactive and useless when I am in my smallest self. In this way I have become more compassionate with myself and also more filled with choices about how I want my world to be, and how I want to be in that world. As I have grown and changed, the pressures of my world have grown and changed: creating a business, raising children, doing research, facing cancer. Adult development theory helps me find a way through the difficulty by accessing my biggest self and then stretching to grow just a little bigger than I was before.

And this isn’t just true for me. Readers have told me that they have found new possibility and new solace in these words. They tell me that they are able to ask new questions of themselves and see new possibilities. They tell me that they listen to themselves in new ways. One senior leader told me he had used some of the questions in the book to make sense of some feedback he had been given over the years and to open new sorts of conversations with his direct reports—to turn towards deeper understanding of the meaning that was underneath his own behavior—and the behavior of others.

The second thing adult development theory does for me is help me understand other people in new and more helpful ways. As I was studying the theory and doing research at Harvard, I discovered that listening to someone to understand her meaning making changed what she believed about the world. The act of simply being seen and heard shifted that person’s sense of possibilities. It also materially changed me, too. Reaching into the other person’s perspective made me more empathetic and less judgmental. It helped me like other people more—even love them more.

Readers of this book tell me stories about that, too. One reader told me that she and her sister had not spoken in years when she read my book. Reading about this theory made her wonder whether she had ever really listened to her sister’s perspective. She realized that she had been full of judgment and without much compassion or curiosity. The reader told me she wrote to her sister with openness and curiosity and got a long letter back. The sisters came back together in friendship and understanding—a move that was precipitated by the reading of a book about how different people make sense of the world in different ways.

The third reason I love adult developmental theory so much that I wrote a book about it is that it makes me better at supporting other people in my coaching and my leadership development work, and it makes me a better leader of my small firm. By understanding how people grow and change, I can help create the conditions for their development. By understanding what calls out our bigger and our smaller selves, I can try to create an organizational context and structures that bring out the bigness in my colleagues—and allow and forgive those times when they are not able to bring their biggest selves.

Readers tell me they have used the ideas in this book to design leadership programs, to create coaching interventions, and to build organizational practices (performance review systems, meeting protocols, etc.) that have enriched their lives and their organizations. One team bought a copy of this book for each person who joined the team and practiced the deep listening techniques at their off-sites to deepen their skills, their understanding of one another, and their capacity to solve tough problems together.

I am excited to see what happens as these ideas open to a new set of people in a new language. I care deeply about our individual and collective differences, and so I know that this is not a theory that will suit each person in the same way. Adult development theories have their seeds in Western soil, and they grow in Western shapes. They are watered and fed from traditions more individualistic than their Eastern counterparts. I do not yet know how those seeds will take root on the other side of the world, with different social and cultural weather patterns. And yet those I’ve worked with from across the East have found powerful resonance in these ideas. These readers, like their Western counterparts, have found solace and hope in a theory about how we change over time.

This translation is an invitation to begin to create a developmental theory that can be helpful in China, borrowing and adapting what is useful in this theory, tossing aside what is not helpful, and creating new pieces that are custom built to your history, your future. I have never engaged in any enterprise as co-constructed as this book, now written in characters I can’t read. You have my ideas and words, transformed as much as translated by Joey’s deep understanding and capacity for boundary spanning across language, culture, theory and practice. And then you have the sense you make of these words as a reader, the ways they resonate for you or fall flat, and the way you build these ideas anew in your context. I am grateful to you for joining us on this journey, and I look forward to the next chapter we all write together.

Author’s note: Me again. Ok, I have included some of my thinking and my stories, but what’s your thinking? What are your stories? What do you wish I had talked about here that I didn’t? Comment below or email me, and let me know whether I can use your name/ organization in my writing.

One thought on “Changing on the Job: Why does adult development matter to you?”

  1. Anne Sautelle says:

    Hi Jennifer, Adult development theory, and the spacious approach you have developed resonates deeply with me – it is now so much a part of my ‘DNA’ as a person and a Growth Edge coach that I find it difficult to separate out and articulate the specifics of how hugely this knowledge impacts my life and my work.

    I agree – Adult development theory has given me a way to know myself better and a gentle and compassionate way to attempt to more deeply understand others. At its best, it is the seeking to understand that is the gift – caring enough to try to know another without judgement.

    In my experience, Adult Development theory and the Growth edge approach offers the client a new, different and more objective perspective on their experience whether it be understanding why it is so hard for her or another to take a stand on an issue, say ‘no’ to a superior, speak up at a meeting, decide between two conflicting demands, have that difficult conversation or understand that ‘problematic’ colleague. New perspectives allow openings for shifts in the system and different responses to emerge.

    Personally, I am finding Adult development theory helpful as I navigate the deep, complex, emotional, conflicting and exhausting challenge of honouring my very elderly and frail parents’ wish to remain in their own home. Supporting my parents and my sister (the primary carer) with compassion, negotiating and communicating with aged-care providers, support workers, medical staff and other family members to keep our parents safe, well-nourished and as independent and empowered as possible has at various times revealed the full range of my developmental capacities.

    Adult development theory has enabled me to notice, reflect and fathom the experience, giving me options and perspectives on the possible motivations, responses and actions of myself and others e.g. the need of the young General Practitioner to provide all the answers quickly and simply, the need of the aged care supervisor to be seen as highly competent and everyone’s friend, the need of the carers to be liked and to efficiently complete their tasks , the need for my sister to take it all on at great personal cost and above all my need to be the ‘good and dutiful daughter’.

    At my worst I am tugged back into the eddy of my reactive, insecure self; however at my best I notice the possibilities in the moment and am less judgemental, less frustrated, kinder, and more understanding of myself, others and the system itself, finding more creative and compassionate ways to be and to act.

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