An outsider’s perspective on Spiral Dynamics

A friend who I run with has often talked about how his thinking, and his actions have been influenced by a theory/concept called “Spiral Dynamics”. He talks about how he uses this to observe and categorize himself and people who he might, in order to better understand himself and them, and how he might interact with them, in both personal and professional situations.

In some ways one might initially be encouraged to see Spiral Dynamics as a religious/spiritual movement or a management theory. It is, in my view, neither. It might also come across as arrogant, or even radical. I could understand how these views arise (more on this below), but it doesn’t bother me if that would be how others see it – I see that it can have a positive effect in those who decide to learn about it and apply it responsibly.

Through its altruistic perspectives Spiral Dynamics seems to achieve a clear, methodical basis on which to understand human and social development. The benefits of this can be ‘enlightenment’ (satisfaction from greater knowledge/understanding of oneself and others) as well as, potentially, more effective interactions with other people.

Spiral Dynamics – the basics

The concept of Spiral Dynamics (link to Wikipedia definition) is rather straight-forward – there are eight “levels” organized into two tiers (the first six levels make up tier 1, and the remaining two levels make up tier 2); the eight levels have clear descriptions of defining characteristics, mindsets, beliefs, typical actions, etc.

The challenge comes in being honest with oneself, the accurate perception of one’s own and others’ characteristics which define their position in the spiral, and perhaps hardest of all, determining whether one could act differently when interacting with the person in order to have a more productive or successful outcome (depending on whatever you define as ‘success’), and considering how one might ‘progress’ through the levels:

1. Beige – the basic starting point of evolution, with focus on survival and basic human needs
2. Purple – core values are driven by spiritual beliefs
3. Red – competitive instincts resulting in “survival of the fittest”
4. Blue – teamwork, loyalty, and discipline in applying laws and regulations
5. Orange – recognition of opportunities
6. Green – focus on sharing and equality
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
7. Yellow – understanding that the world is chaotic and diverse
8. Turquoise – balance, achieved through integration and connectedness

The above is just a high level summary – the various sources of analysis and commentaries on Spiral Dynamics (see end of this post for some examples) go into the characteristics and traits of each level in more detail, with examples, and implications for how one acts.

It could be easy to misinterpret what these “levels” mean – for example, while the existence of the internet, making the world more connected, does not mean that all people have reached level 8 (turquoise); the level (or levels) that represent someone are rather driven by their core values. The levels effectively reflect increasing awareness, responsibility and balance regarding one’s self and one’s environment.

As I understand, none of the levels are necessarily meant to be ‘negative’ (although might lead to negative outcomes, such as war, in traits typical of levels 1-3), but they might however be relatively ‘weaker’ than others.

It would be easy for readers who show interest in Spiral Dynamics to exhibit over-confidence with regard to where they sit (which level/tier) – by considering the specific traits of each level, and the extent to which one identifies with those traits/beliefs, one can understand one’s personal values, and therefore highlight which levels one tends to exhibit most.

It is also this over-confidence that can lead to the arrogance that I referred to in the introduction – someone learning about, or teaching spiral dynamics might start to feel that that their enlightenment allows them to look down on others, creating some form of superiority belief, with almost with a ‘god-like’ perspective on others who they consider not yet to have reached their (perceived) stage of enlightenment. A valid risk, but one that exists with or without an understanding of Spiral Dynamics, and awareness of this risk helps one build a balanced perspective.

Implications of Spiral Dynamics and relevance in today’s global society

Individuals, communities and whole nations, and the whole of humanity can be considered to ‘move’ through the different levels – this doesn’t mean that one is ever ‘sitting’ in one level, but has ‘reached’ a certain level, at least in some traits or characteristics, but likely still exhibits certain other traits in lower levels. Forming an assessment of someone, or some group of people, therefore typically seems to mean identifying the level or levels that are most prominently or most commonly reflected.

For example, one might see increasing attention to ‘diversity and inclusiveness’ in the workplace to highlight ‘Green’ tendencies, while a firm’s profit maximizing goals might highlight it as having elements of ‘Red’, ‘Blue’ and ‘Orange’. Nevertheless, some individuals in those organizations might themselves have core values that are, for example, ‘Yellow’ or ‘Purple’.

Where individuals, or even entire cultures or nations are deemed to be at a certain (lower) level, it seems that interaction with those levels requires one to ‘act’ or ‘negotiate’ on that comparable lower level, since it is considered that we progress through the levels, 1-8, the ‘higher’ level person/party is typically the one to have the experience to determine how to adjust its approach to interact with the other party (assuming that the person/party in the lower level not yet having reached the enlightenment to comprehend fully the values/beliefs of the higher level).

Today’s ‘Western’ society (which I highlight because it is something that I am more familiar with) tends to exhibit many of the traits across all levels, but seems to be currently skewed around ‘Orange’ (eg corporate market competition), with elements of ‘Green’ (sharing and diversity).

The ‘jump’ to tier 2 (from Level 6, ‘green’, to level 7, ‘yellow’) seems to be considered to be ‘large’, because it means giving up some of the traits developed in the earlier phases. As such, I question whether such a jump is possible with regard to a world which is so clearly dominated by groups/individuals who are perhaps more orientated around ‘Red’, and where markets operate on the basis of competition. On the other hand, it is not necessary or even a requirement that everyone develop, but those that do might consider themselves to have greater enlightenment or awareness.

The ultimate enlightenment?

Extrapolating this concept, such as contemplating additional levels, or even tiers, beyond ‘turquoise’, one might consider an omnipotent, god-like ability (akin to something that Arthur C Clarke, or Orson Scott Card might imagine) to comprehend all nature, knowledge and karma!

Such additional levels might represent stages of enlightenment that humanity hasn’t yet fully understood (or maybe hasn’t yet evolved sufficiently, or developed the competency to understand) – is this perhaps the enlightenment that Arthur C Clarke wanted Dave Bowman to achieve in the latter parts of ‘2001: A space odyssey’?

This might then lead one to “‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None’ (German: ‘Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen‘)”, a philosophical novel by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, composed in four parts between 1883 and 1885 – per Wikipedia:

Nietzsche injects myriad ideas into the book, but there are a few recurring themes. The overman (Übermensch), a self-mastered individual who has achieved his full power, is an almost omnipresent idea in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Man as a race is merely a bridge between animals and the overman. Nietzsche also makes a point that the overman is not an end result for a person, but more the journey toward self-mastery.

Spiral Dynamics’ potential to create conflict

Spiral Dynamics is not intended to be used as a tool to benchmark people and consequently demonstrate ‘one-upmanship’. Nevertheless, this could arise among groups of people who are hell-bent on using Spiral Dynamics to compare themselves to others with an ulterior, selfish motive (such people are likely ‘Red’!).

People don’t always want to be judged (although it needs to be made clear that Spiral Dynamics does not compartmentalize people – they are neither categorized into one box, nor are people considered to represent a certain position, which does not change).

Therefore, the key to learning about, and employing Spiral Dynamics in one’s daily life is probably best done ‘quietly’ – ie, do not tell people that you consider them to be “Orange” or that they are “Green”, but have certain “Red” tendencies, or that you are ‘Blue’ and they are ‘Purple’ (since the hierarchy set in Spiral Dynamics does suggest that those in ‘higher’ levels are somehow more mentally or socially progressed).

What Spiral Dynamics is not

Spiral Dynamics is not intended as an over-riding answer to life the universe and everything. As such it is important to understand what Spiral Dynamics does tell you, and what it does not.

Spiral dynamics is focused on human values and core beliefs (both conscious and unconscious). It does not tell you whether people are intelligent or effective communicators, or have good inter-personal skills. Such topics are also, at least partly, dealt with by other theories/books (such as behavioral economics, IQ tests, ‘Emotional Intelligence’, ‘How to win friends and influence people’, ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’, etc.).

Spiral Dynamics also appears to have a rather more scientific, atheist perspective on religion (religious following is a characteristic displayed by people in the second – purple – level).

Conclusions

I was initially somewhat skeptical about Spiral Dynamics, especially since it had been developed by people who I had not previously heard of (perhaps demonstrating my reading circle/interests, rather than the lack of public awareness of the creators of Spiral Dynamics). Nevertheless, Spiral Dynamics appears to be a relatively easy concept to learn about, which allows one to better reflect on how people think, and to help one further develop one’s thoughts and understanding of one’s own core values. As such, I am intrigued to learn more.

Spiral Dynamics also seems to fit well with the recent trend towards media focused on self-development, management theory, increased personal awareness, and popular psychology (TED.com and authors who give TED Talks are usually great examples of these – Seth Godin, Dan Pink, Tony Robbins, Dan Ariely, Malcolm Gladwell, etc.).

The underlying concept of Spiral Dynamics is not necessarily new – rather it is a clean, and methodical approach to dealing with a complex topic (the development of humankind and how one can interpret that in oneself and others). Many people will already have thought about many of the points raised in Spiral Dynamics, but will, in my view, still find ‘Spiral Dynamics’ a helpful way to organize and further develop those thoughts.

As with any theory, one probably needs to be careful not to become too rigid around using Spiral Dynamics to assess friends, work colleagues, and other people that they meet – it should be considered rather as a ‘tool in the toolbox’ to help one be more aware of oneself and others (ideally internalized, such that it eventually just becomes part of the way that you think).

Where to learn more, to form your own views

My comments in this post barely scratch the surface of what Spiral Dynamics is about – for more information, I would suggest to read the article ‘The never ending upward quest’ by Jessica Roemischer, and the book ‘Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change‘ by  Don Beck and Christpher Cowan.

Readers may also be interested in my post ‘An outsider’s perspective on Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP)‘, written in September 2009, which is structured in a similar approach to this post.

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3 Responses

  1. […] An outsider's perspective on Spiral Dynamics « Matt Benson's Musings […]

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by 2009magicalyear, Tony RSS feeds. Tony RSS feeds said: An outsider’s perspective on Spiral Dynamics: A friend who I run with has often talked about how his thinking, and… http://bit.ly/bFoA4c […]

  3. The link below is to a great YouTube video from Jeremy Rifkin, titled ‘RSA Animate – The Empathic Civilisation’ (part of the RSA Animate series, with drawings by cognitivemedia.co.uk) – while it doesn’t mention Spiral Dynamics, one can easily see a lot of parallels in the thinking:

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