Are you the puppet or the puppeteer?

SOURCE: Flickr user Shivenis

SOURCE: Flickr user Shivenis

A reasonably long while ago, one of my master’s students (thanks Syrah Gunning!) was writing her thesis on professional development, and she discovered and shared a theory on human cognitive development that keeps coming back to haunt me. While the name of the theory sounds clinical and detached, the concepts of Constructive-Developmental Theory are rather compelling.

At the heart of the theory, developed by Harvard professor Robert Kegan, is the assumption that at all stages of development, we humans have a range of things (senses, emotions, relationships, and such) we are ‘subject to,’ and a range of things we can perceive and explore ‘as objects.’ Kegan’s developmental stages describe human minds that perceive more and more of their universe ‘as object,’ as elements that can be explored and engaged.

Says the handy summary linked above:

There are those aspects of experience which we can perceive, take responsibility for and problem-solve around.  These can be thought of as what we are able to hold as object.  For example, a small child may be aware of the brightness of the sun, the scratchiness of his clothes, and the pull of his mother’s hand.  Meanwhile, there are also aspects of experience which we are not aware of, which we cannot take responsibility for and can therefore not problem-solve around. These aspects of experience we can consider being subject to.  For example, when the child is angry, his expression of anger is transparent; when he experiences joy, he smiles.  He has no emotional filters.  He is developmentally incapable of seeing emotions as object and is therefore subject to them.

The reason this theory sticks with me is that it captures, quite well, my own experience of my development, and my experiences of others. But it also describes for me the various developmental stages of cultural managers. Some managers I meet clearly feel they are ‘subject to’ their organization’s structure and strategy, their work processes, their leadership style, their relationships to co-workers and superiors — they honestly can’t separate these things from their immediate experience. Others, however, see these very same elements ‘as objects’ for them to consider, take responsibility for, problem-solve around, and even change when the situation demands a different approach.

Over the past 20 years, I can clearly recall moments when I suddenly started seeing a whole new sphere ‘as object’ to consider and engage. I was pushed to these moments through frustration and confusion, or pulled to them by an author or teacher or colleague. I once thought, for example, that meaning in the performing arts was constructed on stage, and delivered to the audience (the audience being ‘subject to’ that transmission as recipients). Then the work of John Dewey and others compelled me to consider meaning as co-constructed by both the artist and the audience, which meant my metaphors for managing that arts experience had to change. Later, I began to consider a larger system of co-constructed meaning, including not only the artist and the audience, but the staff, the board, the donors, and the wider community. And then, an idea that organizations and expressions were really interconnected, like some massive expressive energy grid.

None of this is to claim that I’m right in those assumptions, or those frames. Just that it seems a useful pursuit to increase the elements in ourselves and our environments we can perceive ‘as objects,’ to take responsibility for them, explore them, and problem-solve around them. That won’t mean we can actually control our world, but at least we’ll have a shot at living in it with more elegance, adaptability, and empathy.


  1. says

    Excellent point, Andrew. It seems to me (as one who has put a variety of difficult situations — both professional and personal — behind over the years) that the key element is “take responsibility for them.” When people get stuck in the past, in blame or shame, it’s because they feel acted-upon rather than participants in the situation. Coincidentally, I’ve always called the process I go through “objectifying the situation,” identifying the elements I did or might have controlled, and taking responsibility for them. Victimhood is not an effective platform from which to launch any kind of a future, in the arts or in life.