Thursday, December 13, 2007

Clare Graves

Clare Graves was a psychologist at Union College in Schenectady, New York, near where I went to school. I read an article in Cavalier magazine in the mid-sixties that described Graves’ work as “The Theory that Explains Everything.” A little checking suggests that it was reprinted from the Canadian publication, Maclean’s magazine.

At RPI, I looked up the Harvard Business Review paper that the popular article was based on. The RPI library wasn’t entirely lame.

My friend Ben Sano is from the Albany/Troy/ Schenectady area, and he’d heard of Graves from a local newspaper article about him, and how the HBR paper came to be published. Apparently, Graves was once talking to his plumber, who’d asked him what he did for a living. After some talk, the plumber got excited and wrote to the Harvard Business Review, raving about Graves. How it was that a plumber had pull with the Harvard Business Review remains a mystery.

In any case, one afternoon, Ben and I went over to Union College and met with Graves. This isn’t like just showing up on someone’s doorstep; I’m pretty sure we called in advance, and besides, university professors are used to this sort of thing. Besides, I probably told him I was a writer for some RPI publication or another. I used that gimmick a lot.

Before I say anything about Graves’ work, I’ll mention that what I remember of it is not the same as what you’ll find if you do a web search. We spoke with Graves in the early 1970s, and he died in the mid-80s. More to the point, he worked on his theories with some students, and they’ve continued on their various ways with the material, and it looks substantially different now. Now it’s called “Spiral Dynamics” or some such, and it has a strong Human Potential Movement/New Age feel to it. It’s also become very complicated and full of jargon. So I’m just going to report the original core material and you can make of it what you will.

Graves, like every other non-behaviorist psychologist of his generation was profoundly influenced by A. H. Maslow and Maslow’s “needs hierarchy.” Also, Maslow had that interesting idea of trying to study healthy psychology rather than pathological case studies.

Maslow’s hierarchy went as follows, with each need being met before the individual moves down the list (or up the pyramid, since that’s how it’s often presented):
  • Physiological (biological needs)
  • Safety
  • Love/belonging
  • Status (esteem)
  • Actualization

Maslow then took “Actualization” or “Self-actualization” as being the highest psychological state and he presented descriptions of the psychology of those individuals (some of them historical figures, like Lincoln) that he believed to have met the criteria of being self-actualizing.

Graves was interested in the idea of the healthy or exemplar psychology, so he began having his student describe their ideas of a psychologically healthy or ideal person. He confessed surprise (and also surprise at having been surprised) that different people do not give the same description of psychological health. In fact, he found four major categorical groupings of the “ideal.”

Then Graves did something very clever. He divided his students into the four groups, based on their idea of ideal and gave them various tasks to perform, in groups, and studied the results. I’ll note in passing that Graves didn’t tell the students what he was doing, and he often secretly observed them as well, two practices that are considered not entirely ethical by today’s standards, though I doubt they did anyone any harm. So I’m going to describe the groups partly by the way they work together.

Group 3) Rule oriented. This group performs very well, provided there are very clear rules given at the outset for how to perform their tasks. Their ideal person is often described in terms like “law-abiding” or, in a great number of cases, religious stricture, indicating belief in the Bible, following the Ten Commandments and so forth.

Group 4) Competitive. Given a task, this sort of group will first have a big fight about who is to be the leader. Once that dispute has been settled, the leader sets the pace and everyone works well together. The ideal person is a “winner” and a hierarchy is always indicated as being in place. Group 4 type people are often found in the military, as officers. (Group 3 people would be enlisted men).

Group 5) Consensus. Group 5 people seem to be able to do a task without a leader, provided they can achieve consensus on how the task should be done. Ideal descriptors come out as “team player” (though there is some overlap there with 4s), “doesn’t make waves,” etc. Places group success ahead of individual success.

Group 6) Collaborative. Graves indicated that he didn’t get many 6s in his classes, but he saw plenty of them in the professions. That, in fact, was one of the markers, “Professional in behavior.” When confronted with a task, a group of 6s would quickly arrange themselves into a structure for performing the task, but as soon as the task switched, the structure would also change. Graves compared it to a string quartet, always changing roles depending upon the piece that was being played.

You’ll notice that I started the list with number 3. That’s because Graves considered the groups to be a development hierarchy (after Maslow) and added the levels 1 and 2 below three. Level 1 was someone entirely consumed with basic physical needs, like an infant, while level 2 consisted of people who behaved like young children before socialization, acting out, unable to consider the consequences of their actions, and who were primarily managed by force. Part of what Graves was doing here was dividing Maslow’s groupings further, such that “safety” (and immediate need) was separated from “security” (a longer term need).

Graves was, at least when we spoke to him, uncertain as to the extent to which his groupings really were developmental stages, and to what extent they were more characteristic of particular individuals. In other words, does everyone pass through all earlier stages before arriving at who they are now? I don’t know if Graves ever decided; I know that I haven’t.

Graves also postulated another level past 6, Level 7, but he confessed to being unable to describe it very well. For that matter, the few subjects that he thought might be 7s couldn’t describe their idea of psychological health or the ideal personality very well either. It tended to get all mystical. I suspect this has a great deal to do with how “woo woo” Graves’ students and later work became.

There is also, of course, the problem that, as Graves put it, “As soon as you devise a hierarchy, every level 4 is going to claim to be a 7.” To reference an earlier essay, every Smartest Guy in the Room is a 4.

There are other things that can be noted about Graves’ levels. For one thing, active and passive personality types seem to alternate, and each pair tends to form some stable constructs. As I’ve already noted, an army can be looked on as a bunch of 3s following a bunch of 4s. The same thing can be said about almost any authoritarian organization, and it’s worth thinking about politics in Gravesian terms for that reason. Each level presumably has its own characteristic pathology as well.

Do I believe it? Let’s just say that I’ve found this grouping theory to be a useful model of looking at the world at times, at least as useful as Jungian personality typing (upon which the Meyers-Briggs tests are built). Last year, I worked on a management consulting project where the project team could best be described as primarily consisting of 6s, for example, whereas the organization that we’re dealing with is most 5s, but the upper management seems to be mostly 4s. This, as you might expect causes problems, but then again, what doesn’t? In any case, intellectualization is a useful way to diminish anxiety, and I’m very good at intellectualization at least when the situation demands it.


Neri bar-On said...

Thank you for that post.

Neri Bar-On

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