How Leaders can Cultivate Development in Others

Personal growth and development is hard and painful. It can be scary. We often know where we need to improve and even how to do it, but we still face resistance to getting started.

Developmental psychology acknowledges that the evolution of the self can be painful and distressing because it involves leaving behind, or losing, parts of oneself [i]. In a childhood example, the development of a sense of guilt or conscience entails a loss of innocence and the burden of responsibility for one’s actions. Those overcoming advantage blindness in an effort to create a more inclusive culture face a similar sense of guilt and shame for their unwitting role in perpetuating systemic injustices.

For an employee, accepting a promotion might bring about the loss of important relationships with peers. For an organization facing culture change, those who identify with the dominant culture might fear irrelevance or losing their sense of belonging.

How can leaders make it safe?

Research has demonstrated that the two main requirements for developmental movement are challenge and support; in other words, a combination of high standards and psychological safety [ii], [iii].

To shed more light on these two criteria, I’m going to borrow from Kegan and Lahey’s model of the holding environment. They stipulate three general roles for leaders, parents, and teachers: holding on, letting go, and sticking around [iv]. If you are familiar with social work researcher Brené Brown’s 2018 book Dare to Lead, you will recognize the overlap with what she calls a “safe container[v].

Holding On

Holding on means an unconditional acceptance of the individual and an appreciation of who she now is. It is echoed in the empathy skills listed in Dare to Lead: see the world as others see it; be nonjudgmental; understand others’ feelings and communicate that understanding; and be mindful. When people feel valued for who they are, they are more likely to try new things and less likely to become defensive about new ways of thinking.

Letting Go

At the appropriate time, the holding environment needs to acknowledge a person’s readiness to grow and accept new challenges. In the parent-child relationship, this would look like encouraging children to try new things or engaging in increasingly mature conversations with the adolescent. This behaviour is in contrast to overholding which, in the workplace, would be keeping an employee in the same position for too long, thereby prioritizing perfection (being reliable and dependable) over personal growth.

In terms of building healthy cultures in which people can thrive, overholding might look like not holding leaders accountable for the impacts of their actions on marginalized groups. When people are promoted without having their paradigms of privilege challenged, they will eventually reach a level where they are ill prepared to face cultural change. We can all think of examples of senior people unable to support those below them because they are blind to the advantages they, but not others, benefit from.

Letting go recognizes that people eventually grow beyond the need to rely on the environment for the type of support they might have required when newly moving into the position. Although it is a nudge to move on, it can also serve as a supportive cue that one is trusted and respected enough to be given increased responsibility.

Sticking Around

As someone moves forward, they will experience shifts in their self-image. This transition can be unsettling and uncertain: a promotion at work often provokes fears about new social dynamics, for example. Pushing away from the thought patterns and relationships on which their identity was based, people wonder, “Do I lose you, or do I form a new relationship with you, one that recognizes the bigger person I have become and accords me a greater sphere of influence?” [vi]

A follower who has taken on a new role is facing the limitations of an old way of thinking or acting, and they need to feel accepted in their struggle. Leaders from an older generation need to know that they are capable of living out skills and values that were not part of their socialization a few decades ago.

The optimal holding environment reassures the individual that the acceptance and support they experience at the current level will still be there as they mature and expand their identity. Sticking around is the environment’s simultaneous transition to a new kind of holding on – to a person who is intrinsically the same but has taken on a new mantle or paradigm. Leaders can encourage a developing person to ask for the type of support he needs and coordinate with those who can provide it.

Creating a Culture of Continuous Development

Creating a safe holding environment in an organization can have profound effects. Arguably, it is more powerful than any other change effort. When leaders cultivate the conditions for constant evolution, they unleash the potential for boundless new growth.


[i] Kegan, R. (1980). Making meaning: The constructive-developmental approach to persons and practice. The Personnel and Guidance Journal, 58(5), 373-380. doi:10.1002/j.2164-4918.1980.tb00416.x

[ii] Kegan, R. & Lahey, L. L. (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work: Seven languages for transformation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[iii] Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

[iv] Kegan, R. & Lahey, L. L. (2016). An Everyone Culture: Becoming a deliberately developmental organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

[v] Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead. New York: Random House.

[vi] Kegan, R. & Lahey, L. L. (2016). An Everyone Culture: Becoming a deliberately developmental organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

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