Applying Stages of Adult Developmental Thinking to Virtual Teams

by Danny Morris

We currently live in a world of remote, virtual teams enforced by the corona crisis. The world beyond the pandemic is uncertain but it’s likely that what it means to be part of a team will continue evolving. My colleague Elaine Herdman-Barker got me thinking about this when she asked:

“Are we week-on-week, gathering together differently as we live through the Covid pandemic? Individuals are reporting waking up to new realisations about themselves; how they lead, what they take for granted. Does such freshness extend to how we fit together in teams? Are we open to different ways of being with others?”

How we meet together (as a whole team or in parts) is very significantly shaped by our filters of the world in general, as well as how we are experiencing each meeting in the moment. Improving our understanding of these filters helps us manage ourselves more effectively, as well as helping us get the best out of our team colleagues.

Vertical development explores how a person’s framework of thinking interprets and shapes their response to events, and even their current approach to life. A crucial discovery of vertical development is that our frameworks of thinking aren’t static but actually develop and change over time. Research tells us that people actually grow through predictable stages of developmental thinking – known as “action-logics” – each of which is more expansive and sophisticated than the one before.

So, what might be going on vertically for members of teams who are functioning virtually during this period and beyond? Below are a few inquiries to explore. It’s not an exhaustive list and I invite vertical specialists to suggest more. If you are new to vertical then you might find the next few bullet-points to be helpful context, otherwise skip to the Experiments.

Quick Context for Vertical

  • It’s well known that children go through stages of thought development. Adults do too. Our colleague Prof Bill Torbert famously applied developmental stages (called action-logics) to leadership in his Harvard Business Review article with David Rourke. Bill’s focus for leadership is working with seven action-logics: Opportunist, Diplomat, Expert, Achiever, Redefining, Transforming and Alchemical.
  • As we transition from one action-logic to the next, we gain an increasingly independent sense of self whilst at the same time growing in social maturity and being better able to manage the systemic factors affecting us, our leadership challenges, and the relationships in our lives.
  • Each stage of our development serves as a foundation for the next. We each have a current prevalent action-logic, but you can’t suddenly turn off previous ones. They act alongside, and sometimes compete with, the powerful possibilities of a new action-logic. At multiple times throughout our day, rather like shifting gears in a car, we sub-consciously move through the different action-logics we have mastered.
  • Our prevalent action-logic is not always the best one to be operating out of. Context is king. And, rather like coming to a meeting in the wrong dress-code, often we can show-up in a meeting with a less adequate action-logic.
  • Crucially for teams – when we meet with others we are all simultaneously processing multiple action-logics. Meeting virtually gives another layer of complexity. Making sense of all this – or seeking to – gives us better choice for effective action.

Experiments to Explore


Few leaders profile Opportunist as a prevalent stage but it shows up in all of us. It’s the part of us that seeks immediate gratification and self-interest.

Lean-in to any comfort-seeking impulses or self-preoccupation that might be surfacing during this crisis. By simply recognising these thoughts and giving them attention, you’ll be moving your thinking into more useful action-logics. Perhaps explore together with team-mates what you have been noticing about your cravings and impulses, for example around food, alcohol and exercise.   

Watch out for slipping into gossiping or grumbling about colleagues as this can be another form of unhelpful self-gratification. Also watch out for yourself or others not opening up in meetings – is this a way to exert some control by keeping others in the dark or simply rushing to end the meeting?


Diplomat is a useful action-logic for meeting with team colleagues, especially during the crisis. It’s our thinking framework that wants to create commonality with others and often does this by demonstrating care, sympathy and good feeling.

Lean-in to conversations that will increase connection together. People are currently feeling isolated or disconnected from others so be careful not to rush into business agenda. Allow for some joking around or simply an opportunity to chat together without worrying if it seems superficial.

Watch out for suppressing your voice and views, or whether someone else might be with theirs. Video/audio meetings are imperfect platforms and conversation might be inhibited. Call out individuals, asking what they think and return to them to probe further.


Expert is our thinking framework that focuses on mastery across fields of expertise. Much self-identity stems from this. Lean-in to this frame by regularly recognising the value each person brings.

Watch out for when team-mates say things with great certainty, particularly about the future (“Really? Let’s also plan for other possibilities”). Also, try and steer conversations and activities that increase working together. Experts at work can be like watching a silent disco – everyone’s dancing and often enjoying being together – but are they moving to the same beat?


At this action-logic we shift from an independent expertise mindset to one of goal-orientation and conscientious team-working.

Lean-in to what can be learnt from this season and from how the team is currently meeting. What can be improved? How can activities and intentions be reprioritised and ordered?

Watch out for being discombobulated by this enforced period of constraints. When we operate out of this stage we give great attention to delivery and results – how are you finding ways to not become overly attached to achievement, acquisition and attainment? Watch out for yourself or colleagues overworking.


At Redefining our thinking becomes more expansive. We are advocating our own views less and we are giving more attention to the systemic and how it pulls our strings and those of our teams.

Lean-in to drawing out the different perspectives across the team. Home working has forced many of us to adapt – but what else can change? What habits/activities could be stopped and what might begin? Are your KPIs still the right thing to be measuring? When you scenario-plan, what might you try doing to avoid “group-speak?”

Watch out for getting yourself or others lost in reflection or questions. Redefining’s challenging inquiries can sometimes be like unlocking a stubborn door only to find on the other side there’s a labyrinth of passageways going who knows where. When is it helpful to release questions and when is it important to rein them in?


This thinking frame is not commonly found but our data sets of profiled leaders (from the Global Leadership Profile) reveal that numbers are steadily increasing. Transforming retains the deep inquiry of Redefining but adds more nuanced opinion, insights and constructive adventure.

Lean-in to the tensions that may be within the team. Transforming won’t just surface these to fix a problem (i.e. it’s not simply interested in conflict-resolution) it also sees potential for these tensions to generate something new. Tensions of course are more than conflicts – often they are paradoxes. What are the opportunities within the challenges you face together?

Watch out for over-extending yourselves. Transforming often struggles to recognise its limitations. It’s long been able to embrace the strengths of others as well as recognising its own weaknesses… but what’s possible? What is there capacity for?


This thinking frame is rare but it’s important to attend to team-colleagues who can think in this way. It’s also possible for teams to have alchemical moments. Back to Elaine: “Alchemical moments are revolutions of being-in-action.” Part of its value to teams is that it allows for strategic and operational to function together in the moment.

Lean-in to noticing the team’s Alchemical moments.

Watch out for thinking you are the only person who has these integrated Alchemical moments.

Danny leads GLA’s coaching team and coaches leaders and teams around the world. He is co-chair of the London Leadership Club and is Chair of anti-slavery not-for-profit, Unseen.

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