How to Use Spiral Dynamics for Psychological and Leadership Development

by Scott Jeffrey

Why do you humans have so much conflict with one another?

How can two intelligent beings be unable to see eye to eye?

What’s at the root of so much of our internal conflict and our frequent inflexibility to adopt different perspectives?

Spiral Dynamics addresses all of these questions and more.

If you’re interested in understanding human behavior, psychological development, cultural dynamics, leadership, and communication, jump in!

What is Spiral Dynamics?

Spiral dynamics is a psychological model that highlights stages of development specifically around values. This hierarchy of value structures consists of eight levels that individuals express in their psychological life.

These eight stages are developmental in that we grow through these stages. Society itself has evolved through these stage structures as well.

I know this may seem a bit abstract, but hang on for a minute as this model will become entirely practical once we start exploring the individual stages below.

The Origins of Spiral Dynamics

While Abraham Maslow was formulating the hierarchy of human needs, psychologist Clare W. Graves was examining what makes people different in their behaviors, values, and worldviews.

Graves’ over 20 years of research yielded what he called the levels of existence. Questioning thousands of participants in longitudinal studies, he found there are specific stages of development in human values.

Graves and Maslow were contemporaries. Graves initially sought to validate Maslow’s conclusions. Grave’s detailed research, however, revealed many psychological insights that went beyond Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

But Graves passed away in 1986—before he completed and published his work. This partly explains why his work is less well known than Maslow’s even though, in many ways, this research is richer and more instructive for understanding our psychology.

Grave’s research was picked up by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan who coined the term “spiral dynamics” and published their book by the same title in 1996.

Don Beck joined forces with American philosopher Ken Wilber who integrated spiral dynamics into his integral theory, helping to popularize Grave’s work.

The Eight Stages of Spiral Dynamics

The eight stages of spiral dynamics are each labeled with a different color. As you scan these stages, look at them as “expressions” within the human experience.

It’s important to note that a particular stage of development doesn’t define an individual. For example, it is incorrect to say, “I’m at Orange.”

Instead, the literature uses the term “center of gravity,” in that each of us has a center of gravity that’s predominantly in one stage of development. But we express other value structures as well. (This distinction will become more important when we discuss “Second Tier” below.)

spiral dynamics model

From the bottom up:

BEIGE: The Instinctive Self

Driven to survive. Beige is archaic, basic, automatic, and instinctive. It thinks and acts in a needs-driven, wish-fulfillment manner.

The primary theme of Beige is to “do what you must just to stay alive.”

Age: 0 – 18 months.

PURPLE: The Magical Self

Purple wants safety and security. It is tribalistic, magical, and mystical. Looks to gods and higher powers with rituals for protection.

The underlying theme of Purple is to “keep the spirits happy and the tribe’s nest warm and safe.”

Age: 1 – 3 years.

RED: The Impulsive Self

Red drives for power, glory, rage, and revenge. It is egocentric, exploitative, impulsive, and rebellious. The Red value structure believes it can take what it wants by aligning with power.

The basic theme of Red is “be what you are and do what you want, regardless.”

Age: 3 – 6 years.

BLUE: The Rule/Role Self

Blue seeks the ultimate peace, locked in the battle of good and evil. It is absolutistic, obedient, purposeful, and authoritarian. By following the rules and exceeding its given role, it will know the fundamental truth. Most religions and religious values are rooted in Blue.

The theme of Blue is that “Life has meaning, direction, and purpose with predetermined outcomes.”

Age: 7 – 8 years.

ORANGE: The Achiever Self

Orange desires autonomy, achievement, and self-interest. It is materialistic, strategic, ambitious, and individualistic.

The purpose of the game is to compete and win: material pleasure, acquisition, and the advancement of civilization. How? By learning how to excel at everything it does, setting and achieving goals, measuring success, and so on.

Orange builds businesses, science, medicine and most of modern society. It creates hierarchies of domination (comparisons, “better than,” etc.). Orange became the dominant wave during the industrial age and continues through the technological and information age.

The primary theme of Orange is to “act in your own self-interest by playing the game to win.”

Age: 9 – 14 years

GREEN: The Sensitive Self

Green lives by connection, communityegalitarianism, and consensus. It is relativistic, personalistic, pluralistic, and sensitive. Green appreciates diverse views and focuses on the needs of the many.

The Green wave first emerged during the hippy movement in the late 60s. With Green came the awareness of human and animal rights and gave birth to feminism, racial equality, postmodernism, etc. Liberalism and activism is an expression of Green.

The underlying theme of Green is to “seek peace within the inner self and explore the caring dimensions of community.”

Age: 15 – 21 years

YELLOW: The Integral Self

Yellow looks to become whole and synthesize all the levels that came before it by awakening as many lines of intelligence that it can and integrating them into a cohesive whole. Yellow is systemic, ecological, flexible, and conceptual. By learning and adapting it can incorporate the levels that came before it.

The primary theme of Yellow is to “live fully and responsibly as what you are and are learning to become.”

TURQUOISE: The Holistic Self

Compassion and harmony guide turquoise. It seeks peace in an incomprehensible world by developing more profound receptivity of multi-dimensional perspectives without privileging any of them.

The main theme of Turquoise is to “experience the wholeness of existence through mind and spirit.”

Okay, so now let’s make sense of these stages.

The Relationship between Grave and Maslow’s Model

At first glance, these stages don’t look too similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But let’s take a closer look.

Beige focuses on doing what you need to do to survive. This is the same as Maslow’s physiological needs.

Purple and Red seek protection and a safe environment. Those are Maslow’s safety and security needs.

Orange is interested in achievement, which hits on Maslow external esteem needs.

Affection and connection with others guide Green; Maslow’s “love and belonging needs.”

Yellow is about becoming the best version of yourself—another way of describing self-actualization.

spiral dynamics grave maslow

Turquoise represents the stage of consciousness where an individual transcends their ego, identifying instead with the collective whole. Maslow called this stage in his later work, self-transcendence.

The primary distinction between the two models is that in Grave’s version, Green develops after Orange, while in Maslow’s model, love and belonging (Green) come before self-esteem (Orange).

It’s likely that this depends on the individual. Women may more often develop their Green value structure first while men more often build their Orange structure first.

The Importance of “Second Tier” (Another Term for “Integration”)

From the perspective of our psychological development, the most critical thing about spiral dynamics is understanding the difference between the model’s two tiers.

The first tier includes all the stages from Beige through Green. That is, the initial six of the eight stages of values are in the first tier.

When your center of gravity is in one of these six stages, you tend to identify exclusively with that particular value structure.

So, for example, if your center of gravity is in Orange, you likely identify yourself as an achiever (even if you don’t use that term). You also tend to believe that the values of Orange (pleasure, material things, acquisition, achieving goals, money, capitalism) are what’s most important. And you’re convinced that everyone should value these things too.

spiral dynamics integral

The second tier represents a radical shift, however, in how an individual perceives reality. While in the first tier, the individual’s ego identifies with a particular stage of development, in the second tier, there’s an expansion of consciousness.

Now, we can perceive these stages of development and their related value structures. We can understand the benefits of each stage as well as their inherent limitations. And we can begin to integrate each of these stages without making one value structure “right” and the others “wrong.”

The Dance of Masculine and Feminine Energies

One particularly beautiful aspect of Grave’s model is how it illustrates the constant tension between masculine and feminine energies—one of the hallmark concerns of the individuation process.

The masculine energy seeks autonomy and independence. The feminine energy drives toward communion and togetherness.

Each stage within Spiral Dynamics toggles between these two energies.

  • Beige: individual survival (masculine)
  • Purple: tribal (feminine)
  • Red: power and dominance (masculine)
  • Blue: follows moral precepts of the group (feminine)
  • Orange: autonomy and achievement (masculine)
  • Green: egalitarianism and community (feminine)
  • Yellow: integration and personal responsibility (masculine)
  • Turquoise: collective individualism (feminine)

Isn’t that interesting? The shift in emphasis goes back and forth between masculine and feminine, individualism and collectivism, over and over again. Is it any wonder that we are divided as a people and as individuals?

Holding the opposites—the Yin and Yang—together is no easy feat in this continuous dance.

How Spiral Dynamics Explains Human Conflict

I often refer to Spiral Dynamics in my coaching sessions with clients because this model so eloquently explains why conflicts occur between individuals.

According to this research, only approximately 1% of individuals have a center of gravity in the second tier (mainly Yellow).

Eighty percent of individuals have a center of gravity in either Blue, Orange, or Green (or some combination of the two, for example, Blue-Orange or Orange-Green).

These percentages help explains interoffice, political, and marital conflicts.

Take politics as an illustration. Republican or conservative value structures are an expression of Blue while Democratic or liberal value structures are Green. Blue and Green can not see each other’s viewpoint. In fact, research shows that liberal and conservative viewpoints stem from different parts of the brain.

Incidentally, this doesn’t imply that Green is “better than” Blue or that a liberal viewpoint is more evolved than a conservative view.

Each stage of development represents a more complex structure in consciousness. When you have a system of greater complexity, it means that more things can go wrong. And they often do!

So each value structure can go to extremes. And the more complex the value structure, the more destructive the extremes become. For this reason, Wilber calls the out-of-balance Greens the “Mean Green Memes.”

When two individuals can’t see eye-to-eye, it means they are stuck in one of the first six value structures. Someone seeking achievement (Orange) perceives the world through a different lens than someone driven by equality and community (Green).

How to Use Spiral Dynamics for Leadership

The key to effective leadership is first to understand where your team members are coming from and then help them grow to higher levels of development.

If this topic is of interest to you, I recommend reading two books: Spiral Dynamics by Christopher Cowan and Don Beck and Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.

spiral dynamics

reinventing organizations spiral dynamics

Cowan and Beck’s book illustrates the colorful dimensions and subtleties of each stage in Spiral Dynamics.

Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations provides a detailed study of organizations at each stage of development. He further highlights what we need to do to cultivate a second tier (Turquoise/Teal) organization.

Brian Robertson’s Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World also offers a system to construct Turquoise businesses. Numerous innovative companies including Tony Hsieh’s Zappos are adopting this holacratic model.

But ultimately, to become better leaders, we must develop our own second tier structures in our consciousness. So let’s turn our attention here.

How Spiral Dynamics Influences Psychological Development

In an “ideal” social and cultural environment, we would naturally progress through these stages of development in our first two decades of life.

This natural progression, however, almost never occurs. Instead, individuals tend to get stuck or fixated at a particular stage of development and subconsciously struggle to move beyond it.

For example, individuals in strict religious households whose parents teach them that their religion is the “right one” and everyone else is going to hell will likely get stuck in the Blue stage. If they come to value personal achievement, they may begin to push into Orange.

Orange versus Green

Most individuals in New-Age spiritual communities are expressing the Green value structure. Green tends to hate Orange because Orange hasn’t developed a value for human care or the environment.

Orange is mainly interested in personal acquisition and growth for growth’s sake. Individuals in Green, however, forget that they were once driven by Orange values too.

Orange competes. Green seeks cooperation. These two have a difficult time coexisting. And even though Green wants cooperation, it’s dissociated from its shadow (Orange) and unaware of how it wants to be victorious too.

Including versus Dissociating

You see, in healthy development, we “transcend and include” the level that came before it. Meaning we develop to a higher stage of consciousness while incorporating the essential aspects of the prior stage.

But, generally speaking, this isn’t what happens. Instead of “transcending and including,” we, as Wilber explains, “transcend and disassociate.”

That is, we adopt a higher stage of development while cutting off and discarding the previous structure.

The fundamental religionist at Blue may become an atheist at Orange. Or, an Orange Achiever may become an anti-capitalist environmentalist in Green.

Much of my 30s was marked by the struggle to integrate Orange and Green. When we begin to open up spiritual values in Green, it’s sometimes difficult to incorporate the achievement values of Orange.

Many entrepreneurs wrestle with this tension, and it can take years to resolve.

The Vital Shift From Green to Yellow

As the literature states, just becoming aware of these stages of consciousness (which you’re doing by reading this) helps considerably. Without a language for these stages, our conscious minds don’t have a handle on what’s going on.

Once you’re familiar with the eight stages of Spiral Dynamics, you’ll begin to notice their expressions both within yourself and those around you.

The primary goal for our self-development is to establish our center of gravity in the second tier (Yellow).

Yellow is “transpersonal” in that we’ve included the personal stages that came before it while also moving beyond them. The jump from Green to Yellow represents a significant shift in consciousness.

As we saw in the guide to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we can only meet our basic needs in relation to other people. Then, with the shift to self-actualization, our attention becomes inwardly focused.

Graves found the same thing to be true with values: The levels below Yellow (first tier) are expressed relative to others. Then, there’s a radical shift to the second tier where our focus isn’t on the personal, but on the transpersonal.

The quest becomes to “live fully and responsibly as what you are and are learning to become.”

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance your center of gravity is between Orange and Green.

Improving your mental performance and increasing your financial freedom are topics of Orange.

If you’re seeking to discover what you value and learn about your shadow, these topics only become relevant at Green.

Transcending and including these values is the primary function of Yellow.

How to Use Spiral Dynamics for Shadow Work

In truth, most of the guides on this website offer methods and insights to help individuals become more integrated at Yellow.

Most of the reasons that the majority of us get fixated on first-tier value structures are external. Cultural and society are fragmented and compartmentalized, so it’s natural that our internal structure reflects this fragmentation.

To avoid the ambiguity and tensions of holding opposites and paradoxes without taking sides, we tend to cut off aspects of our humanity. When we cut off a part of us, we relegate that part to our shadow.

And this dissociation is what enables various archetypes to hijack our psyche.

So here’s one way we can use Spiral Dynamics to integrate our shadow: examine each stage and see if you can determine where and how you have divorced yourself from that level.

For example:

Beige: If you’re generally not conscious or present within your body, you’re likely divorced from Beige. Overeating and other compulsive and addictive behaviors are signs of disconnection.

Qigong and Zhan Zhuang are methods for body-mind integration.

Purple: Let’s say you put little stock in the power of your imagination because you only believe in logic and reason (Orange). This bias implies a dissociation from Purple.

Your imagination isn’t just a wellspring for creativity; it’s also a means of integrating your psyche. One of the main reasons that archetypes are a difficult topic for many individuals is because we’ve collectively divorced ourselves from Purple.

Red: If you experience chronic fatigue or pain, there’s a good chance you’re repressing Red.

Red is our power drive and the source of our rage and aggression. Learning how to channel this energy in healthy ways is the task of the Warrior.

Green: The Green value structure has a tendency of shaming and guilting the value structures below it. As such, those aligned with Green often exercise energy vampirism without knowing it.

How to Use Spiral Dynamics for Self Development

Ultimately, the goal here is to integrate your consciousness at the second tier (Yellow).

How do we do this?

By awakening as many intelligences of body, mind, emotion, and spirit we can. Essentially, we develop the innate potentials that are currently lying dormant within us.

Learn how to find your center. In our center, we are neutral. And from neutrality, it’s easier to catch when we’re stuck in a limiting perspective or denying a particular value structure.

Integrate your shadow. Use the stages of Spiral Dynamics as a kind of assessment tool to determine the areas you’re currently dissociating from or ignoring (as I described above).

Create a personal development plan. Most individuals aren’t conscious of all the ways they can develop themselves—especially when they fixate at Orange. In Orange, we only grow in ways that support our professional achievements (which are mainly driven by our desire for money and our need for status/external esteem).

Develop your Observing Mind. This concept is similar to centering, but ultimately, the key is to develop self-awareness skills so you can stay open to different perspectives without shutting down based on old programming. Meditation can be useful here.

What Do You Think?

Where do you think your center of gravity is currently?

Are you aware of where you might get stuck?

Do you see what stages you need to integrate?

Share your thoughts, reflections, comments, and questions below.