Cancel OK

Spiral Dynamics at the Thanksgiving table

Your Thanksgiving table may present some of these figures.

There’s Grandma. A timid, quiet soul, she prays the rosary three times a day and has to be driven to mass each morning.

There’s Uncle Bruce. A retired Marine colonel, he’s a midlevel manager who didn’t get far in civilian life because he treats his subordinates like boot campers.

There’s cousin Dave. Unemployed and unemployable. Everyone is resigned to the fact that he will be asking for money before he leaves. He is surrounded by a buffer of family hopes that he will not burst into an unexpected act of violence.

Cousin Phil is a high-powered salesman of an obscure but indispensable industrial part. His Jaguar flashes out from among the more humdrum vehicles in the driveway.

Niece Jane has no career aspirations beyond her current job as a cashier at Whole Foods. She spends much of her free time volunteering for a habitat restoration group.

All of these characters can exist, though perhaps not entirely comfortably, in the same family.

A book I got in the mail today explains why: Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change by Don Edward Beck and Christopher C. Cowan.

For a sequel, which I have not read, see here. 

According to Spiral Dynamics, a management system pioneered by the late psychologist Clare W. Graves, these figures all represent different “vMEMEs” (sic): “A vMEME reflects a world view, a valuing system, a level of psychological existence, a belief structure, an organizing principle, a way of thinking or a mode of adjustment.”

By this theory, there are eight different vMEMEs, which are arranged in an upward spiral and characterized by colors. At the bottom is BEIGE, “underpinned by survival processes . . . automatic, autistic, reflexive.” Cousin Dave!

Next is PURPLE, who obeys “desires of the mystical spirit beings” and shows “allegiance to elders, custom, clan.” Grandma.

RED: “I’m tough and expect those around me to be tough or else. I take charge of people.” There’s Uncle Bruce. Or is he BLUE—“I stand fast for what is right, proper, and good, always subjecting myself to the directives of proper authority”—as in the Marine Corps?

ORANGE: “I want to achieve, and win, and get somewhere in life. The world is full of opportunities for those who’ll seize the day and take some calculated risks.” Cousin Phil, who found a world full of opportunities in a small industrial part.

GREEN believes in sharing society’s resources among all, and believes “the community grows by synergizing life forces; artificial divisions take away from everyone.” A snapshot of niece Jane.

Missing from this festive board are the two last types:

YELLOW, who focuses on “functionality, competence, flexibility, and spontaneity” and finding a “natural mix of conflicting ‘truths’ and ‘uncertainties.’” That could be brother Bob. He’s not here because his job as a product developer for Apple is keeping him near company HQ.

TURQUOISE: with its “focus on the good of all living entities as integrated systems” and “expanded use of human brain/mind tools and competencies”—maybe represented by Steve, a distant cousin, who operates a future-oriented management think tank out of Santa Barbara. He talks in elaborate futuristic jargon that nobody else in the family understands.

Spiral Dynamics is a complex but elegant system for explaining human motivations, ranging from survivalist Dave to futurological Steve. But it has also has to do with management theory.

Your company has a blend of these types, just as a family has. In fact, your company may itself be characterized by one vMEME or another. Is it cutthroat, top dog kind of place (maybe Goldman Sachs)? It’s RED. A fundamentalist Christian church would be BLUE. A small but sophisticated startup might be YELLOW.

There is a lot more to Spiral Dynamics than this article can explain, but I have been familiar with it for some fifteen years and have resorted to it over and over again to help me understand individuals and organizations.

Oh, and you may ask where I see myself on this wondrous spiral. I’m interested in the one beyond TURQUOISE: CORAL, whose nature, “for these authors, is still unclear.”

Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.