Why Vertical Development is Essential for Healing Our World

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

peace scaled

In the groups we are a part of (e.g., workplace, church community, sports teams, professional associations) there exists and understandable but unnecessary tension between two desires:

Safety and Truth.

Let me give you a few examples that illuminates how this tension can have a negative impact on our workplaces and our world as a whole.

Workplace Example

First, let me pull from my experience as a consultant at Gallup. I was assigned to a new client and was asked to do some data collection. My job was to pull out of the data actionable and data-driven recommendations for what the client could do to enhance customer engagement across the organization. In effect, I was seeking truth as far as the data would provide.

Unfortunately, we (Gallup) used two different methods to collect customer engagement data. I ran the numbers with (1) all of the data together, (2) with just the data collected in one method, and (3) with just the data collected with the other method. What I found was that each method produced wildly different results.

I jumped on a call with the project manager, explaining the situation and recommending that we be transparent about our methods and findings.

I was firmly informed that was not an option and for me to go off of the results associated with all of the data together.

I was seeking truth, the project manager was seeking safety. Because he was my superior, he won, and I felt less psychologically safe.

Bull Connor

Bull Connor was a staunch segregationist, and served as the Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham, Alabama from 1936-1952, and then again from 1956-1963. This gave him administrative responsibility for the city’s fire department, police department, schools, public health service, and libraries.

It was Bull Connor who ordered the use of fire hoses and attack dogs to stop the protesting marches of black teenagers in Birmingham.

Here again, we see one group (the black teenagers) seeking after truth, and the other group (Bull Connor) opposing those seekers of truth in an effort to protect his beliefs and way of life as he knew it.

Today’s Systemic Racism

When you watch the local news, is there an ethnicity that is more prominent than another among the news anchors? When it comes to the viewers of the local news, do you think there is an ethnicity that makes up the majority of the viewing audience? Commonly, the news anchors and the viewing audience is predominantly white.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it just so happens that the white news anchors might select biased news or information to present that they implicitly believe will help their primary audience stay safe.

In Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste, she quotes a study that found that crimes involving a Black suspect and a white victim make up only 10% of all crimes—but they account for 42% of what’s reported on television. Wilkerson goes on to suggest that when half of what you see in the news is Black people committing crimes against white people, that’s going to influence how the viewers think when they see a Black person.

While this might help white people make decisions that will help them be “safe,” it is not based upon truth.

workplace team

The Challenge

In each of these situations, it can easily be seen as a win-lose proposition:

  • Either the party seeking truth feels like their ideas are not being heard making them feel psychologically unsafe
  • Or, the party seeking truth presents information that make the people seeking safety feel unsafe and/or uncomfortable

I commonly see this in my church.

  • Commonly, church goers only look for information that confirms their perspectives and beliefs, which can be biased and short-sighted. And, those who may not agree with the majority on certain points don’t feel safe speaking up to present an alternative perspective.
  • But, if someone does speak up with an alternative perspective that goes against the majority’s beliefs, then the majority feels unsafe and uncomfortable.

Again, it appears as though only one party can win, leaving the other party feeling unsafe.

Why This is Commonly a Challenge

In these instances, we (and people in general) commonly see these situations as an either/or situation.

While it might feel understandable and justifiable, such a perspective is not very cognitively and emotionally sophisticated.

In other words, when a person feels unsafe when truth seekers present information (like marchers communicating their beliefs to Bull Connor), it may be personally justifiable to react violently (Bull Connor was feeling in danger and he was feeling his community was in danger), but this line of thinking and the associated violent reaction is not cognitively and emotionally sophisticated.

When we view these situations as either/or propositions, or if we are Bull Connor, we are not very vertically developed.

Why Vertical Development is Essential for Healing Our World

The Solution

So how do we resolve these situations fueled by tension between safety and comfort?

We need to be able to see these situations, not as either/or propositions, but as both/and situations.

But, this takes vertically developing such that we become cognitively and emotionally sophisticated enough to be ok with feeling a little bit unsafe in order to find truth and think most optimally.

Stated slightly differently, we need to get to a place where we are cognitively and emotionally sophisticated enough to realize that when contrary information is presented, that we don’t perceive it to be an attack making us feel unsafe, but we see it as an effort to gain a more optimal and truthful perspective.


I believe that at the center of all of our current social ills is this tension between safety and truth.

The only way for us to cure these social ills is for us to elevate our cognitive and emotional sophistication (i.e., vertically develop), and to help others to elevate their cognitive and emotional sophistication.

If you want to learn how you can vertically develop or help others vertically develop, check out my Vertical Development White Paper.

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