SD in Action

Myths and Metaphors


Many myths circulate around the contents and approach in our Spiral Dynamics® Programmes and Gravesian theory. Many draw on what Dr. Graves so often warned against: “Beware of finding simplicity which is not there.” These are subsystems within people, not types of people.

Myth #1 …that Beige describes a business struggling to keep going in tough times

Actuality:  The Beige level, A-N, is the beginning of human nature. It is about organismic survival – literally staying alive. This initial form of mature adult behavior is driven by biogenic needs, reflexive drives, instincts and genetics – Stone Age or earlier existence; there’s no way it relates to economics or formal organizations.

We used to say there was no moral sense at this first level, but it now appears from studies at the Yale Child Study Center and elsewhere that babies and very young children have an innate sense of fair play and can differentiate helpful from harmful behavior in others, an adaptively useful capacity that could enhance the odds of survivability. But Beige is not primarily about fairness or fear of social disapproval or material loss; it is very literally about matters of immediate life and death – breathing, freezing, starving. Those things are at the base of the Maslowian hierarchy, and they are the beginning point for Graves along with the idea that mature behavior is possible in this Garden of Eden-like state.

While a company that finds itself unable to resolve Orange (E-) or even Blue-based (D-) existence problems might be at risk of bankruptcy or dissolution, that’s not Beige except by the wildest metaphorical stretch. This is not “survival” in the Beige (Gravesian A-N) sense. Even in cases of civil, ethnic, or tribal war the regression is rarely to Beige-level problems, but that does happen and relief agencies are often there to help with food, medicine, and shelter. Even then, although children and the sick sometimes revert towards Beige A-N, refugees generally function at higher levels despite incredible hardships. While their problems might approach A-, their coping capacities are usually far beyond –N. Organizations simply don’t regress to –N neuronal systems. Struggle to survive? Yes. Conceptualize and cope in -N ways? No.

Myth #2…that Purple equals family and close small groups
Actuality: Humans are social beings. We form small groups and families at all levels, even with rudimentary versions at A-N. Bonding brings us safety and it is part of who we are. The key to understanding levels is asking “why do things happen?” For Purple, animism and shamanic approaches offer explanations: there are spirit beings and invisible entities who are active participants in this world. Nature is very much alive, even conscious. Things have awareness, perhaps names. The spirits of the ancestors are present in the field and must be accounted to. Kinship and ritual are central, as are the story tellers who embody explanations of reality.

But just because there are groups with close bonds does not necessarily mean Purple. While tightly-bonded groups might suggest cool-colored, sacrifice-the-self themes (maybe Blue or Green), but warm systems like Red or Orange, as well, also rely on bondedness in groups and families since tight groups can exist there, as well. You must ask what the organizing principle is and the purpose for groupness – protection of blood kin, common theology (or a-theology), shared social or economic interests? Graves used the word “tribalistic” along with animistic to describe this system. Tribalism is a form of social structure – common in the Mideast, in Asia, among Native Americans, Japan, etc. – and found among peoples who operate in very complex and multi-leveled ways. Some indigenous groups remain centralized at Purple, while it remains an important and often unrecognized sub-system in much of our world. Rather than stopping with a close extended family as evidence for the system, ask also whether mystical signs, omens, totems, a spirit realm, and taboos (knock wood) are present.

Myth #3…that Red energy is the source of aggressive violence

Actuality: Violence can come with a Red perspective, for sure, since exigent emotions sometimes turn physical. They can be positive as well as negative.  Behavior can be both dominant and submissive in this context. Impulsive acting out and failure to anticipate consequences – both for the self and others – are commonplace of this egocentric worldview. The actions of warlords, street punks, and cartel bosses often appear vibrantly Red, although other sub-systems might be in play, as well. But also recognize that Red is a necessary developmental step that breaks with dependency and liberates the individual.

Violence also comes at Purple in its customary ways to benefit the tribe, at Blue through authoritarian aggression and righteous indignation, and peaks again at Orange E-R with what Graves described as man’s drive for selfish independence surges. Much of the large-scale violence in this world is actually derived from Blue zealotry and Orange positioning rather than less complex Red where exploitation is reflexive, not wrapped in righteous justifications or cloaked in strategic rationalization.

So be sure to look for the difference between impulsive and uncontrollable acts and calculated manipulation with force aimed and deferred gains. Lots of folks mistake strategic ‘performance art’ and power displays with Red, when in fact they might well derive from an Orange-based desire to win and control.

Myth #4…that Blue is all about rules

Actuality: Rules exist whenever human groups form; norms and standards are basic to group formation, community standards and cultural norms are too. The absolutistic fourth level Blue D-Q system is more about order, structure, pattern, and discipline through linear, sequential thinking. The codification, standardization, and imposition of rules come from this system; they are written down. Because thinking tends to be dichotomous and polarized, rules are wrapped with certitude and often frame good versus evil.  Drivers are obedience to rightful higher authority and sacrifice of self interest in the idea that ultimate reward (or punishment) will come later – perhaps even after death. Dealing with mortality and its consequences, soul force and salvation, are central. While justice might be lacking in this life, it is often a promise of a D-Q version of a master plan or afterlife. That’s why a corollary myth exists that Blue is about religion, whereas in fact it’s about how someone thinks about religion – or politics or any number of other things people can conceptualize within this neuronal system.

Authoritarianism is a key component, so following the directives of that ultimate source, whatever or whomever it might be, brings meaning and purpose to living, and to dying. Authoritarianism has many components with obedience as glue, and authoritarian aggression is often misidentified as Red impulsive guiltlessness rather than righteous indignation and ‘just’ punishments.

Myth #5… that Orange is simply “postmodern materialism”

Actuality: Keys to understanding Orange, the fifth level (E-R), are to recognize the possibility of changing things (rather than simply living out a prewritten script according to some immutable master plan) and the belief that the individual can impact the world and shift future events as they will. The plan can be edited and modified if one is willing to take some calculated risks and take initiative. The thinking is now multiplistic (rather than absolutistic) – many possibilities in the field with the task of juggling them and they wisely selection the optimum choice among the options. The objectives are growth and progress toward the better – probabilities rather than perfection.

Sometimes money is life’s report card and measured by material achievements; but often other measures of accomplishment count more. It’s the capacity to hold many ideas and to calculate ways to maneuver them which mark this sort of conceptualizing.

The scientific method with its reliance on objective analysis, tried-and-true experience mixed with constant questioning, challenging, comparing, and measuring often leads to material results.  But Orange also appears in the competition of ideas, even of faiths and spiritual achievements. The quest to be the best and an expectation of success are markers, though the means to evaluate those are various.

Although postmodern is a term that attracts mountains of debate and many definitions, the most common ones suggest more of the Orange to Green transitions and even Green, itself, rather than this fifth system with its entrepreneurial spirit of achievement. So one must operationally define “postmodern” before attaching the term to Orange; in general, it is a poor fit for the nodal state of the Fifth Level.

Myth #6… that Green is all about hugs, but often mean

Actuality: The characterizations of “Green” in various reinterpretations of Spiral Dynamics range widely. There’s been endless chatter about that. Some are pretty accurate depictions of Green, the sixth, F-S level of existence. (Some definitions of “postmodern” come close to its characteristics.) Other versions are wild projections and backlashes against perceived slights, disrespect, and wrongs, often based on misperceptions of what Green thinking actually is. (The Green F-S relativistic level of existence is not the same as green values which can be held in various systems, a confusion of container with contents – how someone comes to believing versus what it is that they believe.)

So sort carefully, and remember that Green builds on top of Orange and those levels that came before. It adds new emergent properties such as heightened empathy, situational awareness, feelings attunement, fluid indefiniteness, and the capacity to think relativistically. In this mode, peer relationships and non-local crowd sourcing are more comfortable than hierarchy or classes. Sometimes, expertise and speed are sacrificed to collaboration, but buy-in to collective decisions is often increased. Success and profit are not anathema; they are simply collectivized to serve the group’s objectives. Seeing others in pain is deeply disturbing at this level, but it can be quite strong and assertive, as well.

The theory requires that Green have more explanatory power that Orange because it necessarily grows from problems created by Orange and then adds new elements (Graves would have said neurological capacity) to deal with them. High among them is the natural inclusion of human factors – affect, relationships, reciprocity, empathy. Those traits build in Yellow, though the emphasis shifts.

It can be open, arrested, or closed. Lots of people say Green is a swamp of dysfunction, while others fail to differentiate absolutism and competitiveness wrapped with sociable values from F-S. Some see sociocentricity and sociability in temperaments and call that “Green” without asking why the person is sociable or concerned with people, or if it’s possible to be at the sixth level but temperamentally not a people-person. They confuse egalitarianism with sameness.

Others find in Green the future for a doctrinaire materialistic age that embodies the return of spirit awareness to business, for example. There is usually a resurgence of community and affiliation needs, though in forms different from other deny-the-self levels. Again, don’t mix up the beliefs and contents with the way someone centralized at F-S conceptualizes. There are many reasons for saying “peace and love,” or “everybody’s beautiful” – egocentric reasons, obedience to authority reasons, or even manipulatively competitively reasons. It’s necessary to sort for the conceptual system behind the rhetoric and not become baffled by the surface manifestations – or the paint job someone has applied without preparation.

Myth #7… that the Graves colors relate to chakras

This is a two-part myth. First of all, Dr. Graves did not use colors. The designation of levels of existence with colors came with training applications of his work; Dr. Graves’s own materials were type-written, black-and-white. His language of choice was the letter pairs – A-N, B-O, C-P, etc. – though he also used numbers – level 1, level 2, level 3, etc. – as well as words which describe the thinking – reactive, animistic, egocentric, absolutistic, etc. The reason the letter pairs are preferable is that they convey the double-helix notion: A existential problems interacting with N neuronal systems, then B existential problems out of successful A-N living with require O thinking, etc. A color dilutes that very significant theoretical point and leads to typology.

The colors were introduced as a graphic element, first for Value Systems applications and later into Spiral Dynamics® trainings. There was no relationship to chakras or any other color scheme – no metaphysical significance whatsoever. However, there is some method to the choices. Warm colors (beige, red, orange, yellow, coral, etc.) were assigned to the odd-numbered, express-the-self systems; cool colors were assigned for the even-numbered, deny-the-self systems (purple, blue, green, turquoise, etc.). Building stories make them easier to remember: beige for savannah grasslands where hominids roamed; purple for magic; red for hot energy; blue for heaven; orange for industry; green for eco-consciousness; yellow solar flux; turquoise for earth from space; coral for life below the surface.

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