An introduction to applying the integral model in executive coaching and organizational development

By: Patrick Goonan

In general,  an unconditional attitude of friendliness toward yourself as a condition for deep transformation is indispensable. Also, it is important to have skillful needs to work with your past conditioning.  Skillful means can includes things like cognitive therapy, various types of practices such as yoga, meditation or techniques for dealing with your internal critic.  In this category, I would place things the Taming Your Gremlin book, which is a mainstay of the Co-Active Coaching model.

In the the introductory paragraphs, I’m speaking about targeting one particular area.  However, below I will talk about working on all levels of your being and across various life domains together in order to increase the probability of a personal transformation taking place.  By transformation, I mean a move up from one plateau of development to another.  This is a process where you transcend the old level, identify with the new and embrace the lower level by integrating it into a more comprehensive identity.

In other words, you have to transcend, then include the lower level as you move up.  However in order to do so, you will have to pass through a transitional period of discomfort. Because you have separated from a lower level, but not fully stablized an identification with the next level, you will experience some anxiety or fear.  More directly, you will feel some sort of threat to your identity.  This desert period provokes anxiety because it seems to threaten your survival.  At least this is how your brain often interprets a threat to your ego.  The mechanism is mediated by the limbic system or mammalian brain, which interprets your present internal state as an actual threat to your existence.

This general process of going up in steps is called a stage conception of development and you can talk about the upward path as a developmental line.  Some examples of developmental lines are cognitive, emotional, social and spiritual.  You can think of them as types of intelligence or different personal capacities.  However, the same idea would apply to groups such as the unfolding of civilizations from hunter gather through industrial capitalism and into the information age.

At this point in my discussion, I want to elaborate on a helpful map of reality that is particularly suited for personal growth.  This model is known as the Integral Model and was developed and popularized by Ken Wilber.  I believe it’s a an excellent map of the territory of deep change because it includes all the irreducible aspects of life inherent to the human condition.

The integral model looks at the interior of things (e.g. your own thought process, feeling life, etc.) and the exterior world (your body, observable events in the world, etc.).  It also considers interactions between individuals and objects, which is to say that it considers the collective nature of phenomenon and the emergent properties of  systems.

Emergent properties can’t be explained away in terms of simply looking at the parts that make up a whole.  Two good examples are life and intelligence.  You can’t explain life completely by just considering the large molecules that constitute a living organism.  Similarly, you can’t explain consciousness and intelligence in terms of the sum of physical structures that make up the brain or the electrical impulses occurring within it.  Some would argue that you can, but we don’t seem to be there yet.  In fact, it’s even difficult to understand what matter is from a quantum perspective.

In simpler terms, the Integral Model takes into consideration individuals and how they interact in collectives such as a group, organization or society.  The model also assumes that collectives have interiors as well as emergent properties.  For example, a society has shared values, beliefs and other qualities that can’t be observed via the sense or their extensions.  Also, a collective has  emergent qualities that can’t be explained in terms of the sum of the parts.  That is to say, you can’t understand the whole by merely looking at each of the parts.  The nature of water is not simply the sum of the properties of the two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom that constitute it.

It is easier to understand this model if you can see it visually.  Here is a simplified diagram that will help you grasp the points I have made so far.  Notice, the horizontal axis separates the individual dimension from the collective and the vertical axis separates the interior from the exterior.  If you take some time to study this diagram, it will make the rest of the article easier.


Again, one quadrant of this model can not be reduced or completely explained in terms of another.  That is to say that you can’t completely understand the nature of consciousness (Quadrant 1) by measuring physical correlations such as neurons firing in the brain (Quadrant 2).  You also can’t completely explain the dynamics of a society (Quadrant 3) by looking at the sum of observable behavior of the individuals that make it up (Quadrant 2).  That is to say, all phenomenon have  four irreducible aspects and many of the irreducible complexities in systems correspond to emergent properties.

Therefore, when we look at our own behavior, we must consider what is going on inside of us in terms of thoughts, feelings and other Q1 parts of ourselves.  At the same time, we need to deal with our outer behavior Q2 and also consider the systems we are embedded in such as our families, work environments and society.  These of course are all Q3 areas and then each of these external systems has it’s own value system, worldviews, etc. (Q4).  This is a fancy way of saying that everything is interconnected or interrelated.  In other words, to understand something you must look at the inside, the outside, the parts, the whole and how they all interact.

This model can be helpful with respect to personal development because it is largely  the systems we are embedded in and their interior aspects held as unexamined assumptions that keep us stuck.  In general, systems resist change and when an individual in a system tries to make a change, the interconnected nature of the whole system tends to pull the individual back to the status quo before any personal development work can have an impact.

However, by examining an issue against the four quadrant model, you get an awareness of the systems you participate in, how they effect you and your unconscious cultural assumptions.  This allows you to overcome the almost magnetic pull of the systems dynamics and cultural beliefs on your values, beliefs and behaviors.  With this increased awareness, you have increased freedom via the process of disidentification.  By disidentification, I mean the separation of your sense of self with your old level of development and prior to your identification with the next level.  You can think of the in between state as a dotted line relationship to both levels.  This is the desert area or where you will tend to feel anxious or scared.

If you think about it, conditioning is a cultural phenomenon.  It is a belief or value or system of beliefs and values programmed into you by a group.  This is another reason why it’s so difficult to make a permanent change.  There are many forces you are mostly unaware of acting to preserve the status quo.  For example, shame relates back to the norms of a group and guilt with a lack of alignment with your own internal value system which may or may not be highly conditioned.

Another dimension of the model is developmental lines which I discussed above.  Since this article is about personal growth, one of the Q1 lines such as cognition, morals or emotions is probably where you are looking to grow or seeking a change.  You can consider these various lines like spokes on a wheel originating from the center and moving outward.  Since we are considering a stage conception, each step will look like a rung in a ladder.  Moving up a stage is not like moving along a continuum, you are either alive or not, have self-reflective capacity or not.

Certainly, evolution follows this stepwise progression from fish, to reptiles to mammals.  Depending upon your personal beliefs, you can also consider a progression like matter, life, mind, soul and spirit as a stage progression.  Certainly, the worlds great wisdom traditions agree on this basic progression and you can consider these worldviews as part of the model if you want to.  Specifically, organized religion or worldviews belong in the fourth quadrant. In business, the companies shared vision and mission statement belong in this quadrant along with what we call company culture.

You can also see this type of progression in a collective such as a societal progression from hunter-gather to agrarian, agriculture to industrial, etc.  Interestingly, you will observe a correlative developmental line in each quadrant for each of these stages!  Therefore, in Q4 or the interior of the society, you will see belief systems corresponding to each stage a civilization goes through in Q3 i.e. magical beliefs will be found in hunter-gatherer societies and mythical beliefs in agrarian ones.  The quadrants are all related and we can use this knowledge to help us overcome the resistance of systems to changes by creating some reflective distance between ourselves and our shared beliefs.

Here are two diagrams, one simple and one more complex that will give you a deeper sense of how this all works together.  In the first one you can see various developmental lines in each quadrant without a label and understand each as having steps like a ladder.  If you keep reading, I’ll explain this further.

aqal_quadrants w lines

In this diagram, the yellow concentric circles represent levels, the green lines the various lines of development in each quadrant and you can see how each quadrant relates to but is not reducible to the other.  That is, each quadrant requires skillful means unique to this aspect of reality.  For example, a microscope (Q2-instrument) won’t help you to study love (Q1).  Studying social interactions (Q3) won’t help you to understand the underlying religion or worldview (Q4) that drives a lot of social behavior.

At this point, you probably have a good feel for the Integral Model.  However, it could get very complicated and while it’s good for self-development work, it also lends itself to extremely complex studies of organizations, living systems, etc.  If you think about it, it has the potential to integrate the arts, science and morals into a comprehensive unity and it has the same power for integrating the different aspects of a human life.

In fact, the Integral Model is probably the most comprehensive model that one can use to study and organization, its processes, culture, etc.  I consider this to be the leading edge of organizational development.  It also lends itself well to working with leaders of organizations, determining appropriate metrics and putting various types of feedback loops and other processes in place.  Therefore, I go just a lit deeper below before moving on to a simplification that can help you use the model’s principles in your own personal growth.

For your own edification and curiosity, here is a more complete four quadrant model diagram that fills in more detail.  You don’t need to learn it at this level, but having an appreciation of it will help you understand its potential integrating power at the individual level and for analyzing complex modern day problems.  Just look over this diagram and move on unless you have a deep interest in the theory or applying it in a more complex context like an organization.

Integral Model

The Integral Model – some specific applications such as personal growth and leadership

The most interesting thing about this diagram is the levels are represented by different colors and you can see some specific developmental lines and how a particular line in one quadrant corresponds to another line in an another quadrant.  I talked about this above, but here you can see specific examples in a visual context.  When working with organizations, we have often use this stage conception and even subdivide it further.

However, you may be asking yourself what does this have to do about be making a change in my life.  The answer is that by choosing growth practices for each quadrant and expressing them in each quadrant, you are more likely to have a transformation that is long lasting.  That is, if you work in this way you are more likely to stabilize the things you are working on into a permanent trait rather than a temporary altered state.  This integration also implies embodying your insights by expressing them deeply in each quadrant – self (Q1), culture (Q4) and nature (Q2 and Q3).  In other words, with this approach you get synergistic effects and integrate the new capacities into all the domains of life.  In this way, you get the systems working for you rather than against you.

On a practical level, this means picking one or several developmental lines to work with, choosing practices that help to develop those lines and finding ways to exercise the developing capacities in each of the four quadrants.  I realize there is a lot of new vocabulary and concepts here, so again a diagram might help.  This diagram is where the rubber meets the road in terms of applying and benefiting from the theory.


With this matrix, you can take advantage of the Integral Model without having to do a deep dive on all the theory because by your choices, you are working on different lines across quadrants and in all the domains of your life.  The specific instructions for using this matrix are in the diagram’s caption.  You simply pick one practice for each of the four core modules.  This gets you working in both your interior and your exterior dimesnions.  Then you add auxiliary practices which are collective by their nature and involve both interior and exterior dimensions too.  The point is that by working across all quadrants and on various lines, you are more likely to grow and stabilize that growth into permanent change.  This method of working also encourages and integration of your various capacities and intelligences.  As such, it is a holistic approach that touches you and your relationships in a very deep way.

The specific approach to transformation practice above is called an Integral Life Practice or ILP.  The model that comes from the diagram is a simplification of applying Integral Theory and is called the Integral Life Practices Matrix.  However, you can substitute your own practices, areas you wish to emphasize and specific means.  Technically, you can call these ILPs or whatever you wish.  The model is a useful guidelines, but when push comes to shove, you are the expert on how to apply the theory. The diagram above, however, is a very useful starting point for experimenting with this type of integrated approach.  What counts in the end is transformation or a permanent level change in one or more developmental lines.

While I didn’t go into it in depth, you can also apply the same kind of thinking to a business.  You may not want to simplify it as the matrix does above.  In fact, you will probably want to take it even deeper.  While I can’t explain all the details in one blog, the following diagram will give you an idea of some of the deeper nuances.


Another useful simplification, is to see how the model applies to a business leader working in an organization.  In the diagram below you can see the various dimensions and how these correlate to the more general diagrams above that introduced the model.


Here, you can see how the general interior, exterior, individual and collective aspects of leadership would be mapped.  By reflecting on this diagram, you will also understand how they correlate and relate to larger organizational goals, processes, shared values, etc.

I know this was a long article, but I hope you got a lot out of it and that you consider trying the approach I recommended in your personal life.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences working this way and I invite back to leave a comment or subscribe.  If you would like further information on the Integral Model you can see some of my other postings, search YouTube or look for articles on the Internet.  If you are interested in applying this type of analysis in your business, please get in touch with me.

In my opinion, the integral model is a very important tool for understanding and working with differences across various disciplines and solving complex real world problems.  The Integral Institute is dedicated to applying the principles of this model in education, politics, business, psychology and other areas.  My experience is that it is a powerful and effective way to work on your own personal growth or a group in any domain of activity or interest.

If there are any critical aspects of this work I left unexplained or you have any questions, please let me know.  I will be writing more on integral theory, but if I have your input I can target my blogs to your interests more precisely.  If you would like to contact or work with me, you can find my contact information under the contact information menu heading on this blog.

About Pat

I'm an organizational development specialist, career counselor and personal development coach. My other interests are diverse, but I'm primarily concerned with helping people to lead a productive and meaningful life. I currently maintain two blogs on WordPress. One is directed more toward a business audience and the other will most appeal to the general public. My Masters is in Integral Psychology and I also attended Coaches Training Institute. I like an work in Silicon Valley and work with people from all over the world.
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13 Responses to An introduction to applying the integral model in executive coaching and organizational development

  1. Pat,
    I’m interested in your idea of moving to the next level, so I’m going to study your model and apply it to me as I learn it. The model is new to me, so it’ll take awhile to appreciate it. I’ll keep you posted.


    • Pat says:

      Ralph-That’s great. I’m a big advocate of testing ideas in the laboratory of life. If you want to understand the model more in-depth two book suggestions are – A Brief History of Everything or A Brief Theory of Everything. If you want the deep dive from a psychological perspective, Integral Psychology is excellent. If your interest is more broad then Sex, Ecology and Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution is the bomb. The audio Kosmic Consciousness is also a nice introduction. I suspect the last book I mentioned is what you would most appreciate. I’m very curious to hear about your explorations applying this model.

  2. Pat says:

    I have another blog called Meaningful Life. If you are working with this model there are some resources there that would be helpful including a long I discussion with Ken Wilber and others on Integral Life Practices. If you are working on your own the two articles “Why Can’t I Change” (Part I and II) provide more foundation material for the whole process. There is also a recording of The 3-2-1 Shadow Process by Diane Hamilton. This other blog is more personal in tone and geared to a broader audience.

  3. Yvonne says:

    Hi Pat,
    This is great, there’s a lot of information here. In the Integral Life Practice Matrix, there are practices marked with a gold star. Where can I find descriptions of these practices?
    Thanks for all your work!

    • Pat says:

      You can find additional information in Ken Wilber’s book on Integral Life Practice and various places on the web. On my other blog, I have a 90 discussion with Ken Wilber on these types of practices and other resources as well. In this article, I was focusing more on the general principles than the specific practices, but perhaps I will add articles. You will note that on my Meaningful Life blog, I have a section dedicated to practices. I also recommend the link on that blog to Rick Hanson’s blog. He wrote “The Buddha’s Brain,” but his blog is extensive with many practices of various types that you can also use as a starting point.

  4. Altan Khendup says:

    Excellent article with lots of remarkable insight.

    Well done!

  5. Pat, as I think about your post, I first note to whom you are addressing the post. I like the opening line; it immediately suggests a gentleness to what you are offering. Then you bring in depth and breadth, dimensions that may be lacking in very successful persons whose success may have come about by a one dimensional perspective. Then you introduce the integral model, which points to other dimensions. Then, you talk about how it might apply to a business leader.

    In my psychiatric practice, it took a lot of time to gain a feel for people suffering different disorders. The addict differs from the anxious person who differs from an antisocial person, etc. These people were suffering from disorders that diminished their success in life. You have a feel for people who have been very successful in some areas, while other parts of them long for development. I like the post, and if I were an executive, I’d be interested in more.

    You know better than I what writing style is likely to be most effective with this group or category of person. You may have done this already, but I would suggest you study the blogs of those coaches who are on the first page of Google searches.


    • Pat says:

      I think that’s a great idea. However, I believe there is also some risk of perpetuating a dynamic that I believe keeps us all managing quarter-to-quarter rather than taking a wider perspective. Unfortunately, I think some approaches are popular because they seem to offer a quick fix and appeal to our impulsiveness or desire for instant solutions or they tacitly reinforce our unexamined assumptions. That is not to say there are not popular coaches who go deeply, but as in everything I often see more flash over substance in many places within the business world and politics. At least, I see more of a focus on the wrapper than the candy in man people’s writing.

      On the other hand, people like Daniel Goleman, Rick Hanson and others just have an amazing outpouring of great ideas in prodigious qualities. I suspect like all things, my blog will evolve as will my audience. I see a lot of the best bloggers regularly via Linked In. I have mixed feelings about some of their approaches, but I still keep up with them and take away what I can. That is not to say I don’t have a lot to learn, I do…. but it seems there is always a management topic “du jour” and this is often a substitute for getting more fundamental i.e. doing the basics well and character.

      For example, Six Sigma was popular and still is. However, it proposes a way of looking at people like machines and worshiping efficiency at the expense of people’s humanity. Maybe that’s a bit sharp, but I feel we have enough of those kinds of survive at all costs, make a profit any way you can approaches. If I can, I want to offer something that delivers a win-win for every stakeholder.

      Lastly, I’m very interested in business ethics and leveraging multiple perspectives and emergent qualities that arise when people truly connect. I believe in having a systems perspective, measuring the things you want to manage, but I tend to focus on the interior aspects of individuals and collectives e.g. company culture to achieve synergy within a more humane and balanced perspective. I don’t see this orientation in some of the more popular blogs, but rather lip service to it.

      Similarly, with respect to companies, they all have mission statements and values, but how many organizations actually embody them? Granted it, it’s a difficult dance in the current market, but based on my experience, there is often more lip service than stepping up. If it weren’t so, would be seeing some of the things we are seeing as fallout of how our businesses and governments are operating?

      I guess my bottom line is that I want to learn from the best of the best. However, I want to avoid the pitfalls that are perpetuating the status quo. I think the best coaches have backbone and heart, but that won’t always make you the most popular coach in the market.

  6. Ronald Bell says:

    Thank you for this relatively “user friendly” overview – I like it.
    (It would also be interesting to see you add a “Competitive Values Framework” overlay somewhere in the visuals.)

    I sense that you personally bring an integrated personal touch to your organizational perspective and work – such resonates … and is refreshing.

    I have left a question mark (?) hover over your paragraph discussing developmental lines and personal growth, where you say: “Since we are considering a stage conception, each step will look like a rung in a ladder. Moving up a stage is not like moving along a continuum, you are either alive or not, have self-reflective capacity or not.” I understand the “look like” (external) aspects of viewing the model/map, but wonder if the (internal) aspects of moving via steps to new stages (transcend & include) are more “continuum”- like in actual experience? I don’t mean to sound flippant, but what comes to mind here is an (old) difference/distinction between a menu and a meal. The menu map is useful, but it is not the territory – the eating of the meal. (Our word symbols are so-slippery in both intended meanings and interpretations, etc. )

    Again thank you. Overall your presentation is very user-friendly and clear.

    – Ronald Bell

    • Pat says:

      Great comments. With respect to my work in organizational development, yes, I carry the model through the door. However, I try to put people and organizations on their own path and not invariably lead with this model. For example, what if an organization is at BLUE or RED? Here, another approach might be better. I will think about your idea, however, because the customers who lean toward the Integral Model are very interesting to work with.

      Regarding the stage conception, like any metaphor there are limitations. Certainly, the map is not the territory. However, in the various stage conceptions in evolution, psychology, etc., there is the notion of a progression that is discontinuous. In other words, there are leaps. I think a lot of growth is incremental and continuous, but then there are the cliffs we must jump off of at times. Perhaps your commentary and mind will provide the nuance to illuminate the process better.

      Thank you for making these comments. I hope you make more in the future because they are good and no doubt will contribute to other readers understanding.

  7. Ronald Bell says:

    Thanks again. First of all your mentioning an organization’s “color” (spiral dynamics) serves as a very useful and timely reminder for me regarding something I have been struggling with recently — trying to push against something/someone I wished to change and thus triggering increased resistance vs respecting and honoring (akido like) the existing “wall’s function and “color” … and adapting my approach. Sometimes it best to consider “different strokes for different folks”, and also different strokes for the same folks. Good to get overall integral perspective and clear on “addresses” as to where folks live and work.

    Secondly, in reading your reply comments and especially the last 2 sentences in the 2nd paragraph of your blog, (which also triggered memory of other integral theory readings), my fuzziness cleared in a sort of “clarity click”, … and my hovering question-mark went “pooff”. 🙂

    Here’s the 2 helpful sentences you wrote: “By transformation, I mean a move up from one plateau of development to another. This is a process where you transcend the old level, identify with the new and embrace the lower level by integrating it into a more comprehensive identity.”

    The developmental progression notion of one’s self-conscious “identity” reaching a point of discontinuity with previous “stages” resonates with my own personal experience. I can vividly remember (internal, subjective, individual) one experience in particular decades ago, wherein I finished reading a poignant section of a book, closed it, and felt a creative conflictual tension gap, like I was standing on the precipice of a high cliff, facing an existential decision of whether to jump off (into a new unfamiliar, fearful, unknown identity (vocational role & beliefs, etc.) or to not-jump and stay securely put … where I had been. Just before deciding I experienced a deep felt sense of “knowing” that whatever (Providence, G.o.d., Source, Ground of Being, etc.) was at the center of existence and of all-that-is ….. was (hopefully 😉 trustworthy. So I “jumped …. off the cliff”. It was a “leap” … into a new stage level … and there has been no going back, … only further forward (lines) and “upward” (levels/stages).

    Postscript note: I don’t want to interpret my last sentence (above) as implying anything resembling perfection or tacit “judgmental-ism”. (Again words are so slippery and distinctions are important. Some things are better than others and evaluation does not necessarily imply “judgement” — hmmm, maybe this would be a helpful topic on which you could blog – especially within the context of integral theory?)

    My observation is that all of life is imperfect at best, not at worse.
    Intrinsic to life’s light is some “shadow”. I like Joe Campbell’s saying: “Where you stumble, there is your treasure.”

    • Pat says:

      This is a great comment. I particularly like the vivid and concrete example of a stage change. It’s clear from the context you are evaluating, not judging. You are also right this would make a good future article. In general, two operations seem distinct based on how much of what we are calling the Self is engaged and whether the intent is to make black vs. white categorical distinctions which amount to a reduction vs. a wider and more meaningful embrace. This implies a more full understanding in a consolidated and embodied fashion. The article may be coming, but for now I hope this is some good grist for people’s mills. It’s a very important point.

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