Spiral Dynamics

Understanding How Values May Affect Decisions

Spiral Dynamics

A spiral continues to turn and change.

© iStockphoto/danleap

When you look back on your actions, decisions, and ways of coping with problems, were your responses consistent?

Or have your reactions changed over the years? (Most people's do.)

This is because our values and motivations change over time.

Psychologists have long been interested in these changing reactions. In fact, some of the best-known psychological theories on motivation have been derived from looking at this very phenomenon. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs   and McGregor's Theory X versus Theory Y   are just two of the theories that have emerged to explain what motivates people and why. Although each theory is different, the question of what people value is central to the theories of motivation and human development.

Spiral Dynamics, a fascinating but less known theory of motivation, looks at the value systems that drive individuals' beliefs and actions. The concept originated in the 1930s with the work of Dr Clare Graves, but he died before publishing his theory. With the popularity of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Graves' theory slipped into obscurity until one of his students, Dr Don Beck, wrote "Spiral Dynamics Integral" in 1996. This "new" theory is an extended version of Graves' original.

Graves' original theory was called "The Theory of Levels of Human Existence." Graves' theory attempted to explain why people's reactions and motivations are so different. It was Beck's application that brought the idea into the main stream and applied it to workplace motivation.

Explaining the Idea

Spiral Dynamics differs from other theories of human development and motivation in one key way: It doesn't argue that we travel towards an ultimate destination and stay there, it says that we continue to spiral through a helix of developmental stages depending on the biological, social, environmental, and psychological forces at work. As such, Spiral Dynamics attempts to explain "everything" that influences human experience.

Essentially Spiral Dynamics was developed in order to help us understand:

  • How people think about things (as opposed to "what" they think).
  • Why people make decisions in different ways.
  • Why people respond to different motivators.
  • Why and how values arise and spread.
  • The nature of change.

Spiral Dynamics: A Marriage of Two Concepts

Beck's theory of Spiral Dynamics developed from two similar, but distinct theories:

  • Graves' original Theory of Levels of Human Existence.
  • Dawkins' concept of "memes" (rhymes with "beams") .

Graves said that values are what drive behavior. He categorized values (in this case, people's views as to what is important to them about how the world is, or should be) as being either individual-focused or group-focused. Depending on the developmental stage a person is at, or where they are on the Spiral Dynamics helix, their values will influence everything they think and experience to a greater or lesser extent. This means that their values will impact their:

  • Feelings
  • Ethics
  • Motivations
  • Beliefs
  • Preferences for learning and working
  • Political position
  • Ideas about social systems.

Dawkins, the zoologist and evolutionary scientist, uses the term "memes" to describe the cultural information that is replicated amongst people. These are things like fashion, artistic techniques, slang words, and basic beliefs that are passed from person to person. Like a gene, the fundamental biological unit that is replicated in organisms, a meme is the fundamental cultural unit that is reproduced within society.

Spiral Dynamics refers to vMemes (value memes) as the deeply held values that influence human experience. vMemes are the mindsets, concepts and paradigms that people ascribe to and are what they use to govern their decisions and actions. It addresses the age old question, "Why do people do what they do?"

The Helix Model

Spiral Dynamics theory is depicted as a color coded helix, where each color represents a different vMeme. A simple representation of this is shown in Figure 1 below.

Spiral Dynamics Diagram

The theory identifies eight Value Systems or vMemes, which it says have emerged to date. The ninth is as yet undefined. These are identified below, starting at the bottom of the spiral, with the most fundamental:

vMemes Description Values and Behaviors
Beige Instinctive/Survivalist Do what you must to survive.
Purple Magical/Animistic Use rituals and have a mystical sense of cause and effect.
Red Impulsive/Egocentric Emphasize cunning and doing what you want to do. The strong prevail and the weak serve.
Blue Purposeful/Authoritarian Desire ordered existence and enforce principles based on what is "right." Controlled by a higher power.
Orange Strategic/Achievement Oriented Take advantage of all opportunities and strive for success. Make things better and bring prosperity.
Green Egalitarian/Community Oriented Demand human rights and develop caring communities. Look for affiliation and sharing.
Yellow Integrative View the world as integrated systems and emphasize flexibility. Change is the norm.
Turquoise Holistic Combine mind and spirit to experience life's complete existence. The world is a delicate balance that is in jeopardy in human hands.
Coral Undefined We're not there yet.

According to the theory, as people grow and mature, their vMemes expand from a purely individual basis to a more group or societal one. The key difference with Spiral Dynamics is that people don't leap from one stage of development to another; rather they spiral up and down. As they move up the helix, their understanding of the world becomes more and more complex.


While Spiral Dynamics argues that there is no desired end point, the use of the spiral in diagramming implies a hierarchy to these vMemes.

This implied hierarchy may suit some people in some circumstances, but may seem inappropriate to other people in other circumstances. More than this, it implies a particular end point of development (particularly in the later stages) that people may agree with or may not agree with, depending on their philosophies and beliefs.

Again, according to the theory, this increased complexity is what fosters human growth and development. In the workplace, the higher the state of development, the more empathic and understanding a person will be. This will impact their approach to managing, leading, and working. Knowing what states others are in will help you to determine what best motivates those people and how best to interact with them. This approach argues that the following types of workplace issues that can be positively impacted by knowing and understanding value system states:

  • Team development.
  • Conflict management.
  • Management/leadership style.
  • Organizational culture.
  • Reward and recognition preferences.
  • Motivation strategies.
  • Effective communication.
  • Interpersonal relationships.
  • Sensitivity to change.

Ultimately, according to the theory, the higher the vMeme, the better able you will be at getting along, motivating yourself and others, and working productively to build a great organization; presumably one that enriches society as a whole as well as the employees, owners, and other stakeholders.

Using Spiral Dynamics

There are several types of assessment tool that use Spiral Dynamics theory. There are three main types available for evaluating Spiral Dynamics in the workplace.

  • Change State Indicator – an online assessment that evaluates readiness to change and change preferences.
  • The Discoverer – used to profile six vMemes, or value systems patterns, (Tribalistic, Egocentric, Absolutistic, Multiplistic, Interpersonalistic, and Systemic systems) which can be analyzed for optimal team and organizational performance.
  • Values Profile II – the same as the Discoverer, but includes a Holistic profile measurement as well.

These assessments are supplied by several organizations. Some assessments need to be run by people who are accredited to run them, who have undergone prerequisite training. This helps ensure that they are able to interpret the output of the assessments correctly.

Good starting places for further information about these assessments and about Spiral Dynamics in general, and assessments, include www.spiraldynamics.org and www.spiraldynamics.net.


Viewed as an idea with eight different vMemes, and without any judgment as to the relative value of these, this approach may be useful in understanding "what makes people tick."

Given, however, the implied hierarchy with Instinctive/Survivalist at the bottom and Holistic at the top, it's important to be extremely cautious about using it, and also to avoid making judgments about the superiority of one person's beliefs and values over another's. This is a sure way of losing support for any position you are seeking to advance.

Key Points

Spiral Dynamics is a theory of human development that can be used to address how and why people do what they do. Rather than trying to pinpoint one thing that might work for everyone or will work for certain people at certain periods of development, Spiral Dynamics takes a much more individual approach to motivation.

Tapping into these very individual, yet still universal, human experiences can improve your understanding of your own behavior and the behavior of others. Ultimately, the theory argues, this increased awareness will improve your ability to manage people, motivate people, lead people, and in general relate to people.

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Comments (6)
  • Jax wrote Over a month ago
    Were not there yet Speak for yourself, I know many people thinking in coral.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi ecomeaux

    There is a lot of information in this articles, yes - and much to think about. Something that specifically interests me, is the ninth or undefined vMeme. What is it that caught your attention? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!

  • ecomeaux wrote Over a month ago
    Loved this theory. Will have to ruminate on it for awhile.
  • Jara wrote Over a month ago
    I've heard of Spiral Dynamics. It seems to very popular with people who are dedicated to making the world a better place. I have a friend who is very much into that holistic way of thinking. For me it's always been much easier to say than do unfortunately! But I admire people who are able to make the effort and put their money where their mouth is so to speak.

  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Thanks eeuoa77 - it really is an excellent conversation and one that lots of you might find interesting. We'd love to hear your thoughts and opinions on values in general as well as the models that have been developed to try to explain them.

  • eeuoa77 wrote Over a month ago
    Some good food for thought on how values change and contribute to motivations and decisions. There is a tread about Hierarchy of values and Core values in the THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Are You Congruent Or Consistent?
    http://www.mindtools.com/forums/viewtop ... =2703#2703
    That pertains do this values issue.

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