How Achievers Differ from Pluralists and Why it Matters

Mar 20, 2015

Some years ago, I was privileged to undergo training on the various stages of human development from the renowned Bill Torbert.

Bill is one of the leading scholars in the field of adult development. The retreat was held in an old seminary now owned by Boston College. As I walked the grounds each spring morning, through the evergreens and over the creek, I was overwhelmed by my own good fortune.

To “sit at the feet” of a great mind is a beautiful thing. Most of us in attendance were scholar-practitioners. A few were corporate executive clients who had worked with Bill through the years.

All traveled to this beautiful setting to learn more about Bill’s specific model of adult development. In preparation for the event, we each had to take an assessment that would help us understand our own developmental stage.

The Achiever vs. The Pluralist

Most of the participants at this event had been immersed in transformational work in one form or another. With the exception of a few corporate executives who scored at the Achiever stage, the majority showed up at the later stages of development.

Again, one stage is not better than another. Simply different. For the Achievers, however, the very idea of not measuring up to their own preset goal of later stage development proved to be a bit disconcerting.

The point is this. People who score at the Achiever stage, may find themselves disappointed with their score. It’s the nature of being an Achiever.

Many Achievers fancy themselves at later stages. Remember, they’re often blind to their own shadow, and they have a competitive spirit.

If you’re at this stage, embrace it. As you develop more awareness, you will begin to lean into later stages. For now, if you’re living or working with a Pluralist, you might find yourself easily frustrated.

Here’s a few reasons why.

The Pluralist Stage:

For the Pluralist, goals are less important than process. The Pluralist enjoys being responsive to the contexts of life. They’re more comfortable being in the moment.

Yes, these are very subtle distinctions, and that’s exactly the point. Both the Achiever and the Pluralist stages are within the subtle tier of development. The main difference is that perspectives now shift from an individualistic to a collective viewpoint.

The Pluralist understands that his internal meaning-making systems are socially constructed. At this stage, I not only recognize that my thoughts are my own. I realize that those thoughts shape my growth and development—my very identity—and that they are based on the context in which I’m living.

Everything becomes relative. Within the context of family, career, culture, society, I can now explore my own subtle mind. I become aware of my own awareness. I explore thoughts, emotions, and feelings and how they relate to different contexts. The Pluralist may even experience a sense of synchronicity with all of life as a result of these subtle thoughts.

This stage represents an exciting time of inquiry. However, it can also bring up feelings of isolation. The Pluralist often swims up stream and is comfortable doing so. To those around him, however, it may seem as though he is out there somewhere in left field.

Even so, there is a sense of freedom in growing and waking up into the Pluralist stage.

I remember having the first spark of this awareness in the early years of my son’s disability when I came to realize that the doctors’ expertise and their prediction that Michael would only live to the age of two was but one perspective.

In that moment of realization—and, it was an exact moment—I came to embrace a different understanding: I could choose to focus on Michael’s quality of life.

While Michael’s early years were overshadowed by my Achiever frenzy to find a cure, I learned to let go of fear and to embrace the potential of each moment —even when our lives were upside down with stress and frustration.

I came to understand that I could change my own thoughts—no matter how loud the external voices of despair. An amazing thing happened. The context of our lives changed. Rather than spending every holiday getting to the latest clinic, Michael’s youth and adolescence consisted of travel, new adventures, and creative options for a life of meaning and purpose.

The Achiever side of me still did the necessary things to meet Michael’s many needs, but we experienced life with more joy, passion, and purpose.

Coincidence or God’s plan? Who knows. Either way, Michael lived a healthy, productive life to the age of twenty-seven. I find peace in knowing that we focused on the process of living and gave up the goal of resisting death.

Such is the power of awareness. When we witness the subtle energies of our own thoughts and emotions, our perspectives broaden and change. They also become more complex.

Here are a few other perspectives of the Pluralist.

The Pluralist Worldview:

  • Views all ideas and knowledge as relative.
  • Values diversity of viewpoints
  • Experiences the past and future within a ten-year range in both directions.
  • Appreciates feedback that supports discovery of the authentic self.
  • Attracted to difference and change.
  • Seeks independent and creative work.
  • Enjoys subtle levels of conversations that explore interpretations, judgments, paradox, and assumptions.
  • Has an intuitive subtle mind that experiences synchronicity and reciprocity.
  • Has an appreciation of all living things, beyond humanity, to include the environment, animals, and plants.

Where Achievers and Pluralists are perhaps most at odds is that the Achiever sometimes views our ever-changing world as flawed and essentially doomed. The Pluralist, however, views these challenges as opportunity for change, growth, greater diversity, and unified options for global sustainability.

As Torbert (2013) so eloquently states, the Pluralist “brings into focus the realization that there is an accepted (unconscious) way of the world; that this “way” is, inevitably, flawed; and that one way of correcting the flaws is to look more carefully at our own and our organizations’ effects on others and the wider environment.”

In short, when Achievers and Pluralists come to appreciate their differences and collaborate in purposeful ways, they have the potential to literally change the world.

If you’d like to know about your specific stage of development and how it may be impacting your business and your life, please contact

Resources and References

Torbert, B., & Herdman-Barker, E. (2013). The Global Leadership Profile report. Boston, MA: Action Inquiry Associates

[callout]This post is part of a series written by Sharon Spano, PhD. The series is titled, The Stages of Human Development. To learn about the stages of human development, read my posts: