Develop or Grow?

Both growth and development describe constructive, personal change. Yet, there is an important distinction.

What is the Difference?

A butterfly DEVELOPS from a caterpillar.
While a caterpillar may grow, a butterfly develops.

Using a familiar metaphor, think of it this way. Growth is when a caterpillar becomes faster, stronger, or more skilled. Development is when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.

Here’s a more intellectual, albeit brief, description of the basic difference between growth and development.

Growth: More, Better

Usually when people grow, they adapt to increase the capability, frequency or intensity of desirable behaviors in an area in which they already have some competence. Here’s an example from the workplace: A capable manager who is refining interpersonal competence by attending more to his colleagues likely is growing his managerial skills. He is adding on to existing capabilities.

Development: New, Sustained Capacity

Lawrence Kohlberg, moral developmental theorist, suggested* three criteria to distinguish between growth which may be fleeting or fickle change and true development.

Change in Pattern

First, development is more than a “change in the frequency or intensity of emission of an already patterned response.” True development represents alteration of the “general shape, pattern, or organization” of how someone responds to life.


The second criteria for development is newness.  A person who is developing responds to their world as, “a really new kind of experience.”  Someone who has developed intentionally (such as by working with an executive coach or psychotherapist), or who has undergone a life-changing developmental experience, thus meets life in fresh and novel ways.


Finally, true development is marked by irreversibility. “Once a developmental change has occurred, it cannot be reversed by the conditions and experiences which gave rise to it.”

In the workplace,  for example, take the case of a technical professional who has not managed colleagues before and moves to the management track. She will now need to develop wholly new ways of thinking and being in her work to be effective. Applying her traditional technical skills better will not change her into an effective manager, even of other technical professionals.

Likewise, the manager described earlier as an example of growth –– as he was learning how to relate better to his colleagues –– may also more fundamentally develop his social competence. How? By changing the very way he thinks about both himself and other people. As he develops internally, becomes a different person, inevitably he relates differently to others. Perhaps more patiently, considerately, open-mindedly, and so on.

This approach to change is fundamentally different than merely adopting new behaviors –– going through the motions, which almost always leads to backsliding, reverting to the old, familiar patterns.

Development Sticks

Over the course of a lifetime, all of us both grow and develop. Anyone interested in self-improvement, in expanding their capabilities, in making a greater contribution to the world, likely engages in both growing and developing.

Some people grow –– change their behavior –– because they receive “coaching.” Others develop a more permanent way of seeing and being in the world that reflects a foundational shift. They don’t change their “behavior” (a tentative, unstable condition primed to return to its original state). Instead, they develop an enhanced way of living in the world. They become a different person.

True development is extraordinary. And it persists.

Don Blohowiak
PhD in Human Development

– Kohlberg, L., & Kramer, R. (1969). Continuities and discontinuities in childhood and adult moral development. Human Development, 12(2), 93–120. doi:5791921


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