Over the last 10 years I’ve used Reversal Theory (e.g Apter, 2001) in my practice as a sport psychologist, organizational development consultant and change manager. One of the things that I’d like to do with this blog is to develop a body of content that describes Reversal Theory as an integrative theory for change practitioners that will provide a common language and framework for dealing with individual
change, team interventions, change leadership, organizational and cultural change.
Reversal Theory is a general psychological theory that makes a connection betweenvalues, motivational states and emotions. It has been developed over more than 30 years and has been researched and applied in a wide range of domains including management and leadership, psychotherapy and counseling, sports and exercise, health and religion.
The Value of Reversal Theory in Change Management
The practical value of Reversal Theory in change management is based on the following observations:
- Individuals are operating in a more complex and dynamic organizational setting than ever before, and change is only increasing in pace
- Management is increasingly focused on managing conflicting ideas or dilemmas (grey areas, rather than black and white)
- Leadership is increasingly recognized as requiring the creation of the right conditions (or climate) for performance
- Different organizations, with different strategic ambitions and market conditions require very different capabilities, which in turn demand very different mindsets and behaviours from employees
- Individuals, including leaders, can perform exceptionally in one organization (or set of conditions) yet appear quite ordinary in others
What’s Different About Reversal Theory?
Reversal Theory helps us to understand these kinds of complexities in ways that many of the psychological theories used in change management do not, because:
- As a state based theory, it helps us to conceive of people as more changeable and less consistent than trait theories
- As a general theory it can explain a wide range of phenomena, creating a common language rather than having a patchwork quilt of unrelated theories to work with
- However, rather than being in competition with other frameworks, particularly in individual change, it can be used as a diagnostic ‘layer’ with cognitive, behavioural or humanistic interventions
- It explains why certain situations appear to warrant opposing or conflicting, even paradoxical, explanations
- It provides a map of motivations and emotional experience, which helps us to find ways to engage with people in more precise and compelling ways
- It links the internal world of the individual to team dynamics, leadership (climate), and to organizational culture
Reversal Theory in Business and Change Management
Although Reversal Theory has been widely empirically researched, most of its use in the business world has been by practitioners behind the screen of client confidentiality. Apter Development / Apter International, for whom I used to work, has been one of the main users of the theory in Organisational Development, using it as the basis of their work in leadership and management development and employee research. Indeed although, Steve Carter outlined a new model of change agency / change leadership based on Reversal Theory (that I will refer to later) I will be attempting to weave together a wider range of aspects of change management using Reversal Theory, and indeed propose a number of ways in which existing frameworks can be further enhanced by the theory such as (to be further developed):
- Creating individual change
- Facilitating team change
- Developing Change leadership
- Understanding organisational culture
- Integrating RT with models of organisational change
- Assessing change readiness
In doing so, I’d appreciate any feedback either through comments, email or twitter (@robertsrobson).
Now, if you’ve come this far, I’m sure that you’ll be eager to learn what Reversal Theory actually is, so I’d better get writing!
M.J. Apter (Ed.) (2001). Motivational Styles in Everyday Life: A Guide to Reversal Theory. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association Press (*This is the ‘bible’ of RT research up to 2001*)
S. Carter (2003). Change is not what it used to be. Understanding the role of the change agent. Apter International Ltd (now Apter Development)