constructivist ideas in practice

dorota bourneDorota is the Associate Professor of Coaching and Change Management at Henley Business School. We met recently at the PCP International Congress.

Mary: Great to meet up with you again Dorota! Perhaps we could start by exploring how you first met Personal Construct Psychology, and why it appealed you?

D: It was in 2000 when I came to the UK to do my PhD with Devi Jankowicz. Prior to this, I was not familiar even with the name PCP. At first, it seemed like I had no choice since this was my supervisor’s approach, but I was curious and open and Devi introduced me to PCP in an interesting and engaging way. We first completed some grids and I learnt what a personal construct was, and then I attended more sessions on the Repertory Grid run by Devi. So in a way, I learnt about PCP through the exploration of my own and others’ constructs.

In the meantime, I was reading some literature on the topic. However, it was only one year into my studies when I had my first “aha” moment and I felt I knew what PCP was really about. It came through reading the book The Child Within - note to self: I need to read it again! It was written in such accessible manner, and perhaps the examples of children construing just spoke to me.

My own learning has always been heavily focused on the experiential aspect, and thinking about it now PCP was quite complex theoretically and perhaps too abstract for me to really grasp it at first. It was only after a year of reading different articles and books and experimenting, that I was able to make real sense of it. What appeals to me most is the structured approach, and methods such as the repertory grid and ‘resistance to change’ grids. I like structure and processes which are easy to navigate and PCP has offered just that.

M: You have said that in your new role you hope to promote PCP as an approach for business and management settings – why might your clients and colleagues find it useful?

D: I think the most important and useful aspect for them is to understand the bipolar nature of constructs and highlighting the opposite pole. In my research I witnessed the power of being able to explore both ends of a construct and realised how many answers and insights the opposite pole can offer, especially at the core level. PCP is a framework which enables us to really focus and to appreciate other people’s construing, and as a result it leads us to more understanding and less judgmental forms of communication. This I believe is the key requirement for good people management and leadership practice.

M: Are you noticing any specific changes in how people are approaching change in organisations at the moment? What kinds of things are they asking for?

D: I think there is a growing appreciation of education, coaching and developing people, as opposed to traditional approaches to programmed training. There is a focus on enabling change, and a more sophisticated approach which focuses on long term impact as opposed to superficial solutions. I see companies investing more heavily in people now as opposed to technology. But I still would like to see more open communication between top and middle managers, and the philosophy of change being well translated to all levels rather than another command coming from the top.

M: Do you have any examples of where a constructivist way of thinking and practising has helped?

D: Resistance to change is my favourite area - PCP has been the most meaningful and the most exciting and revealing way to approach the subject. By revealing, I mean that we have been able to explore what is really going on, beyond the politics, games and façades that often feature in the ‘resisted’ pole of a construct.

When I explored resistance to change in General Motors in the UK using grid and RTC methods, it provided such interesting and meaningful material with results that no one was expecting or had thought about. It helped me to understand and explore what was happening in this organization, although unfortunately it didn’t prevent the closure of the plant which came during the time I was collecting my data.

Where these techniques are now helpful is in my coaching practice. I get really great feedback because PCP methods provide such a useful framework for highlighting one’s fears and worries through the negative pole of construct.

M: Do you talk about PCP specifically, or is it more of an unspoken thread running through your work? I know that some organisations are very wary of psychology, while others get rather carried away with it.

D: In some cases people get intrigued by it and are open to trying new things. Then they ask me more, and when I explain the theory they respond very positively. But it can go too far and they expect some magic resulting from this new, exotic-sounding method. Most managers and practitioners are quite open and I’ve rarely had any negative reactions. If I see lack of interest, or confusion, I usually don’t pursue the PCP conversation. Negative reactions would sometimes come from Business and Management students who have little interest in psychology and tend to view their education in an instrumental way.

M: I’ve found that too – it’s very disappointing, but increasingly a feature in HE. You mentioned recently that you have been working on finding out about people's hopes and dreams - could you describe what you have been doing and where that work might lead?

D: I ran some focus groups with a humanitarian organization which was going through some change at strategic and operational levels. We engaged in a ‘dream-like’ exercise imagining the aspirational vision for their organization, thinking 10 or 15 years ahead. I gathered their descriptions and ideas, and from that we narrowed it down to people’s individual roles and place in this aspirational picture.

From this point, we connected the future with the present by designing their own developmental map and identifying their training needs for the next years. We also explored key competencies to focus on as a company and as individuals. The last aspect had an element of construct elicitation where I used both ends of elicited constructs, the desired and unwanted poles. Sometimes exploring what they didn’t want helped us clarify much more clearly what they wanted. The ability to move between both ends is very powerful in my opinion. It often enabled me to get people “unstuck” in our conversation and expressing what they think and feel.

This was one of the most satisfying and enjoyable programmes I have ever run with an organisation. At the moment, I use it as something that is always at the ‘back of my head’ rather than in the foreground as an approach. I would like to apply and develop this approach in the future using more PCP-oriented thinking.

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