constructivist ideas in practice

In the early 80’s when I was studying psychology as a part-time mature student at the University of London, we were offered an evening course on Personal Construct Psychology. That’s where I first met Helen Jones who was leading the classes and I owe a considerable debt to her inspiring and facilitative introduction to the world of PCP. It’s been such a pleasure to hear more of Helen’s long career in introducing and promoting PCP in so many diverse fields.

helen jones MF: You were one of the very first people taking PCP into organisations Helen - how did you make that move?

HJ: I was first involved in organisational work when I was working with Fay Fransella as Director of Training and Development at the then Centre for Personal Construct Psychology in the early 1980s.

MF: Some of our colleagues are keen to construe organisational work and work-related coaching as a separate discipline from PCP counselling or personal support. What are your views?

HJ: I think PCP is an overarching theory which can easily be adapted to all sorts of contexts. In some ways I think the question is ‘who is the client?’ With PCP you would take a credulous approach and respond to what the client says they want. I think this includes therapy, counselling, psychotherapy, mentoring, supervision and of course coaching. I have personally not found it necessary to redefine the work, as a PCP approach is to diagnose what is suitable for a particular client. It is too easy to overcategorise subdivisions, though having said that I do acknowledge the need for good marketing commercially to be recognised in specific roles.

MF: Where did your organisational work with the Centre first take you? HJ: We had won a contract with British Airways to look at why their passenger contact staff were not getting the high ratings from passengers that they used to. We interviewed a large sample of passenger contact staff to see what they felt about passengers, using repertory grids, resistance to change grids and pictures of passengers as elements.

I found being part of the research team really interesting. The objective was to try to find the basis for a new training initiative that the airline wanted to get right. One of our main findings was that passenger contact staff actually liked to work with “difficult” passengers” as they were more interesting than just “treating all passengers the same” which had been the basic assumption before that time.

Responding to these findings from the research British Airways introduced a new programme called “Putting People First” which involved all passenger contact staff. I was involved in supporting some of the participants and trainers and felt I was beginning to understand how practical this sort of research could be.

MF: I have had a similar experience in customer service research, revealing that staff were not 'afraid' to deal with aggressive customers or 'intimidated by them' which were the management assumptions, but they felt disempowered by a lack of resources to offer and knew that they could not respond adequately to the problems they were presented with. Senior managers had some difficulty accepting these findings. Did you come up against any such obstacles in your work?

HJ: I think the important detail was that the then Director of Staff Development came to one of the workshops at the PCP Centre and he became very interested in PCP as a diagnostic tool and wanted us to do the work in depth. He was politically well placed to influence senior management to build on the evidence base we provided.

The Putting People First programme included all staff including the senior managers and was focused on taking account of individual points of view. Our follow up work was with individuals who were part of the training team or participants on the programme who were offered extra mentoring to get them on board. So we were a back up service rather than front line. Our team went on to work in a similar way with a number of other organisations – other departments in British Airways, British Gas, the National Coal Board etc. These were all research projects but being involved in mentoring and supporting some of the participants afterwards became my main interest.

MF: And then you left the Centre in the late 80’s?

HJ: I left to move to Yorkshire in 1987 but I did not have a job to go to. I commuted to London 3 days a week for some time to work with clients on an individual basis. Later that year I had the opportunity to apply for a job in the NHS in Yorkshire. I had no experience or qualifications other than the research and the practical follow through I had done with BA. So PCP underpinned my application, and my emphasis on the importance of doing good research before beginning any training initiative was listened to. I think I was lucky to be offered the job of management development adviser for the then Yorkshire Region with a brief to introduce management development to doctors.

I wanted to interview a number of doctors and managers with a view to finding out what they would want from such development and I did similar research preparation as I had with British Airways, so PCP was fundamental in developing my new role.

MF: PCP clearly underpinned the development of an appropriate programme and syllabus. DId you teach PCP specifically?

HJ: I used to do a workshop on PCP so that they would understand where the design of our programme was situated. Some participants became very interested and joined the foundation PCP programme I later ran. One participating consultant psychiatrist later joined me in running a general foundation programme in PCP for anyone in the NHS who was interested. He was particularly good at running the grid sessions and the different kinds of statistical analysis which could be done - never my greatest quality! As a team we worked well together. Towards the end of my time in the NHS funding had all but disappeared and people could no longer get study leave or financial backing to attend.

MF: How did the NHS group respond to your PCP style of research and training needs analysis?

HJ: I found that doctors were appreciative of the exploration and managers were pleased to be involved. At that time the two professions were regarded as very different, so I began to develop training programmes involving both groups and found a number of independent management consultants to work with me.

I then won a national NHS contract to fund about 100 doctors in going through business development programmes at Ashridge Management College. The contract did not include managers but I put the case forward that it was important that doctors and managers work together beyond the 4 week programme and I managed to get funding to extend it to a 12 month process of action learning sets so that there could be some major local impact. These programmes went on for some years and proved to be very popular with most participants, and I grew a larger group of Associates to help deliver them.

MF: I imagine there may have been assumptions to overcome before managers and doctors could discover their commonality? Were any activities particularly useful in the early stages?

HJ: The underlying principle was of the importance of doctors and managers working together on real life projects which had an impact in their own organisations, and so a new culture developed - many of the relationships people made then have lasted over the years and had a real impact across Yorkshire. There certainly were barriers and assumptions between doctors and managers! This was why I wanted the programmes to involve both over time so that they could develop some commonality through the projects they were tackling together.

The programmes were a mixture of inputs based on what people had asked for, general updating sessions on changes in the NHS political and otherwise, and workshops and exercises to help people's self awareness and leadership. These were task-based activities so they could act out roles in relation to each other. Most of all we used the action learning set framework to develop a home base for groups of about 6 people with a facilitator. The focus of these action learning sets was partnership between doctors and managers working together to solve organisational problems facing them in their work settings.

The principles of Warmth and Light, Support and Challenge underpinned these work groups and working with a climate of questioning rather than debating. I think this is where the commonality grew - through recognising and accepting difference rather than expecting similarity.

We used all sorts of exercises with a focus on planning together rather than working separately, team exercises to see how they could trust each other to lead or be good followers, and a negotiation exercise where people practised different ways of persuading others. We had quite a few realistic scenarios for them to tackle together, and something to do with dropping an egg from window height without breaking the egg - lots of traditional and well known exercises which engaged people.

One of the important things was to provide everyone with a really nice hardbacked A5 notebook which was a blank page for them to record their learning over the programme and we used to have quite a few reflective sessions where people would share their learning.

Where I was lucky was that at the time we were working there was support from the senior management and funding from the individual organisations plus funding from the then Department of Health to boost doctors' interest in leadership and management. Part of my work was to access these different sources of funding and it is much harder these days.

I owe the success of these initiatives entirely to my introduction to organisational work at the Centre for PCP and the synchronicity of my arrival in Yorkshire at a time when there was funding in the NHS and a belief in the value of training and development. So I was extremely lucky.

When the Yorkshire and Northern Region merged, the climate changed, and Training and Development was no longer such a high priority. I was invited to take my whole programme of work into the Department of Health Studies at the University of York and I became Director of the Centre for Leadership Development. We continued to operate as a consultancy, winning contracts around the country for various leadership development initiatives not just in the NHS but across organisations. We also ran a Master’s programme in Leading Innovation and Change in partnership with what was then the College or Ripon and York St. John, now St John’s University, York. Working on this programme was a joy for many years and perhaps what I am most proud of in my organisational career.

MF: Leadership has been the focus of much of your career - do you think PCP offers a very different understanding? And are there important things you learned yourself about leadership through your role as Director and your contact with so many eager leader-explorers?

HJ: I guess my reflections on leadership are similar to my reflections about PCP. I think it is immensely useful to have a good theoretical framework to underpin anything you do in terms of human relations, staff development or leadership. Leadership seems to be about developing personal integrity and understanding of the organisational context in which you work as a leader. There are lots of models of leadership and perhaps situational leadership comes as close as any to finding different ways of leading different people in different contexts and finding what works best in each circumstance.

For me I think it is about facilitating change in others and helping them to do this in a way which suits their values, principles and personal style. Not an earth shattering view but one that seems to help in doing leadership development work generally.

February 2012

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