In the euphoria that accompanied England’s journey to the FIFA World Cup semi-final this summer many reputations were enhanced and none more than Gareth Southgate’s.  Rightly so, but another name started cropping up in the media: Pippa Grange.

England Psychology Times

The Times

If you haven’t read the reports, Pippa Grange is the psychologist that has been supporting Gareth and the team, and has been given great credit for the transformation of the team culture and mental approach.

I don’t know Pippa Grange, so I don’t know what makes her an effective psychologist. There’s evidence that the quality of relationship between a practitioner and client is the major influence on outcomes, and she’s clearly someone who has connected with and commands the respect of the team. However, I was most excited to read about Dr. Grange’s background in Reversal Theory, as it forms the basis of my own work. Indeed the name 8Connect refers to the 8 motivational styles or states described by the theory.

What is Reversal Theory?

Reversal Theory can be described as many things. It’s what’s known as a general theory in psychology, in that it attempts to explain human experience as a whole. It’s based on motivational styles (or states), and these are connected to emotions. So, I’ve also heard it being described as a map of our motivational and emotional world. Finally, it has been described as a “state theory of personality” by Michael Apter, it’s founder. What that means is that instead of seeing our personality in terms of stable traits, we can look at it in terms how how our motivations are constantly changing and shaping our experience and behaviour.

The following aspects are what make it particularly powerful, in my view. They also help to explain why, although the theory has a very committed following, it isn’t more popular.

Gives structure to human experience

First, by describing a comprehensive structure for understanding human experience, it gives us a ‘big picture’ view. In a scientific world where things tend to be reduced into smaller parts, it’s refreshing to see the whole of the jigsaw rather than some of the pieces.

Mapping motivations and emotions provides diagnostic power

Second, by providing a map of motivations and emotions, it gives the practitioner different ways of getting a understanding of a problem. People tend not to be great at talking about their emotions, but they can talk about their motivations. The fact that our motivations also link directly to values makes it especially powerful in organisations, providing a common language for developing organisational effectiveness links individual experience, team dynamics, leadership, climate, culture and even strategy.

Emphasises changeability

Third, by emphasising the changeable (and even paradoxical) aspects of human nature and focusing on states rather than traits, it helps to make change more accessible. Rather than putting people into boxes, based on personality traits, and saying you’re this or that, it makes it easier to ask, when are you like this or like that? What is it like when you’re there? How could you be like that more often?

The structure of motivations

At the core of Reversal Theory is the motivational structure. There are eight motivational styles or states, in four pairs (or domains). These pairs are ‘bistable’ in nature, which means that we can’t be in both at the same time, like an on-off switch. This is where the ‘Reversal’ comes in, as we alternate between these states over time. Some people tend to do this more often than others, but we all do it to an extent. This also means that some people have dominant states, in that they spend more time in those than others.

These motivational states combine, along with other variables, to form our emotional experience, and each is also associated with a core value.

Challenges with Reversal Theory

No theory is perfect, and Reversal Theory has its challenges. I have my own views on why it isn’t more widely known or used.

Comprehensive but complex

First, while it’s a comprehensive framework, it’s also pretty complicated. There are a lot of component parts and layers. I’ve helped to train many coaches who work only at the motivational level, pretty effectively. But there are other layers and components, not least the emotions. So being fully conversant in the theory does take some work, and that investment tends to mean that people get really into it or not at all.

Hard to place into a curriculum

The general nature of the theory and complexity also means that it’s potentially quite hard to place into a psychology degree. Does it go into a module on motivation, emotions or personality? Its too big, in reality, and could easily fill a module on its own – but only someone with a special interest is going to create that!

What’s the verdict?

As someone that has made the effort, and used the theory in practice, my view remains that the pros outweigh the cons, and that as long as we acknowledge that no theory or model is perfect then it remains a very powerful aid to understanding how people think, act and relate to each other, and to how organisations work.

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