What is Reversal Theory?
Reversal Theory is a psychological framework that describes the dynamics of human experience in a holistic, structured way. It does this by focusing on the relationship between motivation and emotion, or emotivation. Few theories focus on this relationship, which we believe plays an important role in both performance and wellbeing at work
Why is Reversal Theory so useful in a business context?
- It deals well with complexity and paradoxical situations, something that’s increasingly important in business leadership.
- Its emphasis on dynamic, changeable elements of personality also matches the fast-changing reality of organisational life.
- It links our inner and social worlds, which helps people to manage themselves and their relationships (in other words, to develop emotional intelligence).
- Its broad focus on human experience makes it very versatile and helps to connect different ideas relating to performance, change, engagement and even wellbeing.
- It also provides a common language for working at different levels of organisation: individual and collective; operational to strategic and cultural.
- The link between motivation and emotion makes Reversal Theory a very powerful diagnostic framework. It can be used to pinpoint issues and open up multiple solutions..
Curious? Let’s explore the theory in a bit more detail.
What are the origins of Reversal Theory?
In the mid-1970s, Michael Apter (pictured) was invited to work with Ken Smith, a psychiatrist, to study truancy. They saw children being labelled by adults according to their behaviour – e.g. naughty or nervous. Apter & Smith, however, noticed that the same children often behaved very differently if different contexts, for example in and out of class. This sewed the seeds for a radical new psychological approach that developed over the next couple of decades and became Reversal Theory. Reversal Theory has now been researched and applied in many domains, including business, sport, health, counselling and education.
What’s special about Reversal Theory?
There are a few things that make Reversal Theory very different in modern psychology. Specifically: It’s a very different take on motivation; a dynamic view of human personality; and a broad, holistic framework.
A different take on motivation
First, it’s a very different view of motivation (though not incompatible with other contemporary models). Rather than simply equating motivation with ‘drive’ it asks what’s motivating you at any particular time. You’re always motivated by something. But when your motivational style is incompatible with the current situation it will create frustration and possibly stress.
A dynamic view of personality
Second, Reversal Theory is concerned with dynamic states of mind and not with personality traits or types that suggest that we are relatively static. (Though some more contemporary approaches do acknowledge more dynamic aspects of personality). We argue, however, that it’s how we respond at critical moments and not our personality profile that define performance. Reversal Theory can help us better understand and manage that response.
In fact, Reversal Theory goes further than saying that we can be very different in different situations. Even in the same situation, at different times, we might respond very differently and that is because our motivations change. In other words, Reversal Theory sees people as inherently inconsistent.
A broad, holistic framework
Third, Reversal Theory is what psychologists call a general theory, which means that it at least attempts to explain human experience and personality holistically. This runs against the trend in modern psychology which has been to research more narrow concepts that are more easily statistically assessed. The holistic nature of the framework makes Reversal Theory extremely versatile and able to solve almost any ‘human’ problem. While it is also fairly complex, we believe that there are too many frameworks out there that oversimplify human nature and contribute to poor outcomes.
What are the components of Reversal Theory?
The basic building blocks of Reversal Theory are motivational styles. Motivational Styles are states of mind, or lenses through which we experience the world. They relate to broad motives or values that are active at a particular point in time. The effect that motivational styles have our experience of events is captured well by the famous quote by Anaïs Nin:
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as they are.”
Our motivations are always on the move, influenced by the situation we’re in but at the same time influencing our response to it. It’s our motivational styles that make us adaptable. They change naturally and by understanding that we can learn to manage them.
Read more on motivational styles.
Our emotions, however, are units of experience. When we’re faced with a problem, we experience associated emotions. Likewise when something is going well. Emotions are an important source of information. According to Reversal Theory, emotions tell us which motivations are being satisfied or frustrated. Emotions such as fear, anger, excitement, boredom, guilt, pride, resentment are all, therefore, signals that we can learn to read.
Problems are therefore emotional but the solutions to them are often motivational, because motivations are easier to manage.
How do motivations and emotions interact?
Let’s say I’m happily working away and a horrible boss comes in to the room. I sense danger. My motivations will change. Now I just want to be safe. I experience anxiety, decide to look very busy and avoid eye contact. When I’m out of danger, I might feel a bit of a rush of relief, or I might just slowly calm down.
These interactions are structured, even logarithmic, often sudden and, when we ‘reverse’ between opposite motivational styles, can be dramatic
Collective Experiences – Climate
You might be thinking, “this is interesting at an individual level, but what about teams? What about collective experiences?”. Although Reversal Theory was developed to describe individual experiences, it scales well to teams and organisations.
Climate is important to us at 8Connect because it’s a more dynamic concept than culture. It’s a shared psychological environment. The mood in the room. Climate something that people perceive similarly, though they may not find it equally pleasant. This is because our own motivations at the time act as a filter.
Additionally, climate is important because it creates specific conditions in which certain things are more or less likely to happen. If you seek innovation, collaboration, process discipline, accountability, customer care and so on, it pays to create the right climate. Climate therefore provides a great link between emotions, motivations and strategy execution. Culture can imply that to achieve certain goals the whole organisation needs turn, like a supertanker. Climate, on the other hand implies a fleet of speedboats that are more agile and nimble, and can go in different directions but can also come together.
What makes Reversal Theory particularly useful at work?
As all eight of Reversal Theory’s motivational styles have a potentially important role to play in guiding us through life, the theory suggests that we are generally happier, healthier and higher performing:
- When we can make use of the full range of motivations over time, which has been described as psychodiversity and
- Even more so, when we can match our motivations to the demands of the situation at hand (which as been described has “motivational intelligence”).
On the other hand, when we get stuck in particular motivational styles over time, we can encounter prolonged stress and other emotional or mental health challenges.
The same analogy can be used with organisations. Each motivational style contributes something unique to business performance, for example planning, creativity, collaboration or customer centricity. When organisational structures, systems or culture make it difficult for people to access a full range of motivations, that creates problems like disengagement and stress.
So, it’s obviously useful to be able to create the conditions at work that enable people to adapt their motivations and contribute in different ways
This simple principle of enabling people to adapt their motivations is what makes Reversal Theory so applicable in so many settings.
It’s the dynamic, paradoxical aspects of these motivations that makes the theory so relevant to today’s fast-changing and complex business environment.
Finally, it’s the structured relationship between motivation and emotion that makes it such a powerful diagnostic framework. If we understand how people feel, we know what they want and whether those needs are being satisfied or frustrated. We can do a lot with that information.
Want to know more?
We hope we’ve given you a sense of what Reversal Theory is about and why we find it so useful in our work. While it has given an overview of the fundamentals there’s always more to explore. There are many books and journal articles covering Reversal Theory, and there’s an active research community. We’ve created a facebook group to help people explore Reversal Theory and its applications in business and sports performance further.
In addition to using the framework in our own work, we are proud to partner with Apter Solutions to provide certification training in the Apter toolkit, which includes the emotivations coaching card game, the Apter Motivational Styles Inventory, a climate tool and a leadership 360 assessment.