Intentional change

beforeafter by My brain hurts! (Meik Weissert)

I wonder if that’s how he pictured his ideal self…

How does change happen?

What motivates change?

What makes a change sustainable?

Richard Boyatzis, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Case Western Reserve University, has the answers… or maybe an answer: Intentional Change Theory.

Professor Boyatzis has earned a mention on this blog previously for a natty little theory he developed with David Kolb (of learning styles fame)  about the various modes of performance, learning and development one goes through repeatedly in one’s career. He is also a researcher, writer and speaker on the subject of emotional intelligence.

Intentional Change Theory was originally called Self-Directed Learning and it attempts to describe the essential ‘components and processes of desirable, sustainable change in one’s behavior, thoughts, feelings and perceptions’.

Bayatzis (2006) talks about desired sustainable changes being ‘discontinuous’. More profound changes are often experienced as a sudden revelation or change of perspective which couldn’t have been predicted beforehand. However, he makes the point that increased self-awareness or mindfulness may result in the experience of smoother transitions because you are more likely to be aware of the change as it emerges.

He also points out that significant change is non-linear. In some circumstances a small input can produce a disproportionately large change, at a different time it may produce no change at all.

Five discoveries

Intentional change involves a sequence of five discontinuities or discoveries:

  1. Discovering the ideal self and personal vision. This is an image of the person (or organisation) that you want to be in the future — a vision that is formed from your values and philosophy and which stimulates positive emotions. This vision is sustained by ‘hope’ which is influenced by your beliefs in your ability to bring about this future (self-efficacy and optimism). The final component is the person’s ‘core identity’ — relatively unchanging personal attributes and strengths that present an element of continuity between your current self and your future self.
  2. Discovering the real self and comparing it to the ideal self. Building a complete and accurate picture of yourself requires reflection and feedback from others in order to recognise  the various ways in which your identity manifests itself in different situations. Part of this reflection on your real self is to identify gaps between it and your ideal self that mark out areas for change. However, another important result is to recognise positive strengths that need to be maintained and can be built on in developing the ideal self.
  3. Discovering mindfulness through a learning agenda. A personal learning agenda is about more than just having a plan of how to change; it about an emotional commitment to move from your current situation. It involves becoming more aware of both the positive (hope, joy, enthusiasm, comfort, etc.) and the negative motivators (fear, uncertainty, dissatisfaction, etc.) that might entice you to move towards the goal or might put you off changing.
  4. Discovering metamorphosis through experiment and practice. Any movement from a current to a future self will involve changes of behaviour and thought patterns. These are not things that will happen comfortably overnight. You need to try out new behaviours in a spirit of experimentation and learning. Not only that, you may need to practise learning new things from your existing activities and environments as a way of changing your perspective. You might need to seek out safe environments in which you can get away with a certain amount of trial and error.
  5. Discovering relationships that enable learning. An important element in sustainable change is finding environments that support the change rather than making it more difficult. Relationships are important to all of the previous stages of discovery. Other people can give us inspiration for what our ideal selves might be. They can provide honest and timely feedback that helps us to see ourselves more accurately. They can provide emotional motivation and support in planning for change. And they can help us to try out new ways of being and thinking. Of course, they could equally get in the way of these things.

Now, I like quite a lot of things about this theory (or is it a model?). I can see lots of ways in which it could be applied practically with clients and I’ll definitely be adding it to my collection. After all, it has a lot more going for it than the good old GROW model. However, there are one or two things that bother me slightly.

It’s all a bit Sergio Leone

By which I mean: the notion of discovering your personal vision and ideal self seems to have a bit of a Western individualistic mindset. Boyatzis specifically contrasts ideal self with ‘ought self’, which is what you think other people want you to be. But that could be expressed more positively as ‘ideal communal self’.

There is also an assumption that there is one real self, of which the various contextual selves that other people perceive are just facets. This isn’t the only way of looking at the concept of self.

So, I wonder how adaptable this theory is to cultural contexts which are less individualistic than the US.

Blinded by neuroscience

Boyatzis does have a bit of a tendency to throw in snippets of neuroscience to justify his assertions (parasympathetic nervous system anyone?). I wonder if it’s just because neuroscience makes everything sound that bit more convincing. (See also this critique of Boyatzis’ use of fMRI studies.)

Still, who am I to criticise. I’m just as fond as the next guy of a bit of neurotechnojargon.

Linear non-linearity

For a theory which emphasises non-linearity, the discoveries are described in quite a linear sequence. OK, the picture that Boyatzis uses to illustrate his theory  is not quite as linear looking as some people’s interpretation. However, he does talk about a ‘sequence’ and he has numbered them.

I’ve blogged before about whether emergent change needs goals, so I’m not going to go on about it here other than to ask why the process couldn’t start with discovery #2 or #4 or #5 rather than discovery #1?

But then, perhaps it would be the Accidental Change Theory instead.

Further reading

  • Boyatzis, R. (2006). An overview of intentional change from a complexity perspective. Journal of Management Development, 25(7), 607-623. DOI: 10.1108/02621710610678445
  • Boyatzis, R. & Akrivou, K. (2006). The ideal self as the driver of intentional change. Journal of Management Development, 25(7), 624-642. DOI: 10.1108/02621710610678454
  • Taylor, S. (2006). Why the real self is fundamental to intentional change. Journal of Management Development, 25(7), 643-656. DOI: 10.1108/02621710610678463

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