Change and Constructs – the currency of perception

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getting people to change  one by  one is the only way to change organisations.  After all every change is personal.

J P Garnier, (head of GlaxoSmithKline)


To be effective in any change programme we must understand the perspective those undergoing change are coming from and its implications on the change programme.  We must recognise how the other people see their world and what meaning they attribute to things in order to effectively communicate, connect, engage and interact with them.

According to Sabjanyi (2006) any organisational change, no matter how small, has the potential to have a major impact on an individual, their self-view and subsequent performance.  He also said that “organisational change can only happen if employees shift their behaviour and mind-set … so it is important to bring our attention to the level of the individual when attempting culture change”.  He goes on to say that “organisational interventions can only be successful if they can influence individual realities in the direction of the intended outcome”.  Steven R Covey (1989) is quoted as saying something similar in that “To change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions.”

As Mary Frances (1999) says:-

… change initiatives with an imposed top down values driven approach will articulate the cohesive nature of the organisation in relation to its strategic direction,

which is necessary for organisational health, but will necessarily neglect the fact that people will construe those “cohesive” messages in quite individual ways”

In terms of change management this has major implications for the change agent.  Possibly the most obvious implication is that change interventions must be taken to the individual level and managed almost “one person at a time” (which can be a threatening and scary concept for those looking for a top level, reductionist panacea.  To effectively get a team and/or organisation through a change programme we must look at interventions at the individual level not at the organisational!

However, as this could be seen as the equivalent of herding cats, there are some things we can do to mitigate the size of the task.  We can design our interventions to work at the team, or group, level.  We must ensure that we create a safe environment where people feel trusted and that they can share their thoughts, feelings and worries safely.  We must ensure we have effective interaction; full, open honest engagement and communication/discussion that facilities the creation of a shared, mutually accepted understanding.

The theory is extremely relevant for developing personal emotional maturity and self-awareness both of yourself and in helping you get a greater awareness of others.  It helps identify, and understand, the underlying motivators that drive behaviour in yourself and other people and helps one person connect with other people more effectively.

Some might argue that Epictetus put it so much better and simpler with his quote “People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them”.  This quote, in many ways, nicely sums up, what is for me, the underpinning philosophy of George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory.

The main unit of perception (or our personal sense making building blocks) is known as a “construct”.  This is the name given to anything we use as a “label”, “template” or “name” for something, one or event. These constructs are what we, usually subconsciously, apply to our experiences’ in order to make sense of them.  Our whole collection of these labels then becomes our “construct system” or map of our world.

Constructs are, therefore, fundamental to our attempts at understanding our (the) world.  They are the method we use to discriminate between things.  They form the system we use to categorise, and understand, similarities and differences between things.

A construct is simply a way of differentiating between objects. Each construct can be equated to a line connecting two points. These two points, or poles, each have a (different) label identifying the opposite extremes of the construct. Based on our perception of other people’s behaviour we put them somewhere on the scale between the two poles and hence build our mental map of them and their place in our world.

It may be useful to think of a construct as similar to the yin-yang symbol from eastern philosophy.  As with the yin-yang sign, a construct is a duality of opposites and must, almost by necessity, contain elements of its polar opposite within it – it is neither positive nor negative only defined by what it is, and is not.

As each construct has two poles or opposites (e.g. someone, or something, is good as opposed to bad, hot as opposed to cold, makes me happy as opposed to doesn’t make me happy) along which we locate the current object.  This definition of each pole acts to define the limits of the template/frame of reference and provides a “range of convenience” which in turn defines the limits of that constructs applicability (e.g. you can relate to an oven being “warm/cold” but not “friendly/unfriendly”).

It is usually when things fall outside our range of convenience that we run into problems – we don’t know how to cope, what to do or what will happen in the future.  This can lead to resistance to change and/or paralysis and inaction.

Our collection of our separate constructs, experience’s and actions therefore form the basis of our mental map (or logic bubble) of the world.  We also place ourselves along these same dimensions and use them as a guide to choosing not only our behaviours but also our friends etc.  Each construct has two elements, or poles, one describing the event and the other describing the opposite (e.g. fails to deliver on time versus does what says will do).

Individual constructs are then combined into an organised structure, or system, which provides a working model of the individuals’ world.

As part of this organising structure each of our constructs has other, associated, constructs attached to it ‑ a form of stereotyping – usually in a hierarchical structure.  So, in the example above, someone who ‘does what they say’ may also be seen as ‘communicating regularly’ (as opposed to ‘never speaks to me’), being reliable (unreliable), dependable (cannot trust), etc.  it is worth noting that some people will have stronger links between associated constructs than others e.g. “if you are “X” then you are always “Y” and “Z” as well.

This then forms a thumbnail sketch covering how we perceive the other person and influences how we approach and deal with them. Thus, it is only by actually understanding another person’s construct system that we can interact with them in a productive manner. PCT offers the framework that can help identify each other’s construct systems (or mental maps of the world).

Unfortunately, our map of the world may not be “right”, appropriate or effective – but it is OURS!  Perception is reality, effective change management is not about right or wrong or the “truth” because, as Johnny Cash said “what is truth?”.

We all therefore interact with the world from a unique perspective – our own.  This perspective is built up of all our past experiences and our anticipation of future events.  It is this reflexive assessment and future pacing that dictates how we approach situations, what we do in them and how we understand what happened.

Interestingly, Ray Kurzweil (2012) in his book about human thought processes talks about optical illusions and how our brain interprets the image in a certain way and says

thus our conscious experience of our perceptions is actually changed by our interpretationsConsider that we see what we expect to ___.

I’m confident that you were able to complete the above sentence.  Had I written out the last word you would have needed only to glance at it momentarily to confirm

thatit was what you had expected.

This implies that we are constantly predicting the future and hypothesizing what we will experience.  This expectation influences what we actually perceive.  Predicting the future is actually the primary reason we have a brain.” (italics and emphasis in the original)

Mahoney (2003) argues that all change is a complex and dynamic process involving cycles or spirals of movement between the old and the new.   This underpins Kelly’s model of how we approach situations and how we apply meaning to them based on what we think will happen.

This point of view is, itself, influenced by two things – what we did in the past in similar situations and what happened as a result of our actions.  The result of our past experience then influences our choice of behaviour in the hopes of getting the same (better?) response.

You may have already spotted the similarity between Kelly’s Experience Cycle and Kolb (1984) and later Honey & Mumford (1986) theories on how people learn.  In that we have an experience, think about what just happened, place it in a wider theoretical understanding and then work out what to do next time.  Whilst I don’t know where Kolb took his inspiration from, I do know that Peter Honey was familiar with PCT and actually devised a method of analysing the contents of multiple Repertory Grids (e.g. Honey 1977).

So by focusing on how we interact, and slightly changing the nature of those interactions, we can influence others to modify their opinion, reaction and engagement levels for good or bad.

Jabri (2012) describes two types of change – the visible (people, places, processes, behaviour, etc.) and the invisible (attitudes, values, beliefs, etc.).   As a change agent we need to be aware of, and control (or at worst identify and acknowledge) all of these positions.

To do that we must ensure that we include all of the following elements within our change plan:-

  1. Communicate fully the reasons for the change, celebrate those elements of the old world that were working effectively, give valid, cohesive reasons for change and “close” down the past ways of working.
  2. Recognise the importance of understanding, and delivering against, the psychological contracts (both implicit and explicit) of all participants and of managing the expectations of employees.
  3. Involve/engage all members of the organisation, allow them all to have their voices heard. Change should not be seen as something forced on people, by either HR or by “management”, individuals must accept and own the change.
  4. Communicate the new vision in an easily understandable way that makes clear what is expected, what the future looks like and what will be required in the future.
  5. Communicate a “route map” or timeline showing what has to happen, by whom and when, allow individuals to compare their own behaviours and actions against the wider organisation. Provide regular updates, progress briefings, success stories, etc. – you can never over-communicate!
  6. Be aware of, acknowledge and support people as they go through the various emotions and phases. Celebrate successes as you go along and help people feel involved, valued and in control.

My experience also implies that if we feel we have some form of control over the change (and are involved in the process) we are more acceptable of it and contribute more effectively than if change is just forced upon us.




Covey S. R. (1989), The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, Free Press

Frances M. (1999), Culture and Change in Organisations: A PCP approach in Fisher J. M. and Savage D. J. (eds), Beyond experimentation into meaning, EPCA Publications, Lostock Hall

Honey P. (1977), The Repertory Grid in Action, Industrial and Commercial Training, 11, 452 – 459

Honey P. and Mumford A. (1986), Using your Learning Styles, Maidenhead, Peter Honey Publications,

Jabri M., (2012), Managing Organizational Change: Process, Social Construction and Dialogue, Palgrave McMillan

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kurzweil R. (2012), How to Create a Mind: The Secrets of Human Thought, New York, Viking

Mahoney, M. J. (2003), Constructive Psychotherapy: A Practical Guide, New York: Guilford Press.

Sabjanyi L. (2006), Designing effective change interventions: the 4C model of organisational culture, AMED, Organisations & People Vol. 13 no. 4, pp 9 – 16


By |August 13th, 2017|Change Management, PCT|

About the Author:

Observer of life, the universe and Rugby (League) as well as Leadership development, coach, facilitator and change management. I've been lucky enough to have gone to loads of places and done a few things :-) - in the main I enjoy life

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