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Analyst’s corner

Can you “psychoanalyse” organisational change?

From counselling clinics to change leaders: supercharge your change readiness assessments!

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

“Hang on! I am an individual! I have my own thoughts about stuff. I make my own decisions!”

Of course, but certain factors influence us. And these factors aren’t only a work or psychological contract with our employer or client. How about our biological makeup, psychological processes and social environment? These factors help explain why we may resist or embrace change (or somewhere in-between). Causes of disease and psychological disorder in patients consider these influences. In 1977 George Engel proposed a biopsychosocial model ¹. Do psychological and social factors play a role in disease origins and maintenance?

How does this biopsychosocial model relate to change professionals?

Every individual involved in your change has many influences on their behaviour. Here are three:

1. Biological: Each of our brains comprise complex wiring. We may perceive sensations via our central nervous system. Parts of our brain ‘light up’ to process this sensation. What are the various ways an employee interprets your communication? Is it a threat to their working life? Some brains may be wired towards seeing your change as a threat. In 2008, David Rock proposed a neuroscience-based model — the SCARF model ². SCARF conceptualises an explanation for how people perceive stimuli. This stimuli may include our change communications. People’s brains may be wired to be attracted to — or repelled by — certain stimuli. They interpret what your change means for them in different ways.

2. Psychological: Our thoughts, feelings and behaviours intertwine ³. The Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) model is a model used by psychologists. CBT helps conceptualise psychological processes ⁴.

As change professionals, we work with individuals and teams to help them adjust to a new way of working. We may distribute awareness communications to influence their thoughts about the change.

  • We may engage with teams to elicit their feelings about the change.
  • We help teams and individuals think differently about the change.
  • We hold training sessions where individuals can try a new way of working, such as a new system. This is where people’s behaviours begin to change — they engage with the new system.
  • We remove obstacles to user adoption by making installation of the new system as easy as we can.
  • We aim to build a habit of a certain behaviour, for example using a new system. A habit is formed from a repeated behaviour over time.

3. Social: Our manager and colleagues may express an opinion about a future change. Strong emotions might lace their opinion. The groups we belong to have social norms. We risk ostracisation if we operate outside these social norms. When our group ostracises us, the part of the brain which registers pain activates ⁵. Yes, ostracisation by our peer group is painful. Is it better to behave like others? If we behave a certain way, our thoughts and feelings tend to align over time with our behaviour ⁶.

As a change professional, we therefore need to positively influence a team’s perceptions of a change.

Your change to an individual’s future way of working thus has three core influences. The individual may be change fatigued. Or they have little time and resources (“space”) to adjust to your change. But these extra influences boil down to biological, psychological or social factors. So the biopsychosocial model is a useful “system” for change professionals ⁷. It helps us understand an individual’s different responses to our changes.

Source: Author (adapted from Engel, 1980)

The client sits nervously in the clinic waiting room. They pick up a dog-eared magazine from a stack on a coffee table in the middle of the room. The clinician walks into the waiting room.

“Hello, please, just this way.”

The client follows the clinician into a small room. The door shuts behind the clinician. In a calm and friendly tone, the clinician offers the client a glass of water, and offers the client a nearby seat. The client accepts, and the clinician pours a glass of water for the client and themselves.

The clinician takes a slow breath and asks if it is OK to cover a few formalities before the session begins. The client nods, and the clinician covers how the session is confidential, with limits to this confidentiality. How client records are stored on premise, and the possibility where courts may subpoena a clinician’s notes about the client. And of course, the ethical code the clinician is bound by. The clinician deftly covers these formalities. It is a fine balance. Cover formalities yet help the client feel comfortable in the clinical setting.

“Are you comfortable with everything we have covered? Is there anything you don’t understand which I could help you with?”

The client is fine with this professional boundary and understands.

“What brings you to see me today?”

The client now has the space to describe what has brought them to therapy. The clinician writes down the problem and supporting information. The intake interview has begun. The notes from the intake interview help the clinician start to map out the client’s ‘system’. What do we know about the client that keeps them in a state of distress?

Psychologists use an intake interview to map out an individual’s problems. And they take a brief history of events and triggers leading up to the problem. They may use a technique called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is an evidence-based approach to treating many psychological problems ⁴. CBT includes treatment plans and theoretical models, depending on the client’s presenting psychological issue.

The CBT model helps clinicians model a client’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Clinicians seek their client’s permission and involvement in the modelling work. Over time, the CBT model identifies unhelpful thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Everything written down in a CBT model links to the problem that brings the client to therapy. Some thoughts, feelings and behaviours might tend to make the client’s issue worse. Others sustain the “presenting problem”. A “presenting problem” might be a single panic attack. Certain behaviours turn a single occurrence into a repeated problem. For example, regular panic attacks. Regular panic attacks might become habits.

The clinician and client work together on the client’s “bespoke” CBT model over time. They collaborate to describe a system of sorts about the client’s issue. What thoughts, feelings and behaviours trigger and perpetuate the given psychological problem? A client may perceive an accurate reflection of their “system”. They can finally see how their “system” influences their psychological issue!

These insights can be startling and illuminating for clients. Treatment and homework help clients experiment. They can “try on” different behaviours and adjustments in a safe environment. The clinician and their reflection of the client’s “system” work as a mirror. The client undertakes the hard work to address their psychological issue. The clinican and CBT model act as a “mirror” to see parts of their “system” they could not see before therapy.

So how does this relate to leading change in organisations?

We are not dealing with individuals, and not individuals from vulnerable populations. We may not be bound to ethical codes and stringent legal obligations like psychologists working in clinical settings. Although quite a few change professionals have a psychology background or belong to the psychology profession.

Our ‘client’ is the organisation that we are supporting with a change. We work with teams and individuals within the organisation. The CBT model helps explain the “system” around an individual’s behaviour. CBT applies to psychological problems in a clinical setting. Can we adapt CBT to non-psychological problems? Can we adapt it from clients in clinical settings to individuals and teams in the workplace? Yes.

CBT modelling concepts may help change professionals unearth change impacts. The same approach can illustrate team and individual obstacles (or resources!) for change readiness. And remember in our story, the clinician asked the client what has brought them to therapy. The presenting issue becomes the focal point for the CBT model. Change professionals can draft a clear problem statement for their organisation’s change ⁸. This statement can also break down any “target” behaviours supporting “successful” change.

It is worth spending good time on designing problem statements. Your statement gives your change plan a greater focus. Every sentence in your plan can relate to answering the problem statement. The statement can also be framed as a measurable goal.

For example:

Transition from System A to system B on [date Y]. Out of a population of 20,000 users, 15,000 have logged in to System B by [date Z]. Four weeks after [date Y], 16,000 of the 20,000 users are using system B at least once per week.

Many advertising and user experience (UX) professionals use CBT concepts at a team, organisation and market segment level. Change readiness occurs at an organisational level, a group level and an individual level. While the organisational and group level is often addressed, we may often see individual readiness to change neglected ⁹ ¹⁰. This is why we need to walk in an individual’s shoes when thinking through how they may respond to our proposed change. Depending on the number of your affected employees, you may need to find at least several representative individuals. You can study their change journey, using either empathy maps or your own CBT model.

Change professionals explore both current and future state with individuals and teams. Pain points and general gripes about the change surface in these explorations. We can probe the nature of the pain points to learn the attendant thoughts, emotions or sentiment. We can ask about an individual or team’s likely behaviours in the face of a particular change. UX professionals often use constructs like empathy mapping ¹¹. The elements of an empathy map have similarities to the CBT model. We can adapt empathy mapping to our change practice.

Source: Author (adapted from

Going back to CBT: can we adapt the CBT model to understand what keeps teams mired in the status quo? Yes.

CBT models don’t only illustrate thoughts, feelings and behaviours. CBT models help identify what can sustain the problem. In this case, the problem may be obstacles to an individual, team or organisation adjusting to a change.

What thoughts, feelings and behaviours have we captured in our CBT model so far? What of these can we influence through our change work? For example, people may perceive a future change in a certain way. How can we “re-brand” this perception of the change? How can we get the ‘client’ to think differently about the change? How can we influence constructive behaviours? Change professionals can encourage employees to ‘try’ a new system during User Acceptance Testing. These employees may provide testimonials to their peers about the system.

Psychologists use a technique called case formulation to map out a “system” of a client’s presenting problem. Like with the CBT model and empathy mapping, case formulation can be adjusted and applied to our change practice. We replace the client’s presenting issue with the problem statement for our change.

Here is a one-minute video showing the application of case formulation to working with a resistant team:

Source: Author

Case formulations assume that the client may be predisposed towards certain problems. This is often because of family history, their biology or other factors. A problem may surface due to certain triggers (or precipitating factors). Perpetuating factors may sustain the problem. But it is not all gloom and doom. The client has resources or advantages that help them get “unstuck” from their problem.

Source: Author, adapted from Dudley and Kuyten (2014)

In our change practice, we can use the questions in the diagram below in our team-level research. The answers to these questions help us understand what keeps a team “stuck” and unwilling (or unable to) adjust to a change. What “bad” team or individual behaviours might be rewarded? What strengths or resources are evident in the team, or individuals within the team?

Source: Author

So how do you go about finding answers as part of your case formulation?

To understand the current state, spend a few hours observing employees using it. This may be a one-to-one observation, or a “Day in the life of” (DILO) session. DILO sessions may involve one or many employees and change professionals. If employees can walk through the current state, providing their thoughts and sentiments along the way, all the better. These sessions are rich ground for understanding current state “gains” and “pains”.

For your future state, have you a proof-of-concept, sample or prototype available? Or you may invite employees to a presentation or walkthrough of your future state. User Acceptance Testing (UAT) is another useful future state forum. UAT workshops can help change professionals researching employee/future state interactions.

How do you apply case formulation to a team or organisation?

The below example is a case formulation applied to a team. The team may be on your radar as their leader has been quite hostile towards the change. You need to win the team over (presenting problem). This example shows the effect of previous changes (predisposing factors). Poorly-implemented changes influence their attitude towards future changes, like yours. Your time spent with the team may reveal useful information to inform your change. For example, does go-live fall at the same time as the team’s busiest time of the year (a precipitating factor)?

Are some employees in your change “rewarded” by staying with the status quo? Would they lose a sense of control if they transition to your future state? If so, they might influence junior team members to resist the change (a perpetuating factor). But some team members are career-driven. They may see career opportunities by adjusting to and advocating for the change (a protective factor).

Source: Author

The actions from each factor are clear in the above example — and form your next steps. For example:

  • Minimise the effect of predisposing factors — or maximise the potential of protective factors
  • “Unpick” perpetuating factors. This may involve removing people’s concerns about transitioning to the future state.
  • Minimise the fall-out or negative influence from any perpetuating factors.
  • Or you could remove any way people can keep attached to the status quo — for example, removing access to the current state.

Each factor links to a better understanding of this team’s change readiness.

  • CBT is a powerful model used by psychologists.
  • Applying concepts from CBT to change management is a useful way to capture insights.
  • These insights encompass current and future state and ways to make change easier.
  • Empathy maps and case formulation approaches provide practical modelling along with CBT.
  • Each model helps change professionals uncover change readiness barriers and resources.

How do you capture team and individual level thoughts, feelings and behaviours about your change? How do you organise these into a coherent, reasonably accurate model? How do you identify factors that prevent people adjusting to your change? What factors keep people ‘stuck’ in the status quo?

My book — The Change Manager’s Companion — is available now. You can also check out my online course on Change Management.

Reference List

1. Engel GL. The need for a new medical model: A challenge for biomedicine. Science (80- ). 1977;(196):129–136.

2. Rock D. SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Neuroleadersh J. 2008;(1).

3. Ferrier A. The Advertising Effect. South Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Oxford University Press; 2014, p33.

4. Australian Psychological Society. Evidence-based Psychological Interventions. 2018:1–175.

5. Hawkley LC, Williams KD, Cacioppo JT. Responses to ostracism across adulthood. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2011;6(2):234–243. doi:10.1093/scan/nsq045

6. Festinger L. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.; 1957.

7. Engel GL. The clinical application of the biopsychosocial model. Am J Psychiatry. 1980;(137):535–544.

8. Devos J. How to Frame Design Problem Statements | Toptal. Published 2020. Accessed October 31, 2020.

9. Rafferty AE, Jimmieson NL, Armenakis AA. Change Readiness: A Multilevel Review. J Manage. 2013;39(1):110–135. doi:10.1177/0149206312457417

10. Frahm J. Change Readiness — Conversations of Change. Published 2019. Accessed November 14, 2020.

11. empathy-map-canvas.png (1200×776). Accessed November 19, 2020.



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Allan Owens

Senior organisational change manager. Provisional Psychologist. Author of The Change Manager’s Companion.