Reversal Theory

One tool I use frequently to support both organization development and communication work is Reversal Theory, a theory of motivation and emotion.  Here are pointers to my work with this theory:

An Essay: From Fear to Action with Reversal Theory

This essay I wrote originally appeared in OKA’s online newsletter in November 2009.

2009 has been a big year for the emotion of fear. Between global recessions, flu pandemics, and identity-stealing e-mail threats, it is hard to not get swept up in anxiousness. At its best, the fear can be productive because it sparks us to take action; sometimes it becomes paralyzing because every choice seems fraught with danger and risk.

Reversal Theory has a lot to say about fear. In fact, it was noticing the difference between feeling exhilarated by a roller coaster and being terrified by it that helped lead to its conception more than 30 years ago.

In short, Reversal Theory proposes that there are eight motivational states, organized in four opposing pairs, that drive our emotions in any given moment,  We can and do regularly change (or reverse) between the states in each pair. These states and their motives are shown in this diagram:

Reversal Theory Scales

Reversal Theory Scales

In each of these pairs, only one state is active (or focal) at any given time…. here’s an example borrowed from “Learn the Theory” at our Reversal Theory Training Site.

Let’s say that I am writing this page while in Serious, Conforming, Mastery and Other states:  I am focused on the goal of finishing the page (Serious), I am trying to do it the correct way so the program doesn’t crash (Conforming), I am focused on competency (Mastery), and I primarily have my reader in mind (Other).  I am accomplishing these tasks (my motives are being filled), so I feel calm and proud of the work I am doing.  When I do something really wrong, I feel incompetent, and a little fearful that I have taken on a project I can’t complete.  My motives are no longer being met; I want to achieve my goal, and I can’t.

Suddenly, my cat jumps next to me and nuzzles the keyboard, fur flying everywhere, making me laugh.  I suddenly “reverse” states – I am no longer focused on the goal of finishing the page, but rather the enjoyment of saying hello to the cat. I am now in the Playful state.  My attention also shifts to remembering when I first learned about Reversal Theory, which makes me think of nice friends and colleagues, and I find that I have suddenly reversed into Sympathy and Self states as well.  I now feel excited by the project and cared for by people (and a cat) that I love.  These are reversals.

When we know about the states of Reversal Theory and how they work, we can learn to control our reversals, and convert fear into some other, hopefully more positive, emotion.  Instead of fear “happening to us,” we can actually create reversals to create new emotions.

Here’s an example. Fear, it turns out, can only be felt when you are in the Serious state, the state that is motivated by achievement and awareness of consequences.  I only feel fear when I am aware that some desired goal (or end) may not be achieved. On the other hand, it’s not possible to feel fear in the Playful state. The Playful state is motivated only by the engagement of the moment: of what is happening now.  In the Serious state, the roller coaster is scary, because we could crash; in the Playful state, the roller coaster is exhilarating because we feel only the thrill of the moment.

Roller coasters aside, most of us could likely name something that we are feeling some fear about right now. (Hint: What are you procrastinating on doing right now?  Often, we procrastinate about things we have some anxiety about doing.)  I had some fear about writing this essay: fear that I’ll fail to capture my passion for Reversal Theory, fear that people won’t like it, fear that I will sound stupid, or that it will be too basic and obvious.

So, how did I get past that fear to start writing?  I looked at the other states and used them to inspire actions that would engage me in the process and moment of writing (reversing into Playful state), rather than reminding me of my nervousness (which is what I would keep feeling in Serious). I used the:

  • Conforming state to inspire me to look at past examples of what I had written about Reversal Theory. Pulling from “what worked before” helped me get started.
  • Rebellious state to feel good about writing something new, and something that is “outside the box” for many people.
  • Mastery state to remind myself of how much I know about Reversal Theory, and to make myself feel confident that I have some knowledge to share.
  • Sympathy state to remember all the friends I have met in the Reversal Theory community, and how much I care about them.
  • Self state to push myself to be personally accountable and responsible for getting this newsletter out the door
  • Other state to remember who I am writing for – it is for you, our OKA community!

All of these images helped me let go to take the writing steps I needed to. Of course, I did not use all these states all at once. Over the course of writing, I used thinking from one or two states to get going. When I got stuck, I turned to something else, from a different state. In the end, it was one positive thought at a time that compelled me to keep writing, and to be able to complete that which I had feared.

This is not to say that the Serious state is just about fear. Right now, in fact, I am in the Serious state in a very positive way. I am approaching my goal of finishing this article, and am feeling calm and relaxed.

Fear is not the only emotion that Reversal Theory can help us understand and change. In today’s world, however, it’s not a bad place to start.  Think about something you are a little nervous about, find a state to hang onto to get started, and dive on in.  Find a way to seize the day and take action: one state at a time.