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  • Nick Smith

U is for Unconditional Positive Regard


Lots of different professions effect change, not just those of us involved in Business Change - teachers, coaches, doctors, social workers, drill sergeants and many, many more. It's a continuing wonder to me how little interest we show in exploring what lessons we can learn and apply from the practice of these other professions. One I'm closest to, and from which I do look to learn, is counselling - talking therapy if you prefer. I'm married to a counsellor and have huge respect for the work my wife does, and the skill, understanding, and expertise she brings to bear in helping her clients realise major changes.


Counselling's different approaches and varied toolsets offer many wide-ranging insights that we could apply in Business Change: for example the different 'states' individuals relate from (Transactional Analysis); the role of archetypes in our stories (Jungian Psychodynamic); the potential offered by building new mental habits (CBT); and the impact of the counsellor holding to 'core conditions' in the therapeutic relationship (Person Centred). In this blog I want to touch on one of the core conditions - unconditional positive regard (UPR) - to give just one example how therapeutic thinking can be deployed in our organisational change work.


UPR is about the way in which the counsellor views the counsellee. Introduced by Carl Rogers, UPR is a stance in which the person being counselled is viewed non-judgementally, accepted regardless of what they say or do, and (crucially) considered as possessing the resources required to effect the change they want - if the right context can be established. And it's the job of the counsellor, in their relationship with the counsellee, to facilitate that context. So, UPR means that the person who's looking to change - to deal with a challenge they face - is not the problem: rather, they hold the solution to the problem. It can be a demanding stance to adopt and hold in the light of potentially difficult client behaviours - but if successfully maintained it can create openings for change, rather than the shutting down of the potential for change so easily done by expressing critical judgments.

Here's the thing - evidence suggests that the single biggest factor in counselling effectiveness is not the particular approach adopted, or the tools deployed, but relates to the quality of the relationship between counsellor and counsellee. People who feel understood, accepted as they are, are more able to embrace change than those who don't. UPR, therefore, makes a big difference. So, do we think helping people impacted by organisational change to embrace that change would be different? How do we think it plays out if we consider the people impacted by change to be the problem; if our talk is significantly of managing (or dealing with) their resistance to change? Be sure, if that's how we're thinking, then those we're leading through change will sense it, will pick it up - and will be much more likely to close down.


And, yes, of course, at this point you're saying 'but ...' and suspecting I'm terminally naive. And, yes, of course, the 'buts' are real, and there is the risk of being naive here. Just seems to me that wrestling with the 'buts', and erring on the side of naivety may be preferable to cynicism and viewing our people as the problem as a default position. And I've found that UPR is a concept that, when they seek to adopt it, can be genuinely powerful for client change leaders with whom I've worked. It's been the kind of idea you introduce in passing in a workshop that sticks and is being referred to months later when much of the core workshop content has outlived its usefulness.

So what about trying out UPR as you seek to lead or effect change. Thinking well of those impacted by change, those who you need to embrace change, might mean you:

  • Work harder to put yourself in their shoes - because if they're disagreeing with you, there has to be a reason that is entirely justified from their perspective

  • Focus more on envisioning, equipping and engaging - and less on dealing with resistance

  • Identify factors (behaviours, processes) you can change that will make it more likely those with whom you're working can and will embrace change

  • To an ever greater extent, in real ways, do change with people, not to them.

And, call me naive, but these seem positive and useful outcomes. And if you disagree with the approach, that of course is OK.

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