The Psychology of Change

Given all the talk these days about personal and organisational transformation I thought it would be interesting to delve a little into the psychology of change. This post gives a brief overview of Organismic Integration Theory (Deci & Ryan), which is a subset of Self-Determination theory, whilst this work stems from the same roots as Drive theory, it has (I believe) since taken a deeper and more insightful approach to the process of change.Their research comes mainly from the medical arena, and the fact that one is likely to fail at (for example) giving up smoking until one fully considers oneself to actually be a non-smoker. I am not suggesting that organisational change is synonymous with giving up smoking or changing your diet when you find out that you have some serious related medical issue. However, their theory resonates with the work I do as a coach.

Organismic Integration Theory (OIT) suggests four states:

  1. Externally regulated behaviour. Where I take on a particular behaviour, either because I am told to or because I will get some kind of external reward for doing so or punishment if I don’t. I don’t have to really believe in what I am doing in any way. I just need to see value in the reward or in not getting the punishment. For example: “I have been told by my manager that we need to hold a retrospective at the end of each iteration. I’m going to do it because I don’t want it to negatively effect my appraisal if I don’t”.
  2. Introjected regulated behaviour. Where I take on the behaviour voluntarily but don’t think of it as my own. A good example of this would be if I did something just to show that I could do it like this all the time if I wanted to. For example: “I don’t really see the point of doing a retrospective, but I’ll join in this once, just to show willing”. Notice that here I feel it is my choice, rather than imposed.
  3. Regulated through identification. Where I actually value the goal we are aiming for and so take on the behaviour for this reason. For example: “I can see how a retrospective might help the team progress, so I’m happy to join in”.
  4. Integrated regulation. Where this behaviour is an intrinsic part of my self-evaluation and beliefs. I think of it as part of ‘who I am’. For example: “Continuous improvement is such a part of me that I feel like I hold little internal retrospectives all the time and ask myself ‘what can I learn from what just happened’?”.

It is possible that someone might start from 1 and move through the other states. Or start from any state (not necessarily the first) and move to another, skipping the next state completely. Or not start from 1 at all. Or never get to 1.


Change in large organisations often seems to start at the first step (imposed from above) and this is the approach I like least. Supported from above – yes, but imposed? Not so much. Yet self-determination theory suggests that, as long as I understand who and where I am right now, pretending I believe the new approach can be a good thing and may result in self-change. In other words, if I act as if I want to do a retrospective and actively participate every time, then eventually I might integrate this and come to believe that they are a part of how I like to work. So does this mean that the imposition of change from above a good thing?


According to Deci and Ryan, to get to Integrated there are three essential ingredients and we see these in Dan Pink’s book Drive as mastery, autonomy and purpose: I must be or believe myself to be competent and able, I must have a high sense of relatedness between the desired behaviour and the context I am in (particularly the social context and the extent to which is supports the behaviour) and finally I must have a sense of autonomy and choice.


Learn -> Understand how what you have learned relates to your own unique context -> Choose -> Integrate.




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