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Ideas@Work: Carl Rogers’ Person-Centered Therapy

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

Ideas@Work: A series of short posts, spotlighting great ideas for designing human-centered workplaces

Carl Rogers (1902 –1987) is one of the originators of the humanistic approach to psychology and Person-Centered Therapy (PCT). His ideas provide valuable insights for any organizational practitioner interested in designing human-centered workplaces where people can flourish, do their best work, and be happy. In a 2002 study, Rogers was ranked by his peers as the 6th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.

The idea in a nutshell

Rogers criticized a controlling tendency he perceived in modern culture: “Almost all of education, government, business, much of religion, much of family life, much of psychotherapy, is based on a distrust of the person. Goals must be set, because the person is seen as incapable of choosing suitable aims. The individual must be guided toward these goals, since otherwise he or she might stray from the selected path. Teachers, parents, supervisors must develop procedures to make sure the individual is progressing toward the goal - examinations, inspections, interrogations. The individual is seen as innately sinful, destructive, lazy, or all three – as someone who must be constantly watched over.”

As an alternative, Rogers developed the influential Person-Centered Approach to Therapy, which builds on the actualizing tendency present in every person and living organism: the tendency to grow, to develop, to realize its full potential. Rogers’ approach “trusts the constructive directional flow of the human being toward a more complex and complete development. It is this directional flow that we aim to release.”

While Rogers developed his approach for the psychotherapeutic setting, he emphasized that the same principles apply to any other situation in which the development of the person is the goal, such as relationships between parent and child, leader and team, or teacher and student.

A related central concept in Rogers’ theory is that of unconditional positive regard. In order to facilitate healing and growth in the client, the therapist must adopt an unconditionally accepting and caring attitude toward the client. The central hypothesis of the person-centered approach is “that the individual has within himself or herself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering his or her self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behavior - and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.”

This trust in the capabilities of the client led Rogers to redefine the relationship between therapist and client. The therapist’s attention is redirected from correcting abnormal behavior (a focus of Freud’s Psychoanalysis or B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning) toward supporting the client’s positive capabilities to achieve healing and growth. Rogers advocated in favor of a nondirective approach that empowers the client to largely control the therapeutic process. The therapist becomes a facilitative companion to the client in the therapeutic journey. Client’s sense of power is seen as vital to their successful healing and growth.

Key insight for organizational designers

In my work, I am helping companies find ways to promote desirable behaviors: working in a way that maintain ethical business practices, protects everyone's health and safety, or promotes diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity.

In my projects and the workshops I facilitate, I always start with positive regard. I start with the assumption that these outcomes we desire are already meaningful to most people. Most people want to work in an ethical, safe, and fair work environment. I further assume that people have capabilities (e.g., values, knowledge, relationships, ingenuity) that are valuable for achieving these outcomes. During these workshops, participants identify the capabilities available for producing desired outcomes, together with the tools and resources that would help employees produce these outcomes with greater ease and effectiveness. These solutions are then developed and tested together with users. This approach can be applied to the design of a wide range of workplace programs, including ethics codes, risks assessment, or trainings. In my experience, this process, based on an appreciation of people's capabilities and their active involvement, contributes to solutions that users view positively and engage with.

When we try to influence employees’ behavior at work, it is most promising to assume that people have positive capabilities they can contribute towards desired outcomes. An attitude of positive regard, empowerment, and support are likely to engender more profound and lasting transformation toward desired behaviors than efforts to influence behavior by means of pressure and control.

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