Background and Theory

An overview of the history and content of Personal Construct Theory and the Repertory Grid interview. Grid has many applications in business development such as organizational development, marketing and human resources as well as in learning and counselling, etc.


Background to Repertory Grid

Enquire Within is based on an interviewing technique known as Repertory Grid. Repertory Grid is the work of George Kelly, an American engineer who later became a highly respected clinical psychologist. Kelly first published in 1955, although he had been developing his theory and practice for many years before.

Like many psychologists of his time, Kelly developed his own theory of personality, known as Personal Construct Theory; Repertory Grid is the tool he developed to explore people's personalities in terms of his theory. Personal Construct Theory, and Repertory Grid, reflect Kelly's concerns - probably stemming from his background as an engineer - that the personality theories of the day suffered from both a lack of rigour and a tendency to force people to fit the theory rather than the other way round. Kelly's concerns can be summarised as follows:

Personal Construct Theory

Kelly was not a self-publicist. He had been developing Personal Construct Theory and with these concerns in mind, over the years Kelly developed his Theory of Personal Constructs. Kelly's theory rests on the assumption that people are actively engaged in making sense of, and extending, their experience: he expressed it most succinctly as Man is a scientist. According to Kelly, the degree to which we understand other people - or ourselves - is measured by the extent to which we understand how they make sense of their experience. The term personal constructs in Kelly's theory refers to the set of models, or hypotheses, or representations, which each person has made about their world. Kelly invented Repertory Grid interviewing as a way of getting people to reveal their own personal models.

The term construct is particularly well-chosen, because it carries two meanings, of equal importance. One meaning is retrospective: a construct represents how the person classifies (has constructed) his or her past experience. (For example, if you gave the construct consultative - autocratic when you were comparing your work colleagues, your experience is that, in your terms, at least one of them is consultative and at least one is autocratic). The other meaning is forward-looking: a construct represents the person's predisposition to perceive (or construe) in the future. (For example, if you described your boss as autocratic, you are likely to go on seeing your boss as autocratic and it may take some effort before you change your perceptions).

Kelly's Theory Summarised

What happened then?

Kelly was not a self-publicist. He had been developing Personal Construct Theory and Repertory Grid for many years before he was persuaded to publish anything; and what he then published - in The Psychology of Personal Constructs - is so dense as to be almost unreadable. He wrote a somewhat more accessible version in A Theory of Personality, published in 1963, but even that work takes dedication and persistence unless you are a devotee.

In many ways, Kelly was out of his time. His concerns for rigour in psychological theory were not shared by most of his contemporaries. His theory needed complex mathematical modelling in order to give it expression - at a time when only the most rudimentary data-processing facilities were available. Unlike some other theorists, Kelly had very few 'champions' to advocate his methods even within the psychological community, and even fewer to take his thinking to a wider audience; it is tempting to think what might have happened if his ideas had been promulgated with the same energy as those of Maslow and Herzberg, for example, not to mention Freud and Jung. What happened instead was that a small number of adherents, mostly in the UK, kept Personal Construct Theory alive while the rest of the world passed it by. It may get a brief mention in university courses on personality theory, but that is all.

In the 1970's there was a resurgence of interest in Repertory Grid methodology, this time with more of an organisational than a clinical orientation. In one of those strange outbreaks of synchronicity, several people in or around organisations began to use Repertory Grid as part of their consultancy practice. These were people who shared Kelly's methodological concerns - about observer bias, the need for precision about individuals and small groups, and the false regard given to 'experts'. Specifically, Valerie Stewart introduced Repertory Grid as part of the process of defining what we would now call management competences. Mike Smith and Mark Easterby-Smith developed Repertory Grid to measure training needs and evaluate management training. And at Brunel University, led by Laurie Thomas, a team which included Maureen Pope, Nickie Fonda, and Mildred Shaw contributed in fields as diverse as quality control, conflict resolution, team-building and innovations in analysis of grid data.

Nonetheless, the technology of the day imposed its own limitations. Computers were not fast or user-friendly enough to enable Repertory Grid's full potential to be exploited. It is only with the development of the Enquire Within program that the power of Repertory Grid - its rigour, its transparency, its ability to follow (or provoke) changes in the user's frame of reference - has been made available for general use.

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