Could We Grow Unconditional Positive Regard Within Organisations?

A human giving unconditional positive regard to a fellow human, enabling them to grow
A human giving unconditional positive regard to a fellow human, enabling them to grow

Unconditional positive regard —a concept counsellors, therapists, coaches and those in similar professions will likely be very familiar with.

The idea was born from the late humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, who developed person-centered therapy and provides much of the inspiration for human-centricity. In basic terms, unconditional positive regard means to accept someone for who they are and support them regardless of what they say or do, even if you don’t agree with them personally.

Rogers felt it was an important approach to take with others in order for humans to truly feel valued, grow and realise their full potential, or ‘ideal self’.

This is also reflected in number 7 of The Human Givens:

“To know that at least one other person accepts us totally for who we are, ‘warts ’n’ all’”

A research paper from 2018 demonstrated how unconditional positive regard from sports coaches towards athletes contributed towards the athletes confidence, passion and persistence through challenges.

I’ve also seen from my own experience of coaching amazing human beings, how powerful unconditional positive regard can be, particularly if no one else is providing that regard to the individual.

And so I wondered:

A key point to note at this stage, is that many organisations operate on a strong conditional basis (often focused on negatives) when it comes to humans. That is to say, if people don’t follow processes, they get non-conformances. If they don’t meet KPI’s, their performance is deemed to be unsatisfactory and they can be disciplined.

There can also be far less measured conditions. For instance, if someone is less favoured by their manager, they’re less likely to be considered for promotions. The less someone succumbs to ‘group think’, the less they may be thought of as a team player.

The takeaway for me is that organisations as they typically are today aren’t exactly creating an environment that encourages positive regard, let alone that regard being unconditional!

However if we were to remove the policies, processes and structures from organisations so they don’t interfere, would that be enough to enable unconditional positive regard?

Here’s another way to ask the question — if your team mate were to make a big mistake on a project for example that ends up setting the project back, and there were no organisational guidelines, rules or values to follow, how you would you react?

Chances are, you might be pretty miffed. That’s understandable right? Especially if you’ve put a lot of effort into the project.

But the key question is how would you respond? Would you berate your team-mate, complain about them to someone more senior or seek to punish them in some way?

Or maybe you would comfort them in their time of potential guilt, worry and anger at themselves; perhaps seeking to understand what led to the mistake being made and what may be going on for them in their life that could have impacted their work. Imagine how your team mate would feel if they knew someone had their back, was proactively supporting them and enabling them to reflect on the experience in order to learn and grow from it; to give them confidence to set things right and strive to prevent it happening again.

I suspect many of their emotional needs would be met just by taking a more positive approach: security, attention, community, intimacy. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a team that looks out for each other in that way?

So what’s the learning here…I feel that we absolutely have the capacity as humans to offer unconditional positive regard in organisations but the way we build them discourages this. We end up adapting to organisational environments and systems that instead encourages (and sometimes even rewards) punishment and blame in order to weed out ‘inferior’ employees.

If we start with the right mindset, one that cares for fellow humans, then I believe the right environment will grow organically as a result.

Take this school in Yorkshire — the staff routinely check in with the students and purposefully empathise with them to better understand their holistic life and determine where ‘poor’ behaviour is coming from, before providing appropriate support and encouragement as opposed to detention or expulsion. They also look to reward more for positive behaviour such as being kind to fellow students.

Replace the word behaviour above with performance and you have a more progressive adult work setting, the benefits of which can include greater vitality, job performance and satisfaction, motivation and a sense of feeling valued.

The bottom line is that unconditional positive regard in organisations starts with us humans making a conscious choice to think and act in a way that acknowledges our own opinions and emotions, whilst being prepared to put them to one side in order to best serve our fellow humans. And like with any skill, practice makes perfect.

As the article on the school indicates, it’s not easy to do by any means, but the benefits are clear and I personally think are understated — unconditional positive regard has the power to transform lives for the better.

On a journey to unlock what it means to be human-centric.