Applying Personal Construct Psychology to the Workplace: What this Exercise in Northern Ireland Teaches Us About Powerful Reflections | Pollack Peacebuilding Systems

Summary of:

Barbour, P.J., & Bourne, D. (2020). Developing sociality in a post-conflict Northern Ireland: An application of the perceiver element gridJournal of Constructivist Psychology, 1-25.

Background & Theory

George Kelly invented the concept of Personal Construct Psychology which looks at the self as a personal construct. He argued that the events of the past are not the primary basis of predicting the future and “rather it is the structure that one places upon the past that determines how he will let it influence his future.” Sociality occurs as social partners mutually construe each other’s construction systems. Therefore, in this study, Perceiver Element Grid (PEG) is adapted as a tool for understanding inter-community relationships within the context of Northern Ireland. In doing so, the authors explore its potential as a tool for understanding, managing, and resolving entrenched intergroup conflict.

Research Question(s)

The researchers had two objectives in mind:

    1. To answer: How do the two communities perceive each other, and how does each community believe they were perceived by the other?
    2. Ascertain if the information captured using a PEG could be useful in supporting revised individual and collective (cross-community) community narratives.


The authors selected twelve interviewees, six from within each community- the Unionists and the Nationalists. Within each community, half of the interviewees were active party members, and the other half regular voters. They were asked four questions as part of PEG: how they see themselves; how they see the other person; how they think the other person sees them; and how they think the other person sees themselves (Burr et al., 2014). These were four quadrants of a grid. Members of each community completed two versions of the PEG, one focusing on how relationships are construed in the present, and one focusing on how relationships might be construed in an imagined future.


After asking these four questions to the participants, a system of themes and sub-themes was constructed and a full thematic analysis identified three major themes and 28 sub-themes: identity, political leadership, and trust.

For the Nationalist group, the constructs identified through their surveys were: the unfairness of partition, the inequality suffered and the fight against that inequality; the role of education in fighting for equality, and the continuing education ethos; the differences of opinion on the use of violence; a view that the Unionist community is in denial about the past and the future; Nationalist progress both in terms of equality and progressiveness; and irrespective of any views on Unionist intransigence, real confidence about the future, no matter which way it develops.

Within the Unionist community, core constructions include a weariness of constantly fighting against things; a sense of isolation from Irishness and the people of mainland Britain; a disillusionment with how Nationalism successfully stereotypes Unionists; pride in its Protestant values and distress in the downside of always saying what you think; a continuing level of surprise in Nationalism’s support of Sinn Fein, so soon after the end of the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s (PIRA) campaign of violence; and recognition that Unionism needs to change.

The authors concluded that polarization in Northern Ireland may be in danger of increasing if nothing else changes. This method of prompting reflection could be used for initiating sociality between opposing groups by trained facilitators in the future. Similar carefully crafted exercises could be performed at the level of the social group, believe the researchers.

How This Translates for the Workplace

  1. Powerful Reflections: Organizations can start by routinely asking employees the right question about how they feel about certain “other” departments, communities, or organizations, how they see the future, and how they believe they should ideally perceive the same. This sense of reflection can make employees aware of their own narratives, constructs, and biases and let them know that they don’t exist in silos where these beliefs don’t matter.
  2. Designing Specific Interventions: Based on the data garnered from these reflections, the management can hold strategic peace dialogues or team-building exercises that would make use of the above introspection and do a targeted intervention to heal some of these differences. We at PPS offer training for workplaces in diversity, inclusion, as well as conflict resolution. Contact us to lead some of these interventions and exercises and make your workplace more inclusive!

Anupriya Kukreja

Anupriya Kukreja is a graduate in Political Science and Psychology from Ashoka University in India. She has interned at Hospitals in their psychology departments and worked at reputed policy organizations, as well as been an Albright Fellow at Wellesley College. At PPS, she examines the latest research in international conflict and writes about how such methods may apply to conflict in the workplace. She is also a part of APA Division 48’s official Newsletter "The Peace Psychologist’s" editorial team. Her long-term career goal is to apply the lens of Behaviour science to Public Policy, Conflict Resolution, and Organizational Transformation.

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