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Intentional change theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Intentional change theory characterizes the neural underpinnings of two classes of coaching and mentoring, broadly known as positive emotional attractor and negative emotional attractor (Boyatzis, 2008& Boyatzis, Smith, & Beveridge, 2013). When coaches emphasize positive emotional attractors, they demonstrate compassion towards the hopes and dreams of individuals (Boyatzis, Smith, & Blaize, 2006), similar to the notion of resonant leadership (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005). In contrast, when coaches adopt a negative emotional attractor, they focus attention on how the limitations of individuals could impede their capacity to fulfill prescribed criteria or standards.

According to intentional change theory, an emphasis on positive emotional attractors tends to be more effective in coaching and mentoring. More specifically, positive emotional attractors activate neural regions that curb defensive responses and increase openness to change and information.

Mechanisms that underpin positive emotional attractors

Positive emotional attractors, according to intentional change theory, activate two key sets of neural regions. First, because positive emotional attractors enable clients to generate inspiring images, they activate neural regions that process visual information. That is, vivid images facilitate later action by activating specific neural circuits and connections repeatedly (Kreiman, Koch, & Fried, 2000). Consequently, these vivid images can, ultimately, expedite change in behavior.

Second, these attractors diminish stress, because of the compassion these coaches or mentors show. As stress diminishes, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This decline in stress then activates the ventromedial prefrontral cortex, part of the orbitofrontal region, as well as the subgenal or ventral anterior cingulate cortex. These regions curb defensive responses and increase openness to change.

Positive emotional attractors versus negative emotional attractors

To illustrate positive emotional attractors, coaches may ask their clients to describe their life if everything unfolded ideally. They may then prompt the clients to describe more of these ideals, such as where they would be living, how they would behave, with whom they would be interacting. They would also try to provide encouragement, striving continually to maintain a positive mood and engagement in their clients. In contrast, when coaches adopt a negative emotional attractor, they ask their clients to report any challenges they expect and ask them the extent to which they are fulfilling the standards and expectations.

Evidence that supports intentional change theory

Benefits of positive emotional attractors

Relative to negative emotional attractors, coaches that emphasize positive emotional attractors are more likely to improve the performance of their clients (Boyatzis, 2008& Boyatzis, Smith, & Beveridge, 2013). One study, conducted by Boyatzis, Stubbs, and Taylor (2002), showed that coaches who emphasize positive, instead of negative, emotional attractors were more likely, over time, to enhance the emotional and social competencies of MBS students. Ultimately, these MBA students were more likely to demonstrate better management performance as well.

Neural underpinnings of emotional attractors

To test the neural underpinnings of positive emotional attractors and negative emotional attractors, Jack, Boyatzis, Khawaja, Passarelli, and Leckie (2013) conducted an fMRI study. Participants completed an interview with an interviewer, before their brains were scanned. The interviewer asked questions that correspond either to positive emotional attractors or to negative emotional attractors. These interviews were intended to frame subsequent discussions, undertaken during the fMRI.

Later, participants engaged in a social exchange with the interviewer over a screen while their brain was scanned. The interview posed direct statements, and the participant could respond by pressing one of four buttons, indicating the extent to which they agree or disagree. The statements were either positively or negatively framed, depending on whether the previous interview emphasized positive emotional attractors or negative emotional attractors. A typical positive statement was "You have developed the capabilities to contribute positively to the organization". A typical negative statement was "Are you too busy." Other statements were neutral in valence.

Positive emotional attractors, coupled with positive statements, activated the lateral occipital cortex, superior temporal cortex, and medial parietal, especially in the right hemispheres, each associated with the construction of vivid images rather than observations of their environment. Furthermore, these interviews activated the subgenual cingulate, and left lateral prefrontal cortex, regions that often signal a sense of safety, activated in concert with the parasympathetic nervous system. Finally, the nuclear accumbens, corresponding to positive affect and the dopaminergic system, was also activated.

Negative emotional attractors, coupled with negative statements, activated the medial prefrontal regions and right lateral prefrontal cortex, more commonly associated with activation of the sympathetic nervous system and negative affect (Critchley, 2005). These findings broadly align with intentional change theory.


Boyatzis, R. E. (2008). Leadership development from a complexity perspective. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 60, 298-313. doi:10.1037/1065-9293.60.4.298

Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2005). Resonant leadership: Renewing yourself and connecting with others through mindfulness, hope, and compassion. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Boyatzis, R. E., Smith, M. L., & Blaize, N. (2006). Developing sustainable leaders through coaching and compassion. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 5, 8-24. doi:10.5465/amle.2006.20388381

Boyatzis, R. E., Smith, M. L., & Beveridge, A. J. (2013). Coaching with compassion: Inspiring health, well-being, and development in organizations. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 49, 153-178. doi:10.1177/0021886312462236

Boyatzis, R. E., Stubbs, E. C., & Taylor, S. N. (2002). Learning cognitive and emotional intelligence competencies through graduate management education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 1, 150-162. doi:10.5465/amle.2002.8509345

Critchley, H. D. (2005). Neural mechanisms of autonomic, affective, and cognitive integration. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 493, 154-166. doi:10.1002/cne.20749

Jack, A. I., Boyatzis, R. E., Khawaja, M. S., Passarelli, A. M., & Leckie, R. L. (2013). Visioning in the brain: An fMRI study of inspirational coaching and mentoring. Social Neuroscience, 8, 369-384. doi:10.1080/17470919.2013.808259

Kreiman, G., Koch, C., & Fried, I. (2000). Imagery neurons in the human brain. Nature, 408(6810), 357-361.

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Last Update: 7/20/2016