RFT in Workplace ACT Interventions

Over the last several weeks we’ve been blogging about relational frame theory (RFT), an approach to understanding the link between human language and behavior. In our RFT 101 series, we’ve gone over the history, background, and theoretical foundations. You may be wondering about the practical applications of RFT, if they exist and how understanding the process that underlies language can help improve our lives.

One of the most notable uses of RFT has been in the workplace through acceptance and commitment therapy interventions. And recently, researchers have employed RFT to investigate the effects of common organizational interventions. Since 2001, a number of authors (Austin, 2001; Austin & Wilson, 2002; Hayes, 2004; Wiegand & Geller, 2004) have recommended including more complex accounts of human behavior, particularly verbal behavior, to shed light on organizational behavior.

RFT is beginning to make an impact on organizational behavior management. ACT interventions based on RFT have demonstrated efficacy across a wide range of organizations in improving mental health outcomes and organizational performance. Correlational research on psychological flexibility has contributed to informing the picture of the modern worker by identifying the skills that workers need to avoid frustration and burnout and to positively affect change in the workplace. Conceptual analyses of common organizational interventions that have employed RFT have suggested new research questions, in particular, with emphasis on the question of how verbal stimuli affect employee behavior.

Stewart, Barnes-Holmes, Barnes-Holmes, Bond and Hayes (2006) provided an overview of industrial-organizational psychology that suggested numerous potential contributions of RFT in the workplace, including the following areas:

  • Job satisfaction
  • Attitudes
  • Behavior
  • Teamwork
  • Organizational culture
  • Organizational development

Stewart et al. suggested that attitudes be treated as relational networks that support long-term consistencies in behavior, and that RFT-based interventions be used to modify attitudes or reduce the impact of attitudes on behavior if necessary. More recently, Herbst and Houmanfar (2009) offered an interpretation of organizational values informed by RFT that highlighted practical, positive changes that can be made in the workplace.

While RFT-based research in organizational behavior management is in its infancy, ACT intervention research in such settings is now well established. The majority of this research has focused on the impact of ACT interventions on verbal dependent variables such as scores on mental health questionnaires. ACT research has demonstrated improvements in observable behavior, such as reductions in errors and sick time and the adoption of new work practices. For this reason, ACT interventions may be an ideal option for organizational behavior management practitioners and researchers to address organizational issues. The positive effects of ACT interventions on workers’ adjustment to novel work practices suggests that combining ACT workshops with traditional interventions such as employee training, goal setting, feedback, task clarification, and process redesign may enhance the effect of these traditional interventions.

RFT continues to show promise in enabling behavior analysts to address complex verbal behaviors within a comprehensive operant framework. In doing so, RFT broadens the scope of organizational behavior management interventions and provides copious opportunities for future translational and applied research in organizational and workplace settings.


Austin, J. (2001). Some thoughts on the field of Organizational Behavior Management. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 20(3-4), 191-202.

Austin, J., & Wilson, K. G. (2002). Response-response relationships in Organizational Behavior Management. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 21(4), 39-53.

Hayes, S. C. (2004). Fleeing from the elephant. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 24(1-2), 155–173.

Wiegand, D. M., & Geller, E. S. (2004). Connecting Positive Psychology and Organizational Behavior Management. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 24(1-2), 3–25.

Stewart, I., Barnes-Holmes, D., Barnes-Holmes, Y., Bond, F. W., & Hayes, S. C. (2006). Relational frame theory and industrial/organizational psychology.

Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 26(1/2), 55–90. Herbst, S. A., & Houmanfar, R. (2009). Psychological approaches to values in organizations and Organizational Behavior Management. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 29(1), 47-68.

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