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Conation: a missing link in the strengths perspective.

In 1984, Karen E. Gerdes was a newly graduated MSW and a wide-eyed Peace Corps volunteer living in a land-filled barrio on Manila Bay in the Philippines. In the following block of text, she describes an experience that profoundly influenced her thinking about the ways that individuals approach challenges in their world.
 I was walking home one day when I spotted a
 10-year-old boy sitting alone in a nipa hut. He
 was emaciated, sitting in his own urine, and too
 weak to swat the flies from his face. Inquiries
 revealed that his name was Ernesto and that he
 lived alone with his grandmother. His grandmother
 was overwhelmed and needed someone
 to take over the care of Ernesto. No one knew
 why he was in such poor condition or why he
 had failed to thrive since about age six. I had
 Ernesto evaluated by local doctors, who believed
 he might be suffering from muscular dystrophy.
 They felt there was nothing they could do for
 him and sent him home. I brought Ernesto's case
 to the attention of some fellow Peace Corps
 volunteers and local Filipinos. One volunteer
 suggested I try to find materials to build Ernesto
 a wheelchair and make some adjustments to his
 nipa hut to improve his maneuverability. Another
 recommended that I interview everyone
 who knew Ernesto (to get a more complete
 biopsychosocial history), and then research treatments
 for muscular dystrophy. The local midwife
 recommended creating a feeding schedule for
 Ernesto's grandmother to follow as well as a
 regular exercise and muscle-stretching routine.
 None of these options appealed to me, and the
 grandmother had already stated she could not
 continue to care for him. The recommendations
 of my fellow volunteers, while sound, seemed
 frustratingly slow. I remembered hearing about
 a nun in Manila who took in disabled children,
 so with Ernesto's grandmother's permission, I
 took him to her facility. Without calling ahead
 or making an appointment, I headed off with
 Ernesto and a neighbor who helped me to
 carry him. In the end, this proved to be a useful
 course of action. The nun accepted Ernesto into
 a beautiful residential facility she operated for
 children with disabilities. His health improved
 and his quality of life was significantly better,
 although as predicted, several years later he died
 from complications of his muscular dystrophy.
 What struck me about this experience was the
 difference between the way I reacted to Ernesto's
 situation and the reactions of my friends. Any
 of our approaches would probably have helped
 the boy, but they were very different. I wondered
 why. With the exception of the local midwife, we
 had similar backgrounds and similar education.
 We all had the same objective, yet our responses
 to the problem were quite different. The individual
 differences seemed shaped by something
 other than intelligence, training, emotion, or
 learned response. We simply tackled the problem
 in very different ways. Yet even at the time we
 discussed this problem, I sensed that being able
 to describe and usefully leverage our differences
 would have made us more effective as a team and
 more helpful to all the people we were serving.
 I would not fully understand these differences
 until decades later when I began to study the
 concept of conation, the individual's natural and
 preferred mode of action when approaching a

Without a clear understanding of the conative aspect of behavior, social workers limit their ability to understand clients' and their own behavior and are unable to use a significant source of client strength. In this article, we describe conation--a group of differing but equally valuable modes of action possessed by all humans. We then discuss how knowledge about conative abilities can be practically applied in strengths-based social work practice.


Although the concept of conation may be new to most social workers, it has been discussed and considered throughout history. In The Republic (Jowett, 1937), Socrates (via Plato) proclaimed that the soul had three parts: the logical--rational or reason, the spirited, and the desiring--appetite. Many philosophers and theorists accept this as the first written analysis of the mind as having cognitive, affective, and conative components (Brett, 1921; Cudsworth, 1788; Kolbe, 1990; Peters, 1962; Sternberg, 1987). Medieval theological scholars adopted the Grecian image of consciousness (Brett, 1921; Mueller, 1988; Peters, 1962; Sternberg, 1987), but little was written about conation--or any nonreligious aspect of consciousness--until the 17th century when Spinoza (1632-1677) articulated the "conatus principle," an innate striving to persevere against obstacles (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005). Cudsworth (1788) used the word "conation" to describe the will that "first moveth in the soul, and starteth all wheels (p. 26) ... a thread of life always spinning out ... an ever bubbling fountain in the center of the soul, an elater [i.e., drive or to drive] or spring of motion" (p. 30).

Influence of Enlightenment Philosophers and Faculty Psychologists

In the 18th century, the German "faculty psychologists" returned to the concept of conation (Hilgard, 1980). They used it in their model of the three-part self: cognitive (thinking), affective (emotions/feeling), and conative (striving or doing). They drew both on classical scholarship and on the German philosophical tradition created by luminaries like Leibniz and Kant. Schopenhauer, for example, argued that Descartes' dualistic conception of the mind and body was a false dichotomy, stating, "What I will and what in physical terms I do are one in the same thing" (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1972, p. 328). Schopenhauer (1728/1910) described the will as the "secret director," or inner nature--an initiator of action that is spurred by motivation (that is, wishes or desires) and unconsciously produces actions or conations.

This model persisted for the next 200 years, moving into English-language social theory when it was adopted by Scottish, British, and American psychologists. Bain (1868) described the conative mind as "volition or will, embracing the whole of our activity, as directed by our feelings" (p. 2). Roget (1852), in his famous thesaurus, included the tripartite mind's "Plan of Classification," labeling the three parts "intellect, volition, and affections" (Kolbe, 2000). He recognized conative power as the key element of volition, describing motive as the cause of volition, and equating lack of motive with being "unwilling."

At this point, a conflation between the concept of motivation and that of instinctive conation occurred--a semantic tangle that still confuses the study of conation (Kolbe, 1989). Some nineteenth-century scholars described the conative process as the shaping of action based on a motivating impulse, whereas others seemed to assume that conation and motivation were identical. This disparity merits clarification here because the distinction is crucial to effective social work practice. To help clients problem solve effectively, social workers must be able to differentiate between affective motivations and conative or innate problem-solving abilities.

Conation, as described by those who first defined and best articulated it, is not the same thing as motivation or desire (Bain, 1868). Motivation and desire are affective aspects of consciousness, not conative ones. In brief, motivation is a feeling, whereas conation is the style of action a person uses to respond to that feeling (Poulsen, 1991). For example, in the story of Ernesto, all of the "helpers" were motivated to assist him, eager to take action, and capable of doing so. But the ways in which they acted were dissimilar because of conative differences. The confusion between the idea of conation (as motivation or as instinctive drive) is still a theoretical stumbling block today. But from the earliest discussion of conation, most thoughtful scholars have maintained that conation is not a description of wanting but a label for the characteristic way in which people go about fulfilling their desires.

Important 20th Century Influences

As late as the early 20th century, conation was overlooked by most U. S. scholars. A notable exception was William McDougall (1871-1938), a Harvard professor and vocal critic of behaviorism (Brand, 2005; Kolbe, 1989). Like his European forerunners, McDougall categorized the mind's components as cognition (knowing a thing), affective sensation (feeling something about that thing), and conation (a striving towards or away from the object). A few other American psychologists agreed; for instance, Lundholm (1934) described conation as a "purposive or goal-seeking activity" (p. 25). He pointed out that a conative process is best understood as one that impels action (drives it from within), whereas cognition and other outside forces compel action (drive it from external force or action) (Kolbe, 1990).

In the United States during the mid- to late 20th century, enthusiasm for behaviorism came to dominate the theoretical landscape (see Hershberger, 1988; Scheerer, 1989). With the advent of cognitive psychology in the 1950s, American social science's focus turned toward developing measurements and tests for intelligence (Hilgard, 1980; Wechsler, 1950). The conative aspect of the mind faded into relative obscurity in pragmatic social science application until the late 20th century, when educational psychologists picked up the thread of a discussion (Snow, Corno, & Jackson, 1996). One analyst who did focus on conation was Otto Rank, a disciple of Freud. Rank integrated Schopenhauer's work on the concept of will into his writings and practice of psychoanalysis (Taft, 1958). He brought the concept to the United States in his lectures at New York University School of Social Work and the University of Pennsylvania, School of Social Work, where his associate, Jessie Taft, taught and served as director.

In the last decades of the 20th century, several educational psychology researchers have studied affective and conative aspects of learning, as well as cognitive, to explain variations in student performance. However, they failed to agree on an operational definition of conation, or a model that integrates conative, cognitive, and affective processes (Kanfer, 1988). To rectify this situation, Snow and colleagues (Snow et al., 1996; Snow & Jackson, 1997) developed a taxonomy of affective, conative, and cognitive constructs of individual learning differences. In this model, the conative dimension is divided into two sections: motivation (that is, the predecisional state) and volition or will (that is, postdecisional state) (Heckhausen & Kuhl, 1985). In Snow's (1994) terms, "performance-oriented" learners are motivated to action by approval, whereas "learning-oriented" students seek challenges and often persist even in the face of failure (Jackson, 1998).

This conceptualization is problematic. Snow (1994) categorized individuals as having high- or low-conative ability, but if conation is a shaping force that dictates different patterns of action, quantifying it as "high" or "low" is meaningless. For example, in the case of Ernesto, the helpers used different forms of action depending not on "high" or "low" levels of conative ability but on qualitatively different types of action, all of which were conative. Snow's approach is like testing the speaking ability of a French person, an American person, and a Chinese person, then rating their respective ability from high to low without noting that the languages are different. All these people can speak, but they speak in different ways.

Nevertheless, Snow (1994) made two major contributions to our understanding of conative processes: He revived the Classical idea of the tripartite mind, and he used a "whole-person-in-context" (that is, systems) perspective on individual differences and learning (Shavelson et al., 2002; Snow, 1994). Snow theorized that everyone has a dynamic, fluid "person-in-situation aptitude complex" the product of a transaction between individual aptitudes and the particulars of a given situation. If the aptitudes are "ill-tuned or mismatched" then failure occurs (Shavelson et al., 2002). This conceptualization is consistent with social work's person-in-environment and systems framework.

Researchers who followed Snow (1994) tended to misunderstand conation, assuming that it was the ability to set and achieve goals through a cognitive process. For example, Davis and Henry (1997) wrote that some people are more successful at setting and achieving goals than are others because they are more motivated and have more control over their behavior--something they called higher conative capacity. Again, this is a misuse of the term: Conation is not goal-setting motivation or achievement, but the way in which a person with any degree of motivation or goal orientation goes about acting on that motivation and achieving those goals. For example, different people might have high or low levels of motivation to help Ernesto, and high or low capacities to achieve that goal. Even so, each individual may approach the issue in ways that are qualitatively different.

Given the pitfalls in the centuries-old academic debate on conation, it is hardly surprising that social work theorists have not yet focused on conation as a useful concept. However, a useful theoretical framework for understanding and applying conation has arisen outside the literature of academia. This framework, referred to as the Kolbe model (2004), has been tested largely within the very pragmatic, "bottom-line" environment found within Fortune 500 companies. We believe that its inclusion in social work theory and practice could help social workers and their clients become more effective in achieving objectives.


An independent theorist, author, and entrepreneur, Kolbe began observing conative patterns while developing educational materials for gifted children, developmentally disabled children, and adults. She went on to study conative differences while designing learning tools to help educators and business leaders maximize performance of employees and students. Kolbe's categorical conative model has been used by faculty and staff at over 20 universities (Hoffman, 2001). The Kolbe A Index (2005c), a conative assessment tool, has been used by corporations in more than 50 countries for selection, placement, team building, and leadership training (Kolbe, 2002) and by schools in 40 states for faculty training and assessment of student abilities (Kolbe, 2005c). Yet a thorough academic appraisal of the model has never been undertaken. Because Kolbe's extensive work is the only existing development of the conative model, this lack of academic peer review limits social workers' use of this important aspect of human behavior to assist clients in understanding their strengths and abilities. Kolbe's model has been described as an elegant, highly pragmatic, and ethical method of improving learning and performance (Hoffman, 2001). In the remainder of this article, we summarize Kolbe's model, describe its use in social work, and make suggestions for further research on conation.

Kolbe (1990) identified four aggregates of behavior that describe how individuals spontaneously approach tasks (see Figure 1):

1. gathering and communicating information

2. sorting and storing information

3. dealing with risks and unknowns

4. manipulating physical objects and spaces to achieve desired ends.

Kolbe labeled the four modes as action modes with the following qualitative descriptors: Fact Finder, Follow Thru, Quick Start, and Implementor. Over the past decade, the Kolbe Corporation has completed a half dozen in-house studies demonstrating the test-retest reliability of Kolbe A Index scores (Kolbe, 2002). We recently completed our own independent test-retest reliability study on Kolbe A scores, using data collected over a 15-year time span. The study yielded correlation coefficients ranging between .77 and .85, demonstrating significant consistency in Kolbe A scores over time.

The model indicates that individuals use these aggregates of behaviors as they channel activity toward a given purpose. The modes of action are viewed as distinct from the affective or emotional parts of the personality, and they are highly stable and resistant to change (Hoffman, 2001). In other words, the conative dimension appears to operate independently, resisting efforts to alter or interfere with its natural method of operation.

Kolbe's model specifies that all individuals, of a wide variety of ages and cognitive ability levels, are capable of operating, and do operate, in each of the four action modes. Kolbe designated three forms in which conative preferences can be displayed in each action mode, and identified them as initiate, accommodate, and prevent (see Figure 1). The word initiate describes what a person will do, given his or her volitional instinct. The term accommodate describes what the person is willing to do to respond to other people's needs and situations. And finally, prevent refers to the unwillingness of a person to get bogged down or "paralyzed" by the actions of others--in other words, what that person probably will not do by natural inclination. The three operating zones and the four action modes create a 3 x 4 matrix that shows 12 different conative strengths or talents (Kolbe, 2005b).

Each of the 12 possible conative actions is viewed as equally valid and may lead to useful, successful, and constructive action. Although individuals can learn to solve problems using any of these paths, Kolbe theorized that each person has one preferred path in each action mode. Individuals are believed to be more successful when allowed or encouraged to problem solve using their four natural tendencies. "Conation," Kolbe (2005a) noted, "is the one dimension of the mind in which everyone is equal, yet diverse" (p. 5).

The matrix (see Figure 1) enables us to identify the four paths a given individual might take when confronted with the need or the desire to act. Returning to the discussion of Ernesto, when Gerdes boarded the bus, she was demonstrating her tendency to initiate action in the Quick Start mode. She resisted the suggestion to focus on building a wheelchair for Ernesto, a strength of the Implementor mode. She remembers feeling totally incompetent even thinking about this option, displaying her tendency to avoid building physical solutions. Demonstrating her willingness to accommodate within the Follow Thru mode, she was willing to work within a system that could respond to Ernesto's needs, such as the residential facility. And finally, although she located a small amount of information about Ernesto and his options, detailed, extensive research was not her emphasis, demonstrating that she is willing to accommodate individuals whose strengths he in the Fact Finder mode, but typically she will not initiate it.


Kolbe's work on conation, both descriptive and prescriptive, is consistent with social work values and its focus on identifying strengths. Everyone is perceived as creative; no conative pattern is more or less useful or important than another. The model's theory and practice are designed to enhance self-determination, while honoring the dignity and uniqueness of every individual. Unlike Snow's (1994) earlier work, Kolbe's model does not value certain conative talents over others. However, the valuation articulated by Snow endures in Western culture today. For example, the structure of formal education values as "good students" people who approach problems by such methods as seeking order, collecting data, and putting things in writing--in other words, with conative abilities of "Fact Finder" and "Follow Thru." Thus the cultural pressure to conform to certain patterns of action is a kind of "conative oppression" that debilitates individuals with other conative preferences in environments from grade school to the welfare system. The following is an example of how this oppression can occur and how it can be defused when the individual and those in the environment understand conation. The situation described is real; names and other facts were changed to protect anonymity, and the client and family gave their permission to publish their story in this article.

Jeff was a 16-year-old student with an IQ over 150. He scored extremely high on standardized tests. However, Jeff had not been even moderately successful at completing classroom assignments or homework. As a result, he had an extremely low grade point average (2.00). His parents were baffled. Jeff's father and many of his teachers continually stressed that Jeff was very intelligent and that his failures must be due to "laziness." His mother tried to remain patient and encouraging, but she was at her wit's end. Jeff was a "good" kid. But during his high school years he became increasingly withdrawn from his family. Jeff just wanted people to "let him be himself," but he wasn't even sure what that meant or how to do it. Someone recommended to Jeff's mother that her family's conative abilities be assessed.

Jeff's conative talents were assessed. When gathering information, Jeff does not get bogged down in minutiae or overanalyze information. He naturally resists or avoids following a schedule, repeating patterns, acting sequentially, or following procedures--all generally considered necessary for completing homework assignments. Jeff's natural tendency is to demonstrate by building tangible things, which he is rarely, if ever, given the opportunity to do in school. When problem solving, Jeff will be most successful when he is allowed to use a process of trial and error rather than when writing a detailed research report or completing complicated assignments in a linear and logical order.

Both of Jeff's parents and his sister were in direct conative conflict with Jeff. They all approached problems by investigating facts and organizing information. They resisted quick analyses. In fact, their conative tendencies seemed exactly the opposite of Jeff's. When Jeff's mother realized the implications of these results, she immediately apologized for trying to make him "fit into a mold," or act in ways that felt natural to her but not to him. Jeff's relief was instantaneous and visible. He reaffirmed that he only wanted to be allowed to be himself, and he added that he finally knew what that meant. From early childhood, Jeff had judged himself as "bad" for being different from his family, believing their ways of approaching challenges were correct. Even when he forced himself to imitate their methods, however, he felt miserable--and most often, he failed.

Unknowingly, the school system, Jeff's teachers, and his parents had been stifling Jeff's conative strengths, limiting the natural expression of his own ideas and solutions, and denying him the joy of accomplishment. Jeff knew at a very deep level that he was riot "lazy." However, at a conscious level he agreed with others' assessment that he was inadequate and possibly morally defective--ample reason for his emotional withdrawal from others.

Using this conative information, Jeff's parents explained to his teachers that anyone wishing to help Jeff (rather than further frustrating him by demanding that he use processes inimical to his conative talents) needed to encourage Jeff to solve problems in ways that are natural for him. Jeff was able to cognitively process conflicts that arose for him at home and school, without feeling misunderstood or judging the conflicts to be anyone's "fault." He began to liberate himself from the false judgments and interpersonal conflicts that had contributed to his low self-esteem. In all these ways, the inclusion of conative data helped turn his self-reinforcing negative cycle of failure, blame, hopelessness, and silent defiance into a positive cycle of understanding, adaptation, success, and confidence. His sense of self-efficacy, his relationships, and his schoolwork all benefited, and, instead of failing, Jeff went on to college.

This example shows that Jeff used all three dimensions of his mind--connecting with his conative abilities, applying his knowledge to cognitive analysis of his own situation, and resolving the emotional or affective aspects of his life--as a way to achieve overall success. It is also an example of the way that social workers can assist clients in reframing their situations in light of the assessment of the client's conative strengths and can use this assessment to identify niches or goodness of fit in the client's environment. And when people in the client's environment are educated about conative abilities, the environment can change. Jeff's situation is an example of change in the family and school environments.

Computer science researchers using assessment of conative abilities to build work teams of college students have noted that their educational system rewards only students with certain types of conative strengths (Lingard, Timmerman, & Berry, 2005). This lack of conative diversity may be a detriment to their profession because students with other conative abilities leave the program before finishing. The researchers note that there may be value in seeking conative diversity in a group or profession to broaden the group's ability to tackle a wide range of problems.

Diversity in conative strengths may also be helpful for the profession of social work. Social work practice requires the use of certain structures like a supervisory chain of command, quality control, and the use of empirically based interventions. These systems help ensure that practitioners have a high probability of creating beneficial effects and, even more important, that they follow Hippocrates' dictum: "Above all do no harm." These organizational conventions require social workers whose strengths are in seeking order, collecting data, establishing priorities, in other words, initiating Follow Thru and Fact Finder characteristics, to create a safe context for interventions with clients. Yet, social workers are also often called on to arrive at unorthodox solutions quickly to ameliorate crisis situations. This requires social workers who can quickly discover alternatives, who can promote trying new things and take risks, in other words, those who have Quick Start capability.


We perceive the assessment of conative strengths in a client or social worker as extremely useful. However, the use of a merely intuitive or vague definition and assessment of conative strengths robs the practitioner and the client of some of its beneficial effects and creates the risk of conative abilities being overlooked, misapplied, or overemphasized. A well-tested and clarifying model is enormously helpful in the conceptualization and application of social work practice and evaluation. Being able to identify different conative strengths and apply them as needed is a powerful epistemological tool that is best addressed by using an empirically based assessment, such as the Kolbe A Index (2005c), that has been thoroughly tested and proven beneficial in real-world contexts. To date, the Kolbe A Index is the most powerful tool available for this purpose, despite its lack of academic review and the cost involved in its use.


Given that many social workers will not have access to the Kolbe A Index (Kolbe, 2005c), some types of questions can be placed within a social work assessment. One sample question designed to assess the way in which an individual approaches a problem is presented in Table I. Two examples of actual items on the Kolbe Index are also presented in the table. For the sample question, the client should be asked, "Which of these items would you enjoy doing the most?" "Which items would you enjoy doing the least?" The client's pattern of answers can give the social worker insight into the clients' conative strengths. For example, if a client preferred item A and would enjoy item B the least, the social worker knows that this client needs to have information before taking action and does not like to follow a system or procedure. The social worker would provide this client with information--oral, written, or online--regarding the client's condition or situation. The social worker would also avoid forcing this client into a standardized intervention too quickly. A client who selects item C as the preferred action is ready to begin work on a challenge very quickly. Social workers should avoid viewing such individuals as impulsive, a negative valuation.


By using conative interventions together with affective and cognitive interventions, social workers can help individuals use all aspects of their mind to achieve a higher quality of life. When people who have been pressured to use unfamiliar conative tactics realize that another mode of action works well for them, they are likely to experience a higher sense of self-efficacy and empowerment.

The use of conative analysis for specific applications in various fields (for example, education, social work, crisis management, health, family counseling, career guidance, and team leadership) advances the usefulness of each system. The educational system could be transformed by using information on conative differences. Training programs could help teachers to understand and facilitate each student's conative profile, to understand their own conative talents, and to work harmoniously, rather than contentiously, with students who differ from them. Peer mentors could be matched with specific mentees on the basis of both individuals' conative abilities. The effectiveness of student learning groups could be greatly improved by a synergistic use of disparate conative talents.

Affective and cognitive clinical interventions in dysfunctional social systems could also be greatly enhanced by adding a conative component. For example, family conflict may be caused by conative stress between partners, or between a child and a parent, with different natural abilities. Understanding and being able to articulate conative differences could help each person involved understand the source of such problems.

The ubiquity of attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or oppositional defiant disorder diagnoses may in part by explained by a failure to include conative variables in clinical analyses of behavior. It may well be that, as a culture dominated by an educational meritocracy where Follow Thru and Fact Finder behaviors are heavily favored, we pathologize the natural abilities of those with different conative strengths. The highly structured and systematic treatment methods used for ADD and ADHD could explain why individuals whose conative talents eschew structured, logical methods "fail" to progress during treatment, but this and related hypotheses must be studied scientifically.

Such possibilities should be explored by social work research and practitioners. Kolbe's work provides one useful basis on which social work scholars can construct hypotheses and practical interventions to clarify the conative component of human action. As the most pragmatic of all social science disciplines, social work has always been an eclectic field, open to useful discoveries and ideas from any quarter. The concept of conation could be immensely helpful; in fact, assessing, celebrating, and building on peoples' strengths cannot be complete without a consideration of this key component in individual and group life.


A review of Kolbe's model suggests fruitful areas for social work research. First, on the basis of 30 years of practice wisdom, Kolbe believes conative patterns are instinctive--inherent and therefore unchangeable. Although she believes people can learn to problem solve outside of their natural conative abilities, their natural preferences will not change. The axiom that conative talents are inherent should be empirically tested. For example, it is possible that some individuals' true conative abilities may emerge only after successful treatment for depression.

In addition, to promote evidence-based practice, social workers should study correlations between conative problem-solving tendencies and effectiveness or implementation of particular interventions. For example, brief motivational interventions can be tailored to match individuals' conative strengths. Do cognitive behavioral interventions that rely heavily on homework work best with individuals who have conative talents valued by the formal education system? If so, we can devise cognitive behavioral interventions to better match other conative abilities. Do individuals fare better when their helpers, such as social workers or teachers, share their conative talents? Although a few studies are ongoing, the use of conative abilities as a variable in many types of intervention research could yield fruitful results and perhaps could identify why certain subgroups do not seem to benefit from interventions.


Gerdes describes how motivation, cognition, and conation worked together in Ernesto's case:
 The sight of the little boy sitting in his own urine,
 unable to swat flies from his face, created an intense
 desire (motivation catalyst) to improve the
 quality of his life. My instinctive energy (conative
 mind) was engaged, and because my instinctive
 modus operandi favors risking the unknown, I
 decided to take Ernesto to the nun in Manila.
 As I thought about how best to do this (cognitive
 analysis), I decided not to call ahead for an
 appointment--I reasoned that it might be easy
 for the nun to say "no" to me on the phone. If
 she saw Ernesto in person, I thought, she would
 have a more difficult time turning him away. In
 this instance (and, Kolbe would add, in all others),
 my instincts drove the conative dimension
 of my mind. However, if my affective mind had
 not been motivated, I would have done nothing,
 and if my cognitive faculties hadn't kicked in, I
 may have floundered in indecision.

All three dimensions of the mind must be engaged for an individual to take effective action. Therefore, the strengths perspective would be more complete if it included an assessment of a client's conative talents in addition to cognitive and affective factors. Social workers have an obligation to use every theoretical and practical tool available to assist their clients in building successful lives. Omitting the concept of conation impairs the effectiveness of social work practice. Knowing and incorporating conation will allow social workers to use their own skills more powerfully and to draw on the full range of strengths they find in the people and groups they serve.

Original manuscript received March 8, 2006

Final revision received April 2, 2007

Accepted April 4, 2007


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Karen E. Gerdes, PhD, is associate professor, School of Social Work, Arizona State University, Mail Code 3920, 411 North Central Avenue, Suite 800, Phoenix, AZ 85004-0689; e-mail: Layne K. Stromwall, PhD, ACSW, is associate professor, School of Social Work, Arizona State University. The authors thank the Center for Conative Abilities in Phoenix, Arizona, for their cooperation with this research.
Table 1: Sample of Conative Abilities Assessment Questions

Question Possible Answers

If you started A. I would read lots of books tall; m people who
a new small are already doing it, and gather as much
business, say information as I could from as many sources as
cleaning possible.
houses, what is
the first thing B. I would give my business a name, set up
you might do? business accounts, create a system for
 billing, etc.

 C. I would start asking people if I could clean
 their houses and get going as soon as possible.

 D. I would go to the score and handle and select
 the cleaning products and tools I would need.

 Most Least

If I believed A. Investigate it [] []
something B. Design it [] []
important could C. Sell or promote it [] []
be made to help D. Build it [] []
humanity I
would ...

If I were told A. Skip to the bottom line [] []
to hurry B. Decide what could be done properly [] []
finishing a C. Work diligently until time was up [] []
project, I D. Consider craftsmanship most [] []
would ... important

Notes: The multiple choice question is a sample question we designed
to assess the way in which an individual approaches a problem; the
two rating style questions are examples of actual items on the Kolbe
Index. Reprinted with permission from Kathy Kolbe. (2005). Unleash
your instincts: Kolbe A Index. Available from
[c]Kolbe Concepts Incorporated.

Figure 1: Kolbe's Action Mode Matrix

 Fact Finder Follow Thru
 To gather information To store and organize
 and communicate information

Resist action Unwilling to Unwilling to

or --Require --Be rigid with plans
 documentation --Get stuck in routines
 --Get bogged dawn in --Follow a schedule
 minutiae --Act sequentially

Prevent problems Will SIMPLIFY Will ADAPT

Accommodate Willing to Willing to

or --Review the data --Maintain --order
 --Work within --Work within the
 priorities system
 --Give specifics --Adhere to the plan
 --Go with the highest --Maintain
 probability concentration
 --Stay in sequence

people's needs

Insist Will Will

or --Collect data --Design systems
 --Establish priorities --Seek order
 --Create analogies --Arrange logistics
 --Put in writing --Force closure


 Quick Start Implementor
 To deal with risks and To build or demon--
 unknowns strafe (Handling space
 and tactile efforts)
Resist action Unwilling to Unwilling to

or --Be impulsive --Require concreteness
 --Be ambiguous --Force tangible
 --Cause distractions solutions
 --Force change and --Have to see a
 disruption prototype
 --Need to physically

Prevent problems Will STABILIZE Will IMAGINE

Accommodate Willing to Willing to

or --Go along with risks --Work with tangible
 --Try alternatives goods
 --Use metaphors --Use models
 --Interject --Use tools and
 spontaneously equipment
 --Follow another's --Envision concrete
 hunch examples
 --Utilize protective gear

people's needs

Insist Will Will

or --Promote --Create tangible goods
 experimentation --Develop prototypes
 --Take risks --Master mechanical
 --Discover alternatives devices
 --Ad lib --Detect solutions

Initiate action IMPROVISE BUILD

Source: Adapted with permission from Kathy Kolbe. [c]2005, Kolbe
Concepts Incorporated.
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Author:Gerdes, Karen E.; Stromwall, Layne K.
Publication:Social Work
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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