Half Full or Empty

Is the glass half-full or empty,” I ask her as I fill it.

She said it doesn’t really matter, pretty soon you’re bound to spill it.

Indigo Girls

I used to work with a guy I’ll call Mike, since that’s his name. I liked working with Mike, found him generous with his time, insightful into the business, a hard worker and a good guy. But Mike was a pessimist. Any idea I took him, he could turn on its head and see the downsides – to be fair, I was always turning his ideas on their head and seeing upsides. Working with Mike made me better because I was challenged to bullet-proof my ideas before sharing them with Mike. But it also made me wonder why Mike – who was generally good natured and always had a smile for people, even when delivering dire news – always saw the glass half-empty.

When social psychologist, Alison Ledgerwood, studied people who see the glass half full or empty, she found that people who see the glass half-full can change their opinion to see it as half-empty. But people who see it as half-empty are unlikely to change their perception of emptiness to see full-ness. (Click here for a TED talk, where she describes her research in full.)

For example, if I tell you that you have a 60% chance of achieving something, you’ll probably focus on success. And if I tell you that you have a 40% chance of failing, you’ll focus on the failure.

But if you’re focused on success and I come back and remind you that there’s a 40% chance of failure, you will probably begin thinking about failing. (Or at least find yourself weighing your options – do I take the risk or not?)

Here’s the part that Ledgerwood focused on: if you were originally focused on the 40% chance of failure and I remind you that means that there’s a 60% chance of success, you are unlikely to switch your frame and focus on success. In other words, once you’ve made up your mind that something is bad, you’re unlikely to change your mind.

So positive framing of new ideas makes a difference in how people respond. No surprise there. But Ledgerwood wondered why this was the case.

So she measured how long it took people to make the switch. She told one group of people that 100 of 600 people were saved from a catastrophic disease and told a second group that 100 of 600 people had died. In both cases, she asked people to do some math. She asked the first group to calculate how many people had died and the second group, how many people were saved.

Here’s the interesting part: the people who started by learning that 100 people had died took 11 seconds to do the math, as opposed to 7 seconds for the people who started by learning that 100 people had been saved.

Her conclusion: it takes longer for people to give up negative ideas than positive ones.

What does this have to do with change management? Everything.

First, how you initially frame the change that is coming will affect your results. If you tell store managers that a new POS system will help them reduce their workforce, they’ll focus on the people they’ll have to lay off. If you frame it instead as a way to reallocate cashiering hours to customer service to grow sales and earn more payroll overall, they are more likely to see it as a positive.

Second, you have to be aware of what the potential losses are so you can address them. What they perceive as losses may surprise you. If you decide that you want to move those cashiers onto the salesfloor to do customer service, and they haven’t been trained in customer service, those employees may feel a loss of competency that makes them hang back and impair your adoption rate. So you’ll need to supplement – or precede – training on the new POS with training on how to deliver customer service.

Third, once you’re aware of the perceived losses, reframe them up front, openly and often. This can come from the center-out, through leadership communications. But it also needs to come from change coaches at the local level – the people who are setting priorities for the people who need to change. Communicating at both levels sends a message: your boss wants, expects, and supports you in this change; and it’s not just your boss, this is something we’re doing throughout the organization – so you’d better get on board. And don’t just tell them once, tell them again and again in different ways: in a blog, with a study, through survey results, with quotes from peers who tried it and succeeded.

But what if you come across a Mike, someone who is so strongly pessimistic that you can’t shake their perspective? Great opportunity to practice your resistance-management skills! And there’s so much you can learn from the Mike’s in your world – they can help you get inside the reluctance others may have to your change. I always welcome pessimists because you know where you stand with them and they’re welcome to share their objections.

And, once you win them over to your side, no one out-preaches the convert.

What do you do to shift people’s frames to enable them to adopt change?

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