Reframing for success

Reframing for success

A skilled and fresh set of eyes, employing insights from behavioural science, can trigger powerful shifts in business performance. But normally it’s only those prepared to rock their own boat that will reap the rewards.

“I’m really unhappy in my job. I’m working hard and people want me in this role but, to be honest, I’m not that good at day-to-day operations management. I don’t know what I should do. I really want your advice.” Claire was a talented, devoted employee who felt trapped in a role and dissatisfied in her performance.

“What could you do?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” responded Claire.

“Well,” I said “what role would you feel excited about, in which you’d use your talents and perform at your best?”

Claire thought. “Business development – I’m good at that and it excites me.”

“So do that,” I suggest.

“But … how? It’s not my role.”

“Go and talk to Mark,” (her manager), “tell him you’re unhappy and not serving the company well in your current role, and that you’re sure you’ll be much more effective in a business development role. Then ask him how and when you can make that transition. Not if you can make it, but how and when.”

Claire was silent but you could sense she was feeling lighter and happier already. “You know I just hadn’t even thought about the situation that way. I actually feel quite excited now to get back to the office and talk to Mark. Thanks!”

Claire made a successful transition.

This was one of many simple but powerful demonstrations of reframing – changing perspective on a situation to achieve a breakthrough. Whether at an individual, team or business level, we are often unknowingly captive to unproductive ways of thinking and working.

In their recent Harvard Business Review article [1], John Beshears and Francesca Gino explain that people often make poor decisions that don’t serve their employer’s and their own interests not because they are dumb but because of the way the human brain is wired – because of cognitive biases. There are many types of biases that influence our thinking every day, and they explain why people under-estimate how long it will take to finish projects, are over-confident about their ability to implement strategies, and why they don’t make sound investments in their long-term interest.

Overcoming biases is difficult though – largely because we are typically oblivious to them. So how do you overcome these decision failings? One answer is to change the environment in which people are making their decisions, either nudging them in the direction of better choices or triggering them to think more deeply when required.

There are many sorts of nudges that can be applied, with great examples provided in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge. Ultimately I see them all as forms of reframing – to make good choices easier, to make risks more apparent, accountability for decisions more immediate, or the context of important decisions (and potentially important knowledge gaps) more apparent.

While people can rewire their brain and become more aware of potential biases, it is difficult and takes awareness and practice. It’s why coaching is so important.

It’s in this capacity as a design facilitator and business coach that I’ve seen how quickly shifts in thought and performance can occur. Indeed it’s genuinely exciting to be able to see the sorts of productivity shifts that businesses can achieve with relatively little effort on the part of their people – with careful reframing, nudges and coaching. As with all things though people need to want to explore new and better ways of working to realise these benefits. Operating in the state of ‘business as usual’ can be very comfortable, if not that useful.

[1] John Beshears and Francesca Gino (2015) Leaders as decision architects, Harvard Business Review, May 2015, pp 52-62



  1. Enjoyed the article and have started to ask what are my biases and how are these holding me back.

    • It’s a great practice to get into. Often its hard for us to see our own biases without an independent observer or coach, particularly in the daily cut, thrust and frenetic activity. It can be useful though, particularly if you’re dealing with an important situation, to take a few minutes of quiet time to write down what you think about the issue at hand, and more importantly why you think that. Then you’re aware of those starting viewpoints and can more explicitly test them and contrast with others points of view. It’s a pretty interesting and refreshing approach that’s useful before having conversations with business partners, project stakeholders and clients.

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