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Need to Motivate Your Team for Change? The Trick Might be in the Wording….

Managing and motivating people through any time of change can feel like herding cats. Or worse, herding people. (Why is the adage about cats anyways? I would guess that people are just as, or probably more, challenging to get into alignment.)


Because we all bring different perspectives, preferences, and experiences to every situation, not to mention the wide variation in how people view and respond to change. Some people automatically recoil in the face of proposed change, even if the change will make their lives better. Some people jump from option to option, welcoming any opportunity to try something new, regardless of whether there is a guiding strategy.

For anyone who is working to introduce change to team processes or culture, the most critical and strategic first step is figuring out how to message the need for change. In order for people to acknowledge that there is a problem and be receptive to solutions, you have to motivate them to pay attention.

There are two broad camps when it comes to what motivates people: Positive Framing and Negative Framing.

Positive Framing

Positive framing describes the need for change in proactive terms, and focuses on the outcomes of the change - how the change will make things better. The language highlights what’s possible on the other side of the change process, motivating people based on the promise for better (more positive) outcomes.

Negative Framing

Negative framing focuses on a known pain point, and makes the case for change in that it will solve or mitigate a problem. The language focuses on how bad things are (or could be), and motivates people to make things less bad.

Let’s look at an example.

Making the Case for Culture Change

Imagine that you lead a team of 10 people: 6 of whom have been part of the team for at least 3 years and 4 of whom were recently hired. Things have been very busy for everyone over the past quarter, with little time for the team to communicate about anything other than the tasks at hand.

You’re starting to hear rumblings from the older guard about how “team culture just isn’t what it used to be” and from the newer folks about how “the team feels a bit clique-y and they can’t seem to break in and make connections with the old guard.”

You are going to suggest that you all do some culture-building work together by, say, playing team building games together. You don’t think that the team will be sold just on the merits of fun games, so you need to think about how to make your case. What do you do?

The positive framing approach could look something like this: These team building exercises would give us a chance to get to know each other better, and see what hidden strengths and creative ideas we can leverage to make our team even more successful.

The negative framing approach could look something like this: I know several of you are feeling discouraged and frustrated with how stressful that last few months have been. You don’t feel like your work is valued, or that your contributions to this team make a difference. These fun company team building activities would help us overcome that.

Neither approach is better or worse than the other. One type of language might be more appropriate in a specific situation, or might be more convincing for certain people. Often the best approach includes some of both!

How have you used framing to make the case for change?


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