Want to Foster Change? Look for ‘Bright Spots’

Focusing on problems is a recipe for paralysis.

April 13, 2011
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What was the most surprising discovery you made about change behavior?

That self-control is exhaustible, like a muscle.

We’ve all experienced this: You have a stressful day at work, and you come home and snap at your partner, or you have one drink too many. You burned up your self-control at work.

This is critical for change because all change requires self-control. Not just in the sense of resisting temptation, like a cookie or a drink, but in the sense that you have to manage your behavior deliberately.

So one implication of this is that you shouldn’t pile on too much change at once. Don’t pick six New Year’s resolutions, and don’t overhaul every aspect of people’s routines at once at work.

What did studying change across different disciplines reveal about change that has otherwise not been apparent?

If you go to the bookstore, you’ll see a long aisle of self-help books: how to diet, how to beat alcohol, and so on.

You’ll see parenting books. You’ll see “change management” books for executives. You’ll see “save the world” type books. And it’s like they’re all addressing unrelated problems.

But ultimately, for anything to change, somebody somewhere has to behave differently. And that’s why it was so easy to spot patterns among these different domains.

You can literally use the same change strategy whether you’re trying to change your son or change your neighborhood. It all comes down to behavior change.

The book says we often overcomplicate change. What do you mean by that?

When change doesn’t happen, we almost always blame it on people—people who are too “resistant” or “lazy.” But what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

For instance, we tell the story of a manager named Amanda Tucker who got poor ratings on “communication” from her employees. The problem was that when they’d come in her office, she’d often get distracted by e-mail and try to multitask while they were sitting there.

Is Tucker a bad manager? A poor communicator? Well, no. She rearranged her office one afternoon so she couldn’t see her monitor, meaning that she wouldn’t be distracted. And—poof—her communication scores went way up.

It wasn’t a problem with Amanda, it was a problem with her environment. And the environment was a lot easier to fix.

Next: Find 'bright spots’ to create change

Ignorance is bliss - Or is it?

Serge Milman
April 13, 2011 3:40 pm
This is an interesting take on how to improve performance, but I am unclear how defocusing from the challenge areas will ever result in improvement. I am not one who believes in 'Ignorance is bliss' nor have I ever heard of circumstances where this approach has ever resulted in improved performance. Imagine telling a member that you are very sorry that they are having a problem with bill payment but that you are very pleased with the fact that your check deposit system is flawless. I just don't think this would resonate well. Dan Heath is right in that it is important to have the right perspective of the various challenges within their own context, to reward success, and to avoid 'paralysis by analysis'. However, this does not mean defocusing on problem areas. My experience as a consultant tells me that only by focusing on problem areas and finding ways to improve the overall system are the only mechanisms for greater process simplicity, improved customer experience, faster growth and more robust profitability.

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Great article! Unfortunately, most employees don’t feel valued or appreciated by their supervisors or employers. In fact, research has shown that the predominant reason team members quit their jobs is because they don’t feel valued. This is in spite of the fact that employee recognition programs have proliferated in the workplace – over 90% of all organizations in the U.S. has some form of employee recognition activities in place. But most employee recognition programs are viewed with skepticism and cynicism – because they aren’t viewed as being genuine in their communication of appreciation. Getting the “employee of the month” award, receiving a certificate of recognition, or a “Way to go, team!” email just don’t get the job done. How do you communicate authentic appreciation? We have found people have different ways that they want to be shown appreciation, and if you don’t communicate in the language of appreciation important to them, you essentially “miss the mark”. Additionally, employees need to receive recognition more than once a year at their performance review. Otherwise, they view the praise as “going through the motions”. A third component of authentic appreciation is that the communication has to be about them personally – not the department, not their group, but something they did. Finally, they have to believe that you mean what you say. How you treat them has to match the words you use. If you are not sure how your team members want to be shown appreciation, the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory ( will identify the language of appreciation and specific actions preferred by each employee. You then can create a group profile for your team, so everyone knows how to encourage one another. Remember, employees want to know that they are valued for what they contribute to the success of the organization. And communicating authentic appreciation in the ways they desire it can make the difference between keeping your quality team members or having a negative work environment that everyone wants to leave. Paul White, Ph.D., is the co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman.

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