WBS research revealed how you can communicate strategy to increase the number of staff who back it.
A famous 1981 experiment by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his long-time collaborator Amos Tversky uncannily foresaw the COVID-19 pandemic that struck the world in 2020.
Not only were participants told to imagine that the US was preparing for the outbreak of an unusual disease from Asia, but Kahneman and Tverksy also discovered that the framing of the message affected how people would behave – a finding that would become fundamental in the pandemic.
Behavioural science was crucial in mobilising millions of people across the UK to take up the COVID-19 vaccination despite a barrage of misinformation online.
In Kahneman and Tversky’s experiment, instead of millions of deaths, participants were told scientists expected the disease to kill 600 people. Two alternative programmes to combat the disease were proposed.
Kahneman and Tversky found that if the programme was framed positively (ie telling participants that 200 people would live), it was chosen by 72 per cent of the respondents. But when the same treatment was framed negatively (ie saying it would lead to 400 people dying), the number of participants choosing it dropped to 22 per cent.
It is a powerful example of how presenting or ‘framing’ information can have a drastic impact on the way it is perceived, and the decisions that people then make as a result.
The power of framing is the reason why ‘spin-doctoring’ exists as a concept, and is regularly deployed – with varying degrees of success – by governments to present policies in a particular light, as well as by corporations that want to be seen as addressing the grand challenges of society.
Moreover, our research has shown how the framing of information in a business setting can impact on decisions too.
A classroom exercise involving 925 early and mid-career graduates participating in organisation strategy, design and change courses was carried out over a 22-year period. In that time, 190 teams of up to six people analysed a particular case and were asked to recommend a form of functional structure to support a new contract bid.
The power of a single sentence
A single sentence included by one character had a drastic effect on which of the three strategic choices were selected. The sentence was:
“One thing I want to make particularly clear,” Datson continued, “nobody’s going to come into my department and tell my people how they must do their work. They report to me and my supervisors and we’re the ones who call the shots.”
The negative framing of this sentence meant that the strategic choice it represented was spurned by the hundreds of teams that took part over a period of 20 years.
But when the sentence was removed, for the next two years, that strategic choice was selected a third of the time, as would be expected statistically. Interestingly, the sentence was operationally irrelevant, but it seemed to pull on participants’ emotions.
Hence, framing can be vital in how decisions around issues such as strategy, organisational change or large investments are relayed and ultimately perceived by employees, customers, investors, and other stakeholders, as well as how conclusions around decisions themselves are reached. Investors, for example, drive the value of a business partly based on how they perceive it, beyond the realms of any objective financial analysis.
Tesla is a case in point: when investors viewed it as a tech company in late 2022 the valuation was two-and-a-half times higher than it is now, and significantly higher than other car companies. In recent months, as this perception has shifted towards Tesla being an automotive rather than a tech firm, the valuation has fallen dramatically.
Consequently, for leaders and managers, there are useful lessons here around how to frame a strategy to ensure staff and other stakeholders back it:
1) Emotions rule people’s decisions
Do not assume that people will take objective information and statistics as seriously as they should. As has been proven experimentally, the framing of an idea changes the decisions that people make. Humans do not just view things objectively but rely on emotion, opinion and connotations; their decisions are shaped by their ‘cognitive schemas’ – that is, patterns of thought or behaviour that are influenced by individual characteristics.
When looking to frame a strategy that staff will buy into, executives and senior managers can use this to their advantage by ensuring they use appropriate language. For instance, using the term “those people” to describe a particular group is likely to provoke implicit and unintended responses among employees who do not immediately identify with a particular strategy, and could alienate the very people you need to get onside.
2) Consider storytelling
Conversely, effective framing can also help generate buy-in for a particular strategy. Make use of storytelling and metaphor to create a particular image or to convey a potential future situation.
As our research found, evoking implicit storylines which invite moral considerations and emotions into the decision-making process has a significant impact on outcomes.
It’s a technique deployed to great effect by marketing agencies. Soft-drink brands will present images of people drinking their product on a beach with a party going on around them to create positive associations with the product; in reality, very few people will enjoy their drink like this.
But it’s a powerful image, and a technique that managers can also use when selling a vision to staff, customers or even investors. Managers should look at their different stakeholders and identify the framing strategy that is most likely to resonate with them and be seen by them in a positive light.
3) Ensure others know about it
When looking to frame a strategy in a particular way, it’s important to ensure that other departments involved are also aware of just how important framing is and how a particular strategy is being framed.
This could include marketing, internal communications, media and external relations or employee engagement teams, as well as line managers. If necessary, consider investing in training so staff understand how to frame their own messaging around a strategy.
4) Know where to draw the line
There is a dark side here, with the obvious potential for framing to be used to justify things that are questionable or unethical.
Influencing the senior management team to make a debatable investment, or key investors to reach a particular position, may be morally dubious.
It’s important that any framing is conducted within the right ethical parameters, where a degree of persuasion is useful and acceptable, but misleading and conveying a false impression is not.
5) Watch out for other people using framing on you
As well as using framing to help deliver a strategy, it’s important for managers and senior leaders to be aware that their own decisions can be affected by their own instinctive reactions. They need to put in place measures to ensure they assess any strategy or decision objectively, so they do not fall victim to the effect of framing.
The best way to overcome the framing bias is to ensure there is a diversity of inputs into decisions. There are techniques to accomplish this, such as dividing a team into two groups and asking them to research and debate opposing positions. Another method is to appoint somebody as a ‘devil’s advocate’ whose role it is to challenge the assumptions underpinning proposals and arguments, with the aim of preventing any framing bias.
Communication is essential to the implementation of any strategy, and there is a lot more to it than just exchanging information. Knowing and using the true potential of language with the right framing can help people become more effective strategists and leaders.
Loizos Heracleous is Professor of Strategy and teaches on the Executive, Distance and Full-Time MBA courses.
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