Reframing Your “Why” When Change is Stuck

I’ve been working with a client on a transformative business strategy change and the effort is completely “stuck”. The business problem and opportunity is completely framed in financial terms, outcomes are all focused on financial results and her people are tuned out. Yet, the “why” behind this transformative change is absolutely compelling; it just lacks a compelling story about why it’s essential to transform the business for the future.

Reframing means to change the viewpoint in relation to which a situation is experienced and to place it in another frame which fits the ‘facts’ of the same concrete situation equally well or even better, and thereby changing its entire meaning. In other words – the facts are the facts, but how you perceive those facts, and your frame of reference when you take in that information, determines how you feel about it.

Alison Ledgerwood is a Professor and Chancellor’s Fellow at UC Davis who has been studying the question of how our minds work and how they can tend to get stuck in the negative. According to Ledgerwood’s research, the way you describe something has a hugely powerful impact on how people perceive it and their opinions of it. One example Ledgerwood uses is a glass that is halfway filled with water:

  • If the glass is described as “half full”, people tend to have a positive impression. This is what they named a Gain Frame
  • If the glass is described as “half empty”, people tend to have a negative impression. This is what they named a Loss Frame

Her research focuses on if and how you could change perceptions once people got “stuck” in a Loss Frame. Could they be influenced to move out of that negative perception and into one that was positive? Once the Loss Frame is there, it’s extremely difficult to go back to a Gain Frame and see something as a positive. Her takeaway is that people broadly tend to tilt toward this more negative perception – and that you have to work to see the upside.

How can you use reframing, especially if you’re stuck in your transformational change efforts?

  • Tell a compelling story. Our partner Barbara Milhizer is an excellent storyteller and says it’s essential to include the audience in something bigger than themselves and use real examples to bring it to life (you can find more insights on storytelling here).
  • Stick to the facts, but be intentional about how you frame them. In our glass is half full/ empty analogy, the facts remain the same. However, it’s all about the frame of reference — how it’s explained makes all the difference. Find a way to make it compelling and grab attention by helping people see things differently.
  • Give people a reason to take the leap with you. Help them understand that you’re in it together and that the opportunities for future success are worth the sacrifice and hard work it takes to change the way things are today. Celebrate the hard work and successes along the way.
  • Keep messaging grounded in the “why”. Transformational change is always going to be hard, but the “why” is almost always grounded in a positive outcome. Say it and say it again – reground in it every time you communicate important progress.
  • Focus on building trust. Significant skepticism will be part of your organization when people lack confidence and trust in leaders or think you’re not being transparent about your “why”. When you build trust with your organization, they’re more likely to accept the reframing and have faith that they’ll get through the challenges.


Sheri Browning is a Partner at PeopleResults. You can reach her at or on Twitter @sbPResults