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Eradicating deceptive messages

Stephen Chambers

You must relabel and reframe deceptive messages to create a more positive culture at your company, write Jeffrey Schwartz and Josie Thomson for Strategy+Business.

We all suffer recurring thoughts, things we repeatedly tell ourselves, that have a profound effect on the way we act in our personal lives or perform in our professional lives. They are often negative; e.g. “I always screw up”, or “Nobody appreciates me”. They are sometimes positive; e.g. “I am special, I can get away with anything”. They are almost never accurate.


Jeffrey Schwartz, a research scientist at the University of California, and Josie Thomson, an executive coach based in Brisbane, Australia, have a label for this “habitual churn of your brain circuits” – they call them “deceptive messages”. Repeat these deceptive messages often enough, and they grow stronger.

This same phenomenon can take place within your company. For example, when a company is successful, the message pervading the culture might be “We are untouchable”; when a company is struggling, the message might be “Nobody can save us”. Neither message is true, but both could have a negative effect on the company. The former could lead to hubris, the latter to defeatism.

“These deceptive organisation messages are unexamined, taken for granted, and strengthened through everyday conversation,” write Schwartz and Thomson.


Schwartz and Thomson identify four of the most common categories of “deceptive messages”:

1) Misperceptions of risk. Executives either underestimate risk, as demonstrated by the “overconfident exceptionalism” of bankers that led to the financial crisis of 2008; or overestimate risk, which can lead to excessive and debilitating risk aversion.

2) Misperceptions of value. Examples of misperceiving value include perfectionism or “all-or-nothing thinking” (i.e. it must be perfect or it will have no value); or “ticking the box” (i.e. this complies with specifications, so it will do).

3) Misperceptions of proficiency. Both overestimating or underestimating your ability to complete a task can lead to trouble.

4) Misperceptions of validity. Emotional reasoning, such as “This feels good, so it must be right”; or rigid rationalism, such as “We used logic to reach this conclusion, so it must be accurate”.


Schwartz and Thomson propose a three-step approach to dealing with these deceptive messages:

1) Relabel. Make everybody at your company aware of the deceptive messages and relabel these “collective mental habits” as “artifacts” not reality.

2) Reframe. Replace these “artifacts” with realistic, positive messages, such as “However bad things seem, we can fix this situation”.

3) Refocus. Make sure the senior members of your team buy into and repeat these new messages until they become deeply rooted in your company’s collective consciousness.


Continually reframing organisational messages and creating new messages that will take your organisation in the right direction triggers changes in behaviour.

“Eventually, the messages that people ruminate on in your company – as individuals and as a group – are no longer nearly as deceptive. People understand those messages as not just a way of perceiving reality, but a choice to perceive reality in a more accurate and constructive manner,” write the authors.

Source Article: Changing The Conversations That Kill Your Culture
Author(s): Jeffrey Schwartz and Josie Thomson
Publisher: Strategy+Business