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Reframing vs. a motivational shift: Which leads to success?

Reframing critical feedback can be powerful, but Susan Fowler writes that true power lies in a motivational shift that creates well-being.

5 min read



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I was about to ask a dumb question: 

“Have you ever received critical feedback or experienced a negative interaction that left you feeling demoralized, angry, resentful, frustrated, energized through self-righteous indignation or depleted of energy just thinking about the situation?”

A dumb question is one where you already know the answer. In this case, I think you’d agree that most of us would answer “Yes.”  

A valuable tool used by all types of coaches, from sports to executive coaching, is reframing. 

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines reframing as a process of reconceptualizing a problem by seeing it from a different perspective. Altering the conceptual or emotional context of a problem often alters perceptions of the problem’s difficulty and opens up possibilities for solving it. For example, how a client initially frames an issue in psychotherapy may be self-defeating. Part of the therapist’s response might be reframing the problem and the thoughts or feelings the client associates with to provide alternative ways to evaluate it. 

In his book “Crunch Time: How to Be Your Best When It Matters Most,” my colleague Judd Hoekstra relates how his coauthor, Rick Peterson, relied on reframing to coach pitchers in the high-stakes world of Major League Baseball. Imagine you’re pitching in a critically important game. Your team is ahead in the bottom of the ninth inning. You only need to strike out one more batter, and your team wins. Suddenly, the count is three balls and two strikes — and the moment’s pressure overtakes you — a perfect time for reframing. Through humor, metaphors and techniques for reframing your “caveman” response to an opportunity, Hoekstra and Peterson provide a compelling case for reframing in everyday situations.

So, while I’m a fan of reframing as a technique for coaching athletes to executives, I find one fatal flaw. Without a basis in motivation science, reframing lacks an essential element to your successful performance — the fulfillment of your psychological needs. What if your new perspective relies on belittling others to enhance your self-worth, power over others, the promise of external rewards, ignoring the negative and hoping for the best, or acting out of anger and self-righteousness?

Not all reframing is equal

The quality of your motivation determines the effectiveness of reframing. Without an appreciation for the role motivation plays in your reframed perspective, you risk impairing your effectiveness, both in the moment and in your ability to sustain it over time. 

(Spoiler alert: This is a true story from my early years in advertising).  

Let’s say you received this feedback from a big-wig advertising consultant brought in to manage your agency’s restructuring:

“Susan, I have been observing your performance over the past weeks. While you work hard with good intentions, you’d be more effective if you didn’t talk so much.”

Maybe, like me, you would have pushed back, explaining who you were talking to and why. You might have tried justifying your behavior and describing the outcomes you’d achieved. And maybe, like me, you would have received the consultant’s response: “Susan, you’re young. Someday, you’ll understand.”

Let’s consider options. In my case, I could: 

  1. Act from my disbelief, frustration and anger at his lack of understanding by fighting for the recognition I deserve, living in fear of being fired or quitting.
  2. Reframe the feedback by mindfully changing my perspective to indicate how much the organization cares about my development, as I try my best to stop talking so much — and hope they don’t have plans to fire me.
  3. Shift from suboptimal to optimal motivation and fulfill my three psychological needs for choice, connection and competence by:
  • Choosing to consider the feedback objectively.
  • Deepening connection to my values of curiosity, learning and evolving.
  • Building competence by asking for advice on communicating more effectively, looking for opportunities to learn and grow and setting agreed-upon goals for measuring my progress.

The second scenario reframes your perspective so you can live another day. However, the value of the third scenario is that the organization’s intentions become irrelevant. Shifting your motivation by proactively fulfilling the three psychological needs required for optimal motivation leads to your thriving, regardless of the situation.

Alas, I was young and had never heard of reframing or shifting my motivational outlook. I quit before I could get fired. 

A motivational shift occurs when you experience a shift in motivation when the reason you take action shifts from suboptimal to optimal motivation by fulfilling three basic psychological needs: choice, connection and competence. Optimal motivation is required to attain and sustain high performance, experience well-being and thrive simultaneously.

The crucial difference between reframing and shifting your motivation

Reframing can act as a mental tourniquet to the negative emotions, pressure and anxiety that threaten your performance. Through that mindfulness, a world of options for responding opens up to you. 

But beware that the crucial difference between reframing and shifting your motivation is that your reframed perspective can lead to suboptimal motivation instead of the optimal motivation required for high performance, sustainable vitality and long-term well-being.

So the next time you face critical feedback or a negative situation, instead of simply reframing, shift your motivation. Mindfully fulfill your three psychological needs for choice, connection and competence by proactively choosing a perspective that deepens your connection to meaningful values and sense of purpose while building your competence with new skills or taking advantage of those you already have.

I wonder what my young self might have accomplished had she mastered her motivation. Nevermind. Her older version is living with optimal motivation now and thriving.


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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