Training Industry

Setting the Context

  • Setting the Context

When the doors open in the London subway, a disembodied voice warns you to “Mind the gap!” It’s a practical reminder not to step into the space between the train and the platform. Being mindful of spaces or gaps is also good advice for any sort of communication. As human beings, we tacitly fill in the gaps to make sense of what we hear or read. It is done automatically, without thought, and it makes communication possible. Otherwise, each spoken or written sentence would have to include every bit of context and reasoning. Even though we cannot do with out it, this sort of tacit fill-in-the-blanks also has the potential to cause confusion.

Some time ago, working with a clients from an oil company, I was told that they used logo-emblazoned T-shirts for reward and recognition. For a while, we spoke totally at cross purposes. I heard their words through the lens of my own experience, where logo T-shirts (or coffee mugs or key rings or mouse pads) were given to everyone involved in a change initiative, usually as part of a kick-off. It is probably to signal that “we are all on the same team” and we will all pull together to make the change work. Thus, my response to these clients was, “No, no, no, if everyone gets a T-shirt, then it is mass exposure. It can’t be a reward. It’s advertising.”

Shapiro Sept Blog

However, the oil company’s environment was unique (in my experience). This company didn’t give everyone a logo T-shirt at the beginning of a change. Instead they reserved the T-shirts for rewards for smaller accomplishments that moved the initiative forward. I’m reminded of the old jazz song, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” The company transformed the context—turning a T-shirt into a token of appreciation. People always interpret their experience, and give it meaning. The context and the associations give different meaning to the very same act. In this example, the oil company turned what is often just mass exposure into a pat-on-the-back, and giving it a personalized meaning.

Making the logo T-shirt a small reward for moving their change forward also reduced confusion and increased the meaning of the gift. Consider for a minute, why it is so common in other organizations to give out trinkets at the beginning of a change initiative. Is it to make sure everyone knows that the initiative is planned or started? Is it (as I speculated above) to signal that everyone is part of the change? Is it just because this is typically just what is done? The reason that these trinkets are not as effective as we’d like is because the message behind them is not well thought out and thus not clear. However, using a logo T-shirt as recognition for a small achievement clarifies the context. The message of the shirt an unambiguous, “Thanks.” The confusion is gone.

Getting back to the jazz song, the whole phrase is, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. That’s what gets results.” Setting up the context and making the message clear gets results.

About the Author

Dr. Andrea Shapiro

Andrea Shapiro, PhD, is founder and principal of Strategy Perspective. She brings a unique perspective to organizational change based on experience in software development, business modeling, management, and organizational learning and development. Andrea designed and developed the Tipping Point computer simulation, which forms the heart of the Change, Dialogue, and Action Workshop. She has delivered the Workshop to major corporations, non-profits, and government agencies in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has accredited hundreds of change leaders and consultants to deliver the workshop worldwide in their own work in organizational change. Her book Creating Contagious Commitment  gives detailed real-life examples, theory, and background, all of which will appeal to any manager faced with implementing a significant organizational change.

After earning master’s degrees in mathematics and psychology and a doctorate in behavioral decision making, Andrea went on to further studies at the Coaches Institute and the MIT Sloan Business School executive education program in system dynamics. She has also served on the Graduate Faculty at UNC Chapel Hill and taught decision making at Pfeiffer University’s graduate program in organizational management. Andrea can be reached through or you can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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