How to reframe a limiting belief

Are you inadvertently sabotaging the Psychological Safety of your team?

Thanks to Amy C. Edmondson and Google’s project Aristotle many of us know that Psychological Safety is a key prerequisite for a high performing team. In her book “The Fearless Organisation”, Amy Edmondson lays out 3 stages to build and maintain Psychological Safety:

  1. Setting the Stage
  2. Inviting Participation
  3. Responding Productively

This time, I want to focus on one of the key points of “Setting the Stage”: you need to reframe limiting beliefs.

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

What is a belief?

Let’s get our terminology straight. When I talk about a belief here, I don’t mean the religious kind. The belief I’m talking about is:

A belief is a (subconscious) conviction you have that influences your behaviour and responses.

What is a limiting belief?

In the context of creating psychological safety, a limiting belief is a (subconscious) conviction that you have that makes you respond in ways that undermine psychological safety. For instance a belief that makes you disapprove of failures.

Many of us believe in psychological safety and learning from failure, but in certain situations we still respond unproductively. That is often due to a limiting belief that we are not aware of. This could be a long held belief, formed many years ago in a very different context.

So, how do you reframe a limiting belief?

Reframing starts with identifying that belief. And the clue to identifying it lies in our unproductive responses.

Together with Theo van Sinten & Linda van Sinten we’ve developed a technique to help you identify and reframe limiting beliefs.

Let me illustrate the technique with an example.

Reframing: an example

You’re working towards a major release. Just a few days before the planned release date an important defect is found. Your immediate reaction to the incident is: “We need to release, how come you found a defect this late?”

Let’s have a closer look at this example.

Incident

Something happens. We call it an incident.

A Defect is found just before a major release.

Reaction

Your immediate reaction to the incident is:

We need to release, how come you found a defect this late?

This reaction is not one that promotes failure. You run the risk that people will stop reporting defects. That’s probably not what you want.

Limiting Belief

Your reaction is a clue to your beliefs. Investigate what belief made you react in this way. In this case, it might be:

Releasing on schedule is important, so we should have a process that finds defects well before the release date.

At first glance you may not consider this a limiting belief. Indeed, in the right context it can be a very useful belief. However, in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, this belief becomes a limiting belief because it assumes the world is more simple and predictable than it really is. It assumes it is possible to find all defects well before the release date and have a competitive release date.

Positive Intention

Your belief stems from a positive intention. What good intention could lie behind this belief? Perhaps it is:

I want to deliver on our promise to our customers.

Reframe

Now that you are aware of your positive intention, use it to reframe your limiting belief. In this example, you may end up with:

Product Development is complex; finding defects late is hard to avoid. If we do find them, we should try to learn from that situation.

Adjusted Reaction

Assuming you’ve internalised your reframed belief (which takes practice) you would be more likely to react in a productive way. For example, your reaction might be:

Great job for finding this before we release. How do we solve this now and what can we do to prevent these kind of late defects in the future?

Don’t do this alone

Looking at the example above may fool you into thinking this is easy. It isn’t. It can be hard just to realize your response to an incident was unhelpful, let alone identifying the belief that triggered it. We advise finding a buddy to investigate this together.

In our workshops you can practice this technique with a buddy. We also share some tips on how to find a good buddy, and how to avoid common pitfalls when trying this technique. In addition to reframing (part of “Setting the Stage”), our workshop also covers “Inviting Participation” and “Responding Productively”. For each stage we have practical techniques and exercises, workshop templates and more.

If you’re interested, contact me or visit my website for more information.

Father, learner, coach & agilist. I'm passionate about nature and helping people become their best selves.