ou’re negotiating a contract with an important client whose budget is tight, but your boss is pressuring you to increase margins. How do you close the deal?
Several weeks ago you agreed to speak at a college alumni event, but now you’re extra busy at work and regretting the decision.
A junior employee says he’d like a leadership role, but you don’t know him well and aren’t sure he’s ready. How do you suggest reasonable goals?
Customer research on an existing product line in a new geographic market suggests that you should add some features, but you don’t know which—and how many—will really drive sales.
Surprisingly, the challenge at the heart of all these situations is the same: Success depends on bridging what psychologists from Walter Mischel to Nira Liberman and Yaacov Trope have labeled psychological distance—that is, gaps between yourself and other people (social distance), the present and the future (temporal distance), your physical location and faraway places (spatial distance), or imagining something and experiencing it (experiential distance).
For example, skillful negotiation requires that you consider not only your own interests but also those of other parties (which narrows social distance). Effective time management means accurately predicting which commitments will be most pressing in the future (temporal distance). Inspired leadership involves not only incorporating various people’s goals, but also anticipating how they will change over time (social and temporal distance). And profitable product management means using imperfect information to figure out how to meet distant customers’ changing needs (social, temporal, spatial, and experiential distance).
None of this is easy to do. But I’ve found, in more than 12 years of academic research and my work with students and executives, that leaders who recognize and understand the effects of psychological distance and then use two specific strategies to reduce—or sometimes increase—it can improve their outcomes in many different professional scenarios.
From Abstract to Concrete
When psychological distance is large, we tend to think in more-abstract terms, focusing on the big picture, the desirability of certain options, and why we want them. In contrast, when psychological distance is small, our thinking is more concrete: We focus on the details, the feasibility of options, and how we will use them. For example, we can think of an action such as completing a sale either concretely, as “filling out an invoice,” or more abstractly, as “contributing to company revenue.”
The introductory examples highlight some of the perils of large psychological distance. In the negotiation scenario, the social distance between you and your client (compared with that between you and your boss) makes it difficult to see how she views the trade-offs between higher spending and lower-quality materials and service. When you’re asked to commit to an event weeks in advance, the temporal distance makes the desirability of building your professional profile loom large and the feasibility of crafting and giving the speech recede in importance. In the leadership scenario, social and temporal distance make it hard for you to move from abstract advice to concrete goal setting with the junior employee. And experiential distance during the market research process may lead customers to request many features without considering the degree to which those features will collectively reduce usability, causing you to make poor product investment decisions.
All this happens unconsciously and consistently, even when we’re aware that psychological distance has previously led us astray. In one study I conducted with colleagues, for example, participants who had just struggled to use a digital video player with lots of features acknowledged that next time they’d prefer a simpler player. But when we asked them moments later to choose a digital audio player, they again gravitated toward the model with more bells and whistles. Similarly, studies on retirement-saving decisions suggest that although people know they should be putting aside more for the future, they continue to save too little.
Of course, psychological distance can be a plus in certain scenarios. Research by Cheryl Wakslak and colleagues shows that power is associated with psychological distance. This explains why newly promoted managers often struggle to navigate the balance between maintaining friendships with former coworkers and supervising them. Temporal distance allows you to set more-challenging goals. When you leave home for the office, you create the spatial distance that allows you to set aside domestic concerns for professional ones. And experiential distance can lead to more-expansive thinking; that’s why companies often bring in outside consultants to rethink their products and businesses.
These examples make it clear that no particular degree of psychological distance is always best. We should aim to narrow or enlarge gaps as necessary to achieve the psychological distance that’s just right. This can be accomplished in two ways: by adjusting the distance or substituting one type of distance for another.
Adjusting the Distance
Many time-tested “managing yourself” techniques fall into this category. The theory of psychological distance helps us understand when and why they are effective. Let’s look at the four types in turn:
Negotiation and leadership experts have long advocated for perspective taking—that is, attempting to understand your counterpart’s thoughts, feelings, and motives. The result is reduced social distance. The ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes comes more naturally to some than to others, but research has shown that even a simple directive such as “Try to focus on the other party’s intentions and interests” can improve outcomes. In contrast, when you want to increase social distance—perhaps with peers you’re now managing—try using more-abstract language: Challenge them to increase revenue instead of asking them to fill out more invoices. A large-scale survey has shown that workers experience greater job satisfaction when company leaders provide abstract, visionary communication (although they still want concrete feedback from their direct supervisors).
Self-imposed deadlines are an easy way to reduce temporal distance, thereby improving your focus, productivity, and even performance. When Professors Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch allowed students to set their own binding deadlines for a series of assignments (with the caveat that all be turned in by the end of the course), the students who set earlier deadlines performed better than the rest. Another strategy for managing temporal distance is to visualize the future. If, for example, you’re worried when you receive the invitation to that alumni association event that it’s one commitment too many, imagine that you have to give the speech the following day. Are you still interested? Or if you’re experiencing writer’s block with your speech, imagine that you’ve already delivered it. Focusing on the desired outcomes—a sense of accomplishment and enhanced professional standing—can help you identify themes and points that will lead to them. You can make similar adjustments when trying to challenge yourself or those who report to you. Think forward to your next performance review. What achievements will you be most excited to discuss? Increasing temporal distance makes the reasons for setting your goals more prominent than the steps required to meet them.
You have the most control over this type of distance—and your manipulation of it can yield surprising benefits. Face-to-face meetings and customer site visits are obvious ways to reduce spatial (and social) distance, leading you to more-concrete thinking. But studies have shown that even an action as simple as facing toward an object can make you perceive it as closer to you. When you want to increase spatial distance in order to stimulate abstract thinking, try moving to a different venue. The researchers Joan Meyers-Levy and Juliet Zhu have shown that subtle changes in office and retail spaces, such as higher ceilings, encourage people in those rooms to think more creatively and make more connections between concepts.
Product managers interested in reducing experiential distance in market research should consider moving from hypothetical questions to techniques such as asking customers to choose and use prototypes. For example, consumer packaged goods companies often ask study participants to “shop” stocked shelves, which encourages people to think more concretely about price and brand. When restaurants launch new offerings, they routinely take them to test markets before investing in a full-scale rollout. The launch of the McLean Deluxe by McDonald’s, in the 1990s, should serve as a cautionary tale. Instead of conducting extensive testing in a few markets, as was their usual practice, executives let themselves be influenced by polls indicating that nearly nine out of 10 consumers were willing to try low-fat beef. In surveys like that, consumers tend to focus more on desirability (improving their diet) than on reality (burgers that taste worse, cost more, and take longer to cook). And actual experience is what usually determines the success of a new product or service.
But when you’ve already developed something radically new and want to encourage adoption, greater experiential distance can sometimes be beneficial. Bullet points highlighting the features of a new product may be more persuasive than a live demonstration. For example, when BMW launched iDrive, a powerful new user interface for its vehicles, automotive experts were flummoxed during their first test drives, leading to mixed reviews. If customers or reviewers have the chance to try a complicated new product or service only once, that experience could hurt sales.
Substituting One Type for Another
Because all psychological distance involves the same underlying thought processes, substituting one type for another can spur either more-abstract or more-concrete thinking. This trick works so well that academic researchers use it to establish that what they are manipulating really is psychological distance: If it is, then any type—social, temporal, spatial, or experiential—should produce the same effect.
When searching for common ground during a negotiation, you can leverage temporal distance by asking yourself what you would propose if an agreement had to be reached within the next two hours. You’re not doing anything to change the social distance between you and your counterpart—you don’t feel closer to the other person—but the urgency of reduced temporal distance may change how you think about and approach the deal making. If you’re in a situation where you need to command respect among your peers (that is, increase social distance), spatial distance can substitute. Move to a new office down the hall; give yourself a bit more space at the conference table rather than squeezing in right next to your colleagues. You might also try to use temporal distance: Envision the legacy you’d like to create at your organization to encourage yourself to think and communicate more abstractly.
If you find yourself struggling with large temporal distance—procrastinating on a big project, for example, or making retirement plans—try playing with social distance. Schedule a meeting with the colleague to whom you’ll need to deliver the completed work. Or take a look at yourself in the future: Researchers have shown that when people are presented with photos of their own faces, aged, they more closely identify with their older selves and, as a result, dramatically increase the amount they intend to invest in retirement. But if you’re feeling stressed about a looming deadline, increasing spatial distance may help. Simply lean away from your computer screen. Recent research by Manoj Thomas and Claire Tsai shows that anxious participants who did just that rated the assignments they’d been given as much less difficult than did those who performed the same tasks while leaning toward their screens.
Perhaps the most obvious substitute for spatial distance is social distance. If you are physically separated from people you’d like to influence—customers or colleagues—you can reduce that distance not only by visiting them but also by emphasizing your common attributes and interests. Zappos makes a point of connecting with geographically distant customers by listing the Zappos Family Core Values on its website and sharing photos of the teams who work to deliver orders. You can narrow the spatial gap with far-flung colleagues by connecting on a personal level at the beginning of phone calls or e-mails and, when possible, using Skype or other video conference services.
One way to fight your (and others’) temptation to choose products with lots of features—or those that substitute form for function—rather than more user-friendly versions is to reduce temporal distance. If your team had to start using that fancy new collaborative software tool today instead of next month, when it’s scheduled for implementation, would it still seem like a good investment? If you had to execute your recommendations for beefing up your company’s social media content approval process today instead of next quarter, would each of the checkpoints still seem necessary? You can also reduce experiential distance by substituting social distance. Globally, 69% of those who responded to a recent survey said that online content provided by other consumers helped them decide whether to buy a product, and online word of mouth is particularly influential when social distance is small. Similarly, best practices feel safe because people within your organization or industry have already adopted them. Social validation is a powerful way to persuade others to adopt new products and practices.
Managers face challenges related to social, temporal, spatial, and experiential distance every day. They can overcome those challenges by understanding the common thread that links them and learning to either adjust the distance or substitute one type for another.
Source: Harvard Business review
Rebecca Hamilton is a professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.