HR Management & Compliance

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Employment law attorney Michael Maslanka reviews Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, finding it both interesting and useful. Maslanka particularly focuses on the authors’ idea of fighting “the negative” by focusing on “bright spots.”

In the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, authors Chip and Dan Heath use a great acronym: “TBU” — true, but useless. They astutely note that people find it easy to list their organization’s problems and why the problems can’t be solved, then basically say, “I’m helpless, you’re helpless. We’re all helpless.” It’s the way we’re wired.

How to Change When Change Is Hard by Dan and Chip Heath

The authors note an exhaustive study in which a psychologist analyzed 558 “emotional” words. The study revealed that 62 percent of the words are negative, while just 38 percent are positive. Wait, there’s more about negativity. A group of psychologists reviewed more than 200 articles and found an overriding principle in the perception of a wide range of humans: Bad is stronger than good.

In one study, people who were shown photos of bad and good events spent longer looking at the bad ones. And if you learn bad stuff about someone else, it stays with you longer than the good stuff. The Heaths use an interesting idea: Bad stuff is “stickier” than good stuff. In fact, this bias is so robust that researchers have a name for it: “positive-negative asymmetry.”

So what’s to be done? Understand the power of the negative and fight it. Look for “bright spots” in the organization. The authors define a “bright spot” as something that’s working. Figure out what’s working and why it’s working, and replicate it throughout the organization. As an example, they cite a study of malnourished children in Vietnam. All the experts said the problem was intractable, with only a large-scale solution. After all, there was no clean water, sanitation was poor, and residents in rural areas tended to be ignorant about nutrition.

But one researcher looked for the bright spots — namely, the children who were well nourished. In other words, he tried to figure out what was working. It turns out that the well-nourished children were fed four times per day, not two (a child’s smaller stomach absorbs more nutrients when fed more often), and the mothers put small shrimp and crab meat that others thought weren’t fit for adult consumption in the children’s meals. The regime worked when applied to malnourished kids.

Simply telling the mothers who fed their children that they needed to learn more about nutrition produced no results. Knowledge doesn’t change behavior. Figure out what works and demonstrate it; the behavior will follow. In their book, the Heaths apply the concept to a variety of circumstances, including human resources.

If you take nothing else from this book, take this morsel from the authors: “To pursue bright spots is to ask the question ‘What’s working and how can we do more of it?’ Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet, in the real world, this obvious question is almost never asked. Instead, the question we ask is more problem-focused: ‘What’s broken, and how do we fix it?'”

Top-notch book. Take a read.

Michael Maslanka is the managing partner of Ford & Harrison LLP’s Dallas, Texas, office. He has 20 years of experience in litigation and trialemployment law attorney Michael Maslanka of employment law cases and has served as Adjunct Counsel to a Fortune 10 company where he provided multi-state counseling on employment matters. He has also served as a Field Attorney for the National Labor Relations Board.

Mike is listed in The Best Lawyers in America and was selected as a “Texas Super Lawyer”  by Texas Monthly and Law & Politics Magazine in 2003. He was also selected as one of the best lawyers in Dallas by “D” Magazine in 2003. Mike has served as the Chief Author and Editor of Texas Employment Law Letter since 1990. He also authors the “Work Matters” column for Texas Lawyer.

You can reach him at

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