Use Mental Time Travel to Help You Lead Your Team Through Challenging Situations

Changes in your business can make you mad. Whether the change was forced on you by the market or initiated by you as a way to improve, new processes and systems can leave you and your employees feeling anxious, insecure, and unhappy.

While we’ve yet to find a cure for change, there is something to help with these feelings. Organizational change expert Bob Sutton suggests leaders use “temporal distancing” to change the way we view change. Sutton refers to this mindset as mental time travel, but it’s really a way to push pause, stop focusing on the negative, and get perspective

In his article “Imaginary Time Travel as a Leadership Tool,” Sutton tells the story of the founder of IDEO, David Kelly, using this tool whenever his designers were getting upset about the current state of work.

To calm the designers down, Kelly guided them through three refocusing steps, shifting their perspective from the current problem to how they felt in the past and would feel in the future.

1) Look at the current moment from a future standpoint

Kelly suggested to the designers that in a month or so when they looked back at the current situation, it would not seem as critical or as disturbing as it was in that moment. In fact, the current problem would be thought of as a small rough patch, if remembered at all.

2) Recall overcoming past difficulties

Kelly then had his designers recall other troubling times in the past. He would remind them how they worked together, solved those issues, and even had fun while doing so.

3) Anticipate your promising future. 

Kelly would get the designers to think about exciting new projects to come. Thinking about the future got them excited to finish the current projects.

Why this technique works.

This mental time travel technique or temporal distancing has a basis in science. In studies of human behavior, scientists have confirmed the “rosy view” phenomenon. People can be selective in how they view the future and the past, often forming rosy retrospections or anticipations.  

In rosy anticipation, people form positive illusions of the future. People with positive mental health will look forward to future events, anticipating all the good things to come. They will look at lying on the beach on vacation, enjoying the raise from their promotion, or the freedom they will have after starting their own business.

In rosy retrospection, people reconstruct the past to remember the good parts. They put less weight on the bad elements. They edit their memories to justify their decisions and to protect their self-esteem.

So when working as a leader, change people’s mindsets to get through rough patches. Tapping into people’s tendency to maximize gains in the future and minimize the pain of the past is a great way to help employees handle the challenges in the present.