How “the latitude of acceptance” explains change at work

Latitude of Acceptance

Here’s how to conceptualize the idea of a “latitude of acceptance.” Take any idea that has two distinct sides. There’s a cluster of people all the way at one end (“Abortion is terrible!”), then a cluster of people all the way at the other end (“Abortion makes total logical sense!”) and then a much larger group of people in the middle with a nuanced (to them) perspective (“Abortion is OK in these situations, but in general, it’s not.”) Your latitude of acceptance is, essentially, how far you can go in either direction and still be amenable to changing your perspective. Some people (those who are perhaps more open-minded) might have a wide latitude of acceptance; for other individuals, it’s very narrow. A less-academic way of saying “latitude of acceptance” is “The OK Zone.”

Here’s the flip side: there’s also a concept called “The Reject Zone.” In that situation, you go so far away from a person’s “OK Zone” that instead of listening to you, they’re now listening to you only to attempt to disprove what you’re saying — because they’re so vehemently against it.

This applies to presentations and how you try to convince someone of something, sure, but more than that? It applies to literally every single work change or work shift or new work policy that’s ever put forth.

Basically people become comfortable working one way — under a certain umbrella mantra and ideas about work and policies and procedures — and if you want to shift the culture, you need to shift the people. (Remember, ideas happen at the macro level; action happens at the micro level.) When you set about attempting to shift the people, well, here’s the problem. They’re all at different points along the continuum. “I’d love some work changes; things were stagnant!” to “Bah, corporate bullshit!”

How do you reach the most people so that the process of change can actually begin, then? 

If you believe in this idea of “latitude of acceptance,” you need to basically meet people where they’re at: determine their place on the spectrum of attitude and see how far you can move it.

Harvard Business Review wrote an article about this concept, and there’s a “common mistakes” segment within it. Here’s an interesting line. It occurs as the No. 1 common mistake when trying to work on workplace change:

Trying to achieve “conversion” and not just progress. Don’t expect to achieve all your goals in a single shot.

Funny, because that’s what most people try and do in the “sales/lead generation” process: go for the kill quick, or chase the number. The relationship is basically meaningless. It’s about the deliverable. It can almost feel like stalking.

(Ironically, you get more of the deliverable if you build the relationship, but people think about the deliverable first. This also applies to “trying to get laid.”)

Here’s some of the other common mistakes:

  • Talking to people who already agree with you. (Um, yep.)
  • Trying to drive change without the help of others. (That makes it seem like it’s your “pet project.”)
  • Relying predominantly on e-mail as opposed to getting out and talking to people about your new ideas and seeing their reaction. (Um, yep.)
  • Motivating change by applying to lofty/big words. (That’s why people don’t respond to “Let’s change the culture!” No one knows what the shit that means.)

So that’s a list of mistakes — i.e. what not to do. What should you do when attempting to impact change in a workplace?

  • Talk to people individually and directly about their ideas and concerns around a new idea.
  • See if you can find evangelists who can help you sell the message once they believe in it.
  • See if you can find high-ranking evangelists, because hierarchy is still a thing.
  • Define the change in terms of small steps for every person; people view themselves as crazy busy, and as a result, any change is likely to be brushed aside until it’s absolutely mandatory to do so (and even maybe beyond that point). People like the routines they’ve established, you know?

Impacting wide-scale change in an organization of even 50-100 people is a massive undertaking, simply because those 50-100 people are very different, and come from different backgrounds, and intersect with work in different ways, so the change will impact each of them in an unique way. The only real way to go about it is to think of things in terms of this “latitude of acceptance” concept, figure out where key people are at on the issue, and see how far they can be moved.

Some huge presentation to all 100 people won’t work; it’s not individual enough and chances are you’ll say something too broad that will alienate 1/4 or more of the room. (Although you could counteract that by going in and thinking about “A.I.M.” as relates to what you need to say.)

This is a good example of a situation where a “hardcore business guy” would look at a term like “latitude of acceptance” and scoff and guffaw and say, “That’s some ivory tower bullshit!” Indeed, maybe it is — but if you stop and think about what it is and what it could lead to, it might shift your whole perspective.


Ted Bauer

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