In ‘Construal-Level Theory of Psychological Distance’ (2010), two academic psychologists formalized a simple yet powerful concept commonly called ‘CLT’: ‘The farther removed an object is from direct experience, the higher (more abstract) the level of construal of that object.’ The greater the psychological distance, the more abstract the object, the looser the mental connection.
In the original paper, the authors focus on four sources of psychological distance: temporal (the object is in a distant future); spatial (the object is out of reach, sight, or geographically far away), social (the object is foreign), and hypothetical (the object is improbable).
CLT explains why society struggles to take appropriate measures to mitigate the risk of a pandemic, an earthquake, climate change, or a war. The events are psychologically distant and too abstract (until they are not.) Even death arguably falls in that category: I have always been amazed that individuals look forward to future events without realizing that the same future brings them closer to their natural end. Death is absurdly discounted.
Let me bring this note psychologically closer. When leadership misses the mark, it is most likely because it has misappreciated and mismanaged psychological distances.
Consider team management. It requires that relationships be handled with members of various backgrounds and seniority (social distance), and that the long-term career potential of each team member be assessed (temporal distance), often across different parts of the world (spatial distance), and under various business scenarios (hypothetical distance). The inability to recognize psychological distances and mentally travel along these dimensions leads to inadequate decisions.
In M&A, a failure to bridge psychological distances, whether socially vis-a-vis the other side, spatially if the negotiation takes place in a distant country, or temporally when assessing future deal benefits, may stand in the way of a good deal.
Virtual meetings create a psychological distance from a social and spatial point of view. Over time, the distance to travel becomes exhausting and causes relationships to deteriorate.
As a final example, overly ambitious corporate objectives may be too abstract when considering temporal and hypothetical distances. As such, they fail to spur concrete action from employees or trigger a loss of credibility from an investor perspective (see ‘Wecrashed’.)
Every situation anywhere anytime for anyone requires that psychological distances be mapped and mentally traveled. These are the best miles to earn.