Leadership & Formation #23: Reframing

Leadership & Formation #23: Reframing

door_decision_pc_400_clr_2583.png Every leader seeks to make sense of the world around them through a set of perceptual attitudes more commonly referred to as a worldview.  It is through that lens they view and interpret their surroundings, their relationships, and their perceptions of their observations.  One could say they see the world through a ‘frame.’

While attending Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Institute for Educational Management, I was exposed to Reframing Organizations by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal, now in its 5th edition.  This resource is an attempt to consolidate major schools of organizational thought into a comprehensive framework encompassing four perspectives called frames.  The authors suggest that like maps, frames are both windows on a territory and tools for navigation.

This article is longer than my other posts.  I encourage the reader to read it through to completion.  Doing so will result in the addition of a strategy to your leadership toolkit that will make you a more effective leader.


There are four frames:  structural, human resource, symbolic, and political.  Each leader has a default frame through which they process options, alternatives, possibilities, opportunities, choices, and prospects.  What follows is a brief description of each frame in the author’s own words followed by applications derived by my use of the framing structure,

STRUCTURAL – Factory (Architecture)

This frame is all about an organization as a factory.  This frame depicts a rational world and emphasizes organizational architecture, including goals, structure, technology, specialized roles, coordination, and formal relationships.  It is a rational model that simply looks at the facts to determine direction and action.  Such organizations value org charts, allocate responsibilities, create rules, policies, procedures, systems, and hierarchies to coordinate diverse activities into a unified effort.  When something isn’t working some form of reorganization or redesign is needed to remedy the mismatch. GE, GM

HUMAN RESOURCE – Families (Empowerment)

This frame focuses on interpersonal relationships and sees an organization as an extended family, made up of individuals with needs, feelings, prejudices, skills, and limitations.  The key challenge is to tailor the organization to individuals—finding ways for people to get the job done while feeling good about themselves and their work.  Finding the right fit for people, this perspective contends, can only benefit the organization because members of the organization are operating from their ‘sweet spot.’  Microsoft, Google

SYMBOLIC – Temples (Inspiration)

This frame emphasizes ethos, culture, symbols, and spirit as keys to organizational success.  The symbolic lens treats organizations as temples, tribes, or movements.  These ‘cultures’ are propelled by rituals, ceremonies, stories, heroes, and myths rather than rules, policies, and managerial authority.  These organizations are driven by well-established DNA consisting of mission, vision, and values.  Departure from this DNA is tantamount to betrayal.  Everything attempted or envisioned is seen through this DNA with each actor on the stage playing his or her part.  Starbucks, Apple

POLITICAL – Jungles (Advocacy or Political Savvy)

This frame sees organizations as arenas, contests, or jungles.  Parochial interests compete for power and scarce resources.  Conflict is rampant because of enduring differences in needs, perspectives, and lifestyles among contending individuals and groups.  Bargaining, negotiation, coercion, and compromise are a normal part of everyday life.  Coalitions form around specific interests and change as issues come and go.  Problems arise when power is concentrated in the wrong places or is so broadly dispersed that nothing gets done.  Solutions arise from political skill and acumen.  The Apprentice, Survivor


I believe ‘reframing’ provides an excellent resource for leaders to process interpersonal engagements, analyze problems, evaluate conclusions, weigh alternative solutions, and consider competing options. 

Reframing is helpful for the following situations…

•             Considering multiple options

•             Reviewing several alternatives

•             Processing a given approach to an initiative

•             Preparing a presentation

•             Developing a report or proposal

•             Facilitating discussion

•             Supervising the actions of reportees

•             Discerning the perspective of others

•             Seeing a given situation from a different viewpoint

An effective leader must resist the temptation to see any given issue, event, situation, or circumstance through their default frame until they have processed it through the other three frames first.  Otherwise, they will simply reinforce a decision they have already made when examined through their preferred frame.

When people who reported to me came seeking approval for a conclusion they reached I would ask them questions focusing on each of the four frames.  I didn’t reveal the strategy I was using.  By asking them questions representing all four frames I indirectly influenced them to consider the perspectives inherent with each frame.  What might make sense in one frame may, in fact, make little sense when looked through the lens of the other frames.  Or, it may make more sense after processing it through all four frames.

When I did this with a number of employees it became evident what I was doing.  Many of them inquired where or why I did this which provided a great opportunity to teach them the strategy to use with others who reported to them.

The significance of employing this strategy is that it will help leaders and teams to come to more viable positions and recommendations since alternatives have been thoroughly processed through all four frames.

Let’s look at four case studies to illustrate.  The situations depicted focus on ministry settings but with a little imagination can be applied to any work setting.  I believe the principles derived from each case study are applicable to all settings.

Case Study # 1

Put yourself in the shoes of a young person, headed to the church office for your first day in a new job.  You are inheriting a department with a reputation for slow, substandard service.  Senior leadership credits much of the blame to your predecessor who is seen as too authoritarian and ridged.  He is leaving the church for another position elsewhere, but he has agreed to stay on for a week to help you get oriented.  One potential sticking point is that he hired most of your new staff.  Many still feel loyal to him.

When you arrive, you get a frosty hello from the department administrative assistant.  As you walk into your new office, you see you’re the person you are replacing behind the desk in a conversation with three other staff members.  You say hello, and he responds by saying, “Didn’t the admin assistant tell you that we’re in a meeting right now?  If you’ll wait outside, I’ll be able to see you in about an hour.”

What would you do?  If you feel threatened or attacked—as most of us would—those feelings will push you toward either fight or flight.  Fighting back and escalating the conflict is risky and could damage everyone.  Backing away or fleeing could suggest that you are too emotional or not tough enough.

How would you respond given the four frames?

Principle 1:  Rather than flee or fight go to the “balcony” to get a better perspective.  Analyze the situation through each of the frames and select the appropriate frame for the situation given the circumstances and people involved.  Knowing the frame of the organization ahead of time will make the decision of how to respond easier.  

Case Study # 2

Suppose a person who reports to you comes to you with a proposal.  He has responsibility for small groups in the church but requests to be in a small group has exceeded the number of groups currently in place.  His proposal suggests that the solution is to recruit, train, and release additional leaders to lead more groups that will accommodate the increased requests.  There is a limited pool of volunteers to draw from and other departments must draw from the same pool.  There is a budgetary impact.

Given the four frames, what questions would you ask him from each frame to help him process the proposal?  What factors should he consider if he proceeds with the proposal?  What issues and concerns might he consider if he implements the proposal?  How would you help him think through the four frames?

Principle 2:  When processing options, alternatives, choices, etc., set aside your default frame until you have processed the issue through the other three frames first.  If you start with your default frame first you will simply use the other frames to validate a decision you have already made. 

Case Study # 3

You have developed a strategy to reach the community for Christ.  The strategy will require engaging the community through acts of service to build trust and provide opportunities to share Christ.  The strategy will require hiring a pastor of outreach not currently in the budget.  You are requested to make a presentation to the congregation at large to justify the initiative and a new hire. 

Knowing that formal and informal influencers representing all four of the frames will be at the meeting, many of which are already contributing to the ministry with time, talent, and treasure, how would you craft your presentation?

Principle 3:  Be prepared to address the unique characteristics associated with each frame in any scenario where a large number of people are gathered.  You can be sure there will be representatives for each frame in attendance.  A good presentation anticipates this fact and prepares specifics of the presentation accordingly. 

Case Study #4

You have spent a great deal of time developing a ministry strategy that departs from anything you have done in the past.  What you have been doing is no longer producing the results desired.  You want to change your ministry philosophy and approach that will require retooling your staff and volunteers.  This will take time and money to accomplish.  You believe the strategy will be a game changer.  You are committed to the strategy but need the approval of your supervisor whose default frame is different from your own.  Your supervisor’s default frame is                                                                 .  How would you craft your argument to get a hearing and possibly secure the approval of your supervisor?

Principle 4:  Normally we prepare our arguments based on our default frame.  If you want to be heard and possibly secure a positive response to your request you should learn the default frame of the person whose approval you seek.  This is not manipulation but a sign of respect that you have thought through the issues and concerns of the person from whom you want approval.   

I can assure you that this is a wonderful tool to use to effectuate an applicable response to a host of issues.  I have used the strategy with compelling results.  Hopefully, this will help you become a good leader known for arriving at great solutions for complex problems or securing difficult approval for worthwhile initiatives.

To be continued…


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