What Are Your Frames?

Each of us has a dominant “frame” or lense through which we view and understand organizations. Our perspective informs how we diagnose and approach leadership challenges.

In their book Reframing Organizations, authors Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal suggest four potential frames. Each frame is represented by a unique metaphor, central concepts, and an organizational ethic.

  1. Structural Frame. People with this frame view organizations as a factory or a machine. Central concepts include rules, roles, goals, policies, technology, and the environment. The core organizational ethic is “excellence.”

  2. Human Resource Frame. In this frame, organizations are viewed as a family, with central concepts of needs, skills, and relationships and an organizational ethic of “caring.”

  3. Political Frame. This frame is marked by a the metaphor of a jungle and central concepts of power, conflict, and competition. “Justice” is the dominant organizational ethic.

  4. Symbolic Frame. This lens colors organizations as a carnival, temple, or theatre. Central concepts include culture, meaning, metaphor, ritual, ceremony, stories, and heroes, while the organizational ethic is “faith.”

As you can see, the four frames suggested by Bolman and Deal bring vastly different perspectives and goals. If everyone in an organization uses the same lens, great; the rules of engagement will be fairly clear and consistent. However, conflict quickly arises when different frames come into play.

For example, I once served at a church that commissioned a committee to evaluate its policies and programs regarding the church’s cross-cultural missionaries. Utilizing a Structural frame, the committee established new criteria for receiving financial support. Under these new criteria, several long-term missionaries would lose their funding from the church. To this committee and others with a Structural lens, the decision made perfect sense in light of the goal of wise financial stewardship.

However, it soon became clear that not everyone had the same perspective. To those with a Human Resources frame, this decision was untenable. “You can’t just stop supporting missionaries!” they cried. “That would be like a divorce!” To these folks, missionaries were family. Driven by central Human Resources concepts such as needs and relationships, the primary goals were to keep the family together and to continue to meet their financial needs.

This is just one example of dozens I have seen in which competing or contradictory frames lead to misunderstanding at best and deep conflict at worst. Therefore, it’s important to recognize the existence and power of frames, become aware of your own dominant frame, and ask whether differing frames might be at the root of a particular disagreement.

Angie Ward