How Skillful Re-framing Can Transform Work Relationships

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You care about work relationships. You understand how important they are to your happiness at work, to your performance, and to your influence. Our objective in writing this article is not to persuade you to adopt specific types of behavior, but is, instead, to help you to look at situations from a variety of points of view. You can use this information to increase your understanding of people and, subsequently, to choose your own actions, words and responses–to improve work relationships–or even, to transform them. So, let us begin.

What is Framing and Re-framing?

These are a skillset. This subject is often included in leadership and management development programs. But, we’re convinced this is valuable and important for everyone. We think you’ll agree.

Framing: We all develop Frames — lenses, filters or perspectives — through which we see the world, and in particular, the words and actions of others. From here on, we’ll refer to them as “Frames.”

We develop Frames in the course of our work and life experience; we may not realize we’re developing Frames or anticipate the role our Frames will play over time, which is this: We observe people’s behavior and we connect, in the flash of a moment, their actions and words with our memories, with lessons we’ve learned through past work and life experience. Then we interpret the behavior based on those connections we make with our experience, and we draw conclusions, make judgments and decide how we’ll respond or react.

But, our Frames are limited to what we’ve concluded based on our own experience and, therefore, they are incomplete. For our judgments to be accurate we need to broaden our thinking. Our thinking needs to be flexible enough to take into consideration the Frames that others have developed due to their work and life experience, which are usually different from our own.

This means we need to be aware of the those other Frames; we need to be able to set our own Frames aside temporarily so that we can look at behavior and situations from other Frames, to consider the concerns and priorities inherent in other points of view before we determine how we’ll proceed. This is the concept of Re-framing, looking at things from the point of view of other Frames.

Have you ever discovered that something you said or did seemed to be misinterpreted, causing you to be judged by someone else? If so, you have probably realized, at least on a subconscious level, that there are other perspectives that cause others to see things differently than you do. And, often-times, this impacts work relationships.

We sometimes dismiss such occurrences quickly, thinking, “he/she just didn’t get me,” but, when this continues to occur, it can result in long term judgments and changes in relationships. These judgments and changes in relationships may be to your benefit, or they may have adverse effects. And, people aren’t always conscious that this is happening; they may not see it. By Re-framing, we can anticipate the reactions of others and plan: we can plan what we’ll do and how we will communicate it, to better meet their needs and expectations. Of course, it goes without saying that we’re using Re-framing to better communicate the truth; otherwise, we would be crossing a line into manipulation, which could destroy trust and our relationships.

There are 4 Frames that are prevalent, based on research. We may adopt 2, 3 or even all four, but one Frame tends to be dominant, with our awareness of and use of the other Frames being lower. The overview this article provides isn’t all-inclusive. But, our intention is that it be useful to you as a starting point.

The 4 Frames

  1. The Structural Frame
  2. The Human Resource Frame
  3. The Political Frame
  4. The Symbolic Frame
  1. The Structural Frame – People operating with this Frame as their dominant one tend to think in terms of being organized and logical. Their approach to work is rooted in rules, policies, procedures, logic and rationale. They make decisions based on data, facts, past precedents, laws, and regulations. They prioritize formal roles, job descriptions, and responsibilities. They are comfortable with structure, the chain of command, and organization charts. They tend to place lower importance, if any, on people’s feelings, whether it be their own or others’. They assume this is how companies and people at work operate and they believe this is how competent managers and business leaders work.
  2. The Human Resource Frame – People’s feelings, needs, growth, comfort and well-being are the top priorities to consider when this Frame is dominant. It is assumed that people have high learning capacity, difficulty with change, and both potential and limitations; and that organizations function best when people feel good about what they are doing. They believe this is how competent managers and business leaders make decisions and choose their actions and words. People’s feelings and needs come first.
  3. The Political Frame – When this Frame is dominant, people expect conflict because of all the different needs, expectations and objectives individuals have. They believe that people typically operate through bargaining, negotiation, coercion, and compromise. They believe it’s natural for people to form alliances and to compete for power. And, they expect competent leaders and managers have strong political skills.
  4. The Symbolic Frame – When this Frame is dominant, people look for meaning in actions and words. Rituals, traditions, stories, history and inspiration are what is important. It is assumed organization culture establishes what people do and how they do it. Walking the talk, leading by example, actions speaking louder than words are all descriptive of what is expected of competent leaders and managers in the Symbolic Frame.

Next we’ll use scenarios to think through the use of Frames. We’re choosing two scenarios involving actions and communication by managers, because those are typical experiences many of us have. As you work through these two situations, think about other situations involving you and others in your workplace.

Scenario 1: A few years ago, an organization issued a new smoking and tobacco use policy. The communication by managers in face to face meetings explained that due to their commitment to wellness, the company was, in 90 days, changing to a non-smoking facility. The new policy indicated no use of tobacco would be permitted on company property, indoors or outside. The disciplinary process, including the possibility of termination of employment, would be applied in the event of violation of this policy. Managers also indicated that incentives and tobacco cessation support tools that would be introduced, starting within the coming week, for all employees.

Try This: Can you identify the dominant Frame for each reaction to the policy change announcement?

a. It makes sense. Other companies have already banned smoking. We’re running out of office space and smoking break-rooms could be converted to offices and conference rooms. If they remove the outdoor smoking areas they could add some parking. It’s a better use of square footage. FRAME: ________________________________________________

b. They obviously don’t care about what we want. Nobody asked us how we feel about this. They used to ask for our opinions before making changes that affect us. Is this the way it’s going to be from now on? FRAME: ________________________________________________

c. So many people I know here smoke! Not everyone can afford patches or nicotine gum. Doesn’t the company care about them? Most of them have worked here for many years and they’ve always smoked. I have friends who’ve tried to quit but they couldn’t! Is the company going to fire them? FRAME: ________________________________________________

d. We need to set up employee committees and have discussion groups to let management know how we feel about losing our choice in smoking. I will contact the union tomorrow and see what they will do. Let’s get a petition started to show them how many people are against this new policy. FRAME: ________________________________________________

When people take actions based on their dominant Frame, others who are using any of the other 3 Frames often object, sometimes silently, due to a negative interpretation of motivation, intentions, and priorities. Can you think of examples?

Scenario 2: Re-framing

Observing there is no designated parking for customers, visitors, or handicapped drivers, a new Facilities Manager took some time to determine how to better handle these parking needs. She notices that both sides of the building are beautifully landscaped and include cobblestone walkways encircling the building. The walkways on the sides of the building lead to picnic tables and side entrances, an attractive feature at the site.

The Manager decides to reserve 30% of the parking in front of the building, near the main entrance, for customers, visitors and handicapped, and to expand parking behind the building, which has only an entrance for shipping and receiving vehicles, for employee use. Walkways will be installed for employees to safely access the existing side entrances. This will mean many employees will have a longer walk to enter the building, but will preserve the expensive landscaping, picnic areas and walkways on the sides of the building.

Try This:

  • What would be a likely rationale that might be explained, if this decision were made by managers using only their dominant Frame?
  • What might be the interpretation of this action including the manager’s intentions and priorities, of people operating under each Frame?
  • What might be alternative decisions and communications be, by a manager who Re-framed the decision before communicating?

a. Human Resource Frame

b. Political Frame

c. Symbolic Frame

d. Structural Frame

Summary: At this point, you may be seeing how our Frames define the way we see things as they happen around us. Others’ words and actions may be based on very different reasons than our own dominant Frames would have us deduce. Similarly, our own words and actions can be interpreted differently than we intend. As a result, trust can be damaged and relationships can be changed or broken.

Framing and Re-framing can open our eyes to differences that exist between people at work simply due to our different work and life experiences. We believe people can use this understanding and the skillset of Framing and Re-framing, to consider others’ points of view when taking action, making decisions, and communicating–to make a positive difference for ourselves, others and our work.

Available Complementary Action Assignments:

  1. If you’d like feedback on your responses for Scenario 1 and/or Scenario 2, please send your typed responses to us either via Message or using email to
  2. If you’d like to complete a self-questionnaire to see which is your dominant frame and how much influence the other frames have on your view of the world, Message us or use email to request the Orientations Questionnaire.

We stated early in this article that our objective in writing this article:

  1. is not to persuade you to adopt specific types of behavior, but is, instead, to help you to look at situations from a variety of points of view
  2. is to provide you with an overview of Framing and Re-framing that you can use as a starting point.

Did we succeed in achieving our objectives? Please share your feedback, ideas, thoughts and opinions below.

Recommended Reading:

Reframing Organizations Artistry, Choice, and Leadership

Book: Reframing Organizations, Artistry, Choice, and Leadership by Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal, copyright 1991, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA

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