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Leadership for Change - Bolman and Deal’s Reframing

By Dr. Maureen S. Andrade, HCI Research Associate


When I was in my doctoral program at USC - the University of Southern California, I took a class from Terry Deal. Dr. Deal is a well-known leadership consultant who has taught courses at a number of universities and is now retired from USC. He is perhaps best known for his book, co-authored with Lee Bolman, called Reframing Organizations, now in its 6th edition.

Much of what a leader does is related to change and it’s also one of the most challenging aspects of being a leader. If you look at job postings for executive positions, they typically include something about vision, innovation, change, and strategy.

The reframing model is based on the idea that leaders need to see challenges and opportunities in their organizations through four frames—structural, human resource, political, and symbolic. Through this process, they can envision how a change will impact various aspects of an organization such as its structure and people as well as political and cultural elements.

Adhering to only one frame limits a leader’s perspective and results in inappropriate or ineffective actions. In their book, Bolman & Deal show how executives fail time and time again because they are primarily focused on people or structure or vision while ignoring other critical aspects of their organizations. When you ask people in a job interview about their leadership style or philosophy, you can invariably recognize which frame they are coming from.

The tendency of leaders to get stuck in a single frame necessitates making a conscious effort to examine all four frames. It is also wise to seek the perspectives of others who may be more skilled at using a different frame. Each frame offers a different view of an organization and helps guide change. We next examine each frame and the metaphor associated with it.

The structural frame can be compared to a factory. It is related to roles and responsibilities, tasks and deadlines, processes and systems, and how the work gets done. It involves the planning and organizing functions of management. The emphasis is on clarity, control, and coordination.

The metaphor that best describes the human resource frame is family. This frame focuses on the fit between people and the organization. People want meaningful work and want to feel valued; organizations benefit from their ideas and abilities. Job satisfaction, skill development, autonomy, and motivational factors are considerations associated with this frame.

The political frame involves considering the diverse beliefs, personalities, values, and interests of the people in an organization. Differences can create conflict. Limited resources and competition require making difficult choices. The metaphor associated with this frame is a jungle. Leaders need to form coalitions, resolve conflict, and consider their power bases.

The symbolic frame is associated with creating a sense of purpose, inspiring and influencing, articulating a vision, and using stories, traditions, and myths associated with the organization to create connections and commitment. The leader is seen as a prophet or visionary who can engage people’s hearts and minds. The symbolic frame also involves celebrations, events, and rewards. The metaphor associated with this frame is theatre. The symbolic frame emphasizes becoming united through organizational culture and providing direction and stability.

The reframing model provides a broad perspective on an organization rather than specific steps to follow. Motivational issues can be addressed through the human resource and symbolic frames. Confusion regarding goals or overlapping responsibilities point to the need to emphasize the structural frame. Anxiety, instability, or fear can best be resolved through the symbolic frame. However, with each situation, leaders should look through all four frames to gain insights into what is happening, why, and how to best resolve it.

Bolman and Deal’s model ensures that all aspects of an organization are considered in the change process. In my own leadership roles, I have considered the model frequently. Examples includes changing processes, adopting new software, re-organization of departments, and launching new initiatives. If you want to learn more about the frames and which one you are strongest in, Bolman & Deal have a quick instrument on the website for the book.

Best wishes as you apply this model to lead lasting change!

This blog post is based on Dr. Andrade’s book, Organizational Behavior In Practice. Publishing rights to this content are owned by Great River Learning.

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