SAGE Musings: Seeing the World Through Multiple Frames

Pamela Eddy, College of William and Mary
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published Feb 20, 2017

Sometimes the solution to a problem seems obvious to you, but you can't get any traction with your colleagues. What's going on? Consider the possibility that they see the situation differently than you do, because they have a different set of values and beliefs than you or because their position affords them a different macro view of issues that go beyond your work in the classroom. Although you may be tempted to dismiss their beliefs as "wrong," that's not an effective path to changing their behavior. Instead, understanding more about what is behind the thinking of others and how you can pitch your ideas in a language they understand and that aligns with their values and beliefs can result in a positive outcome.

Bolman and Deal provide a template of how individuals operate within organizations. Their four frames of organizations are based on different worldviews and perspectives of institutions. Each frame has its own set of assumptions and guiding principles. Values and beliefs undergird each of the frames—and all the frames have uses in different situations. The key here is to first understand your own orientation, and then understand how others might see situations differently. See for an online assessment to determine which frame you prefer.

The ability to see issues and challenges using a multiple frame perspective opens up a range of solutions. You can think of the ability to see the world using multiple frames like having your own decoder ring. Instead of thinking others are resisting change, you can understand their frame of reference and craft your arguments in language and values they understand. For example, when dealing with someone coming from a structural frame, understanding rules and policies can help in addressing ways to allow change to occur—here you need to create changes to rules or policies that are preventing the change.

The two charts that follow provide a snapshot of the elements of each of the frames, and importantly some of the barriers to change for each of the frames. See slides 13 (overview of the four-frame model) and 17 (reframing change) in this slideshare presentation:

Lee Bolman has a website that provides a range of resources (see I think it is worthwhile to buy the book on organizational framing ( The book is an easy read and can give you insights into how to work with people and how to exert leadership to accomplish what you are trying to get done. Try using the idea of frames at your next meeting. Can you figure out the frame used by your Dean? How does this knowledge help you understand what motivates campus leaders to support your change effort?

I will give you an example about how I used frames to get something changed in my program. We had a cumbersome curriculum set up for our doctoral program that differed from our peers—we had 10 required classes, 75 credits versus 63 credits, and courses taught by some faculty that were not contributing to the skills our grads needed. My first attempt at changing the curriculum was to merely bring these points up at a meeting, thinking that logic would hold sway and the changes would be readily approved. The vote didn't go my way and the power of the senior faculty was strong. I took a different tactic to "show" how out of line our program was and made this about the students versus the perception of getting rid of a senior colleague's favorite class. Symbolism helped here as I created a banner that covered the entire white board. It had on it the required courses we had (10) compared to those of several of our competitors (4). I aligned the similar course work by color coding the course titles, so it was obvious what was typically seen as core course work, number of credits, and time to degree completion. A vote for the change sailed through the department because it was "obvious" that we were out of sync with other programs and the vote for change was about the students versus targeting any particular faculty member's favorite (and dated) class. In thinking of the multitude of initiatives going on at your campus, think how you understand what gets priority over other decisions and how you can strategize to get attention to your program by understanding that others may come to the issue from a different perspective. Making sure you hit each of the four frames helps assure you recognize what others value when making decisions and choices.


Bolman, L. G., and Deal, T. E. (2013). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership (5th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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