Words matter; be impeccable in framing the issue.

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

Properly frame the issue

The issue that gets named is the issue that gets solved. Take care in framing the issue.

Later in life, my mother became an artist; a painter. She worked in oil on canvass. Her skills progressed as she learned more from teachers and mentors and then began to teach students herself. I remember seeing her canvasses in various states of completion and was often intrigued by how she painstakingly and carefully selected frames for the final product. She would make her own choice if the picture was to hang in a show or other display. Or she would collaborate with the purchaser to select a frame that not only enhanced the painting but would “work” in that person’s home. Framing, it seems, was not a simple thing.

Framing a piece of art, when one is a professional, takes skill, understanding and a knowledge of the painting’s message, the viewer and the context in which the painting will be seen. It turns out the same is true when leaders are communicating within an organization. Properly framed, the vision, mission and culture of the organization provide a effective communication to the stakeholders. Any initiative to make changes within the organization must likewise be properly framed in order to communicate the reasons and goals of the initiative. Effective leaders understand framing as the most efficient way to help others “eff the ineffable” as well as embrace the tangible reasons for the change. Politicians frame and the opponents re-frame arguments (some would say spin) for their own world view and in order to win their constituents’ support. That is why you hear some politicians refer to “liberating Iraq,” while you hear others speak of “invading Iraq.” Depending on your view of the meaning behind the “Americans in Iraq” painting, one frame will appear more perfect than the other.

And so it is with communicating within our organizations. We, as leaders, can learn the art of framing change initiatives, vision, mission and culture in order to maximize the number of employees who are on board and support the goals of the organization. If we do not properly frame our initiatives, the employees will use their own frame of reference which may or may not lead them to the same interpretations we would desire. Excellent leaders know that proper framing manages the meaning of what we are saying and doing. And perhaps as importantly, preempts some of the arguments from the naysayers – and there are ALWAYS naysayers.

Here are some resources for those who wish to study this topic, understand words, metaphors and framing. An excellent book from Steven Pinker titled The Stuff of Thought; language as a window into human nature. In this book, Pinker discusses how we use language, how it shapes our view of the world, and how it affects the way we think and extend metaphors. Another excellent book is The Art of Framing by Gail Fairhurst and Robert Starr. What I believe is most important about learning how we and others frame our world view is that it awakens us to the possibilities of another view, helps us to understand how others are framing an issue and how we may be susceptible to and manipulated by the way advertisements, surveys and political arguments are framed. It is truly an inspired and enlightened leader who can suspend her own framework for viewing the world in order to learn from another’s view of the same world. Whether or not she changes her mind about the usefulness or veracity of her own view, she will have demonstrated true compassion and openness to others around her. Understanding how others view the world allows a leader to gently re-frame the issues to help others see new possibilities.