Take this thought experiment: Would you prefer a hamburger that is 90% fat-free or one that has 10% fat? Would you support a project with a 1 in 5 chance of succeeding, or a project with an 80% chance of failing? Despite both options being equivalent, I would avoid the 10% fat laden burger, and pass on the project that had an 80% chance of failing! These are examples of how frames of reference influence us.

But frames of reference are more than amusing; they determine how we act. A frame of reference is a set of assumptions, beliefs and perceptions that we use as filters to create our world-view. They are generally invisible to us, and often go unquestioned, but good things sometimes happen when we explore them…

A friend recently confronted me about a personal frame that was holding me back. I like parties, but I am shy to approach people and mingle. In fact, you’d usually find me in a kitchen talking to one person for a long time. My friend said that the problem was how I chose to frame my role.

When I framed myself as a ‘guest,’ I stood around waiting to be introduced, blending in with the furniture. But, she asked, what if you framed yourself as ‘host,’ even if it wasn’t your party. What would you do then? I said I’d introduce people to each other, socialize, and be attentive to peoples’ needs. This frame of reference stuck with me. Nowadays, I challenge myself to be more host than guest, and I have a much better time at social events.

When I ask clients to identify their frames of reference, and to explore diverse frames, they often gain new insights into leading their organizations differently. Here are two recent examples that may apply to a situation you are facing.

Frame Your Project Differently

A client was struggling to implement a company-wide computer system to help manage their inventory, billing and forecasting functions. The relationship between the software experts and the users of the software had deteriorated. Both groups blamed the other for missed deadlines and budget overruns.

I was asked to assess the situation and make recommendations that might improve matters. As part of this process, I gained fascinating insights about the two groups’ frames of reference.

When I asked the software experts to define the project goals, they focused on implementation – making sure the system was technically sound and easy to update (which meant no or limited customization). When I asked the user community the same question, they focused on its strategic intent – ensuring the system could be customized to accommodate different types of products. Yikes, talk about lack of alignment!

In the feedback meeting I asked both groups to ‘try on’ the other group’s frame of reference. This led them to see that the source of their interpersonal friction was not peoples’ ‘hidden agendas’ or incompetence, but each group’s radically different frame for success. This resulted in deeper conversations about the root causes of the problem, which helped align their goals and improve their relationships.

Frame Yourself Differently

I was hired to coach Ed, the new president of a large, successful non-profit agency. Apparently, he did not get off to a good start. People were complaining behind his back that he was a critical nitpicker who didn’t appreciate how hard people were working – he kept piling on new initiatives and starting task forces.

I asked the Board Chairman who hired him what Ed’s mission was. He sighed and said he told Ed to take six months to learn how the agency operated, get to know the staff, and develop relationships with key stakeholders so he could eventually take the organization to its next level of growth.

When I asked Ed to validate whether this was in fact his mission, he hemmed and hawed. He kept using the term ‘problem solver’ to frame himself, and proudly pointed to his previous jobs where he had turned around failing operations.

Ed’s personal frame of reference led him to become a ‘problem finder,’ despite being directed to go soft and slow. When we discussed how this personal frame of reference was creating negative consequences, Ed dialed it back a bit. But soon he retreated into his earlier pattern.

It was more effective when I asked Ed to explore a different personal frame of reference. He became animated when he discussed being an ‘appreciative partner,’ because this was another way he liked to think of himself. Ed focused on this new personal frame to make significant behavior changes, which he sustained to successfully turn around his damaged reputation as a leader.

Frames of reference shape our thoughts, feelings and actions without us even realizing it. The first step is to recognize that we use these frames all the time, and to accept that they limit us. But the bigger step is when we choose new frames – that’s when we gain the power to improve our organizations, and ourselves.