Framing: Leadership Involves Helping People See the World in New and Different Ways

“…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene II

It’s March, which means NCAA Basketball Tournament time. 

I was watching TBS/TNT with Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Clark Kellogg. They were discussing the mentality of teams, particularly underdogs playing against much higher ranked opponents. (Even if you are not into sports, Charles Barkley’s observations and commentary provide good entertainment.)

Charles said of an underdog, “…they have nothing to lose.”

Kenny disagreed, and reframed the opportunity, saying, “…they have everything to gain.”

A great example of the crucial importance of framing.


Research on Framing

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky introduced us to the importance of “framing” in their work on Prospect Theory (for which they won a Nobel prize in Economics). Prospect theory says that humans act based on frames rather than mere economic math. That people value the benefits from gains relatively less than the downside from similar losses. Put more simply, how we position a choice has a huge impact on what path people choose.

Research, by Amy Edmondson, on the implementation of new initiatives, revealed that framing was the single most powerful factor in determining eventual success (or failure).


Framing Is Inevitable

We frame situations without realizing we are doing it. Based on our individual personality type, we have an implicit bias without realizing it. We may lean towards the positive (believing that all challenges can be overcome) or be more accustomed to seeing the negative (that change is very hard or impossible) without realizing it. 

Our implicit bias and thus frames we use is due in part to the environment we were raised in. How our parents, extended family and other influential people saw the world and talked about it with us. 

In the workplace our frames are influenced by our bosses and the leadership at the companies we work at. We learn to see the world of work and business through their lenses.


Building Awareness of Our Frames

First, recognize your natural framing bias. Be aware of how you are predisposed to see situations.

Second, be aware that frames are simply a lens through which we see the world. They help us see a version of reality and possibly. There are other ways to view a situation. And often, our peers will interpret the same scene quite differently.

Third, remember that frames are influenced by our education. We are often taught how to think like a scientist, a writer, a lawyer, or an accountant. Each profession has its preferred mental models for how to interpret the world, questions to ask, data to seek etc.


Inviting in New Frames

  1. The Importance of the Language We Use
    • Carol Dweck has written on the difference between ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets. It applies to the language we use in self-talk (I keep working to move myself more into a growth mindset) and in our talk with others (children, students, peers etc.) I highly recommend her TED Talk on this topic.
    • Try using “and” more frequently and “but” less frequently.
    • Keep a ‘Gratitude Diary.’ It does not need to be extensive nor even something you do daily. But simply practicing writing down what went well recently helps move those items higher up in our memory (which is wired to pay greater attention to the bad).
  2. Temporarily taking on new ‘Thinking Hats’
    • My father introduced me to the writing of Edward de Bono in the 1980s. Earlier this week, I noticed his copy of the book, Six Thinking Hats, on the bookshelf in my living room.
    • The image above is from that book. De Bono suggests we temporarily put on different hats when approaching problems and designing solutions to allow us to widen the frame and invite in new ideas.
  3. Providing Context and Timescales
    • Context helps us understand the background and the why around a topic that is being discussed. More ideas and better solutions emerge when there is greater shared understanding on the why.
    • Timescales are critical as we will often make different decisions when thinking about the short term vs. the longer term. 


Finding Common Ground

Greater self-awareness on framing helps us find common ground. In a time that feels full of disagreement and misunderstanding, understanding frames and using them to our advantage can help bring us closer, uncover better solutions and solve more problems effectively.

When it comes to personal relationships, the best way to understand a different perspective is to ask about the other person’s lived experiences. Differences in the way we see the world today are heavily influenced by our past experiences and learnings. Empathy is a powerful teacher and helps bridge differences.

To change the way you think, you must change the way you see the world.

Aditya Dehejia

Adi’s experiences as a CFO and HR leader in start-up companies inspired him to start the CxO Leadership Accelerator. He saw firsthand the challenges in building a satisfying career, the importance of leaders in developing people, and the difficulty in building broad business acumen while excelling in your functional role. Prior to his operating career in start-ups, Adi held roles in a growth capital investment firm and in the corporate development and strategy department at a Fortune 500 company. Adi is an active volunteer mentor in the FirstRound Capital and TechStars networks as well as within his University alumni communities. Adi was born in India and immigrated to the US at age ten. He attended Princeton University (graduated with a degree in Politics) and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He lives in the suburbs of New York City and has two adult sons and two lovable, crazy dogs.

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