Leveraging Bolman and Deal’s Four Leadership Frames

Bolman and Deal's Four Frames for Advanced Leadership Leadership and Management

Leveraging Bolman and Deal’s Four Leadership Frames is a management concept that allows you to view an organization on a deeper level so you can solve issues and drive change. The frames or lenses are used to analyze a situation before determining a strategy for forward progress.

Leaders who use this frame primarily focus on the “how” of change: setting measurable goals; clarifying tasks, responsibilities and reporting lines; creating systems and protocols.

Exploring the Structural Frame of Leadership

Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal’s four leadership frames offer a no-nonsense model for analyzing problems and driving change in the workplace. Although most leadership programs tend to focus on one frame, great leaders use all four of them when tackling organizational challenges. In fact, leaders who only work with a single leadership frame risk becoming ineffective.

The Structural frame focuses on the organizational structure. It identifies roles and responsibilities, defines lines of authority, designs management systems and creates policies. A leader working from this frame emphasizes rationality, logic and facts
and believes that clear structure maximizes efficiency. This type of leadership style is especially useful in stable environments where employees work to achieve established goals and objectives.

When performance gaps arise, effective managers analyze the cause and restructure the organization. For example, if a worker’s personal preferences or extraneous pressures interfere with work performance, the structural frame manager might allow workers more flexibility to meet family obligations.

Alternatively, the structural frame may be used to respond to an organizational crisis. For instance, a restructure might be required when a company needs to save money or meet an urgent business objective.

A leader working from this frame focuses on empowering individuals, building teamwork and improving morale. It recognizes that workers’ individual needs are important to organizational success. For instance, this leader might offer perks or training to increase job satisfaction or promote the value of a particular product. In addition, this leadership style focuses on creating a strong culture of trust and respect to improve employee engagement. This frame also focuses on resolving conflicts and dealing with power struggles. It requires the leader to advocate for workers’ interests, negotiate with external parties and seek allies.

The Human Resource Frame: Leading with Empathy

In a 1:1 meeting, Kijas focuses on the needs of her team members to create an empowering and caring environment. She provides the support they need to carry out their responsibilities and gets out of their way. While she may seem weak-willed, her empathetic approach is a strong leadership style that fits the human resource frame. Skillful leaders use this framework to build a culture that workers naturally identify with and to tap into their natural talents and motivations (Bolman and Deal, Reframing Organizations).

Leaders using the human resources frame often value empathy over task-oriented approaches. They understand that people are multifaceted, and a dissatisfaction in one area can have ripple effects across the rest of their lives. They view communication as a tool to promote open dialogue, share feelings and information, and encourage employees to be creative in solving problems.

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They also consider the social context of a workplace when making decisions, and they understand the need to address people’s personal growth, human contact, job satisfaction and other emotional needs. These leaders work to create an engaging and stimulating workplace that gives employees a reason to stay in the organisation.

Despite the name, the human resource frame doesn’t refer to human resources people or functions, and it doesn’t fit all management styles or behaviours. The frame relates to how people perceive their managers and the way they lead.

In a workforce with a range of generational groups, this frame helps to manage diverse employee perspectives and concerns. For example, managing a Traditionalist Owner and her team of Baby Boomers is very different from managing a Team of Millennials and Gen Z employees. Empathy is a key factor for leadership success, but it needs to be balanced with the other four frames in order for effective change to take place.

Political Frame: Navigating Power Dynamics

In the political frame, leaders recognize that power plays a vital role in organizational life. Decisions within the political frame are more concerned with leveraging and protecting existing political coalitions than with maximizing or improving organizational processes. This creates a climate of conflict that, when managed well, can accelerate innovation and growth. Leaders in this frame are keenly aware of the different values, beliefs and interpretations of information that affect decision making. They are able to effectively communicate with competing stakeholders and negotiate alliances to achieve their goals.

In contrast to the Structural and Human Resource frames that focus on stabilizing the organization, this leadership framework emphasizes the need for change. This can be a difficult goal to pursue, but the political leader is able to understand that without significant change, the organization will stagnate and lose its competitive advantage.

The political leader is also a strong advocate for the organization’s mission and believes it is the responsibility of the organization to advance that cause. In this way, they are able to motivate the organization and its members toward common goals.

While the term politics often has negative connotations, every organization has a political component. The political frame enables managers to acknowledge this fact and directs them to navigate moral minefields, build coalitions and use power productively.

While some leaders may be comfortable only with one of the four frames, a multi- frame perspective is necessary for effective leadership. A study of leadership in medical education found that most leaders utilized all four frames, with the majority choosing the Human Resource frame. This finding is consistent with other health science studies indicating that most managers favor the Human Resource frame.

The Symbolic Frame: Crafting Organizational Culture

As the name suggests, the symbolic frame focuses on crafting organizational culture. This involves building meaning and purpose and values through traditions, celebrations, and other symbolic activities. It also focuses on responding to people’s needs for purpose and fulfillment in their work. For example, the symbolic frame might include recognising superb performance through company celebrations or encouraging employees to embrace change by providing them with a vision and path that’s meaningful to them.

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The authors of the Four Leadership Frames, Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal, suggest that leaders may find it helpful to look at their organization’s challenges through a number of perspectives or ‘Frames’. They believe that if you use just one habitual Frame for too long, you risk being ineffective as a leader. In their book, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership (1991), they provide a description of four Frames that help you navigate challenging situations in a constructive way.

When you master a Frame, you understand the underlying assumptions and beliefs that lie beneath it. You can then make a more accurate judgment about how to approach your organization’s problems.

It is important for leaders to become both Frame generalists and experts. They need to ask the right questions and diagnose key issues. Then they need to select the appropriate Frame of reference and behavioural approach to successfully tackle their organisation’s challenges.

The researchers found that managers who described themselves as using more than one of the four frames tended to rate themselves higher in terms of their perceived effectiveness. This led them to re-compute the frame mastery categorization scheme for managers. They determined that the highest level of effectiveness was reached by those who mastered two or more frames.

Integrating the Four Frames for Effective Leadership

It’s easy to get stuck on one of the frames as a leader, especially when you have been successful in your role. But if you don’t move to the next frame, you may become stuck in an outdated mode of leadership that can be damaging to your organization.

Ultimately, leaders who only use one of the frames run the risk of being ineffective because they lack the perspective required to address issues from other perspectives. This is why it’s important to be able to flex between the four frames.

To be a successful leader, you must understand the organization on a deeper level to solve problems and drive it forward. The four leadership frames are a great tool to help you do this. By understanding each frame, you can see the bigger picture and lead with more effectiveness.

A leader in this frame can inspire others with stories and vision, creating a culture of purpose and transcendence. They are a prophet, ensuring that the values of the organization remain pure. They can also inspire people with spiritual guidance and religious symbols.

An effective leader in this frame can be a negotiator and advocate for those who don’t have a voice. They can build coalitions and create a platform for others to have their voices heard, even if that means they must compromise on some of their own goals. An ineffective leader in this frame can come across as manipulative and dishonest.

If you’re interested in learning more about the leadership frames, check out this article by Gallos and Albert, which discusses the four frames as they apply to medical education leaders. It also provides an in-depth look at how to directly apply the frames to leadership challenges.

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