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Learning from the Persuasive Genius of Great Leaders

The art of framing is an essential skill for executives who want to motivate and inspire.

“Mike, I know you are a star player,” said the senior executive to his newest vice president. “But there’s something I want you to think about.” He placed a single sheet of paper on the table between them: a cartoon of two people in a boat. One is bailing furiously as water pours in through a hole in the bottom, while the other sits high up on the other end, saying, “Well, at least the hole isn’t in my end.” After a brief pause, the CEO continued, “This is what is actually happening when your group makes decisions without considering the impact on the company as a whole. I know you trimmed customer support expenses significantly last year. But now I hear we are losing customers because their experience is not up to par. Does that make good business sense to you?”

The particulars of this conversation are a composite of many examples I have seen of great leaders creating “lightbulb” moments. The executive in this story did not rely on facts alone to make his point. Instead, he offered a new frame for what those facts meant. In my 20 years as an executive coach and advisor, I’ve found that such “framing” is one of the common threads behind great leaders’ persuasive genius—both in formal presentations and one-on-one conversations. Simply put, a frame is a lens for interpreting events, a way of making sense of complex, messy experiences, so we can communicate and take action. As Gail Fairhurst wrote in The Power of Framing (Jossey-Bass, 2010), framing is “defining the situation here and now in ways that connect with others.” The good news is that it is a technique that anyone can learn.

First described by linguists such as George Lakoff, framing is referenced in a wide variety of contexts, such as problem solving, negotiations, mass communications, and political theory. Clay Christensen, Matt Marx, and Howard Stevenson wrote in Harvard Business Review that when groups share common frames or mental models, they are able to communicate and take action more quickly than those who have to review every detail of a situation or strategy. For example, if a team member says, “Let’s not get too academic about this,” the group is likely to cut the conversation short and move to a decision. Even a short phrase or a colorful image, such as, “Is the competition eating our lunch?” can activate an entire world in the listener’s mind. As Eric Ries has said, when the CEO of a lean startup tells her team it is time to “pivot,” the team recognizes a whole host of implied actions. Frame a negotiation as “win-win” rather than “win-lose” and you are likely to improve outcomes for all parties. Even more astonishing, the right frames can actually prime us to be more intelligent. Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Blink (Little, Brown, 2005) about Dutch researchers who found that thinking about yourself as a college professor for five minutes can improve your score in a game of Trivial Pursuit by 30 percent compared with your score if you picture yourself as a soccer hooligan for the same amount of time.

Frame a negotiation as “win-win” and you are likely to improve outcomes for all parties.

Yet as powerful as frames are, they can also create a box around our thinking—narrowing our options, limiting our perspective, and ignoring critical aspects of the situation. Because they simplify reality, frames inevitably highlight some factors and hide others. As conditions shift, those hidden factors may contain important clues about risks or new opportunities. For example, in my opening story, Mike was focused on cutting expenses, and within the frame of being a “star player,” his actions made perfect sense. But his boss recognized that Mike’s actions affected the customer experience, the key driver of the company’s success, and within this larger frame it became clear that Mike had to change course.

This is why great leaders look for empowering frames and communicate them explicitly, to ensure others understand their intent and interpret their actions through the new lens, rather than old frames. For example, I met one leader whose collaborative efforts had been a source of friction with his colleagues. According to their frames of “who owned what,” he had been “encroaching” on their territory. But when he proactively framed his actions as “sharing intelligence” about external competitive threats, his outreach was viewed as a valuable aid.

Leaders also need to be inclusive in their framing, describing a situation as neutrally as possible. If we ignore others’ frames or try to replace them, we are likely to spark conflict. Instead, a frame that describes our shared experience as a “third story” can be liberating. For example, a leader whose team had been in a conflict related to a change initiative opened a meeting by saying, “The way I see it, we are working on our airplane while we fly it. Does anyone else feel that way?” The entire team laughed in recognition, tensions were diffused, and real work could begin.

Finally, an empowering frame calls to mind the magnitude of a goal and gives it meaning. “I believe it will take us 300 years to get to full sustainability as a society,” said one CEO. “Our goal is to build a foundation for future generations.” This perspective gave his team the staying power to persist on a very difficult goal.

Every conversation, every communication, and every decision begins with a frame. When we provide a context that expands our thinking, includes others, and gives meaning to our efforts, we help spark creativity and insight in ourselves, our peers, and our leaders. Perhaps that explains the old Disney company joke encouraging its animators and designers to challenge a limiting frame:

“How many Imagineers does it take to change a lightbulb?”

“Does it have to be a lightbulb?” 

Elizabeth Doty

Elizabeth Doty is a former lab fellow of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, founder of Leadership Momentum, and director of the Erb Institute’s Corporate Political Responsibility Taskforce at the University of Michigan.

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