The Four Frame Approach

Finding Other Ways Forward

The Four Frame Approach - Finding Other Ways Forward

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Use the "four frame" approach to view the situation from different perspectives.

Managers who master the hammer and expect all problems to behave like nails find organizational life confusing and frustrating. – Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal

Tony runs a small team of IT developers. He helps his people meet their objectives by setting clear goals, and by making sure that everyone knows their roles.

The problem is that Tony's organization is currently being restructured, and projects he has been championing are being called into question. As a result, Tony is stressed, and is struggling to motivate his team.

Although we may not like to admit it, many of us are like Tony; we rely on only a few approaches for leading our teams. Then, when things change, or when we're in new situations, we're not as effective as we could be.

One way to overcome this common problem is to use Bolman and Deal's Four Frame Approach. This tool teaches us to view situations using four different perspectives. This then helps us to think about different ways of managing difficult situations.

About the Model

The Four Frame Approach is a concept developed by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal, and was first published in their 1991 book, "Reframing Organizations". The model is a set of four frames, or perspectives, that we can use to analyze a situation in the workplace.

The four frames are:

  • The Structural Frame.
  • The Human Resource Frame.
  • The Political Frame.
  • The Symbolic Frame

Headings reproduced from “Reframing Organizations: artistry, choice and leadership” by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal. First Edition. © 1991. Reproduced with permission of John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

The idea is that you use the model to get a more rounded view of a situation by looking at it from several different angles. This helps you see issues that you may not have considered, had you only looked at the situation from one perspective.

Once you've looked at a situation using each frame, you can then choose which frame (or frames) to apply to that particular situation.

Overall, the Four Frame Approach will allow you to become a more flexible manager and leader. You'll also feel confident that you've considered all perspectives when making a decision.

We'll now look at each frame in greater detail.

The Structural Frame

The Structural Frame focuses on the existing structure of an organization or hierarchy. This frame assumes that the organization exists to achieve established goals, that specialization and division of labor enhances productivity, and that the chain of command should function in an efficient way to meet objectives. Control and coordination is important with this frame.

When leaders use the structural frame, they focus on goals, implementation and control to push their teams. They hold themselves and their teams accountable, and they make rational decisions for the good of the team and organization, instead of focusing on personal preferences.

The Human Resource Frame

The Human Resource Frame focuses on the organization's people. It assumes that the organization will succeed if it meets the needs of everyone who works there.

When leaders use the Human Resource Frame, they focus on employee needs, morale, individuality, and motivation. They try to create a work environment that's caring, that's full of trust and where people communicate openly. Team members have access to training and skill development, and they create a culture of empowerment and possibility.

The Political Frame

The Political Frame is all about power. It assumes that decisions and change don't happen unless key stakeholders and interest groups are engaged in the decision making process. Here, conflict can be common, as people jockey for position in the organization.

When leaders use the Political Frame, they focus on negotiation to secure key resources, and to win people's support for their projects. They also recognize that there are very real differences between the needs of individuals, and the needs of groups (for example, departments and teams.) Here, it's important to understand where the power lies in an organization, and to learn how to use it effectively.

The Symbolic Frame

The Symbolic Frame focuses on vision and inspiration. With this frame, what happens in an organization isn't as important as what it means to the workforce and customers.

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When leaders use the Symbolic Frame, they recognize the importance of meaning and satisfaction to people, and they help their teams create meaning from confusion, especially during turbulent times. They also use rituals, symbols, roles, and shared values to create bonds, and to help others understand events and celebrate milestones.

Applying the Model

To apply the model, consider each of the four frames when analyzing a situation. Then, once you've considered what you can learn from each frame, decide how you will approach the situation.

We'll now look into when to apply each frame, and explore how you can develop your skills in each frame area.

Structural Frame

This frame is most useful when roles are clear, goals are definite, and there is little or no conflict or ambiguity. This is also a useful frame to use when quality is important, because it deals with problems using rationality and logic.

To enhance your skills for the Structural Frame, start by reading our article on Managing by Objectives, and by taking our Bite-Sized Training session on Setting Goals for Your Team.

Understanding team roles can be important here, and our articles on Belbin's Team Roles and Benne and Sheats' Group Roles will give you a greater understanding of people's roles so that you can improve performance.


Although many people may resist using the Structural Frame because of its bureaucratic, "red tape" overtones, structure is a necessary and important part of every organization. Without this, organizations may have ineffective processes, inefficient training programs, or technology that doesn't fit the needs of the workforce.

The Human Resource Frame

This frame is best used when morale and motivation are issues. This is also a useful frame to use when motivation and commitment are essential to the success of a project or organization.

To apply this frame, start by taking our How Well Do You Motivate Your People? quiz. You'll also want to learn more about what your team truly needs to stay motivated and empowered in its work. Our articles on Herzberg's Motivators and Hygiene Factors and McClelland's Human Motivation Theory will help here.

Also, learn more about training and coaching your team effectively (our How Well do You Develop Your People? test will help you assess your skills). Use techniques such as Active Training, Gagne's Nine Levels of Learning, and
team coaching to help your people grow.

The Political Frame

The Political Frame is best used when a major decision must be made that depends on the support of key stakeholders or large groups of people. Because this focuses on power and politics, knowing how to navigate this minefield effectively is paramount.

Start by learning how to recognize key stakeholders with Influence Mapping and with Stakeholder Analysis. You might also want to read our articles on handling office politics, and French and Raven's Five Forms of Power, which covers where power comes from in the workplace. Good negotiation and conflict resolution skills are important here.

The Symbolic Frame

The Symbolic Frame is best used when goals are unclear, or when you need to help a group or organization through a difficult time. This is also a useful frame to use when you're experiencing conflict with your team.

You can work with the Symbolic Frame by learning more about mission and vision statements and business storytelling, which will help inspire and influence your team. You'll also want to understand your corporate culture and organizational values, and learn how to shape your organization's culture to align it with the proper strategy.

Tip 1:

When you're solving a problem, don't restrict yourself to using just one frame – you may get useful insights from several of them.

Tip 2:

If you'd like to learn more about leadership styles, and when to apply them, take our Leadership Styles Bite-Sized Training class.

Key Points

Bolman and Deal's Four Frame Approach highlights four different perspectives that you can use to analyze a situation in the workplace. You can then choose the best frame to apply to the situation.

The Structural Frame prompts you to consider the organization's hierarchy and chain of command. This frame relies on goals and accountability.

The Human Resource Frame is all about team development, empowerment and building morale.

The Political Frame requires you look at the politics of an organization or team. Recognizing and catering to key stakeholders is necessary when you need groups to work together.

The Symbolic Frame focuses on an organization's corporate culture. This frame is best applied when a team is going through a dramatic change, or when morale is low.