Frames, Framing Effects, & Reframing

‘Frames’ appear in many forms in our lives every day.

We use the noun ‘frame’ to describe hard things like wood or steel wall constructions, and soft things like data and concept structures. Amongst other meanings, we use the verb ‘(to) frame’ to mean choosing our words carefully, and planning or organising ideas and methods.

Frames for everything

Whether it’s political/policy frames, communication (narrative) frames, frames of reference, media frames, frames of mind (moods), reality (fact) frames, expectation frames, relational frames, diagnostic frames, prognostic frames, motivational frames, cognitive frames, learning frames, or the Data/Frame Theory of Sensemaking, etc., there is always a frame close to hand.

Broadly speaking, the many varieties of frames listed above fall into two major categories:

  • frames in thought; and
  • frames in communication (recognising that it could be argued communication is a sub-set of thought, as the lines do blur somewhat when considering some types of frames e.g. motivational frames).

While there are many different types of frames listed here, these are only selected examples, and readers may well be aware of many others. The frame concept is popular, and you are likely to find evidence of its use in most fields of human activity.

While I could have chosen the collective noun ‘gallery’ to describe this wide array of frame types, I found both the alliteration and the conflict suggested by ‘fracas of frames’ more suitable for the header image above.

Frames also feature in a number of idioms that we all use quite frequently.

Different frames for different folks

When people from different roles and backgrounds work together, they each tend to frame the issues, data, events, and problems in quite different ways. Each brings their own perspective, informed by their knowledge base, but also by the schemas they have acquired to make sense of the world. Some of those schemas are conscious, and based on their education, disciplinary field, and professional experience, while others are unconscious (e.g. certain values, beliefs, and dispositions).

Directors and managers from different professions and backgrounds will always apply different schemas to their deliberations on a given issue. It will aid the development of consensus responses to data, issues, problems, and circumstances, for decision-makers to recognise these differences. For important decisions, it is worth investing some time in the creation of a shared schema. Where possible, this should represent the best elements of the individual schemas brought to the table.

Decision frames

Nonprofit leaders engage with multiple frames whenever they are making decisions. The way problems are ‘framed’, influences the ‘frames’ we use to gather and analyse data about the problem. It also shapes the way action options and solutions are ‘framed’, and also how resources are allocated, and timing and assignment of responsibility are ‘framed’.

Various ways of framing an issue can be identified, some of which are highlighted in the window-frame chart below. ‘Window’ frames are much like an artist’s visual frame, focusing attention within certain boundaries. These frames can also act as filters to colour or distort what we perceive, while potentially providing insights into the world outside their boundaries – through the glass, and beyond the edge of the frame.

The Frame shapes the analysis

Much like Jackson Brown’s lyric ‘the way the hammer shapes the hand’ (from the song Casino Nation), the frames we use to make sense of data, events, issues, and problems, significantly influence our decisions and actions.

Investigators and analysts use ‘fact frames’ to identify information that is relevant (what’s in frame Vs what’s out of frame) and salient (significant) from the field of all possible data. Subsequently, data, diagnostic, motivational, and logic frames are applied to reach conclusions about cause and effect relationships. Having completed those processes, recommendations can be made to decision-makers, who in turn use policy, strategy, risk, and decision frames to determine what action, if any, is required.

Reflexive practice invites us to be aware of the frames we are employing in our work. Reviewing the appropriateness of the frames we consciously use, and seeking to expose unconscious frames, brings a more mindful (and potentially more effective) approach into play.

Framing effects

The term ‘framing effect’ is used in communications science and behavioural economics (thanks to Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky) to describe the influence a particular expression or presentation of information has on the decisions we make. The same underlying information can be presented positively or negatively, and so become more or less attractive depending on the features spotlighted.

In risk management discussions this could involve a tendency to use negative frames (what could go wrong?). In health settings, for example, an emphasis on the probabilities of side effects has been shown to have a deleterious influence on self-reported side effects and work absenteeism – the dark side of the placebo effect. The concept of a ‘thought virus’ seems apt, like some malicious code interfering with the software of our mental operating system.

When reviewing charts and graphs presented by management, it may be worth checking the extent to which framing effects could be skewing your interpretation of the underlying data. The presentation may promote a more risk-averse stance, or conversely, an overly upbeat picture of organisational health.


We ‘reframe’ when we use words, such as those describing an existing concept or plan, differently. We also reframe when we acquire, adjust, or replace a schema (mental model) because of something we have learned from our experience.

Just as there are different kinds of frames, so too are there many varieties of reframing. Essentially, every type of frame has an associated method of reframing. Most often we think of reframing in terms of psychology, where cognitive reframing is used as part of the treatment for certain conditions. We may also think of reframing messages or narratives in a policy or election campaign.

Conflict reframing is an interesting example in which cognitive and/or interactional reframing may be involved. Changed values, beliefs, and dispositions may be required to jettison harmful behaviours, while negotiations may call for meaningful engagement with another party’s perspective, and willingness to seek common ground.

In the chart below, four types of reframing are described. Cognitive reframing may be thought of as a category, with context and content reframing being subcategories. Scope reframing is the odd one out here, as it relates to governance and management oversight of projects, tasks, and activities.

Reframing Organisations

The 7th Edition of Reframing Organisations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership by Harvard academics Lee Bolman and Terry Deal was published in August last year. The continuing availability of updated versions reflects the classic and highly influential status of this valuable reference.

Bolman and Deal’s four-frame model uses a multidisciplinary approach to management, and includes powerful tools for navigating complexity and turbulence. The four-frame model provides the ‘frame’-work within which these tools are offered. Recognising that each of the four frames could be used to gain different insights into a single issue or situation, the model has some similarities to De Bono’s thinking hats. It demonstrates how we see and think differently according to the lens we use.

The book blurb at offers this snapshot of each of the four frames comprising the model, and suggests some of the benefits of the recommended approach:

“The Structural Frame explores the convergence of organizational structure and function, and shows why social architecture must take environment into account. Case studies illustrate successful alignment in diverse organizations, and guidelines provide strategic insight for avoiding common pathologies and achieving the right fit.

The Human Resource Frame dissects the complex dynamics at the intersection of people and organizations and charts the leadership and human resource practices that build motivation and high performance.

The Political Frame shows how competition, conflict, and the struggle for power and resources can be either a tool for growth or a toxic landmine for an individual or organization. Case studies show how both constructive and destructive practices influence social, political, and economic trends both within and beyond organizational boundaries.

The Symbolic Frame defines organizational culture, and delves into the emotional and existential underbelly of social life. It underscores the power of symbolic forms such as heroes, myths, and rituals in providing the glue that bonds social collectives together.”

This reference is well worth the investment for those ready to delve more deeply into the underlying schemas that drive organisational behaviour and effectiveness.

See also:

One thought on “Frames, Framing Effects, & Reframing

Leave a Reply