It’s not what you say, but how you say it


Editors note: A year on from when we first published this article and the topic of framing is still as relevant as ever. We thought it was the perfect time to update last year’s advice on framing as a leadership skill.  

Framing, as defined by the American Psychological Association is,

the process of defining the context or issues surrounding a question, problem, or event in a way that serves to influence how the context or issues are perceived and evaluated.’

It’s seen by many as part science, part dark-art, but never has it been more important as a leadership skill as we navigate an increasingly volatile external landscape. 

As a result of the pandemic, 72% of SMEs embraced new technologies and introduced new business processes with 25% boosting innovation activity [Source]. Some organisations had to shift to completely different business models. Therefore, what we say and how we’re saying it has become even more imperative in avoiding communication breakdowns and encouraging your people to move with you.  

The same, but different

Just as the frame on a picture focuses attention on the image it surrounds, ‘framing’ as a concept can help leaders to direct effort and energy in a desired direction. When used effectively it can align broad and diverse groups, clarify the seemingly complex and, to reference Kotter, create a shared sense of urgency – all by ensuring individuals and teams react similarly to the given situation. 

In the 1980s two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky conducted a survey proposing two options for a hypothetical epidemic-control strategy. They told participants that the lives of 600 people were at stake. ‘Option A’ saved 200 lives, ‘Option B’ offered a 33% chance of all 600 surviving and a 66% chance that no one would survive. 

Although 200 survivors were expected from both options the majority of respondents went for ‘Option A’ – it appearing to be the less risky of the two. 

But when the same options were reframed; ‘Option A’ kills 400 people and ‘Option B’ offers a 33% chance that no-one will die, the majority picked ‘Option B’. 

Suddenly people were viewing the options differently, even though in reality nothing had changed except how the information was being presented. 

Framing as a leadership tool

As businesses continue to redesign the virtual and hybrid workplace, and try to make sense of an increasingly complicated world-view of life, framing may be one of the most useful and powerful of all the leadership tools at our disposal.  

Know what you can control;

None of us are able to control the big events as they continue to emerge and form before our very eyes, but as leaders we can to some degree influence how people react and respond to them. Framing can help shape a narrative around the uncertainty e.g. ‘what this looks like for us as an organisation’, ‘what this means in terms of our strategy’ etc. 

Don’t miss the chance to re-connect with reality;

Emotions are running high and are sitting close to the surface so think about using ‘framing’ to help people focus on the ‘here and now’ rather than dwell on the past or worry about the future. Apply a bit of De Bono’s ‘white’ and/or ‘blue’ hat thinking and use these to frame your message, or using tools such as the path of possibility to ‘reframe’ more negative mindsets. 

Framing as a meaning-making tool;

A recent Deloitte report emphasised the historic shift in the future of work, from ‘looking digital to living digital’. Whether you have moved the majority of working practices online or have accepted a mix of in-person and remote work, the common thread through it all is the worker experience and how it links to business outcomes.  

As leaders, being ahead of the curve in responding to workplace trends is one thing but being able to skilfully use framing to be visionary, contextually appropriate and credible in how you apply them to your business is no mean mean. However, when done well it can motivate and help employees feel more connected.

Extracted from; Deloitte (  

Spin with confidence;

But always with your moral compass firmly set to north! In the example given earlier (Kahneman and Tversky) the facts remained the same, what changed was how they were presented. Working remotely has meant a return to silo mentality in some organisations where the focus is on individual or functional agendas. Using framing to remind teams of the overall purpose and refocus momentum back to a centre point is key. Just don’t compromise ethics or truth in doing so 

Start with the end in mind;

Think about what you want your message to do. How do you want people to feel as a result? What tone should you adopt? What’s the one thing you want them to remember and take away? 

Styling it out

Thinking about this last point, it’s clear that framing also relates to leadership style and more specifically the need to flex style depending on the situation. 

In a team event not long ago, we asked delegates to think about a recent leadership challenge they’d experienced and identify which leadership style was used and how successful it was; could adopting a different approach or style have led to a more positive outcome?  

As leaders we need to continue being cognisant of that and be able to dial up or dial down our ‘natural’ preferences in favour of what’s actually needed of us in the moment. We need to be able to frame and reframe our thinking, helping others to see what we see and inspire them enough to want to be part of the next chapter of the story, even if it’s not yet fully written.