Organizational Frames

Leaders seek to affect change; they identify those parts of the organization that must become more efficient or more effective. Efficient operation means outcomes and goals are met more quickly by consuming fewer resources. More effective operation means the outcomes are more closely aligned with the intended outcomes.

Leaders also seek to affect transformation change. This means the outcomes or goals are different. Christensen (1997) observes transformation change is often disruptive as the organization must change in a fundamental way, and the tools and methods that were efficient and effective for the previous goals are no longer.

Both leaders and followers will confirm the degree to which change is affected varies according to many variables, and it is very difficult to transfer innovations form one environment to another. Those leaders who are more successful than others seek frameworks to organize the change in their own minds, to focus and refine efforts to affect change, and to help them understand resistance. Bolman and Deal (2008) have developed four organizational frames in their book (entitled Organizational Frames) which has been through several editions.

  • Structural frame includes the tools and methods through which organizations operate. Those parts of the organization within the structure frame are refined to make the organization more efficient or more effective. When transformation change in undertaken, these are often replaced. The structural frame is important for leader to understand as it represents the actions and interactions members of the organization experience on a daily basis.
  • Human resource frame includes those aspects of the organization represented by the individuals who belong within the organization. How the structural frame changes affect how individuals fit into the organization, and leaders must take actions to ensure the human resources are aligned with the goals of the organization. Strong leaders develop the human resources frame to foster this alignment.
  • Political frame includes those aspects of the organization that persuade decision-makers as well as the power to make decisions. While much political influence arises from one’s position within the organization, there are other influences. Especially in the technology-rich landscape in which organizations operate, IT expertise or other specific expertise necessary for emerging pats of the structural frame can increase one’s political powers. Effective leaders are often the individuals who can form coalitions of individuals who have complementary skills and knowledge.
  • Symbolic frame comprises a complex set of beliefs and values about the organization. BY answering the question, “What does it mean to be a part of this organization?” one can get a sense of the symbolic frame. In many ways, the symbolic frame is as much a reflection of the individual as it is a reflection of the organization. If I find that identifying with an organization symbolizes something unacceptable to me, then I am unlikely to continue to be part of the organization.

As leaders, we believe there is agreement between what we perceive to be “the right” direction to our organization in each one of these frames. That is not always true. Dismissing those who disagree with us is the lazy way to approach the work of change; it is also short-sighted and more likely to lead to our failure.

Resistance is often grounded in lack of clarity. By clarifying goals and actions within these frames, leaders can frame their work and their leadership, this be more likely to succeed.


Bolman, L, & Deal, T. (2008). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.

Christensen, C. M. (1997). The innovator’s dilemma. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.