Reframing Organizational Change

Leaders tend to act in different “frames” that reflect their personal styles and that focus on different aspects of any particular problem, suggest Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal, who have written widely about organizational change. Some are especially sensitive to the needs of people in the organization and gravitate toward human resources. Some see structure as the key to most problems and use analysis and design as a primary tool to solving them. Some are primarily political, advocating certain actions, negotiating, and building coalitions. And some are prophets or poets, using symbolism to inspire people and frame experiences.

When change puts stress on organizations, leaders might act in different ways depending on which of these frames they typically use. Ideally, the leader can combine different frames into a more comprehensive and powerful style-or can reach out to work in teams with people in the organization who possess complementary strengths.

Human Resource: Change causes people to feel incompetent, needy, and powerless. Developing new skills, creating opportunities for involvement, and providing psychological support are essential.

Structural: Change alters the clarity and stability of roles and relationships, creating confusion and chaos. This requires attention to realigning and renegotiating formal patterns and policies.

Political: Change generates conflicts and creates new winners and losers. Avoiding or smoothing over those issues drives conflict underground. Managing change effectively requires the creation of arenas where issues can be negotiated.

Symbolic: Change creates loss of meaning and purpose. People form attachments to symbols and symbolic activity. When the attachments are severed, they experience difficulty in letting go. Existential wounds require symbolic healing.

From Lee G. Bolman and Terrence Deal, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.