Frame of Reference: A Leader’s Secret Weapon?by Rayona Sharpnack
The single most important skill for you, as a leader, is to see your constituents’ underlying frame of reference and change it to fit better with your organization’s vision. A new frame of reference can be the key to a wide range of organizational challenges including improved performance management, by offering a way to help employees adapt to change, solve problems creatively, and communicate effectively. But before you go about changing others, let’s work on changing your own!
Your mental frame of reference about a given topic is what you automatically bring to every conversation. It is what you walk in the door with. It is made up of your default beliefs in the moment, not your chosen beliefs about the subject. It is usually something you have inherited, not something you have consciously developed for yourself. The result of walking in the door with a pre-established frame of reference for a given area is that you have an automatic reaction when the subject comes up; you don’t have the option of making your response a conscious choice.
Often that frame doesn’t leave room for new behavior because it’s cluttered with perceptions inherited from family, society, friends and other outside influence. When people — parents, friends, or mates — tell you what you can and cannot do, they are speaking from their frame of reference. That’s their perception. It doesn’t have to be yours. Remembering this can be tricky because the moment a perception is spoken aloud as if it were fact, we somehow give it credence.
A critical step in your development as a leader, and in your ability to manage your own performance as well as develop others, is to create a frame of reference that allows for new behaviors and actions. To detect whether your and others’ frame of reference clears the way for choices, involves a skill called ‘unconcealing.’
Unconcealing answers the question: What is shaping or limiting who I am, what I do, how I learn? More importantly, it is a choice to achieve new purpose, a new self-consciousness, so to speak, about how and why you are being in any given situation. Sometimes we fall into automatic responses because we don’t see what beliefs or patterns trigger that reaction. We can choose a different reaction once that pattern is unconcealed.
Many philosophers and linguists suggest unconcealing as a way to get at the truth of things. Unconcealing a pattern can reveal objective reality (fact) rather than subjective reality (perception). The pattern or context, once noticed, answers the all-important question of why you are engaged in something, be that related to work, family or any other aspect of your life.
Choosing your frame of reference combines awareness of your perceptions and seeing how they determine your behavior or actions.
Creating a frame of reference can be rife with dilemma. You can’t divorce what you know from how you want to be, yet what you know can slow you down. Sometimes, our frame is limited because we tilted the telescope to the dirt on the ground instead of the blue sky above. Essentially, we focus too much on too many details, or are guided so much by what we think we know, rather than how we want to be.
That’s natural, and problematic. We build our knowledge through the perception and absorption of reality. That knowledge (the content) sometimes clouds our ability to see reality, or our prevailing frame of reference. And yet to gain a different context, we have to choose to create it, which sometimes relies on our knowledge.
The issue of dealing with reality will challenge any good leader on any day. The problem begins with trying to discern if you are dealing with objective reality (assuming there is one) or subjective reality, which is unique to each of 6.2 billion people on Earth. One practice for questioning the accuracy of objective reality is to use a microscope and examine an ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill plant cell.
Better yet, have four people with four microscopes, each viewing the same plant cell on a slide. Viewer No. 1 is looking through a lens that magnifies objects 5 times. Viewer No. 2’s microscope has a 10x magnification. Viewer No. 3 has a 25x lens. Viewer No. 4 is looking through an electron microscope at 100x magnification. Next, ask them to describe in as much detail as possible what they are seeing.
Each person’s ‘facts’ or reality about her plant cell differ depending upon the magnification of their microscope lens. If the group doesn’t realize that each one’s lens tells a different story, this highly intelligent, committed group of people could easily dissolve into an argument about who is right.
Perception (which includes seeing and listening) for leaders who are aware of their frame of reference, isn’t about ‘getting it right’. Rather perception is about taking something out of hiding, or revealing the lens of perception and the context in which something happens. It requires you to understand something as it exists – understand the system and what it’s designed to produce, not just what we think it ought to produce or thought it would have produced.
Of course, the search for truth is colored by our perception – which can hinder us or free us. It’s why speech or language doesn’t end with the speaker but with the listener, the perceiver and receiver of what’s happening. We can hear something as an event, or as a pattern. The more generously we listen, the more clarity we can achieve.
Danger and/or opportunity reside in your ability to frame context. Creating a new mindset allows you to consider new possibilities – until those are the only possibilities you consider. Essentially, theories and frameworks that allow our thinking to advance can also become so limiting that they can’t accommodate new facts and knowledge. That’s when we have to discard old contexts and “trade up” to create new ones.
Just because a frame of reference commands unanimous acclaim does not necessarily make it factual or useful. Think about our ancestors observing the reality of the sun circling the Earth. Every day from every place on Earth people view the sun coming up in the East, traveling overhead, and descending into the horizon of the West. Most people on Earth believed that the sun revolved around the Earth. Books were written, scientific models were derived, and religious scriptures validated this “reality.” And then along came Copernicus and Galileo and wrecked the whole story. ‘Objective reality’ doesn’t count for much!
You see, one’s frame of reference (mindset, context, paradigm) shapes everything we see and do. As a matter of fact we seek confirming evidence for that which we know is ‘true.’ Look for a topic where you have concluded that something is real, immutable, and factual. You may even have lots of people supporting you so you ’know‘ it is reality. Look again. Reality may be only a conclusion that you have adopted along the journey of life.
The challenge of unconcealing or searching for truth in one area is that something else becomes more hidden. Designers and artists encounter these same challenges and opportunities of unconcealing when designing products and spaces. Each change allows for or ‘unconceals’ a new possibility while concealing another. It’s partly why a ‘product improvement’ sometimes frustrates us or sometimes makes our life 100% easier.
The narrowness or expansiveness of a leader’s frame of reference will affect all the people on their team and their ability to be an effectively manage performance. If your frame is too small, it will limit the scope of your people’s dreams and your company’s achievements. It will put a lid on the creativity, energy, enthusiasm –the fire–of your team. If the frame is wider, it can inspire you and your team to stretch your thinking to create something new.
The key to expanding your frame of reference is the choice to do so. Depending on your approach, uncovering your limiting beliefs can either be shameful or joyful. This reaction is also a choice. When you suddenly see the metaphorical puppet master who has been pulling your strings in a certain situation or relationship, you can choose to feel like a spineless victim of cultural conditioning –or you can brush those strings away like cobwebs and step out onto the stage of your life, excited at the possibilities of how far you can go now that you are free.
This article is intended to give you a choice. You can keep your prevailing frame of reference or you can trade up for one that gives you more freedom and power. After you practice this on yourself you can practice it with the people you lead.
Exercise – Do this now!
Take a moment to reflect on what you’ve just read. Jot down what you’re starting to notice or become curious about. What’s stirring within you? Where are you seeing relevance to your current situation?
What is your ‘ah-ha?’ What frame of reference could you expand to create more opportunity for you and your team, organization or community?