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Frame or be Framed!

pastaI am the eldest of six children in our family.  After our parents passed, we all have grown older and closer. At our annual reunions there is always a time, generally at the dinner table, when our conversation turns to memories of our youth, our parents, and our views of the world then and now.

We grew up in a small three bedroom house with one small bathroom.   With eight of us squeezed into this small house, we   lived in exceptionally close proximity but when it was story-telling time during our reunions it is as if we each grew up in a different house to different parents and with other siblings.  Memories are strange that way!

One topic that always comes up is the memory of our mom's food.  She was a great Italian cook and no matter how poor we were, we always had great and festive meals.  As most first and second generation Italians know food was and is a large part of the family bonding experience.  One  recent family food related experience  which nearly created a family rebellion had to do with the ingredients in  mom's pasta gravy.   I call it the saga of mom’s spaghetti sauce.

My youngest brother pursued a career as a chef and attained  some renown for himself.  He was asked to submit a  recipe for a cook book for some charitable cause he endorsed.  He chose to offer his recipe for  spaghetti sauce which he entitled  "Giuseppina’s Red Gravy". 

To his credit he e-mailed a copy to the rest of us.  His recollection was that mom put in pork ribs  to flavor the sauce.  I didn’t remember her using ribs but said nothing and was joined by another brother who sided with me and we observed a family controversy unfold from the outside.  My other brother who was known by the family for accuracy, getting things right, and being willing to speak up even when it was uncomfortable weighed in and said to the chef, “I'm sure you anticipated that one of your siblings would comment, and of course it would be me.  . . . By attributing the ribs (and other ingredients) to mom's recipe (you) do not do justice to the original or to mom.  Ribs???  Probably tastes great but....   I will say no more.”  He was soon joined by youngest sister who said “wait a minute” she never used ribs in her sauce.   The internet wires heated up as the e-mails flew around the family as we provided our recollections of mom’s spaghetti sauce which we all loved.  Finally, my oldest sister being the peace maker and supportive one said she “thought” mom put the meat into the sauce and recalled "gnawing on the bones".  

In the end, more likely to keep family harmony, my chef brother backed off his assertion about the ribs, said the recipe was inspired by his mother and submitted it to the cookbook. So harmony was secured. My oldest sister remained silent since she probably was recalling “gnawing” on chicken bones in mom's cacciatore. My accurate brother was satisfied knowing that he defended the integrity of mom’s cooking. But my youngest sister couldn’t resist a parting shot saying “. . . also you forgot the wet bread and egg in the meatballs.”   

What is the message here? Well for the family, it was we are family and if a relationship is important you integrate and remain open to other perceptions if you want to continue the relationship. Thankfully all involved did. But there was another message for the family.

At our last get together, we all shook our heads in agreement that while we all grew up in the same house and we all interacted with the same people and in close quarters, we each had slightly different recollections and perceptions of  many of the events that took place  in  that house and the interactions that took place between us. We all approached it from different mindsets. We saw and experienced a different reality.

The Leadership Lessons

There are several lessons here for leaders.  You either frame a situation or it frames you. Framing is the ability to shape meaning of a subject, to judge its character and significance (Fairhurst & Saar, 1996).  To create the frame is to emphasize a particular meaning.  My chef brother tried to associate with the original Italian roots of his recipe; referring to our mother by her Italian name in the title of the recipe - “Giuseppina’s Red Gravy. As leaders we need to sell images and manage meaning.  Framing is important in creating a shared direction, in problem-solving, impression management, and creating commitment, cohesion, and engagement. But the images we use must ring true to colleagues and followers.  

As leaders we select and emphasize pieces of information to socially construct a reality that may not be true. That is where my chef brother ran into a problem. .”  In trying to frame the recipe this way he created an image that was not true. When we share our frames with others we are trying to manage meaning.  The rest of the family was reluctant to frame our mother this way - we never used my mother’s Italian name – she was mom to us and Josephine to her friends.   Furthermore our collateral (prior) knowledge did not support the assertion. Mom, to most of us, didn’t use pork ribs to flavor the gravy. 

Frames are only effective when it relates to the ideas in our heads that we use to interpret the world outside (Checkland, 1990, p.18).  As Morgan (1986) and Bolman & Deal (1997) suggest these ideas are lens which decide what information is important and should be allowed to pass through while filtering out those ideas deemed less important as we try to bring our world into focus. These lenses enable leaders to see some things and not others.

A second leadership lesson can be drawn from chef brother’s acknowledgment at the end of the saga,” I tried to do the recipe the best I can remember and it taste exactly like hers but maybe I changed a few things.  I will advise the organization that it was a recipe inspired by my mother instead of from her . . . “  The skill he exhibited in coming to this conclusion is called reframing.   

The third leadership lesson is that framing and reframing is both a communication (persuasion) skill and a thinking skill. The ability to frame and reframe is the mark of an effective leader.

Framing is used to persuade, define an issue to represent your point of view. It is a useful skill in strategic doing, gaining commitment, cohesion, and engagement in an organization.  Framing is effective when it builds on underlying values, beliefs, and experiences. Reframing can also be used as a skill to persuade and change mindsets.  When my brother used the words “inspired by my mother,” he reframed a message so it was more persuasive

Reframing is also a powerful strategic thinking skill. Using reframing as a thinking skill enables leaders to skill to capture new information, to reveal, gain clarity by gathering and understanding information and events from the eyes of others until a clear picture emerges.  Since we all see the world through our own lenses, leaders must be able to consciously withhold evaluative judgment until the pattern of relationships are clear, or information has been verified are comfortable with the knowledge they have acquired.  It is a useful thinking skill to understand situations and people fully and incorporate these new understandings into their decisions, programs, and processes. 

When my chef brother was using his reframing thinking skills he came to understand that not everyone saw the creation of mom’s spaghetti sauce as he did. To his credit he acted on this new information by changing the working to “inspired by mom.” Not only was he a skilled reframer but he also exhibited creativity in his response.

When leaders use reframing as a thinking skill rather than a communication’s skill they are exhibiting the ability switch attention across multiple perspectives, frames, mental models,

and paradigms in order to generate new insights and options for actions. To do this well leaders need to learn to (a) suspend judgment while appropriate information is gathered (b) identify and understand mental models, paradigms, and frameworks be used to frame a problem, situation or an issue, (c) use different mental models , paradigms, and frameworks to understand situations, and (d) review and reform their own and other’s mental models (Pisapia, 2009).

Put on your thinking cap on for a moment. What other leadership lessons can you draw out of the saga of mom’s spaghetti sauce?
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