June 10, 2011
by: Kevin Sheehan
All those years ago, when I was spending halcyon days in business school, our professors would occasionally simulate important leadership situations, and ask members of the section to role-play how they would handle them. One bright spring morning in communications class, our instructor opened a case study about a company in crisis. It had released a product that was being recalled for especially egregious flaws.
The issue in the case was how to handle the press under pressure. The company’s future was on the line, with the CEO’s performance at a press conference that day being the critical moment. The fate of many employees and stakeholders depended on the leader managing the press conference. It was an exciting exercise to listen to the different styles and different framing strategies that my classmates used to work their way through the case.
I remember one colleague doing a particularly effective job. He role-played the CEO in the cross hairs. After his time in the spotlight, our professor, who specialized in business communications, asked him how he had managed the mock press event so well.
“I drew an imaginary circle around myself,” he said. “Everything inside the line I knew I would comment on in detail—everything outside the circle, I would recognize, but not delve into any real details. These were the issues I determined were outside our communications strategy and tangential to the important dimensions of the topic. I didn’t want to wander off into territory that might put the organization at risk.”
BecomeALeader has presented a series of articles about leadership mindsets that are critical to understand as you develop your capacities. The next step is to frame a situation and communicate it well; this is a powerful tool that can help you with your interactions with a variety of core constituents.
In her recent book The Power of Framing, Gail Fairhurst presents an important series of rules for how to manage and frame communications as a leader. “People know what they say,” she explains, “and they usually know why they say what they say. What they do not understand is what what they say does.”
It’s important, in other words, to understand not only the content of our communications, but also the powerful effect those communications have on the people with whom we work. Leaders’ communication styles fall into three basic categories, says Fairhurst: expressive, conventional, or strategic. Expressive leaders automatically say what’s on their mind. Conventionals say what they believe is proper. Strategic leaders understand that most communications have important meaning and impact, and approach them accordingly. Fairhurst’s six rules for framing your communications take these different styles into account.
Rule 1: Control the Context. Leaders often cannot control events, but they can control the context under which events are seen—provided they recognize the framing opportunity.
Rule 2: Define the context. At its most basic level, framing reality means defining “the situation here and now” in ways that connect with others.
Rule 3: Apply ethics. What people perceive to be reality is often subject to much disagreement. Framing a subject is an act of persuasion by leaders, one that is imbued with ethical choices.
Rule 4: Interpret uncertainty. It is the uncertainty, confusion, and undecidability of “the situation here and now” that opens it up for interpretation and provides an opportunity for the more verbally skilled among us to emerge as leaders.
Rule 5: Design the response. Ultimately, leadership is a design problem. Leaders must figure out what leadership is in the context of what they do and, through framing and actions, persuade themselves and other people that they are doing it.
Rule 6: Control spontaneity. Effective framing requires that leaders be able to control their own spontaneous communications.