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Posted on January 12, 2018
Updated on September 3, 2020

What is Bolman and Deal's Four Frame Model of Leadership?

Lee Bolman and Terry Deal outlined their Four-Frame model in their book, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership (1991).

Bolman and Deal stated that leaders should look at and approach organizational issues from four perspectives, which they called 'Frames'.

In their view, if a leader works with only one habitual Frame (frame of reference), the leader risks being ineffective.


The Four Frames Outlined by Bolman and Deal

The Four Frames outlined by Bolman and Deal are:

  1. Structural
  2. Human Resource
  3. Political
  4. Symbolic

Here are descriptions of and differences between the Four Frames:

Structural

  • This Frame focuses on the obvious 'how' of change. 
  • It's mainly a task-orientated Frame. 
  • It concentrates on strategy; setting measurable goals; clarifying tasks, responsibilities and reporting lines; agreeing metrics and deadlines; and creating systems and procedures.

Human Resource

  • The HR Frame places more emphasis on people's needs. 
  • It chiefly focuses on giving employees the power and opportunity to perform their jobs well, while at the same time, addressing their needs for human contact, personal growth, and job satisfaction.

Political

  • The Political Frame addresses the problem of individuals and interest groups having sometimes conflicting (often hidden) agendas, especially at times when budgets are limited and the organisation has to make difficult choices. 
  • In this Frame you will see coalition-building, conflict resolution work, and power-base building to support the leader's initiatives.

Symbolic

  • The Symbolic Frame addresses people's needs for a sense of purpose and meaning in their work. 
  • It focuses on inspiring people by making the organisation's direction feel significant and distinctive. 
  • It includes creating a motivating vision, and recognising superb performance through company celebrations.


Implications of the Four Frame Model

Bolman and Deal proposed that a leader should see the organisation's challenges through these four Frames or 'lenses', to gain an overall view, and to decide which Frame or Frames to use.

  • The leader may use one Frame (implying a behavioural approach) for a time, and then switch to another. Or instead, the leader might combine and use a number of Frames, or all four, at the same time.

A crucial aspect of Bolman and Deal's model seeks to avoid the temptation for leaders to become stuck, viewing and acting on conditions through one lens or Frame alone.

  • Bolman and Deal assert that because no Frame works well in every circumstance, then a leader who sticks with one Frame is bound eventually to act inappropriately and ineffectively.
  • Instead, it is the leader's responsibility to use the appropriate Frame of reference, and thereby behaviour, for each challenge.
  • Central to this methodology is asking the right questions and diagnosing the vital issues.


Examples

  1. Where a leader ascertains that the biggest problem in a group is lack of motivation and commitment, the leader should probably adopt a Symbolic and/or Human Resource (Frame) approach.
  2. If the main group challenge is instead confusion around priorities and responsibilities, then the leader will probably be more successful adopting Structural and Political (Frames) orientation.
  3. If the group is experiencing uncertainty and anxiety about direction , then Symbolic and Political (Frames) leadership behaviours are more likely to produce effective results.

Essentially, the leader should adopt a multi-Frame perspective before choosing how to act.

Organisations tend naturally to use the Structural Frame but pay less attention to the other three Frames.

According to Four-Frame theory, this is due either to:

  • Lack of awareness of the need for multi-Frame thinking and behaviour or
  • Behavioural rigidity due to unconscious limiting beliefs (controlling the leader's perceived priorities or capabilities).

Acknowledgements

James Scouller Biography

We are grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution in producing this leadership guide.

James Scouller is an expert coach and partner at The Scouller Partnership in the UK, which specialises in coaching leaders. He was chief executive of three international companies for eleven years before becoming a professional coach in 2004. He holds two postgraduate coaching qualifications and training in applied psychology at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London.

James Scouller's book is called "The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Know-how and Skill" which was published in May 2011.