Frame of Reference: A Leader’s Secret Weapon?
4, Issue 4 – October 2003
by Rayona Sharpnack, President of the Institute for Women’s Leadership
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 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
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
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
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
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?
This article was written by Rayona Sharpnack, president of the Institute
for Women’s Leadership. It will appear in the October issue of Apartment
Professional Magazine. Rayona can be reached at