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The confusion that can result when people view the world through different lenses is illustrated in this classic case:
Doctor Fights Order to Quit Maine Island
Dr. Gregory O’Keefe found himself the focus of a !erce battle between 1,200 year-round residents of Vinalhaven, Maine (an island !shing community), and the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), which paid his salary and insisted he take a promotion to an administrator’s desk in Rockville, Maryland. He didn’t want to go, and his patients felt the same way. The islanders were so distressed they lobbied Senator William Cohen (R-Maine) to keep him there:
It’s certainly not the prestige or glamour of the job that is holding O’Keefe, who drives the town’s only ambulance and, as often as twice a week, takes critically ill patients to mainland hospitals via an emergency ferry run or a Coast Guard cutter, private plane, or even a lobster boat.
Apparently unyielding in their insistence that O’Keefe accept the promotion or resign, NHSC of!cials seemed startled last week by the spate of protests from angry islanders, which prompted nationwide media attention and inquiries from the Maine congressional delegation. NHSC says it probably would not replace O’Keefe on the island, which, in the agency’s view, is now able to support a private medical practice.
Cohen described himself as “frustrated by the lack of responsiveness of lower-level bureaucrats.” But to the NHSC, O’Keefe is a foot soldier in a military organization of more than 1,600 physicians assigned to isolated, medically needy communities. And he’s had the audacity to question the orders of a superior of!cer.
“It’s like a soldier who wanted to stay at Ft. Myers and jumped on TV and called the defense secretary a rat for wanting him to move,” Shirley Barth, press of!cer for the federal Public Health Service, said in a telephone interview Thursday (Goodman, 1983, p. 1).
The NHSC of!cials had trouble seeing beyond the structural frame; they had a job to do and a structure for getting it done. O’Keefe’s resistance was illegitimate. O’Keefe saw the situation in human resource terms. He felt the work he was doing was meaningful and satisfying, and the islanders needed him. For Senator Cohen, it was a political issue; could minor bureaucrats be allowed to harm his constituents through mindless abuse of power? For the hardy residents of Vinalhaven, O’Keefe was a heroic !gure of mythic proportions: “If he gets one night’s sleep out of 20, he’s lucky, but he’s always up there smiling and working.” The islanders were full of stories about O’Keefe’s humility, skill, humaneness, dedication, wit, con!dence, and caring.
With so many people peering through different !lters, confusion, and con”ict were predictable. The inability of NHSC of!cials to understand and acknowledge the existence of other perspectives illustrates the risks of clinging to a single view of a situation. Whenever someone’s actions seem to make no sense, it is worth asking whether you and they are seeing contrasting realities. You know better what you’re up against when you understand their perspective, even if you’re sure they’re wrong. Their mind-set—not yours—determines how they act.
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MATCHING FRAMES TO SITUATIONS In a given situation, one lens may be more helpful than others. At a strategic crossroads, a rational process focused on gathering and analyzing information may be exactly what is needed. At other times, developing commitment or building a power base may be more critical. In times of great stress, decision processes may become a form of ritual that brings comfort and support. Choosing a frame to size things up or understanding others’ perspectives involves a combination of analysis, intuition, and artistry. Exhibit 15.2 poses questions to facilitate analysis and stimulate intuition. It also suggests conditions under which each way of thinking is most likely to be effective.
• Are commitment and motivation essential to success? The human resource and symbolic approaches need to be considered whenever issues of individual dedication, energy, and skill are vital to success. A new curriculum launched by a school district will fail without teacher support. Support might be strengthened by human resource approaches, such as participation and self-managing teams or through symbolic approaches linking the innovation to values and symbols teachers cherish.
Exhibit 15.2. Choosing a Frame.
Question If Yes: If No:
Are individual commitment and� Human� Structural motivation essential to success?� resource�
Is the technical quality of the decision� Structural� Human resource important?� Political
Are there high levels of ambiguity and� Political� Structural uncertainty?� Symbolic� Human resource
Are con!ict and scarce resources signi”cant?� Political� Structural Symbolic� Human resource
Are you working from the bottom up?� Political� Structural Symbolic� Human resource
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• Is the technical quality important?When a good decision needs to be technically sound, the structural frame’s emphasis on data and logic is essential. But if a decision must be acceptable to major constituents, then human resource, political, or symbolic issues loom larger. Could the technical quality of a decision ever be unimportant? A college found itself embroiled in a three-month battle over the choice of a commencement speaker. The faculty pushed for a great scholar, the students for a movie star. The president was more than willing to invite anyone acceptable to both groups; she saw no technical criterion for judging that one choice was better than the other.
• Are ambiguity and uncertainty high? If goals are clear, technology well understood, and behavior reasonably predictable, the structural and human resource approaches are likely to apply. As ambiguity increases, the political and symbolic perspectives become more relevant. The political frame expects that the pursuit of self-interest will often produce confused and chaotic contests that require political intervention. The symbolic lens sees symbols as a way of !nding order, meaning, and “truth” in situations too complex, uncertain, or mysterious for rational or political analysis.
• Are con!ict and scarce resources signi”cant? Human resource logic !ts best in situations favoring collaboration—as in pro!table, growing !rms or highly uni!ed schools. But when con”ict is high and resources are scarce, dynamics of con”ict, power, and self- interest regularly come to the fore. In situations like a bidding war or an election campaign, sophisticated political strategies are vital to success. In other cases, skilled leaders may !nd that an overarching symbol helps potential adversaries transcend their differences and work together.
In 1994, after decades of increasing turmoil, the Republic of South Africa !nally ended its systemofwhite rule and held a national election inwhich the blackmajority could vote for the !rst time. The AfricanNational Congress and its leader, NelsonMandela, came to power with more than 60 percent of the vote, but it was a sudden and wrenching adjustment for many South Africans. Historic tensions plagued the new government, and there was a serious threat of violence and guerilla warfare from armed and dangerous white bitter-enders.
Looking for a way to build unity, Mandela alighted on an unlikely vehicle: rugby. White South Africans loved the sport and the national team, the Springboks. Black South Africans hated rugby and routinely cheered for the Springboks’ opponents. Mandela lobbied to bring the rugby world cup tournament to South Africa, and he charmed the Springbok captain in order to enlist him as a champion of a united nation. Mandela then undertook the even harder task of persuading black South Africans to
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support a team they hated. He was initially booed by distressed supporters, but his credibility, persuasive skills, and a mantra of “one team, one nation” eventually persuaded most of his followers to get on board. Then something magical happened. No one expected the Springboks to go very far in the tournament, but they kept winning until they reached the !nals.
Mandela’s coup de grâce, the !nal submission of white South Africa to his charms, came minutes before the !nal itself when the old terrorist-in-chief went onto the pitch to shake hands with the players dressed in the colors of the ancient enemy, the green Springbok shirt.
For a moment, Ellis Park Stadium, 95 per cent white on the day, stood in dumb, disbelieving silence. Then someone took up a cry that others followed, ending in a thundering roar: “Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son!”
. . . With Mandela playing as an invisible 16th man, Joel Stransky, the one Jewish player in the Springbok team, kicked the winning drop goal in extra time.
Mandela emerged again, still in his green jersey, and, to even louder cries of “Nel-son! Nel-son!,” walked onto the pitch to shake the hand of [Springbok captain] François Pienaar.
As he prepared to hand over the cup to his captain, he said: “François, thank you for what you have done for our country.” Pienaar, with extraordinary presence of mind, replied: “No, Mr President. Thank you for what you have done” (Carlin, 2007. Reprinted with permission).
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. There wasn’t a dry eye in the country. Everybody celebrated: one country at last.
• Are you working from the bottom up? Restructuring is an option primarily for those in a position of authority. Human resource approaches to improvement—such as training, job enrichment, and participation—usually need support from the top to be successful. The political frame, in contrast, is more likely to work for changes initiated from below. Change agents lower in the pecking order rarely can rely on formal clout, so they have to !nd other bases of power, such as symbolic acts, to draw attention to their cause and embarrass opponents. The 9/11 terrorists could have picked from an almost unlimited array of targets, but theWorld Trade Towers and the Pentagon were deliberately selected for their symbolic value.
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The questions in Exhibit 15.2 cannot be followedmechanically. They won’t substitute for judgment and intuition in deciding how to size up or respond to a situation. But they can guide and augment the process of choosing a promising course of action. Finding a workable strategy is a matter of playing probabilities. In some cases, your line of thinking might lead you to a familiar frame. But if the tried-and-true approach seems likely to fall short, reframe again. Youmay discover an exciting and creative new lens for deciphering the situation. Then you can take on the challenge of communicating your breakthrough to others who still champion the old reality.
EFFECTIVE MANAGERS AND ORGANIZATIONS Does the ability to use multiple frames actually help managers decipher events and determine alternative ways to respond? If so, how are the frames embedded and integrated in everyday situations? We examine several strands of research to answer these questions. First, we look at four in”uential guides to organizational excellence: In Search of Excellence (Peters and Waterman, 1982), Built to Last (Collins and Porras, 1994), Good to Great (Collins, 2001), and Great by Choice (Collins and Hansen, 2011). We then review three studies of managerial work: The General Managers (Kotter, 1982), Managing Public Policy (Lynn, 1987), and Real Managers (Luthans, Yodgetts, and Rosenkrantz, 1988). Finally, we look at studies of managers’ frame orientations to see whether current thinking is equal to present-day challenges.
Organizational Excellence Peters and Waterman’s best-seller In Search of Excellence (1982) explored the question, “What do high-performing corporations have in common?” Peters and Waterman studied more than 60 large companies in six major industries: high technology (Digital Equipment and IBM, for example), consumer products (Kodak, Procter & Gamble), manufacturing (3M, Caterpillar), service (McDonald’s, Delta Airlines), project management (Boeing, Bechtel), and natural resources (Exxon, DuPont). The companies were chosen on the basis of both objective performance indicators (such as long-term growth and pro!tability) and the judgment of knowledgeable observers.