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Message framing is essential for strong leadership communication impact

17 Oct, 2020 Leadership and managerial communication, Messaging

[Framing of concepts is vital to successful leadership communication. Frames provide people with a quick and easy way to process information. They are cognitive shortcuts we use to help make sense of complex information, enabling us to interpret the world around us and represent that world to others. Through framing, complex phenomena can be organized into coherent, understandable categories. The most striking examples of modern-day framing were the different viewpoints expressed by Donald Trump and Joe Biden about the same issues during their televised debates in 2020.

Dr Leandro Herrero is an internationally recognized speaker, author and change management consultant with a penetrating understanding of organizational issues. He writes a short Daily Thoughts blog about these issues. This article comprises three daily blogs Dr Herrero has written about the importance of leadership framing. Especially relevant are his comments on ‘Intention and outcome – framing the use of data or insights,’ below. Lightly edited and converted to US English for readers – Kim]

Dr Herrero:

I put framing at the top of the list on ‘leadership tasks’. One of those non-rocket sciences around us that we refuse to pay attention to. Yes, I think we in business organizations completely underestimate the power of (mental and behavioral) framing to trigger and sustain behaviors, emotions, ways of doing etc.

For me there are three aspects of framing that are very simple, and perhaps because of this, we take them for granted, or simply dismiss them. These are my three:

  1. Framing of behaviors so that they can be copied and scaled up.
  2. Framing of the overall narrative of the organization.
  3. Framing of the use of data or insights.

Let’s start with the simplest components in the behavioral side. On the behavioral side there is plenty of repeated experimental data showing, for example, how being helped (eg to fix a computer problem) increases the level of collaboration by those people with the people who have helped them. Collaboration for completely new, different goals. So far you may think, big deal. But here is the trick. The group that has been helped will then increase their collaboration with any other group afterwards, no matter what the subject of collaboration is, versus a controlled group that has not been helped. ‘Helping’ is copied and spreads. It frames the future.

Lots of studies as well on the difference between people in a group that receive a clear ‘thanks’, versus a control group that receive a neutral acknowledgement. Similarly, the thanked group behaves differently afterwards on a number of parameters that are not directly connected with the previous reason for the thanks.

Studies on altruism in neighborhoods shows similar patterns. Somebody starts, others copy, a critical mass is created, many other houses in the neighborhood do the same. It becomes normal. No manual is required on how to be altruistic. No team, no committee.

The corollary is: start your mini-mini-behavioral revolution somewhere and persistently focus on a couple of very granular [specific, separate, readily identifiable] behaviors. You don’t have to explain much. Just do it.  The more you explain why, the less power. Make it the norm. One-off shows don’t work. You will be framing the conversation and seeding behaviors that may even seem small or trivial. If you get used to the technique, you’ll see the benefits grow.

It’s not a particular behavior because it’s good in itself (I am sure it is) but because you are framing what comes next.

Frame the overall narrative of the organization

In business organizations, we completely underestimate the power of (mental and behavioral) framing to trigger and sustain behaviors, emotions, ways of doing etc.

What about framing of the overall narrative of the organization? Well, here are some frames:

  • Enhance shareholder value
  • Solve health problems
  • Improve quality of life
  • Transform the way medicine works
  • Enhance life
  • Provide innovative medicines
  • Discover new treatments
  • Make drug treatment affordable
  • Save lives

I have deliberately taken an example of a pharmaceutical company to make the point that:

  1. All of the above are theoretically compatible.
  2. But the frames are different, what you do is different, your priorities are different, the people you attract are different. All the frames are like roads taking you to different places.

It’s not a simple question of ‘language’. It’s a view of the world, a concept of the world; in fact, a ‘space in the world’ (my preferred frame) that is different. Use the excuse ‘it’s all the same’ at your peril. It’s not.

Using the same example of a pharma company, I personally would like to hear how many lives you save, how many people are treated, how many kids are vaccinated, for example, as opposed to, say, how many R&D plants you have and how many people worldwide you employ. But that is just me.

These frames are completely different: solving, creating, building, modifying, inventing, providing, reforming, reorganizing etc.  Choose your frame before the frame, by default, chooses you. Then you are stuck with it.

We treat narratives as aesthetic statements in their own right, not as triggers of behaviors. For me, ‘building’ always wins. I am genetically unable to get up in the morning to ‘reform’ or to ‘increase shareholder value’. Yet, these may be serious needs for many. I respect that. But don’t wake me up.

Intention and outcome – framing the use of data or insights

My third framing comment is about the purposeful use of data or insights. The mode I use is very simple. I have encapsulated it into a meme: ‘intention and outcome’.

Data is data. What you do with it, however, requires an intention (why you are saying what you are saying) and an outcome (what you are trying to trigger). Let’s say that 35% of employees do X:

  • ‘Only 35% of employees do X’ has one clear ‘intention and outcome’: we are not doing very well; we need to step up our efforts.
  • ‘35% of employees already do X’ means we are advancing, this is good news, would you not join that crowd?

In both cases the facts are the same: 35% of employees do X.

The strength of the ‘intention and outcome’ is even greater if you abandon the numbers in favor of:

  • ‘Just about a third of employees do X.’
  • ‘Already a third of employees do X.’

It’s astonishing how, by and large, corporate language ignores the true power of the nudging frame and uses ‘cold numbers’ leaving the receiver complete freedom in interpretation.

I don’t buy the usual charge of ‘manipulation’ that is occasionally attributed to my ‘intention and outcome’ model.  As business leader or social change agent, for example, I am not neutral. If I am in a hospital and want to boost the ‘wash your hands’ behavior, I do care about what the data is going to trigger.

If I started from a very low baseline of people doing it, ‘already a third of health care workers wash their hands’, intends to signal progress. Even better if it’s followed by, ‘Join them – we need to get to at least half by next month’.

If I started from a baseline of people dismissing the call to action or simply assuming (wrongly ) that this is common practice, ‘only a third of health care workers wash their hands’, means not really, it’s not the norm; we have a long way to go, don’t be complacent.

Along all those scenarios, the facts have not changed: 35%

From Internal/corporate communications to ‘change programs’ of some sort, framing exercising and testing should be mandatory. And, by the way, you can dress it up with a lot of elegant Cognitive Sciences theory behind it to sound scientific. Or you could just ask yourself ‘intention and outcome’ next to any statement.


Dr Herrero is the CEO and lead designer of products and services at The Chalfont Project Ltd, an international firm of organizational architects. He is also the Managing Partner of Viral Change Global LLP which specializes in the application of organizational change. Dr Herrero is a psychiatrist by background who, after medical practice and academia, spent many years in hands-on leadership positions in global companies. He is an international speaker on organizational challenges, he has received the Grand Davos Award in a World Communication Forum, and is an accomplished TEDx speaker.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from

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