Reframing: an Essential Tool for the Workplace

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The words we choose determine how we are perceived and influence how we (and others) interpret day to day experiences. We’ve previously written about the importance of the words we choose in the work place and provided some communication tools designed to help in using words effectively. Today let’s take a closer look at a skill that can be used to help cultivate a positive response to challenges in the workplace.

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Reframing - Why You Need to Learn How

Reframing is not as simple as choosing to always “look on the bright side” (Note: video starts automatically). Meeting a challenge or news of adversity with a falsely optimistic statement is not the way to cultivate the trust of your employees. Imagine you’ve just received news that your team has a short period of time to complete a complicated task. Responding with a sarcastic “Good thing I like paperwork!” is not going to inspire your employees to work without resentment. It will engender a similar lack of genuine concern for the situation and a work ethic that reflects this— even if it did inject a bit of dark humor into the situation.

Using a slightly more constructive re-frame along the lines of “This is going to be challenging- I like a good challenge!” might seem a little text-book cheesy, but it can go a long way toward cultivating positive attitudes and work ethics.[1] More importantly, the person who sets the “frame” of a conversation or scenario controls the scope and influences the tone and eventual outcome of the situation. If you have the ability to re-frame potentially negative circumstances into constructive opportunities that allow employees to demonstrate their abilities … you also have the ability to inspire.

Context vs Content Reframing

Context reframing gives us the ability to see value in any situation, regardless of any perceived downside. Simply put, it means taking a negative experience and putting it into a context in which the same experience is of benefit.

Rudolph the reindeer’s shiny red nose is a seasonally appropriate example of contextual reframing. Initially Rudolph is ridiculed for being different. Then, when circumstances change to make this “different” feature about him incredibly useful (i.e. the fog rolls in), suddenly Rudolph is Santa’s most popular team member. Nothing about him has changed, just the context in which he was being viewed. As a result, perceptions of him are transformed. An expert re-framer can add value to any situation, keeping a team motivated in the face of challenge.

Content reframing refers to the act of changing the meaning of a message. So instead of throwing Rudolph’s shiny nose into the fog to make it useful, Santa could have intervened before the fog appeared and said “Rudolph’s nose isn’t shiny and weird. It glows magically, and that’s awesome!”

Perhaps an oversimplified example, but the gist of reframing the content is simply providing a different interpretation of the same information, changing its meaning in the process. Here are a few other examples:

  • Working overtime might be re-framed as “awesome productive time with no interruptions.”
  • Writer’s block becomes “a brief oasis of rest and recovery before nailing that report.”
  • And Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is transformed into “an opportunity to create box office success.”

Circumstance will dictate which version of reframing is most appropriate. Regular practice will make it easier to reframe and to identify whether context or content reframing makes the most sense. The first step is to commit to framing challenging experiences in a constructive light. When you do, you’ll set the tone for how workplace events are interpreted and how you are perceived as a leader.


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[1] Robert L. Sandidge & Anne C. Ward. Reframing (1999): Ch 11 - Quality Performance in Human Services

Why Don’t We Listen?

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In a text-message world where face-to-face is being replaced by tech-to-tech communication, we seldom have the chance to exercise our listening skills. Not that listening has ever been a strength for the majority. Most of us readily master the art of talking in our first 2-3 years on the planet. Listening, on the other hand—not so much. Listen by Marcus Quigmire, Wikimedia Commons According to the Writing Lab at Purdue University, there are a number of "types" who derail the listening process with a variety of counterproductive (if unintentional) habits. Maybe you’ve encountered these types or …

Mediating Workplace Conflict

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Managers, HR professionals, supervisors and team leaders have (at least) one thing in common: at some point in their careers, they’ll be asked to stand in the middle of a conflict and serve as de facto referee. When called upon to settle a conflict between two employees it’s important to have some tools at your disposal that can help you identify underlying issues, come to a workable solution and begin to restore co-worker trust. AHL Referee by Rick Dikeman, Wikimedia Commons Here is one such tool—a six-step process to help you mediate workplace conflict: …

10 Things You Should Never Do in a PowerPoint Presentation

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PowerPoint is still the most commonly used presentation software on the market. While interesting new entrants like Prezi are attracting some passionate followers, for over 20 years, most of us have turned to PowerPoint when we need to put together a slide deck. As an application, it allows you to do everything you need to do in creating an effective presentation. Unfortunately, it also comes with enough bells and whistles to lead you down the path to presentation hell. No doubt you’ve experienced some painful PowerPoint presentations in your time. If you want to be known as someone who …

Presentation Skills - Using the Tools of the Speakers Trade

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In spite of our increasingly digital world, the need for effective presentation skills has never been greater. Whether you’re conducting training online, creating in-house video content for your blog, or presenting the results of a project to your colleagues—strong presentation skills help. In his blog, 5 reasons you need great presentation skills, speaking coach, Mark Kyte, identifies these benefits you’ll realize by polishing your speaking skills: Orator by southtyrolean, Flickr Gain respect from colleagues Build your reputation within the industry Impress senior management Sell [more effectively] to your customers Gain confidence to stretch yourself …

Communication: Words Matter

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We use words every day: in conversation, when presenting to an audience or when we craft an important email. And the words we use matter. Much has been made of the fact that facial expressions, body language and tone of voice contribute greatly to the message we communicate. So much so, that we may forget the importance of the words themselves. Assuming that the intent of any communication, whether written or spoken, is to convey a message and connect in some way, the specific words we use can help or hinder. Use the Right Words One of the more common …

How to Keep Calm and Carry On at Work

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We’ve all seen the T-shirt "Keep Calm and Carry On." The phrase, created for a World War II-era British public safety poster, has been described as “quintessentially British” and has taken on a life of its own as a popular meme. Perhaps its popularity stems from a need for calm in the midst of constant change and information overload or maybe it just makes people think of Monty Python. Keep calm and carry on. Original poster from Barter Books, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Either way, it certainly serves as an appropriate slogan for anyone dealing with …

Managing Rumors and Gossip in the Workplace

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Rumors Grow, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Wherever people gather there will be conversation; sometimes (okay, often!), that conversation becomes gossip, which may blossom into rumor. Much like office politics, rumors and excessive gossip in the workplace create a drain on morale that managers and HR professionals must get a handle on. Damaging rumors can cause uneasiness, distrust between management and staff and infighting between colleagues or departments. Allowing negative rumors to run wild is not an acceptable option. The only thing to do with destructive gossip and malicious rumors is tackle them head on—bring issues out into the …

Office Politics: Five tips for Playing in the Mud without Getting Dirty

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Politics in the office is as unavoidable as traffic at rush hour or fireworks on Independence Day. Few people enjoy office politics but, being human, they get pulled into sticky situations in spite of best intentions. Even when inane or petty (i.e. almost always), office politics inject tension, discomfort and drama into the workplace; often leaving employees feeling like participants in some bizarre reality TV show. At worst, office politics are a drain on morale and highly damaging to company culture. Office Politics by David Crow, Flickr Can Office Politics be Avoided? Human nature will always result in differences …

Communicating Change

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Change by suez92, Flikr The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) defines change management as “the systematic approach and application of knowledge, tools and resources to deal with change. Change management means defining and adopting corporate strategies, structures, procedures and technologies to deal with changes in external conditions and the business environment.” [1] In an ideal world, significant organizational change is managed in this pro-active, organized way. More commonly, however, today’s companies are not systematically managing planned change as much as they’re rapidly responding and reacting to external pressures and emerging opportunities on an ad …

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