Identifying Your Work Style

There’s an old saying that to a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Working from my personal frame of reference, I may continue to tackle challenges in the same way every time, not recognizing that someone with a different orientation or style could approach things very differently.

There's an old saying that to a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Working from my personal frame of reference, I may continue to tackle challenges in the same way every time, not recognizing that someone with a different orientation or style could approach things very differently.

More Tools Than Just a Hammer

Appreciating your own (and others’) work style can be a vital part of effective team building—in other words, having more tools in the kit than just a hammer. There are many avenues to exploring this question, such as the well-known and valuable Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. A less well-known perspective, which I have also found useful, is the idea of frames developed by Bolman and Deal[1]. Not an inventory, really, but a perspective that is readily understandable and immediately useful.

The authors identify 4 common frames: Structural, Human Resources, Political and Symbolic. Considering your own frame and those of the people you work with can go a long way to promoting greater mutual understanding and improved collaboration.

Understanding Frames, Understanding Our Colleagues

Very briefly, the frames are summarized below.

Structural Frame

  • Emphasizes rationality, analysis, logic, facts and data
  • Likely to believe strongly in the importance of clear structure and well-developed management systems
  • Values thinking clearly, making good decisions, having good analytic skills, and designing structures and systems that get the job done

When you think of the structural frame, think of Mr. Spock from the original Star Trek.

Human Resource Frame

  • Emphasizes the importance of people and developing coaching, participation, motivation and teamwork
  • Values facilitation, participation and empowering others

Captain Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation is a great—if fictional—embodiment of this frame.

Political Frame

  • Emphasizes mobilizing the resources needed to advocate and fight for the unit's, or the organization's, goals and objectives
  • Highlights advocacy, negotiation, skill in conflict resolution and building a power base: allies, networks, coalitions

I always think of Bill Clinton and Karl Rove (how’s that for a pair!) as exemplars of this approach.

Symbolic Frame

  • Emphasizes vision and inspiration, with a reliance on personal charisma and a flair for drama to get people excited and committed to the organizational mission
  • Can be prophets and visionaries, who use symbols, tell stories and frame experiences in ways that give people hope and meaning

Oprah Winfrey is a powerful visionary who influences millions.

Recognize Your Own Strengths and Challenges

Of course many of us have skills from more than one frame. And that gets at the point of considering this perspective. The 4 frames approach encourages accurately recognizing one’s own strengths and challenges. It also encourages building competence in areas where one is weaker through professional development—or by developing partnerships with others who have complementary skills and perspectives.

I once led a retreat using the 4 frames with a large social service organization. Through the use of a simple inventory, it became clear that only one person in a room of 60 or so identified with the political frame. This was a huge lightbulb for her and everyone else, and a dramatic demonstration of why she felt somewhat disconnected from the group. We further discussed the value of having someone with political skills (e.g., strategic thinking, coalition-building, skill with conflict, etc.) on the team.

Valuing What Each Member Brings to Our Team

Many in the nonprofit world devalue the political and structural frames, and instead embody the visionary or human resources frames. Certainly,  the skills needed to envision the future, inspire others, coach, and build teams and cohesion are central to the work of nonprofits. Equally critical to the health and development of any nonprofit organization are skills in managing complex organizations, detailing the finances, building political support and coping with conflict.

A Few Implications for Action

What does understanding frames tell us about building effective, high functioning teams? 

  • Review the distribution of strengths, skills and diversity on a team to ensure multiple perspectives and approaches. Instead of encouraging diversity, many people prefer to work with someone like themselves, including someone who emphasizes a similar frame.
  • Increase influence by talking in terms people coming from other frames can appreciate. For example, we may typically emphasize the human resources frame, but can we also indicate how what we are proposing is important from the structural point of view?
  • Improve negotiation and conflict resolution through discussing how parties view problems differently, identifying what their underlying interests are, and developing common expectations for negotiating differences.

Who’s on Your Team?

Whether you use the frames approach, Myers-Briggs, another tool, or simply go around and ask everyone to identify and share their work preferences, getting to know who is on the team is a valuable exercise. Such a discussion is usually enlightening as people develop greater self-awareness and more understanding of their team members. And this can lead to asking who else should be on the team to round out the team’s skills and perspectives.

[1] Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, 3rd ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2003). 


As part of the expansion of TSNE’s small nonprofit consulting practice, Bob Greene was hired in 2009 as a senior consultant. In this month's column, he writes about work styles and team-building, a topic key to his specialty of organizational development and other areas in which TSNE provides consulting services.

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