A review of The Power of Framing

Development and Learning in Organizations

ISSN: 1477-7282

Article publication date: 28 June 2011



Bokeno, R.M. (2011), "A review of The Power of Framing", Development and Learning in Organizations, Vol. 25 No. 4. https://doi.org/10.1108/dlo.2011.08125daa.002



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

A review of The Power of Framing

Article Type: Book review From: Development and Learning in Organizations, Volume 25, Issue 4

I opened this book anticipating a wealth of psychological trickery about how to get people to see things the way I want them to. I got that, sort of.

Gail Fairhurst’s book concerns the way in which leaders use discourse – language, speaking, words, linguistic symbols and devices – to help others see events and situations in an intended way. Hence “frame”: that which would focus all the intended things to see and ways to see them, and simultaneously keep out the unintended perceptions and interpretations. In general, this seems a handy skill set for leaders to possess, although neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) experts have been offering a therapeutic version of it for several decades.

But discourse is something we all participate in every day, and so a little more accessible to all of us. Broadly, the power of framing lies in constructing the reality you want other folks to accept and operate in. The ability to do that, in turn, depends upon the size of your linguistic tool kit.

The book fronts the skills necessary to do this, but one wonders if having digested Fairhurst’s previous The Art of Framing (1996) might have made these less ambiguous. The skill sets (and corresponding diagnostics and worksheets) are:

  • Understanding the rules of reality construction: control the context, define the situation, apply ethics, interpret uncertainty, design a response.

  • Understand that discourse is culture specific; thus frames are relevant to culturally specific discourse. For example, speaking to my traditional demographic of 18-23s in an undergraduate class today, I was explaining how the changing organizational landscape actually catered to their sense of “independence,” “technological savvy,” “entrepreneurial drive” and “desire to make a difference.” These are all linguistic cues directed toward a very specific system of thought particularly relevant to GenY employees.

  • Be aware of mental models. A mental model is how you see the world in the first place; it reflects your deepest values and assumptions. Consequently, it regulates how you register discourses. For example, I am a lot older than my traditional 18-23 undergrad demographic. I had to be conscious of my own Baby-Boomer values and assumptions and thus not use the terms, “unstructured,” “illiterate,” “specialness” and “sound-byte pc-ness ” instead of those above.

  • Be primed for spontaneity. The more attuned we become to work, world, self and others, the more able we are to enhance our mental models, making them more complex. And, the more complex and nuanced our mental models, the more able we are to be ready with the “right” thing to say to the right person in the right context with the right intended effect at the right time.

  • Emotional intelligence. Effective framing requires an understanding and practice of emotional intelligence. This helps to regulate emotional displays, as well as frame and re-frame unproductive emotions.

The Power of Framing is not necessarily a dense academic read, but I often found myself reading passages over and over wondering if I got the point or if there was more to it. Fairhurst does enhance everything above with some pretty substantial current examples and illustrations. But, a little unexplainably, I am still a little in the dark about how it works or how to do it. I mean, I sort of know from experience that a good frame for manipulating a four-year-old is “apple or banana?”, rather than “broccoli or cookies?” And, as my mental model for dealing with children has become more complex and nuanced over the years, I am now able to say, even enthymemically, “ You can have the car when the yard is raked up, or (you, know, not) […] ” If that is the sort of linguistic theory leaders need to learn, then maybe they should have children first?

Ok, I apologize for the caricature. But as one just familiar enough with a few of the classics in several fields to be dangerous with any of them, I am reminded – in a very big way – of Aristotle’s The Rhetoric. Aristotle talked a lot about how to say what to whom in what way, as well as about what kinds of demographics would be receptive to what kinds of messages and appeals. In fact, Aristotle defined rhetoric or communication as: “[…] discovering in any given case the available means of persuasion.”

Aristotle had a bunch to say about ethics as well. Frankly I do not remember if they dovetail with Fairhurst’s, but I do know I am a little troubled by the latter. Fairhurst’s “apply ethics” seems little more than a reminder to “hey let’s not manipulate people, you know, in bad ways for bad reasons.” Ok, I will try to keep that in mind while I construct their reality for them.

R. Michael BokenoProfessor of Organizational Communication at the Department of Organizational Communication, College of Business and Public Affairs, Murray State University, Murray, Kentucky, USA.


Fairhurst, G. (2011), The Power of Framing: Creating the Language of Leadership, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA

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