What the %#$& is going on here?: Straight answers from the organizational behavior literature

Author: Johannes Traa

May 26, 2023

Table of contents

Motivation behind the model
The four frames
Structural frame
Human resource frame
Political frame
Symbolic frame
Implications for leadership
Great leadership is multi-frame
Great leadership is transformational
Leadership is everywhere
The four frames in technology innovation


The four-frame model of organizations was developed by Profs. Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal. This model provides multiple lenses through which to understand the inner workings of modern organizations: structural, human resource, political, and symbolic. It is a powerful framework that enables leaders to make more effective, intentional choices.

How I stumbled on it

In my quest to answer the titular question, I had the pleasure of taking a class called Organizational Behavior (MGMT 4000), taught by Prof. Bolman, in the Spring of 2023 at the Harvard Extension School. The course was filled with practical applications of the concepts: analyses of business case studies, team exercises, business simulations, and much sharing of impactful first-hand experiences.

Apart from the core spiritual experience of bonding with a group of accomplished professionals, the main take-away was the four-frame model itself. After the class ended, I vowed to write an article sharing the main ideas and their implications for leadership.

There is of course no substitute for reading the book (Bolman and Deal, 2021) or taking the class. But at the very least, this article can equip you with a high-level understanding of the framework.

Motivation behind the model

The book starts off making it clear that leadership and things like organizational learning (Argyris and Schön, 1978) are non-trivial. That’s because organizations are “complex, surprising, deceptive, and ambiguous” (Bolman and Deal, 2021, p. 35). We live in a VUCA1 world where leaders have to be comfortable making important decisions with limited information on short time horizons (Bennis and Nanus, 1985).

We tend to act on what we know in the moment to satisfy immediate needs, not anticipating longer-term consequences, nor reflecting on past causal processes. We are also subject to self-reinforcing cognitive biases. After all, believing is seeing.

When things go sideways, it is much easier to lay blame on personal agendas and incompetence than to expand our perspective to better understand why things happen as they do. What systemic issues are at play. How differences in individual and group interests induce tensions within the org that limit its effectiveness.

This general-purpose observation motivates the four-frame model, which is both accessible and insightful. It can be applied to entire organizations as well as functional groups and teams.

The four frames

Each frame can be succinctly captured by its name, the set of assumptions underpinning it, and a metaphor to help tell its story. Keep in mind that each one constitutes a different lens, with its own merits, through which to understand organizations. They are not in conflict with each other.

Structural frame

“A focused, cohesive structure is a fundamental underpinning for high-performing teams.”
   – Bolman and Deal, 2021, p. 111

The structural frame views organizations as factories that can be optimized. Leadership does this through specialization, division of labor, and strategies to adapt to changing market forces. The primary tool to address ineffectiveness is restructuring, but only when necessary. The expectation is that appropriate coordination and control, guided by rationality rather than personal agendas, will take the org where it needs to go.

This perspective has its roots in industrial psychology (Levy, 2019) and Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” (Taylor, 1997), where the key to productivity is the meticulous analysis of work functions. You observe people working, measure aspects of their work, and devise optimizations. This can be done at a high level for org-wide strategy, too, although it’s generally harder to diagnose issues and track the impact of changes.

Structural frame strategies mainly include managing vertical and horizontal coordination, and structuring the org in a particular way, e.g. around products, functions, or geography. The matrix structure is a famous example of organizational design where each functional unit answers to, say, one regional manager and one product line manager. As a company grows from a startup to a global corporation, its design will evolve to best suit its needs.

The book illustrates structural thinking nicely through a sports analogy. In baseball, there is very loose coordination. Each player can do their job largely independently. In football, plays depend on each team member sticking to their predefined roles to execute a plan. And in basketball, team members execute a fast-paced improvisatory dance that exhibits tight coupling. Different strategies for different environments.

The main criticism of this perspective is that it ignores the human element, running the risk of turning people into numbers. This is where the human resource frame comes in.

Human resource frame

“Organizations need people, and people need organizations, but their respective needs are not always well aligned.”
   – Bolman and Deal, 2021, p. 138

The HR frame sees organizations as families where the main goal is to drive productivity through satisfying individual and group needs. This follows from the human relations movement of the mid-1900s, which also spawned the field of applied research that is now called organizational psychology (Levy, 2019).

Conceptual tools in this frame include Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Alderfer’s Existence-Relatedness-Growth theory and Herzberg’s Two-Factor theory, to name a few. They all get at the same idea, which is that we have different categories of needs. Some are more basic like food and shelter (i.e. “hygienes”) while others take us a step further into community and growth (i.e. “motivators”).

The HR frame makes certain assumptions, the main one being that organizations and people fundamentally need each other. The org needs people to do the work and people need the org to sustain a living and build community. When the fit is bad, they might exploit each other or become victims, but when the fit is good, both flourish.

Chris Argyris argued that when the fit is bad, employees find ways to stay sane, which manifests in various ways. They withdraw through absenteeism or presenteeism (a.k.a. quiet quitting), they sabotage, scramble up the ladder to better jobs, form alliances like labor unions, or propagate a pessimistic view of work. This is all expected when employees’ needs go unmet.

How can an HR frame leader address unmet needs? By maintaining a consistent HR strategy, hiring the right people, keeping them, investing in and empowering them, and promoting diversity. Leaders can also reflect on their own views of employees.

Argyris and Schön described two “theories for action” (Argyris and Schön, 1974). The first, Model I, views organizations as inherently dangerous, cut-throat arenas. The second, Model II, advocates for finding common ground and communicating openly to test assumptions. Model II is clearly desirable, but it is complicated by the gap between people’s “espoused beliefs” and their “theories-in-use”. Leaders too often say one thing, do another, and then act as if they are consistent. I view this as readily explainable and discuss it in this article on corporate power hierarchies.

Political frame

“The question is not whether organizations will have politics but rather what kind of politics they will have.”
   – Bolman and Deal, 2021, p. 206

I have to say, the political frame is my favorite of the four. It is just so crucial for successful leadership and understanding why leaders behave the way they do. Ignore the political frame and you’ll get stuck like a grasshopper in molasses.

This perspective views organizations as jungles where coalitions with differing interests form to secure control over scarce resources. The conflict that subsequently arises requires that negotiation be at the center of any productive exchange. It’s a game of chess (or Age of Empires, if you were a gamer in the late 90s).

The political frame highlights the many forms of power that influence outcomes (French and Raven, 1959): position, control of rewards, coercion, expertise, and controlling the agenda, to name a few. Some enlightening research has been done on the usage and perceptions of power within organizations (Fairholm, 2009). It is difficult to study, though, presumably because leaders prefer to keep their tactics to themselves. After all, power flows through ambiguity and access to information.

There are a number of meaningful implications here. One is that goals are not really set from a high command, as it were, but instead evolve organically through bargaining amongst stakeholders. For this reason, being skilled in the use of power tactics makes all the difference.

There are four key political skills that emerge from the literature: agenda setting, mapping the political terrain, networking and building coalitions, and negotiation. And when it comes to judging morality in political action, Bolman and Deal (2021, p. 224) ask four questions:

1. Are all parties to a relationship operating under the same understanding of the rules of the game?
2. Does a specific action follow a principle of moral conduct applicable to comparable situations?
3. Are we willing to make our thinking and decisions public and confrontable?
4. Does this action show concern for the legitimate interests and concerns of others?

The political frame embodies a perspective that is both fascinating and cannot be overlooked. I think it’s important to see politics as inherently neutral, as a tool that can be used wisely and unwisely.

The following quote, although true in a sense and one of my favorites from the world of stand-up comedy, risks descending us into paralyzing cynicism.

“Everybody knows by now, all businessmen are completely full of s**t; just the worst kind of low-life, criminal, c**ksuckers you could ever wanna run into... And the proof of it is … they don't even trust each other. ... When a businessman sits down to negotiate a deal, the first thing he does is to automatically assume that the other guy is a complete lying prick who's trying to f**k him outta his money. So he's gotta do everything he can to f**k the other guy a little bit faster and a little bit harder. … That’s business.”
   – George Carlin, You’re All Diseased, 1999

Such a way to put it. It’s important to de-emphasize HR frame thinking when negotiating with a Carlinian businessman. But I digress.

Symbolic frame

“What is most important is not what happens but what it means.”
   – Bolman and Deal, 2021, p. 254

Last but certainly not least, the symbolic frame describes organizations as theaters where symbols and meanings run the show. These cultural artifacts arise as a way to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity. Everything is interpreted by the actors onstage and serves as a means to bond the group together.

While the structural frame tells us “what we do”, the symbolic frame speaks to “who we are”. Organizational symbols include myths (e.g. origin stories), values, heroes, rituals, metaphor, humor, and specialized language.

For example, annual performance evaluations are a ritual that supervisors may orchestrate largely to give the appearance of “developing our talent”. Similarly, many of us have had the experience of sitting in quarterly update meetings where it seems that even the speaker is bored of hearing themselves talk. It’s impressive how low the information-to-word-count ratio is. But sometimes the content is secondary to the act itself.

Symbolic frame leaders recognize the dramaturgical purpose of group meetings. The host exercises their authority over the proceedings. This reminds the group of who is in charge. The speaker then puts on a show that entertains audience members, who in turn engage in the ritual of coming up with clever questions to ask that bolster their reputation. Meetings also constitute an arena in which rivals can vie for dominance. So don’t knock the chest-beating. See it as an ad that can’t be skipped.

What does the symbolic frame have to say about successful groups? Many things, including that how someone becomes a member is important. That stories reinforce group identity. That humor and play reduce tension and encourage creativity. That ritual and ceremony reinforce values. That informal cultural gestures contribute in outsized ways.

With so many displays and rituals, it can be tempting to dismiss it all as hot air. However, symbolic gestures give an organization a valuable opportunity to restate its values. This in turn drives the org’s culture, uniting employees under a common banner (real or imagined). What better way to influence an organization than through its soul?

Implications for leadership

“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.”
   – Bolman and Deal, 2021, p. 318

Great leadership is multi-frame

The main take-away from all of this is that effective leaders combine all four frames to understand the complexities of their organizations. Not doing so is fraught with risk.

Some frames are more applicable to a given situation than others. It’s up to leaders to understand dilemmas from multiple perspectives in order to put together an effective plan. Studies (Kotter, 1982; Lynn, 1987; Luthans, Yodgetts, and Rosenkrantz, 1988) point to important facets across all four frames. Setting policies and communicating plans (structural), motivating, coordinating, and managing conflict (HR), allocating resources, gaining management’s buy-in, and networking (political), and setting a credible vision that brings meaning to the work (symbolic) all come into play.

The book makes an interesting observation when looking at the research on organizational and individual excellence. Organizations seem to thrive on symbols and culture, whereas middle managers get ahead primarily through political savvy.

Many well-intended new managers focus on structural and HR elements of their jobs, hoping that if they can just divvy up the work properly and keep their people happy, all will be well. Unfortunately, this isn’t good enough. Managers often underestimate how much political action is necessary for long-term success.

Great leadership is transformational

The research seems to suggest that the most effective leaders “help articulate a vision, set tough standards for performance, and create focus and direction” (Bolman and Deal, 2021, p. 358). When it comes to articulating a vision, this is often done through “the dramatic use of symbols”. Good leaders also “appear to care deeply about their work and the people who do it” and have “the ability to inspire trust and build relationships”. The best consensus for what makes a great leader appears to be around “vision, focus, passion, and trust”. All qualities associated with transformational leadership.

Leadership is everywhere

An important implication (of the political frame in particular) is that leadership is distributed rather than concentrated at the top. It is an activity, not a position, and so is distinct from management. This is reflected in Amazon’s “ownership” leadership principle, which states that leaders never say “that’s not my job” (Amazon, 2023). Leaders both shape and are shaped by their constituents, all within an organizational context. The rapidly growing body of research on Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory (Dansereau, Graen, and Haga, 1975) certainly attests to that.

The four frames in technology innovation

In my industry (tech innovation), underperforming management plays out in the following way. A new project spins up and it’s exciting for individual contributors to dig into. The project lead and program manager feel that they are off to a good start. Upbeat presentations and progress updates reflect that attitude. Some time passes, low-hanging fruit is exhausted, and challenges accumulate. This could take as little as 6 months or as much as 2 years depending on the technology.

At this point, it becomes clear that not nearly enough effort has been devoted to creating a path in the business ecosystem for the project to travel downstream towards productization. Customer-facing folks like field applications engineers (FAEs) don’t know how to sell the thing. Likewise, customers don’t understand why they would want it.

This is a dramatic example of the ecosystem problem discussed in Ron Adner’s book, The Wide Lens (Adner, 2013). The insight here is that if even one key player in a chain of production isn’t on board, the whole thing grinds to a halt. Take car tires, for instance. You need engineers to design them, others to build them, FAEs to establish sales channels, vendors to sell them, and customers to buy them. If anyone along the chain doesn’t see value in participating, no tires will make it into customer’s hands.

It isn’t even a question of whether everyone along the chain will individually turn a profit. There may be other gains in the form of getting out in front of a new customer, advertisement opportunities, getting a foot in the door with a car manufacturer, or the appearance of cutting-edge innovation that may bolster a company’s image.

There are many ways to create business value with external partners and that process deals primarily with the tools of the political and symbolic frames. Also, the degree to which a tech innovation group can align with its ecosystem is a measure of its maturity.

So now you know. “Build it and they will come” is an incomplete phrase. Instead, we should “build it and make sure that both you and they know ahead of time why they should come”. But that’s not as catchy.


I hope you enjoyed this deep dive on Bolman and Deal’s four-frame model of organizations! There is of course more to it than I am able to convey in a blog post, so read the book to get the complete picture.

You can also take the leadership orientations self-assessment to see how you score relative to the general population on each of the frames. This can help you see where your perspective is strong and where you can expand your thinking to be a more effective leader.


Adner, R. (2013). The Wide Lens: What Successful Innovators See That Others Miss. Portfolio, revised edition.

Amazon. (2023). Leadership Principles. https://www.amazon.jobs/content/en/our-workplace/leadership-principles

Argyris, C. and Schön, D. A. (1974). Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness. Jossey-Bass.

Argyris, C. and Schön, D. A. (1978). Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective. Addison-Wesley.

Bennis, W. G. and Nanus, B. (1985). Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge. Harper & Row

Bolman, L. G. and Deal, T. E. (2022). Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership (7th ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Dansereau, F., Graen, G., and Haga, W. J. (1975). A Vertical Dyad Linkage Approach to Leadership Within Formal Organizations. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 13, 46-78.

Fairholm, G. W. (2009). Organizational Power Politics: Tactics in Organizational Leadership (2nd ed.). Praeger.

French, J. R. P. and Raven, B. H. (1959). The Bases of Social Power. In Studies in Social Power. Institute for Social Research.

Kotter, J. P. (1982). The General Managers. Free Press.

Levy, P. E. (2019). Industrial/Organizational Psychology: Understanding the Workplace (6th ed.). Worth Publishers.

Luthans, F., Yodgetts, R. M., and Rosenkrantz, S. A. (1988). Real Managers. Ballinger.

Lynn, L. E. Jr. (1987). Managing Public Policy. Little, Brown.

Taylor, F. W. (1997). The Principles of Scientific Management. Dover Publications.


1 VUCA is an acronym coined in 1985 that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It describes the fast-paced work of modern teams and was originally applied in a military context.