External and Internal frames of references

Remember, a car can travel along the same path in forward or reverse. It just depends on what direction it’s facing. The same is true on a personal basis. Let’s say you want your child to spend more time on his school work. You might tell him, you better study or you won’t get into a good college. Or Look at Fred. He didn’t study, so he flunked out of school, and he’s going to spend the rest of his life pumping gas. Is that the kind of life you want for yourself? How well will that strategy work? It depends on your child. If he’s primarily motivated by moving away, it might work well. But what if he moves toward things? What if he’s motivated by things that excite him, by moving toward things he finds appealing? If that’s how he responds, you’re not going to change his behavior by offering the example of something to move away from. You can nag until you’re blue in the face, but you’re talking in the wrong key. You’re talking Latin, and the kid understands Greek. You’re wasting our time, ad you’re wasting his. In fact, people who move toward are often angered by or resentful of those who present things to be moved way from. You would motivate your child better by saying ‘If you do this, you can pick and choose any college you want to’.

The second meta-program leads with external and internal frames of reference. Ask someone else how he knows when he’s done a good job. For some people, the proof comes from outside. The boss pats you on the back and says your work was great. You get a raise. You win a big award. Your work is noticed and applauded by your peers. When you get that sort of external approval, you know your work is good. That’s an external frame of reference.

For others, the proof comes from inside. They just know inside when they’ve done well. If you have an internal frame of reference, you can design a building that wins all sorts of architectural awards, but if you don’t feel it’s special, no amount of outside approval will convince you it is. Conversely, you might do a job that gets a lukewarm reception from your boss or peers, but if you feel it is good work, you’ll trust your own instincts rather than theirs. That’s an internal frame of reference.

Let’s say you’re trying to convince someone to attend a seminar. You might say, you’ve got to attend this seminar. It’s great. “I’ve gone and all my friends have gone, and they’ve all had a terrific time and raved about it for days. They all said it changed their lives for the better”. If the person you’re talking to has an external frame of reference, chances are you’ll convince him. If all those people say it’s true, he’ll often assume it’s probably true.

But what if he has an internal frame of reference? You’ll have a difficult time convincing him by telling him what others have said. It doesn’t mean anything to him. It doesn’t compute. You can only convince him by appealing to things he knows himself. What if you told him, remember the series of lectures you went to last year? Remember how you said it was the most insightful experience you’d had in years? “Well, I know about something that’s may be like that; I think if you check it out, you may find you’ll have the same kind of experience”. What do you think? Will that work? Sure it will, because you’re talking to him in his language.

It’s important to note that all these meta-programs are context and stress related. If you’ve done something for ten or fifteen years, you probably have a strong internal frame of reference; if you’re brand new, you may not have as strong an internal frame of reference about what is right or wrong in that context. So you tend to develop preferences and patterns over time. But even if you’re right handed, you still use your left hand in various situations where it is useful to do so. The same is true of meta-programs. You’re not just one way. You can vary. You can change.

What kind of frame of reference do most leaders have – internal or external? A truly effective leader has to have a strong internal frame. He wouldn’t be much of a leader if he spent all his time asking people what they thought of something before he took any action. And, as with meta-programs, there’s an ideal balance to be struck. Remember, few people operate strictly at one extreme. A truly effective leader has to be able to take in information effectively from the outside as well. When he doesn’t leadership becomes megalomania.