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Problem Framing as a Teachable Skill: A Practical Approach to Teaching Leadership Communication

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Engineering Leadership Development Constituent Committee Division Technical Session 1

Tagged Division

Engineering Leadership Development Division

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1007.1 - 24.1007.6



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Paper Authors


Kathryn A. Neeley University of Virginia

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Kathryn A. Neeley is Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society in the Department of Engineering and Society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. She holds B.A., M.A., and PhD degrees in English from the University of Virginia and is a past chair of the Liberal Education/Engineering and Society Division of ASEE. In addition to undergraduate and graduate teaching of written and oral communication. Dr. Neeley has conducted research and published on various aspects of communication in sociotechnical systems, including the use of sentence-headline design for PowerPoint slides.

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Problem Framing as a Teachable Skill: A Practical Approach to Teaching Leadership Communication In the preface to the 2011 edition of Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership(1995/2011), Howard Gardner notes “the explosion of interest in the topic of leadership” (p. xv)that occurred between the two editions of the book. The Engineering Leadership ConstituentCommittee within ASEE is but one of many manifestations of this explosion of interest. Invirtually all formulations of leadership competencies, including Gardner’s, communication isidentified as a fundamental leadership skill, and, indeed both anecdote and empirical studiessupport such a claim. What is much less clear, however, is how we will define, teach, and assessthe competencies that constitute leadership communication. This paper argues that problem framing is a teachable skill that is useful for, thoughcertainly not limited in its usefulness to, leadership. Framing is a widely recognized thoughsomewhat nebulous concept. In The Art of Framing (1996), Fairhurst and Sarr define framing as“the ability to shape the meaning of a subject. . . .When we share our frames with others (theprocess of framing) . . .we assert that our interpretations should be taken as real over otherpossible interpretations” (p. 3). By extension, this notion of framing implies that leaders are theindividuals whose problem frames are most compelling to the relevant stakeholders. Adaptingthe practical approach developed by Greg Colomb et al. and implemented in the Little RedSchoolhouse online tutorials (, this paper defines aproblem frame as having three elements: 1. Common ground, that is, facts that are established and relevant but will be news to most members of the audience. Often, the challenge in establishing common ground is selecting from what is usually called “background information,” the specifics that will locate the problem in a meaningful and recognizable context. 2. The problem, which consists of a destabilizing condition whose costs and consequences provide a motivation for attention and action. Again, there are usually several destabilizing conditions in a given context, which means that the framer of problems must choose from among the various possibilities the condition whose costs and consequences are most salient to the audience and lead logically to action. 3. A resolution that has the potential to stabilize the situation and thus eliminate the unacceptable costs and consequences of leaving the situation in its current state. In some cases, the resolution will be a clearly defined course of action. In other cases, the resolution will be an improved understanding of the problem that can inform decision- making.This conception of problem framing provides a vocabulary for creating and critiquing problemframes and can be applied in virtually any disciplinary or professional context, includingengineering. The online tutorials are available to anyone. They are not a substitute for classroominstruction but rather provide an adaptable intellectual and experiential foundation on whichteachers of leadership communication can build.

Neeley, K. A. (2014, June), Problem Framing as a Teachable Skill: A Practical Approach to Teaching Leadership Communication Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--22940

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