Work Traits

External Frame of Reference

External frame of reference is especially beneficial in roles like technology design, marketing, customer service, sales, and research.
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What is external frame of reference?

External frame of reference means you aren’t one to stick your neck out unless you can back up your decision or opinion with external reference points. 

You value the insights and data of esteemed authorities like customers, board members, advisors, and consultants, and you also lean heavily on findings from credible sources of research and data. You’re known for saying you need to dig into more research or ask another team member before you make a choice.

It’s not that you’re not capable on your own, but having those external sources give you their stamp of approval gives you some additional reassurance. Your external frame of reference also means that you pay close attention to the expectations of others and feel motivated to meet or exceed them.

We call it: External Reference

Your level of priority and importance to seek external references of data, research, feedback, advisors, and stakeholders for business decision making.

We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.

Bill Gates

Leaders who have an external frame of reference

Susan Wojcicki

Susan Wojcicki

As the CEO of YouTube, Susan Wojcicki knows that she needs to make a lot of tough decisions. But, she doesn’t do so without gathering feedback and insights about how those choices impact others—specifically, creators who make their livings on the platform.

In fact, in a blog post published to the YouTube blog in 2019, Wojcicki explained that she tries to meet with creators everywhere she goes. 

During those conversations, she collects their feedback about the challenges they face with YouTube, and she uses those external insights to make decisions about the future of the platform.

Ron Schaich

Robert Schaich is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Panera Bread. But in an interview with Inc., he described himself as “discoverer-in-chief.”

That’s because Schaich doesn’t make decisions about the future of the restaurant on his own. Instead, he listens closely to what customers want. 

“I listen to people at dinner parties, on the street, in our stores,” he said in an interview with Fast Company. “I am looking for patterns of feelings and desires and aspirations.” That’s valuable information he uses to strategize new campaigns for the restaurant chain, rather than relying only on his own expertise.

Ron Schaich
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Mary Barra

In her role as CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra recognizes the value of soliciting feedback from other people—particularly her employees. 

Instead of sticking with an internal frame of reference, she collects opinions and insights from other people to get a grasp on what’s happening and make thoughtful choices. 

During a keynote talk at The Wharton School, she said the best way leaders can improve is to collect accurate information about their current reality. However, she warned that leaders can’t be totally reliant on an external frame of reference, as they need to determine which feedback is worth implementing, which shows a healthy balance with some internal frame of reference.

The benefits of an external frame of reference

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When you have an external frame of reference, you’re receptive to the opinions and perspectives of other people. That means you’re especially open-minded.

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Thoughtful decisions

Because you back yourself up with external insights and data, you tend to make thoughtful and well-rounded choices.

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Leaning on external sources means you can use outside information to poke holes in your own perspectives, identify areas that need refining, and improve upon your conclusions.

The blind spots of an external frame of reference

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Always relying on other people and data to confirm your decisions can mean you lack confidence when you need to make a choice on your own.

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Collecting perspectives and information from external sources can take time, which can cause problems when you need to make a speedy decision.

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Unpopular decisions

Because the opinions and expectations of other people mean a great deal to you, you can struggle when you need to make an unpopular decision or draw a contested conclusion.

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How to have an external frame of reference

1) Solicit feedback.

Get in the habit of regularly asking other people for feedback and opinions. Run your ideas and decisions by them to hear what they think.

Of course, collecting those insights without doing anything with them will only breed frustration. After someone has contributed their own two cents, carefully consider what they’ve told you and implement what you find valuable.

2) Back up your points and conclusions.

Being able to reach a decision on your own is great, but justifying your point with a bunch of supporting evidence makes your conclusion even stronger.

So, make sure you’re taking some time to dig through statistics and data, listen to expert sources, and more. It never hurts to have that information in your back pocket, especially if someone questions your decision-making.

3) Get comfortable with open-ended questions.

Someone with an external frame of reference won’t reach a decision and then ask, “Is this a good idea? Yes or no?”

Instead, they rely more on open-ended questions to collect the most valuable feedback from other people and shape their decisions. Use these questions yourself to extract the most meaningful contributions from your team members, customers, managers, and more.

4) Build a buffer into your timeline.

Gathering information from external sources takes some legwork, and you’ll always skip it if you feel pressed for time.

So, make sure you’re building some wiggle room into your timelines for decisions and projects. That will give you the adequate space you need to use an external frame of reference, without missing your deadline.

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