While talking about employer branding and how to get crucial business information through to a team, a business area manager of an industrial multinational hit me with the following question: “I just came back from a business trip in China. I want to share what I learned with my team, but I wonder if another memo will do the trick. Should I blog about this?”
Motivational language theory can shed some light on this. In “Strategic Vision and Values in Top Leaders’ Communications: Motivating Language at a Higher Level,” (Mayfield, Mayfield, Sharbrough III 2015), a paper that was brought to my attention by Priscilla Heynderickx from KULeuven (thank you Priscilla!) researchers study how communication can help CEOs improve their organization's performance.
What do the authors find?
First of all, they discovered that stories and metaphors are perfect tools for managers to convey meaning among their teams. Alas, storytelling and meaning-making language (sic) alone won’t do the trick.
In order to be effective, a CEO should also give direction and be empathic.
Do you want to blog to motivate your people and head your team in the right direction? If so, you need to tick off all three of the following:
1. Create meaning
The first directive for leaders who want to lead their team's organizational performance: talk about the values they and the company stand for and what those values mean.
“Meaning-making is the interpretation of the unique culture and values of an organization,” according to the authors. “When a leader publicly praises and participates in a charity, such as the recent Ice Bucket Challenge, meaning-making messages happen." This is where stories and metaphors enter the picture.
“For instance, a leader’s story of a worker going to extraordinary lengths to successfully complete a project is meaning-making language,” the authors explain.
A powerful example was once shared with me by Jan-Pieter De Nul, CEO of one of the leading global companies in dredging:
“When we were 5 years old, my grandmother gave us a bond for New Year's. The idea was: if you spend your money, it's gone. The money you keep, you can make that work for you. Both feet on the ground, no nonsense, that’s what I learned at home. That’s what I look for in people that come to work for us.”
Shared values and a strong culture allowed Jan De Nul to build a family business into what is now a global force in dredging.
2. Give direction
After creating meaningfulness by sharing values, a leader should communicate clearly about his or her expectations toward his team: what are the goals, responsibilities and specific employee tasks he or she envisions for his team? This is the part that comes closest to the "memo."
What’s most important here, says motivational language theory, is that a leader dispels ambiguity. A CEO or manager should be extremely clear about what he expects from his or her team in order to direct them towards it. It can also include performance feedback or link rewards to organizational goals.
Paul Bulcke, CEO at Nestlé, is aware of the importance of this aspect of CEO communication. As he once told De Tijd in an interview:
“With over 330,000 employees and a decentralized organization you have to have a clear message. Everyone has to know the direction we are heading. That’s why we summed it up on one A4: where we want to grow, what we want to do and how we want to do that. Everyone in the company has it. Sometimes I’m walking around in one of the factories and then I can see it hanging above a desk. That’s rather satisfying.” (De Tijd, 05 April 2010)
3. Show empathy
Most CEOs and managers score well on point 1 and 2, but omit the third part: empathy. However, as the study shows,
“Employees perform better in a work climate of emotionally supportive communication: top leader interventions of emotionally supportive language have helped improve profits.”
Leaders should express their appreciation and pride about what their team accomplished; if necessary, show concern for the hardships their team is confronted with. It brings to mind Stanley McChrystal, the former US Army General, who even in digital times chose to send personal handwritten thank you notes to his people:
"You can't get out there and touch people on the shoulder that much anymore—you have to use digital means," McChrystal says.
Even at the height of conflict, McChrystal made time to handwrite letters of praise or thanks. "I used to get thank-you notes for my thank-you notes," he says. "I'd find them framed in [the troops' bunk] areas."’ (Inc.com, 26 September 2011)
Recently I watched House of Cards. There’s a scene where Claire Underwood does a short motivational speech to a local New Hampshire campaign team. She scores very well on point 3:
“Thank you all so very much to make sure we have New Hampshire. It is field offices like this that win primaries and the president wants you to know how much your dedication means to us. Thank you so much. Thank you.”
(Spoiler alert for those that haven’t finished the series) Apparently, even screenwriters know: it’s this kind of speech that wins primaries. And so does Claire Underwood. The Underwoods never blogged, but they communicated their values, directly, with empathy. They embodied the techniques mentioned in motivational language theory and that's how they won elections, and probably captivated television audiences, too. It doesn't hurt to learn from the best.