Leaders should adapt communication according to how far away they are from their employees

If you work in the field of organisational change you’ll know that one of the deciding factors in success (or not) is communication and engagement.

The thought and effort that goes in to the methods, the messaging and timing is crucial if a change is to succeed.

“the primary task of an organizational leader is to stimulate followers to expend time and effort to reach collective goals”

Research in the December 2017 edition of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology suggests that the distance between a leader and their employees can also have an impact. In particular, that the type of communication and messaging used should be adapted according to how far away or close a leader is to the people they are trying to persuade and motivate.

The research

The researchers conducted two studies to explore how goals can be best communicated by leaders.

Whereas past research has tended to focus on style of leadership in relation to effective communication, this new research wanted to explore the impact of distance between leaders and their followers (i.e. employees).  They used construal level theory as the basis for their study.

Construal level theory suggests that the larger the distance between a person and an object, the more abstract their understanding will be (high construal). Likewise, the smaller the distance between a person and an object, the more concrete their understanding will be (low construal).

In addition, they explored the idea that leaders who were far away, such as geographically or hierarchically, were better off using desirable (aspirational) messaging. Those who were closer to a target audience of employees should use feasible (practical) messaging.

STUDY ONE

This study focused on whether desirable messaging led to high construal; and feasible messaging led to low construal.

141 engineering students from a Latin American university participated. Participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups in two-by-two design. Desirable versus feasible communication; High construal versus low construal.

The topic focus was on willingness to pay more for Fair Trade coffee on campus.

STUDY TWO

This study focused on the effectiveness of desirable versus feasible messaging on follower motivation and how influenced this was by distance between leader and followers. In addition, this study explored perceived persuasiveness of desirable versus feasible appeals to followers.

115 business and economics students from a European university participated. Participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups in a two-by-two design. The researchers made the concept of distance a geographical one – with the leader either one km away from followers, or 100 km away.

The topic of focus was about student committee challenging austerity measures being introduced to the university, such as increased costs in the cafe.

The findings

  1. Desirable messaging was more effective on those who demonstrated high construal level (thinking in abstract); feasible messaging was more effective on those who demonstrated low construal level (thinking in practical terms).
  2. Desirable messaging was more effective when used by leaders who were far away from followers; feasible messaging was more effective when used by leaders who were closer to followers. However, the impact was less significant for the high-distance leaders.
  3. Desirable messaging was perceived as being more persuasive in motivating people to take action. The suggestion being that for close leaders, they need to rely less on their ability to persuade through words and focus on more on action.

Implications and solutions

This research has implications for how leaders communicate to their employees. It also emphasises the importance of line managers and the importance of their communication to staff.

For example, very large, hierarchical organisations consisting of thousands of staff, where the chief executive may be far away from employees dealing directly with customers. Or organisations where the managing director is in one country, and employees are dispersed around the world.

The researchers make the point that leaders may do well to use both desirable and feasible messaging when trying to motivate employees to take action. However, they make clear that this is dependent on context.

With this in mind, here are some practical things you can do:

  1. Think about who is best-placed to deliver certain messages when developing a communication strategy and plan for change. For example, board-level can focus on the ‘big picture’ ideas and it should be the role of line managers to communicate the specifics of what is going to happen and when.
  2. Use test groups when communicating significant messages. For example, I’m currently working with one organisation to facilitate a group of staff representatives to test out the impact of organisational change messages before they go wider. As part of this, we talk about the content (the what) and who would be the best person for employees to hear the message from.
  3. If you’re in a leadership or management role, get feedback on your style of communication and if, need be a coach to help you adapt your style. If you’re at the top of the organisation and your communication tends to focus too much on the detail and minutiae, then you might need to work harder to talk about broad strategy. Or you  might be a team supervisor whose communication is too ‘big picture’ and not detailed enough and so, might do well to think more about practical implications.
  4. Adapt messaging to suit different ways of thinking. For example, as the research indicated, those who tend to think in more abstract terms may be less comfortable with messages that are solely couched in detailed, practical terms. Likewise, those who are more comfortable with detailed, specifics might become stressed out if all they’re hearing is messaging that’s in the abstract. This one-page guide might help you with this.

Related posts:

Research reference:

  • van Houwelingen, G., Stam, D. & Giessner, S. (2017). So close and yet so far away: A psychological distal account of the effectiveness of leader appeals. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 47(12), 665-676.

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