Why a leader’s language is important to success

by NZ Adviser08 Jun 2016
Compare the following two vision statements:

"We will be the preferred provider of targeted financial services. We will strengthen these relationships and provide the right solutions."

"Our vision is to put joy in kids' hearts and a smile on parents' faces."

Words to the effect of the first statement have been used by the likes of financial institutions, such as banks.

That kind of language is conceptual and does hardly anything to tell the clients or employees what the company's vision is, said Jonathan R. Clark, assistant professor of management at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA)

In contrast, the second quote by the leadership of Toys 'R Us is an example of a strong vision statement, added Clark.

"Everyone can imagine a kid, everyone knows what joy feels like and everyone can imagine a parent with their child smiling," he said.

"That's what makes something vivid: when you have concrete objects and behaviours that people can actually imagine in their minds."

Clark said his research shows the language of leaders has a profound effect on the performance of their employees.

The results found that best-performing organisations frequently have well-coordinated employees operating under a vivid vision statement that is consistently interpreted in the same way by employees.

Clark and his colleagues also discovered that a focused set of values can have positive effects if used beyond mission statements.

Part of the problem is that many companies have largely become 'economic vehicles' and, as a result, leadership in those companies has become an 'exercise in financial engineering', according to Clark.

In his study, Clark used the Cleveland Clinic, a mid-western health system, as an example of an organisation that changed its ways by emphasising the needs and comfort of its patients.

The centre's CEO began by communicating a new vision using vivid language, but took it a step further by ensuring every employee, from surgeons to janitors, were referred to as "caregivers."

"A leader provides focus for people and points them toward a specific set of values that guide action within the organisation," said Clark.

"In that sense, the language that leaders use is absolutely critical."

The research is published in Organizational Dynamics.

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