How you craft a message, and the power of certain words, make all the difference.
By Bobby Hoffman, Ph.D. for Psychology Today
Maybe you are writing a memo or planning a Zoom meeting. Perhaps even more intriguing and potentially stressful, you are charged with communicating unwanted news to your staff or need to address a lingering performance issue with a team member.
Regardless of the circumstances or your communication medium, your message should be understood, relevant, persuasive, and include a call to action if you hope to achieve desired results. However, leaders are often faced with a dilemma: They don’t know how to inspire motivated performance in others without instilling resentment or being perceived as inflexible and insensitive.
Ultimately, the goal of effective leadership is to promote organizational prosperity by coaching, influencing, and recognizing individual performance and giving people the tools to optimize growth while meeting strategic organizational goals. While most articles on leadership espouse what leaders should do to inspire an effective team, minimal research exists on how leadership goals can be accomplished from a behavioral perspective (Goleman, 2017; Newstead et al., 2021). Especially lacking is information on what leaders should verbalize to achieve results.
Optimal persuasion starts with consciously determining how to match your message with the intended audience. Motivational messaging (Joyal-Desmarais et al., 2022) means that your message is customized based on the situation and context and includes an appraisal of the values, beliefs, and dispositions of your audience–in other words, for the message to reach maximal effectiveness, it must resonate with the individual.
The messaging evaluation should include cultural considerations such as a group-focused appeal vs. a personally targeted message. The message purpose should distinguish between efforts directed toward compliance or increases or decreases of certain behaviors. Benefits or liabilities to individuals should be clearly outlined. Optimally, the most powerful messages indicate either advantages to the person for supporting the leader’s suggestions or consequences for lack of support, but not both.
However, research from psychology and education reveals that messages of all kinds must also help individuals satisfy some basic needs. I previously posted about how to empower individuals to enhance leadership effectiveness. Now it’s time to discuss how to actually get the job done.
What should you say?
Across cultures and contexts, communication should satisfy the basic human needs of autonomy and competence. Autonomy means the message recipient does not feel coerced or controlled by the request and believes they have some choices when implementing a message. Competence suggests that the person will feel a sense of personal accomplishment and satisfaction when executing a persuasion effort. The probability of successful persuasion is enhanced by using “invitational language” (Reeve & Cheon, 2021), a label used to describe directives that consider the perspectives, desires, and emotions of others.
Communicating Unwelcome News
This situation is the perfect time to stress transparency and provide explanatory rationales. Instead of sidestepping the reality of undesirable communication with buzzwords and indirect language, tell exactly what is happening, but do so by explaining the decision-making process and what alternative outcomes were considered.
Don’t defend the choice or action but explain why the decision was made and who was ultimately responsible for it. Don’t forget to express your willingness to support the decision, even if it may not be your first choice. Say things such as “you can use this experience to…” and “this is the first step toward…” so others can see you have considered their perspective when describing the next steps.
Acknowledging Leadership Errors
The guideline here is complete accountability. Troublesome situations like unethical behavior, corporate irresponsibility, or just plain bad decisions happen to most organizations at one time or another. Error resolution can be made in need-satisfying ways by using the situation to do better next time. Express that these kinds of events are part of the learning process and do not focus on punitive aspects but instead emphasize how the person making the error might feel.
Acknowledge the severity of the situation and don’t minimize the consequences of the mistake. Say things such as “sometimes work is frustrating” or “feeling this way is expected” to show empathy and understanding that reflect the emotions of embarrassment or shame.
Confronting Performance Issues
Addressing potential conflict is one of the toughest jobs for any leader. Do not approach the situation as a confrontation, but instead focus on the issue as a team by outlining individual actions that can be assumed to correct any deficiencies. Avoid any “you” vs. “me” perceptions. Emphasize autonomy by asking, “In what ways do you think we can change the situation,” or “if you had a choice, what would you do?” Once the individual responds, first say, “if I understand you correctly, then…” followed by asking, “how can we make this work?” before giving your opinion or decision.
Implementing Leadership Decisions
One hallmark of the best leaders is making correct decisions based on limited evidence, which often means asking people to do what they might not want to do. First, acknowledge any resistance by saying, “I understand this may not be your first choice,” then carefully reflect on how you will communicate expectations. Avoid mandates and do not use the words “must” or “have to,” as these phrases cultivate controlling feelings, which thwart the basic need for autonomy. Instead, encourage initiative by saying, “you may want to consider,” or “what do you think about…” followed by describing the desired outcome without overemphasizing precise methods to achieve the outcome. Whenever possible, let the person exercise choice as to how the outcome is achieved.
Overall, being a persuasive communicator means avoiding the tendency to exercise power as the means to foster compliance. The most successful leaders realize that cultivating autonomy and competence in others is the key to mutual success, and the entire process starts and ends with the words you use when you open your mouth.