Why “visionary” language from leaders can sometimes backfire

CEOs of small but growing companies may feel pressure to speak to their employees with the flair and vision of a Churchill, Jobs, or Obama (Barack or Michelle). According to management lore, that’s what archetypal great leaders do.

But a new study appearing in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology challenges this convention, suggesting the wisdom-from-upon-high approach isn’t the optimal choice for every leader.

Gijs van Houwelingen, a lecturer of management at Leiden University in the Netherlands, finds that when employees feel psychologically “close” to the head of their company-as is often the case at early-stage enterprises-big, visionary statements about company goals don’t always land well. In some cases, messages about feasible goals end up being a lot more motivational.

Why this is so has to do with where our minds go depending on how distant or close an object or idea seems to us. According to a concept in psychology called construal level theory, distance in any form-geographic, hierarchical, or across time-is matched by psychological distance (or nearness) in the mind, and changes the way you think about the focus of your attention. We think in concrete terms about what’s close, and more abstractly about what’s far.

The analogy is our visual perception, van Houwelingen explains. When something is close, you see a lot of detail, and when something is far away, “you can probably not see that much detail, you can just make out shapes.”

There are downstream effects to these mental states. If you celebrate Christmas and are asked to think about how you’ll be celebrating the holiday a decade from now, you might envision the music, the lovely food, or the tree, but you’re probably not going to imagine your car breaking down on the way to dinner, or an argument with relatives at the table, says van Houwelingen. The possible obstacles to a successful holiday, and the complicated logistics, are more likely to come into focus only when you think about this Christmas.

In a workplace context, if your leader is someone a few cubicles away, and they keep talking up the company’s vision for changing the world within five years, you as the employee might think, “Hang on, let’s get past today’s problem and make it to Friday before we move on to the long-term stuff.”

To test and ultimately confirm this hypothesis, van Houwelingen’s team ran two studies, in both cases manipulating the participants to feel either closer or more removed from a leader who was sending them motivational messages centered on certain goals.

In the first study, engineering students in Mexico were divided into groups. Some were primed to be thinking about abstract life goals, while others were primed to be thinking about pragmatic goals for the near future and how they might accomplish them. They were then made aware of a real-life situation: the university wanted to bring free-trade coffee to its cafeterias. Next they were given letters ostensibly from the university president (actually written by the researchers) that either featured vague, idealistic goals (along the lines of “We should do the right thing”), or one that explained how the students could adjust to pricier coffee.

The results? Participants who had been primed to be thinking about the distant future were willing to pay about 22% more for their coffee after the idealistic appeal than after the more practical appeal. By contrast, the group that had been primed to think about near future were willing to pay about 40% more for their coffee after a practical appeal than after the more visionary appeal.

The second study was similar, except it was conducted in the Netherlands with business students who were asked to join a protest over cost-cutting measures at their university. This time, one group was told that the student leader seeking their support was someone on campus. The second group was told the student leader was 100 kilometers away. (In reality, this person didn’t exist.)

Those who imagined the leader was far away lapped up the blue-sky messages about improving universities, whereas solid, practical goals appealed more to their counterparts. Interestingly, those who felt closer to the student leader also found the mile-high outlook more persuasive, although they didn’t plan to act on it.

“It was like they said, ‘Oh, wow, that was some good stuff,’ but we’re not going to participate in these actions”, says van Houwelingen. He proposes that this surprising outcome-which he plans to investigate in future studies- may be tied to how culturally programmed people are to appreciate The Grand Vision.

For managers, this study might explain adjustments they’re already making intuitively. No one wants their CEO visiting a far-off office where they start explaining how customers should be greeted in that region. It’s also a credible explanation for why the literature on employee motivation appears to support both aspirational and pragmatic approaches to communicating goals: Both styles are strong options; it seems that what matters most in choosing one is the social relationship between leader and employee.

So if you’re the CEO of a startup and feeling chuffed for getting employees “superpumped” at the monthly meeting, know that even your best efforts are no guarantee that your staff will go back to their desks any more motivated than they did before your lofty prose reached their ears.

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