Leaders beware! Your employees and customers are listening carefully but are they really hearing you? Are your communications signposting a clear path to the company you want them to see? Is everyone dreaming the same dream?
Not only has Nordic Business Report unearthed some great advice on how to create the optimum vision statement, we also look at why this formula for communication reinforces the philosophies on leadership from some of our favourite commentators.
Can others see your vision?
Individual entrepreneurs, MD’s of SME’s, and CEO’s of global giants all have one thing in common – vision. Now I’m not saying they all have good vision, but in order to be leaders they need to have a clear representation in their own head about the future of the company. Vision statements provide a valuable tool for getting that message out to the rest of the company and communicating purpose.
The problem is: can you be sure that individuals are interpreting purpose in the same way as everyone else?
Enter professors Andrew Carton, Chad Murphy and Jonathan Clark. In a recent issue of the Academy of Management Journal, they present their findings on a leader rhetoric and shared cognition. (Now repeat in your head the words ‘Shared Cognition’ because this is the key to their value proposition.) In short what they suggest is:
“that a specific combination of messages – a large amount of vision imagery combined with a small number of values – will boost performance more than other combinations because it triggers a shared sense of the organization’s ultimate goal, and, in turn, enhances coordination.”
It’s not what you say, or the way that you say it – it’s both!
The first tenet of what Carton et al. discovered was that the vision statements of companies and organisations that used more ‘image-based words’ triggered ‘a shared ultimate goal’ through the creation of a stronger mental representation. In practice this meant the use of ‘nouns with [more] recognizable physical attributes…(e.g., “children versus “customers”); … verbs that indicate observable actions…(e.g., “smile” rather than “enjoy”); … and objects, people and actions that are familiar (e.g., “parents”)”. The more unambiguous the image created the less room for misinterpretation and the increased likelihood of ‘shared cognition’.
For companies, the practical gains of this shared cognition is that everyone has the same, clear image of what the business is seeking to achieve. This ‘shared ultimate goal’ leads to greater levels of coordination and thus a higher quality of performance.
One of the most talked about thinkers on approaches to leadership is Simon Sinek. The whole premise of his book Start With Why is that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” This mantra is built on the same reality that most individuals are led to act more by emotional connectivity than by rational logic. We work because we know we have to, but we will inevitably contribute so much more of ourselves when we believe in what we are doing. Image-intensive communications can more readily access this type of emotional connection. Speaking as a Brit one of the most poignant examples of this type of emotive imagery is a wartime speech by Winston Churchill, where the following words visualize the prospect of invasion:
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”.
Don’t get tied up with abstract values
The mistake being made time and time again is in trying to create a vision statement that means all things to all people. In the larger discourse on rhetoric, public speakers or politicians will tell you that the dangers of over-burdening an audience with a complex or highly conceptual message are nothing new. However, business leaders have belatedly come to appreciate the centrality of human behaviour within the corporate vision, choosing instead to squeeze in as many buzzwords as possible. In this respect, we are all guilty. We all look at abstract concepts like accountability, transparency, innovation, sustainability and see a great opportunity to say more with less – or so we think.
The truth, as Carton et al. point out, is that not only are these concepts complex but most corporate communications include such a variety of them that it is left up to the individual to select which one they prefer. The result is that employees will construct their own vision around their chosen conceptual framework, and this may be very different from that of their colleague, manager or executive leadership. Multiple visions lead to poor coordination resulting in diminishing performance levels.
Remembering the company is a social construct
In his book, Good To Great, Jim Collins states that, “faith in the endgame helps you live through the months or years of build-up.” A well-crafted, inspiring and vivid vision statement will provide a unifying bond that can permeate an organisation and help sustain a company in times of difficulty. It is a reinforcing essence because, as Carton et al. bring to light, the trickle down effect within consequent communications will continue to validate and enhance the leadership rhetoric. Achieving organisational goals requires great people. A well-communicated vision will not only keep great people, it will also attract great people as well as motivating them to do great things.
Because most businesses are at the mercy of the financial mechanisms that facilitate them, there is an understandable tendency to pay close attention to the bottom line. The problem with this perspective is that leaders can confuse money with people as the life-blood of their company. The human element is replaced in too many aspects of business life and ignores the fundamental role of the company – to serve humanity.
Understanding this will provide all leaders with a great foundation for how they communicate with their colleagues and customers. It is as the heart of everything Sinek, Collins and Carton et al. are promoting. Create a tangible vision that people can picture on the inside of their brain, every day, and not only will people buy what you do, they will believe in what you do and they will go that extra mile to be a part of it.
The main references for this article were:
Carton A.M., Murphy C., & Clark – (2014) – A (Blurry) Vision of the Future: How Leader Rhetoric about Ultimate Goals Influences Performance – R.http://amj.aom.org/content/57/6/1544.abstract
For further reading and related content:
Sinek S. – (2011) – Start With Why
Collins J. – (2001) – Good To Great
Photo credit: Shutterstock