Modern Management Challenges


Speaking with Hands, Heart, and Spirit

Why do we chalk up so many leadership problems to “poor communication?” We do so because both experience and research tell us that good leader communication provides a key ingredient for an effective workplace and that leaders accomplish much of their work through talk. Yet often managers and academics treat effective leadership communication as implicit, something that should be improved but offer only fuzzy recommendations on how. Leaders need a clear communication compass they can easily implement since research tells us they are often interrupted every few minutes, making it tough to reflect deeply before each follower encounter.

We give such a leader communication road map in our recent book, Motivating Language Theory: Effective Leader Talk in the Workplace. This book shows how leaders can positively speak with hands, heart, and spirit to spark followers’ motivation – a motivation that translates into positive results and a better workplace. Simply put, when leaders strategically use three types of speech they can expect to see higher performance, retention, attendance, commitment, creativity, innovation, job satisfaction, effective employee decision-making, and be perceived as better leaders.

Just what exactly are these three types of leader talk that make up motivating language? Our book describes their specifics as well as the theories which support them. Leaders use the first type – direction-giving language (the hands) – when they clarify priorities, task details, reward contingencies, and give constructive performance feedback. The hands are the nuts and bolts of leadership and also embrace transparency (sharing important work information with the people who need it.) Our data show this kind of leader speech happens most often in organizations. Leaders use the second type talk, empathetic language (the heart), less often. The heart emerges in speech that transmits genuine caring about followers, including politeness, empathy, compassion, emotional support, and perspective taking – putting oneself in another's shoes. Leaders use the third speech dimension, meaning-making language (the spirit), least often. The spirit expresses organizational vision and how an individual follower aligns her or his values with this higher purpose. This step happens through talk that appreciates a follower's unique contributions, assists with job crafting (linking one's tasks with a bigger picture), and spells out unwritten cultural rules that must be followed to succeed – “attending the President's dinner is a command performance.”

Leaders must also meet a few key assumptions for the hands, heart, and spirit to optimize their communication impact. A leader must walk the talk and combine all three types of language appropriately over time. For the final assumption, the follower must accurately decode the leader's intended message. So while motivating language does not claim to include all forms of organizational communication, it is definitely not intended to be a monologue. Ideally, the hands, heart, and spirit integrate with dialogues between leaders and followers. Recent studies which demonstrate that motivating language encourages follower feedback support this premise.

Motivating Language Theory: Effective Leader Talk in the Workplace details how leaders can learn and improve the hands, heart, and spirit in their communication. The book provides examples, survey instruments and other measures, including a self-evaluation checklist and a proposed training agenda. We also present three decades of motivating language (ML) research including the statistics of positive relationships between ML and higher performance, perceived leader competence, job satisfaction, commitment, creativity, innovation, effective employee decision-making, employee voice, and lower turnover and absenteeism.

You may also be asking if these desirable findings apply to different cultural settings, written communication, and one-to-many leader talk. ML has been tested in several countries with similar significant results. As for written communication and one-to-many leader speech, recent studies suggest that ML transfers to these contexts. New research is ongoing, especially in the areas of ML feedback loops, training, and the role of ML in organizational culture.

We cover all of these topics in our book which describes hands, heart, spirit as a state, not a trait; a journey, not a destination. Motivating language skills can grow with effort, reflection, proper training and a compatible organizational culture. Our book gives an insightful path for doing so.

Jackie Mayfield is a Professor of Management in the Sanchez School of Business at Texas A&M International University, USA. She specializes in leadership communication research, and has published over 80 journal articles and conference proceedings in such outlets as International Journal of Business Communication, Human Resource Management, and Development and Learning in Organizations.
Milton Mayfield is a Professor of Management in the Sanchez School of Business at Texas A&M International University, USA. He specializes in leadership communication research, and has published over 80 journal articles and conference proceedings in such outlets as Human Resource Management, International Journal of Business Communication, and The Encyclopedia of Creativity (2nd ed.).

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