Indeed, some scholars have suggested that communicating purpose is the most central of all leader behaviors, because it infuses work with meaning and direction.
~ Andrew Carton, Chad Murphy, & Jonathan Clark ~
Scholars aren't the only ones touting the importance of meaning, purpose, and vision.
John Maxwell said, "Vision is everything for a leader." Simon Sinek skyrocketed into fame after his How Great Leaders Inspire Action TEDTalk, better known by its best-selling book counterpart, Start With Why. And so many other leadership experts point out the importance of meaning, purpose, and/or vision.
The professionals we lead want meaning, purpose, and vision at work. For example, a 2021 McKinsey article reports that nearly two-thirds of US-based employees said that the pandemic has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life. The authors say, "Employees expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives. Employers need to help meet this need, or be prepared to lose talent to companies that will." If you have a retention problem, consider the possibility that your ability to clearly and effectively communicate purpose and vision may be one contributing factor.
Employees value meaningful work. How much? A BetterUp Labs report, Meaning and Purpose at Work*, states that 9 out of 10 career professionals--that's 90%—told researchers that they would sacrifice 23 percent of their future earnings—an average of $21,000 a year—for "work that is always meaningful." That's about as much as most people pay for their mortgage or rent in a year!
Almost 50 years ago, neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, founded logotherapy with the premise that our primary motivational force is to find meaning or purpose in life. Abraham Maslow identified that self-actualized people all had in common a devotion to a life purpose or calling. And more recently, Marty Seligman, the father of positive psychology, lists in his book, Flourish, the five core elements of flourishing. Purpose is one of them.
Purpose, meaning, and vision at work and in our lives is important.
Clarity of vision makes a difference. What drives clarity may surprise you.
It's no secret that a clear vision drives alignment and the quality of work outcomes and that greater meaning and purpose for workers drives engagement and retention.
So, it is imperative that leaders influence employees, not only to acquire a sense of purpose, but a shared purpose--a sense of purpose that is seen and interpreted by different members in the same way. When we have specific goals and strategic aims, we don't need each individual interpreting what that is differently. A shared purpose drives alignment in culture, outcomes, and strategic goals. How do we most effectively and clearly communicate that to drive successful performance outcomes?
Like me, you may assume that you communicate vision pretty clearly. When I came across a 2014 study on the topic, I discovered that I may not be using the most effective communication strategies for communicating vision and that I may actually, although inadvertently, be contributing to a blurry vision—what the authors called a "blurry vision bias." The findings could radically change how you communicate vision, too. What you don't know actually can hurt you, your team, and ultimately, your customers.
Imaged-based words and conceptual words.
The mind is structured into two systems for processing phenomenon.
The first system encodes concrete information about our external reality through our senses. True to the very definition of the word vision, image-based words are part of this system and create a 'verbal portrait' that can be seen in the 'minds eye.' Psycholinguistics and cognitive psychology suggest that image-based words include:
Strong imagery promotes the shared aspect of a vision—when we want people aligned and all on the same page. Think Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
The second system processes higher-order conceptual representations as logic and meaning—how things are classified and fit together. The words customer and enjoy above are more conceptual and different people will interpret them differently. Values—including organizational values—are the same. Standing alone and without reference, they are subject to different interpretations. And when you start stacking them one on top of the other in a vision, it just muddies the waters even more.
The problem is that while previous research was clear that both image-based words and values are necessary to create strong shared visions, until now however, we didn't know the best ratio or combination that drives better results.
So, what's the answer?
The researchers discovered that in order to create a strong imagery effect for a vision (the shared part), leaders need to use a large number of image-based words and four or fewer values or conceptual words—and the closer to one value or conceptual word they got in their vision, the stronger the effect became.
Most importantly, this combination led to greater performance quality.
In other words, a large number of image-based words and fewer conceptual words led to better final results collectively. People aligned and stayed on the same page to drive similar, higher-quality results. The authors state, "performance is boosted by leader rhetoric comprised of image-laden words and four values or less."
Most leaders exhibit a “blurry vision bias” in which they provide conceptual (rather than concrete) visions and then communicate a large number of values that further obscures the vision. When communicating a vision, we need to turn that around. Look at the simple examples used in the study:
Weak imagery condition: “Our vision is that our toys—all of them made to perfection by our employees—will be enjoyed by all of our customers.”
Strong imagery condition: “Our vision is that our toys—all of them crafted flawlessly by our workers—will make wide-eyed kids laugh and proud parents smile.”
Despite the widespread attention given to the importance of a shared purpose, it is the rare leader who successfully establishes it. You are now better equipped to be one of those rare leaders who more effectively and clearly communicates vision and purpose.
*If you want something more succinct, this 2019 SHRM article provides a very nice summary of the BetterUp Labs report.
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Alan Mikolaj is a a professional, experienced, positive, and passionate speaker, leadership and organizational development consultant, change agent, author, and coach. He holds his Master of Arts degree in Clinical Psychology from Sam Houston State University. He is a certified graduate coach from Coaching Out of the Box and holds his ACC and membership with the International Coaching Federation (ICF).
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