Sometimes, when a CEO addresses his or her employees, less is more. That’s what Nir Halevy, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor, found when he and Yair Berson, a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, examined the way in which leaders — whether they are country presidents, chief executives or midlevel managers — communicate with their followers. The two researchers looked specifically at something known as construal level theory, which states that the psychological distance between a leader and his or her followers influences the concreteness or abstractness of that leader’s communication in the eyes of followers.
In particular, they found that the right message from the right person — a concrete call to action from a leader close to a follower and an abstract message from a leader hierarchically distant from a follower — elicited a stronger commitment and willingness to take action. Their studies also proved the opposite was true, that when distant leaders formulated concrete, overly detailed messages or when direct managers delivered abstract messages, their employees were far less engaged, committed, and motivated.
Halevy emphasizes that his research demonstrates that the individual rank of a leader isn’t important in motivating followers. Just because someone is a C-level executive doesn’t mean his or her words will have more weight than a lower-ranking manager’s. “It’s the distance between you and the person with whom you’re communicating that’s most important,” he says. “We’re not telling leaders beware of your rank; we’re saying consider the distance, within the organization, of your audience from you. You should change and adapt the way you communicate to create some construal fit, because it has positive downstream consequences.” Those include greater job satisfaction, commitment, and social bonding.
With the results of these studies in mind, Halevy says business leaders can take practical steps to more effectively motivate, communicate, and manage their reports, whether they are direct or indirect. “Think about the omnipresence of micromanaging,” says Halevy. “A lot of people think it’s ideal to be a hands-on manager, that even though I’m the CEO, I’m very ‘hands-on.’ What we’re saying with this paper is that sometimes that might actually backfire. Maybe it’s not such a good idea.” Halevy says managers will get their subordinates to do more of what they want them to do if there is construal fit. “You want your subordinates to internalize what you’re asking them to do, and with construal fit, it’s easier for people to process your message,” he says. “The less effort to process, the faster the action.”
The information could also be a guide for mentorship programs, says Halevy, which traditionally take experienced, high-ranking executives and pair them with young upstarts. Based on this new research, just the opposite may be true. Mentorship programs might be more effective if mentors and mentees were closer in rank. “We found you get the best mentorship and feedback from your direct supervisors, and in a mentoring relationship you want to maximize feedback,” he says.
Although Halevy focused on vertical, hierarchical distance, he says construal fit translates to other kinds of distances too, like spatial and, temporal. Think of the modern workplace, where people may be toiling remotely, in satellite offices, in virtual teams, or across different time zones. “We’re just starting to think what it means to lead or follow from different types of distances,” he says. “Leaders and followers need to find ways to work effectively across all these distances to perform at their highest potential.”
Nir Halevy is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB. Yair Berson is a professor of psychology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.