Effective Communication as a Motivational Strategy
Communicating effectively with employees seems to be a common-sense and essential approach for managers who want to get the job done. However, communication, more specifically, the use of Motivating Language (ML) can be a valuable managerial tool that can inspire employees to become more engaged in, and more satisfied with, their work.
In effective communication, it is not only the content of the message that is important, it is the way in which that message is delivered that is key to workers’ job performance and satisfaction. To this end, understanding ML and how to use it can help managers work successfully with staff. Extensive research has demonstrated a strong link between a manager’s communicating style and an employee’s level of involvement in the job. Indeed, high quality manager-employee relations, which focus on these interpersonal communicative strategies, relate significantly to employees’ overall job satisfaction.
ML can be categorized into three main areas (direction giving; empathetic language; and Meaning making):
· Direction giving – the ability to give clear, precise directions reduces uncertainty and task ambiguity on the part of the employee. Employees appreciate receiving straightforward instructions and “getting down to business.”
o To make sure that directions are clear, managers should have employees repeat those directions back to them.
o Managers can also ask clarifying questions such as, “What do you do after you’ve completed the first draft?” or “Where do you send the proposal after it is approved?”
· Empathetic language – the ability to share feelings with employees lets the employees know that their emotional status is crucial to the team’s success.
o To convey empathy, listen well. Acknowledge and allow employees to express ideas and feelings without being judgmental or critical.
o Managers should reflect back to the employees what is understood and what is felt. For example, “You must be exhausted taking care of your newborn while working extra hours.”
· Meaning making – the ability to align the given task to the employees’ sense of value to the overall goal of the organization. Employees appreciate knowing that their accomplishments contribute to their own self development as well as to the organization’s goals.
o Managers should let the employees know “What is in it for them?” For example, their attendance at the marketing conference in Dubuque, Iowa will improve team cohesiveness, promote creativity, and offer networking opportunities.
o Employees should also know how their individual efforts contribute to the overall picture. Fox example, let those employees who may not see value in making sure that each piece of mail goes out on time, know that each marketing brochure could be a potential sale for the organization.
Employees need to believe that they are being heard and understood. To this end, managers need to be aware of using the most suitable communication approach. For example, “Kira” likes to ease into the task with empathetic talk about the weekend or her volunteer experiences. When a manager dismisses Kira’s “small talk” and begins to discuss the project at hand (using direction-giving approach inappropriately), Kira might feel that the manager does not care about her as a human being.
Not only should managers be aware of how they are communicating, they also need to be aware of how the messages might be perceived. Managers might believe that they are being empathetic, but employees might think that the managers are being disingenuous or even “nosy.” Another case might be when managers are “giving directions” to a highly self-sufficient professional. This communication approach might be perceived as undermining the worker’s expertise or questioning her competence.
ML is an effective approach to improving communication and motivating staff. However, one must also keep in mind that ML is not a universal quick fix; that is, cultural factors, gender differences, and individual perspectives all come into play. The managerial role to achieve communication effectiveness relies on one’s awareness and flexibility.
About the Authors
Limsy Chan, DBA, specializes in communication effectiveness, quantitative analysis and motivational research.
Siu Ng, MA, specializes in the teaching of writing with years of experience working and communicating with diverse student populations.
 For a discussion of Motivating Language theory, see Sullivan, J.J. (1988) Three Roles of Language in Motivation Theory The Academy of Management Review 13.1 104-113
 A list of ML research includes:
(2b) Mayfield, J. R., Mayfield, M. R., & Kopf, J. (1995). Motivating language: Exploring theory with scale development. The Journal of Business Communication, 32(4), 329-345.
(2c) Mayfield, J. R., Mayfield, M. R., & Kopf, J. (1998). The effects of leader motivating language on
subordinate performance and satisfaction. Human Resource Management, 37(3-4), 235-248.
 Campbell, K. S., White, C. D., & Johnson, D. E. (2003). Leader-member relations as a function of rapport management. The Journal of Business Communication, 40(3), 170-194.
 The empirical ML research was conducted and presented:
(4a) Chan, L. (2007). Do the leaders’ motivating language approaches relate to the subordinates’ level of job satisfaction in a unionized work environment? Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, FL.
(4b) Chan, L., Dion, P., Barnes, B. & Cavanaugh, M. (2008) “Manager’s Motivating Language and Communication Approaches”.
Paper presented at The STC Annual Conference, Philadelphia, PA