Proven Results on How to Communicate Your Organization’s Purpose
Useful insights can come from odd places. Sometimes you just need to follow the trail.
For me, I found a terrific post Vision and Values: Craft your message carefully on a website designed for technology executives in the federal government. The writer, Steve Kelman, was highlighting a research report he was reading in the Academy of Management Journal, titled: A (Blurry) Vision of the Future: How Leader Rhetoric about Ultimate Goals Influences Performance.
This research report, authored by Andrew Carton (Wharton), Chad Murphy (Oregon State), and Jonathan Clark (Penn State), looks at the importance of clarity in messaging that leads employees to have a common and unified understanding of their company’s purpose.
The authors studied what leaders communicate to employees about an organization’s vision and values and evaluated the impact on performance. Their findings are based on two studies: one involving available data of 151 acute care hospitals in California; and the other a lab experiment involving collaborative design for a toy company.
What the authors discovered was the most effective way to communicate vision and values:
- For vision, the more concrete the better.
- For values, the fewer the better.
Many leaders fail to communicate their vision due to weak imagery. But higher performing organizations communicate a strong and more concrete vision.
To demonstrate this point, the authors experimented with the following vision statements for a toy company:
- “Our vision is that our toys—all of them made to perfection by our employees—will be enjoyed by all of our customers.” [weaker imagery]
- “Our vision is that our toys—all of them crafted flawlessly by our workers—will make wide-eyed kids laugh and proud parents smile.” [stronger imagery]
The first vision presents a more general and weaker concept (“enjoyed by all customers”). The second vision presents a stronger and more concrete image (laughing wide-eyed kids and smiling proud parents).
The authors found that a stronger image is more vivid and less subject to varying interpretations of what it means.
Using data available from a study of 151 hospitals, the researchers determined that leaders communicated a range of values, generally between one and nine (average was five). What they found was four or less values was better. As the number of values communicated increased, so did the potential for disagreement among employees about which ones were really important.
The authors summarize their findings as follows:
“When leaders express a small number of values [4 or less], employees have a more focused set of principles they can use to guide their behavior during implementation… This refines the notion that values can be useful both when they are espoused (as ways to infuse image-based words with meaning) and enacted (as standards that guide behavior during task implementation)… Moreover, the number of core values may be a key proxy for the strength of the organization’s culture, with a limited number of core values reflecting a strong culture with very clear expectations for how employees should act.”
Fewer values equates to a strong culture!
Sadly, the authors determined that most leaders tend to craft visions with weaker concepts as opposed to stronger image-based words, and they communicate too many values rather than a focused set of values. As the authors conclude: “Despite the widespread attention given to the importance of a shared purpose, it is the rare leader who successfully establishes it.”
To effectively communicate an organization’s purpose, communicate vision with concrete imagery, and have four or less values (I recommend three). This is how the best leaders produce better results.