"Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas." - Samuel Johnson
Words are important. The "right” spoken words have energy and power that can create a united and hopeful world that is struggling to come to terms with an unprecedented crisis.
The choice of words, the language, gains critical importance for leadership communication that has come into sharp focus as the COVID-19 crisis looms large on the world.
From the Queen of England to Presidents and Prime Ministers, from governments to local communities, world organizations to local bodies, large corporates to small businesses, world leaders are taking to public platforms to address their countrymen as they deal with grief, financial pain, and grave uncertainty while also tasked with encouraging the morale of health professionals struggling to control the impact of the novel coronavirus.
Words and language used by those in responsible positions is incredibly important and can impact morale and motivation. It is also one of the main sources of problems, as a means of communication often breaks down or becomes overloaded in the midst of a crisis.
In India, the Prime Minister has made three televised addresses already which have had a significant impact on the response of the citizens struggling to comprehend the extent of the crisis.
In a landscape-scale crisis like this, people’s minds turn first to their own survival and other basic needs, according to a recent report by McKinsey on Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak; crisis communication by leaders should be thoughtful, and frequent showing that leaders are following the situation and adjusting their responses as they learn more.
Leader speech, the words and language used to communicate are a powerful medium [leader talk] to forge psychological connect with the individuals. This is especially critical during times of crisis, such as today. Leaders are likely to feel impelled to be engaged, to be involved in decision making and communication about the situation—and perhaps to be (and be seen as) “in charge”, marshaling courage and showing directions.
A unique leadership communication model: Motivating language theory (ML) developed at Texas A&M International University, is an interesting framework that provides schemata, a theory-in-use to demonstrate how leader-to-follower speech can impact employee well-being, employee performance, job satisfaction, and organizational outcomes.
ML identifies three kinds of speech acts: (a) Direction-giving and uncertainty reducing language, those that reduce employee uncertainty and increase his or her knowledge- how to do the task at hand by, for example, giving easily understandable instructions, good definitions of tasks, and detail on how performance will be evaluated.; (b) Empathetic language or those that implicitly re-affirm the employee's sense of self-worth as a human being and; (c) Meaning-making language, that facilitate the employee's construction of cognitive schemas and scripts, which will be used to guide the employee in his or her work.
The three elements of ML when used in the right mix with the audience and context kept in mind can work as a great pep talk which may be the need of the hour for the beleaguered population of countries; cloistered due to COVID-19 lockdowns.
MLT in the address to the Nation
In a crisis emergency like today, when large swathes of the country are at a stand-still, lives have been turned upside down - our social interactions, our physical contact, even our walking around - simple things that we take for granted have changed when so many millions have been displaced and their livelihoods shattered, the role of a leader and his/her words cannot be underplayed.
A case in point is the PM's speech. A study of the speeches delivered by the PM indicates that all three elements (empathy, meaning-making, and direction giving elements) are included.
In a crisis situation , first using empathetic language is key to connect with the audience.
PM Modi’s use of words of courage, acknowledgment and praise creates a connection with the public. Using words such as: ‘Corona is a fight between life and death; we have to win in this battle’ ‘applaud using ‘thank you’, ‘setting an example to the world’ ‘Janta Jandardan’ (public is God), forged the connect. His statements such as: Increase social distancing but reduce emotional distancing: Do help the less well-off people and the poor during the lockdown’.personification for the country ‘Maa Bharti’ (Mother India) brought in the human connect.
PM Modi’s speech had high meaning-making context – when ‘130 crores’ people of India ‘have to be one’ in fighting this battle, ‘no other way’, ‘Ongoing lockdown necessary to break the chain of virus transmission and ensure everyone’s safety’; ‘Our nurses, doctors, para-medical staff are our front-line soldiers’ ‘Fight against; Clapping or lighting diyas at an appointed hour may give a semblance of unity and brotherhood.
Including the direction-giving element of the speech he talks about why a task is important, ‘If you break the rules of lockdown, it will be difficult to avoid Coronavirus from spreading further; ‘only one way’ to not cross the ‘Laxman Rekha’ – a well-understood idiom for social distancing.
Learnings for managers
Drawing from Motivation Language theory, recent ongoing research in India by Communication Faculty, Prof Upasna A Agarwal of National Institute of Industrial Engineering and Prof Vineeta Dwivedi of SP Jain Institute of Management and Research of over 300 managers has found that the impact of immediate supervisory oral communication (direction giving, empathetic and meaning-making) positively impacts subordinate’s participation-Voice behavior, commitment as well as mental wellbeing
Current developments and the ongoing research suggest the following as some of the learnings:
Leaders across domains need to be mindful of their speech type, since the ability to deliver an energizing talk can spurs employees to better performance is a prerequisite.
Most winning formulas include ALL three key elements- direction giving, expressions of empathy, and meaning-making, but the right mix will depend on the context and the audience.
A leader needs to know when and how to use which direction giving, empathy, and meaning-making. In a crisis situation, a leader needs to begin with the empathy element “I can imagine what you must be going through. It is not easy and leaves one anxious”. This should be followed up with direction offering insight on a basic informational (uncertainty-reducing) content since people have been confronted with an unprecedented situation— “ we don’t have a choice but to go for complete work stoppage and work from home till we hear next”. The speech needs to end with a meaning-making—an emotional rallying cry that connects the stakeholders to a bigger goal and leaves the group energized: “Fight against Corona is a fight between life and death; we have to win in this battle
While in routine situations, the leader's speech and communication style may not need as much focus but in times of an unprecedented world crisis like the Corona pandemic, this becomes critical. It is significant to note that a leader's language plays an important role in strategic communication that is integral to sustaining businesses in such troubled times.