Getting the message across: the importance of face-to-face communication for leaders

By David Donaldson

August 13, 2018

Face-to-face communication is a powerful tool for leaders to win staff over to their vision, but quickly becomes difficult in large organisations. There is hope for big departments, however.

Transformational leadership holds a lot of promise for public managers.

It’s an idea that’s been around in the management literature for a while — a leader who can articulate a vision of what the organisation is aiming for and win staff over, even if it might be hard to get them there. It’s often compared to transactional leadership, which is more about the use of objective punishments and rewards, though the two are not mutually exclusive.

Transformational leadership fits well with public organisations, which exist for the public good and tend to be staffed with people who care about achieving public value. If employees know what they’re working towards and believe it’s worthwhile, they should invest greater effort in the enterprise.

“Partly we are just trying to caution people about the potential for transformational leadership.”

If nothing else, it’s a cost-effective way for managers to get more out of their workforce.

This means communication is important, but people are busy and talk is cheap, so messages can easily be lost. So what’s the best way to ensure the message is heard, and more importantly, believed?

Face-to-face interaction is pretty effective, according to a new paper in Public Administration Review

The study, based on survey results from staff in 256 mostly public Danish organisations, found that face-to-face interaction can strengthen the positive effects of a transformational leadership approach.

The authors suggest this is because it allows for feedback, personalised messaging, and provides additional information missing in an email, such as body language or tone of voice. It’s easier to resolve ambiguities face-to-face, and harder to doubt the authenticity of the leader’s message.

“Face-to-face dialogue gives the sender a chance to establish a genuine commitment to the message, and the receiver a chance to receive and review these commitments,” the paper argues.

Challenge with large workplaces

But the researchers also found that the larger the organisation becomes, the less effective face-to-face communication is. What is a large organisation? Their analysis uses a cut-off point of 30 employees, finding that the effect “was indistinguishable from zero” above this point.

“While 30 is not some magic number, it’s around the point where it becomes harder to maintain a network of meaningful connections.”

Co-author Professor Donald Moynihan of Georgetown University told The Mandarin that while 30 is not some magic number, it’s around the point where it becomes harder to maintain a network of meaningful connections:

“At a personal level, I think 30 is about the number of students I can have in my class where I remember their name and their interests, so it seemed intuitive that it became harder for a leader to have interpersonal relationships with many more people than that,” he explained.

A large investment of effort might enable a leader to overcome the size problem, or some might use technology, holding “virtual town halls”. But it’s hard to be a top-down transformational leader in a large organisation.

“Partly we are just trying to caution people about the potential for transformational leadership. Managers who try to make it work in larger organisations are apt to be disappointed,” Moynihan said.

The decentralised approach

This doesn’t mean there’s nothing big organisations can do.

The researchers note that while the secretary or director-general in a big department won’t be able to reach everyone personally, individual managers can. They know their staff and they’re familiar with their team’s work and can explain how it fits with the organisation’s vision.

“We suggest that perhaps having more of a decentralised approach to leadership is necessary for transformational leadership to work in large organisations: rather than have a single leader inspire everyone with a vision from the top, you select leaders at lower levels that can just as effectively convey the inspiring aspects of the mission as the organisational leader does,” Moynihan says.

“This reflects the fact that transformational leadership needs the personal touch to work, but that for large organisations, no single person can provide that personal touch.”

The research shows leaders need to actively consider how best to ensure their message is getting through to staff, argues lead author Associate Professor Ulrich Jensen of Arizona State University.

“For me the key take-away from the article is the need to combine a vision with appropriate modes of communication. Creating a grand vision does not do much if it only sits on the leader’s desk or if it is communicated in a way that does not allow for a meaningful translation to individual job contexts,” he explains.

“It requires a personalised style of communication where: (1) potential ambiguities in the vision can be clarified, (2) employees can see how invested the leader personally is in the vision, and (3) employees can engage in a translation process to situate or contextualise the broader organisational vision to their specific job context and goals.

“Visions are a key managerial lever but only to the extent that it is communicated and shared in a way so employees can see how their job feeds into and contributes to the vision.”

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