Be an inspirational communicator

inspirational communicator

Many leaders can be categorised as transactional, focusing on a straightforward exchange between leaders and employees: for example, offering monetary compensation in return for compliance. This style of leadership is very limited in that ever increasing sums are required to boost employee performance.

In contrast, leaders who communicate in an inspirational fashion can use their words, behaviour and even emotions to motivate employees to achieve superior levels of performance.

Positive outcomes

Inspirational leadership is linked to multiple positive outcomes in the workplace. For instance, a study led by Aparna Joshi at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that inspirational leadership was a significant predictor of employees’ commitment to the team.

Most interestingly, the data revealed that the positive relationship between inspirational leadership and employee commitment was even stronger in teams that were more geographically dispersed. In other words, inspirational communication may be even more crucial when team members are spread across multiple sites or even countries, and a leader cannot observe employees directly to ensure their compliance.

At a high level, researchers Alannah Rafferty and Mark Griffin at Queensland University of Technology identified that inspirational communicators are rated highly on behaviours including ‘says things that make employees proud to be a part of this organisation’ and ‘encourages people to see changing environments as situations full of opportunities’ (as opposed to being threatening and overwhelming).

Further research has identified many specific behaviours that are associated with being perceived as more inspirational. For example, the correlation coefficient between perceptions of inspiration and variations in voice loudness was 0.44. So, consider altering the volume of your voice – that might mean becoming quieter as well as louder – to emphasise key arguments or ideas.

The correlation between perceptions of inspirational communication and use of metaphors was 0.33. Strictly speaking, metaphors in business communication such as ‘We are the captains of our own future’ or ‘You can spread your wings and soar to success’ do not convey useful factual content. However, the data shows that audiences do indeed feel more inspired by them.

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The correlation with use of gestures was smaller, at 0.23. This suggests that leaders wishing to communicate more inspirationally should focus on techniques such as the use of their voice and word choice more than their use of physical movement.

Emotional intelligence

Inspirational communication requires more than mere mastery of words and behaviour, though. Emotions matter, too. Of course, you have probably heard many times about the importance of emotional intelligence – and a core component of this involves monitoring and then managing your own mood.

Consider a research study in which leaders displayed either happiness or sadness while instructing observers in how to perform various tasks. Academics led by Erasmus University Rotterdam’s Victoria Visser had initially hypothesised that leader happiness would improve performance on creative tasks but that leader sadness would boost performance on analytical undertakings. However, their data showed that happiness led to better performance on all tasks.

More broadly, leaders who provoke negative emotions such as fear or disappointment in order to motivate employees may find it backfiring. Telling employees how bad things are may prompt employees to defend their own jobs, even if it means hoarding information or sabotaging others.

Such results underscore that leaders who demonstrate positive emotions – such as hope in the face of challenging circumstances – tend to inspire employees more effectively than when displaying negative emotions. So, be much more aware of your moods. Your mood is contagious – and a positive one may lift people’s performance.

Watch and learn

For improvement at inspirational communication, understanding matters far less than repeated practice. When I am running in-person workshops on inspirational leadership, I have participants spending most of the time writing speeches, delivering them, and receiving feedback not only from me but also each other.

If you ask for formal training but are refused, at least observe other leaders with a view to analysing the language or behaviours that help them to elevate how they communicate. Introduce new ways of speaking into your own repertoire and then ask a confidant or mentor to observe you and give you specific, constructively critical feedback. Hearing positive comments about your performance may make you feel good, but it is actually the negative feedback that will help you to become a more inspirational communicator.

More information

Watch our video with Dr Rob Yeung on how to be an effective leader

This article was first published in AB magazine September 2023

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