In 2014, with the help of several colleagues, Andrew Carton, Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School, set about studying how the specific language of leader rhetoric impacts on productivity.
The researchers analysed the vision statements of 151 American hospitals, looking specifically at those related to cardiology units. They wanted to assess how effective these corporate statements of purpose were when it came to the service provided to heart attack patients, which they did by examining readmission rates for such patients within a month of the original illness. They discovered that statements with a high proportion of image-based words and relatively few values had the greatest effect on employee performance (less readmissions), whereas those with more values than vision, or simply not much vision (lacking vivid imagery), had the least effect (more readmissions).
It turns out that leaders often use concepts rather than images to communicate purpose. So they might talk in generic terms about a company becoming a leading retailer of luxury goods, rather than talking memorably about seeing more customers smile as they head home clutching their new handbag. They also tend to overuse values – quality, innovation, accountability – which muddies the vision they are trying to convey. These characteristics may not have a huge impact on an individual employee’s ability to conjure up a standalone vision of what they’re working towards, but they do have an enormous effect on what the company’s shared vision will be. And as we all know, it’s the shared vision that really counts in organisational performance.
The use of imagery counts in other ways. The researchers also found out that leaders who make vivid, image-laden statements can better articulate that vision, as opposed to leaders who rely on too much terminology and visually blurry language.
What does this all mean? It means that images really do stick. Vision statements literally need to present a vision to be effective in improving organisational practice, including in organisations such as hospitals where performance can be a life-or-death matter. Needless to say, what’s true here for vision statements is true for stories in general.
Source: Andrew M. Carton, Chad Murphy & Jonathan R. Clark, ‘A (Blurry) Vision of the Future: How Leader Rhetoric about Ultimate Goals Influences Performance’, Academy of Management Journal, vol. 57, no. 6, 2014, pp. 1544–70.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: