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Communicating a strategic vision

Dr. Simon Moss


Leaders often want to convey an inspiring, uplifting, and motivating vision of the future, which encapsulates the values, aspirations, and objectives they would like all of their employees to pursue. This visionary speech is intended to instil a sense of cohesion and uniformity as well as promote engagement and energy in employees.

Cultivating receptivity to an inspiring vision

Before leaders promulgate an inspiring vision of the future, they should ensure that employees experience a sense of security (Moss, 2009). Employees who instead feel vulnerable, distrusting, or detached from their managers, colleagues, or organization tend to reject, not embrace, an inspiring vision of the future (e.g., Sparrowe, Soetjipto, & Kraimer, 2006).

Seeking contributions

Step 1. First, before they convey a rousing vision of the future, leaders should seek advice, suggestions, and contributions, primarily from employees with whom they have not formed a strong relationship. In particular, these employees should first be asked to specify their aspirations--goals and objectives they would like to achieve in the future--such as to establish a method that overcomes dyslexia. In addition, these employees should be asked to reflect upon the aspirations their team or organization might want to pursue

When individuals reflect upon the goals and aspirations they would like to achieve in the future, they strive to accelerate progress, relatively immune to the problems and complications that might arise, called a promotion focus (Molden & Higgins, 2008, see Regulatory focus theory). As soon as this orientation prevails, individuals become more receptive to an inspirational vision of the future (Moss, 2009).

Step 2. Next, employees should be invited to reflect upon some of their strengths, skills, and qualities. In particular, leaders should ask these employees to specify which of their strengths, abilities, skills, and attributes might facilitate either their personal or team aspirations. These employees should also identify which of these qualities are perhaps not recognized, or not utilized, by their colleagues and managers. Conceivably, their colleagues, for example, might be oblivious to their experience in education.

When employees reflect upon their qualities--that is, inclinations or behaviors that align with their enduring values or objectives--they become more resilient (Harris & Napper, 2005 & Koole, Smeets, van Knippenberg, & Dijksterhuis, 2006). This resilience confers a sense of security, augmenting their sensitivity to an inspiring vision of the future.

Step 3. Then, leaders should ask these employees to express some initiatives or changes that could be introduced to expedite the achievement of their personal or team aspirations--such as forming a collaboration with local primary schools. Leaders should encourage these employees to express as many potential solutions as possible, even if these suggestions are seemingly fuzzy, optimistic, naive, incomplete, and fallible.

This interaction presents two benefits. First, when individuals attempt to express as many solutions as possible, focussing on maximizing progress rather than minimizing errors, they also become more inclined to experience a promotion focus (Higgins, Shah, & Friedman, 1997). Second, this interaction is likely to foster trust and rapport between leaders and employees, and this trust has been shown to enhance the receptivity of individuals towards an inspirational vision (e.g., Sparrowe, Soetjipto, & Kraimer, 2006).

In contrast, if employees have not formed a trusting relationship with their leader, they perceive themselves to be low in status, tarnishing their attitudes towards work. They regard an inspiring vision of the future as an assault on their own values and priorities, diminishing their status even further.

Formulating a strategic vision and set of values

Once employees seem receptive to a grander vision of the future, leaders should then attempt to identify the aspirations and values they would like their team or organization to embrace. In particular, they should ponder over the suggestions of employees or peers, extending, modifying, and integrating these solutions to generate a broader range of possible initiatives, changes, and objectives. Subsequently, they should then decide which of these possibilities should be pursued.

Future goals

Step 1. If the organization or workgroup is not flourishing, but instead wrestling with some intractable problems, these leaders should consider the hopes and aspirations they would like to accomplish in the future: improvements in society, in the organization, or in their status and responsibilities, for example.

After individuals reflect upon their hopes and aspirations--goals and objectives they would like to achieve in the remote future--their principal motivation is to expedite progress. They are willing to withstand some of the uncertainties or complications that might ensue (Friedman & Forster, 2001). Accordingly, they effortlessly identify novel, original possibilities. In contrast, when individuals reflect upon the duties and obligations they must fulfill more immediately, their principal motivation is to circumvent shortfalls. To minimize these shortfalls, they also seek a sense of certainty and clarity--a sense of certain that diminishes when novel initiatives and changes are introduced. This orientation, therefore, tends to stymie creative and novel suggestions.

If the workgroup or organization is thriving, however, rather than reflect upon future hopes and aspirations, leaders should reflect upon initiatives and decisions in the past five years that enhanced success. They might, for example, reflect upon the scheme to employ homeless youth.

Reflections upon distant times, either in the past or future, can ignite creativity (Forster, Friedman, & Liberman, 2004). Scientists have also demonstrated when leaders should reflect upon the past, not the future. These scientists discovered that leaders develop more inspirational--more compelling--visions of the future if they focus on future aspirations rather than past events, provided the workplace is deteriorating or floundering. A focus on inspirational goals enables these leaders to shift the organization away from the prevailing decline. If the workplace is flourishing, however, leaders formulate a more inspiring vision of the future if they focus on past events rather than future aspirations. This focus on past events enables these leaders to extract effective insights from the past (Strange & Mumford, 2005).

Step 2. Second, these leaders should reflect upon their own unique experiences, qualifications, qualities, and values--the characteristics that differentiate themselves from other employees in the team or organization. They should consider which of these attributes they would like to utilize--perhaps their experience in accounting or their extensive social network--to accelerate progress towards these goals and aspirations.

This reflection upon their unique qualities also fosters creativity. Specifically, after this exercise, individuals are more inclined to perceive themselves as independent or detached from any collective, such as their workgroup or organization. As a consequence of this independence, they feel more liberated to challenge the traditions of these collective, evoking a more creative orientation to solving problems (Goncalo & Staw, 2006). In contrast, when individuals identify themselves too closely with some collective, their creativity declines, especially if this group is not regarded as imaginative and resourceful (see Seibt & Forster, 2004).

Blending suggestions

Step 3. Third, these leaders should then consider some of the constraints they need to accommodate as well as the problems they need to resolve. Perhaps, the values they promulgate must align with the priorities of their executive board. Perhaps they need to diminish the consumption of fossil fuels, and so forth. In addition, these leaders should skim all the suggestions of their employees--the aspirations, strengths, and solutions these individuals expressed. Finally, these leaders should attempt to integrate random sets of these suggestions, to identify possible courses of action that could accommodate their constraints and redress any impending problems.

One employee, for example, might have expressed the ambition to work in politics. Another employee might have conveyed the aspiration to stem workplace bullying. A third employee might have alluded to research skills, which are seldom utilized in the workplace. The leader might need to accommodate an imperative to reduce expenditure.

Potentially, the leader could integrate these suggestions, while accommodating this constraint. Perhaps, the leader might propose that employees who enjoy politics seek funding from government grants to undertake research into workplace bullying, for example. Subsequently, the leader should combine some of the other suggestions--suggestions that, initially, might seem entirely unrelated--attempting to unearth creative solutions.

When individuals attempt to merge concepts or suggestions that are, putatively, unrelated to one another, their subsequent creativity tends to improve. That is, a unique blend of concepts, thoughts, or emotions evokes the feeling that some unique event has unfolded. To accommodate this unique event, cognitive operations that generate novel solutions are activated, enhancing creativity (see Fong, 2006). Deliberately attempting to accommodate some constraint can actually improve creativity as well (for other practices that improve creativity, see Promoting creativity).

Choosing the best alternatives

Step 4. To decide which of these suggestions to pursue, individuals should first transcribe all of the most promising possibilities. Next, they should engage in a distracting, but relaxing, activity for a while--an activity that confers a sense of security. For example, they could telephone someone they trust unreservedly--someone who is always supportive, understanding, and helpful, rather than judgmental or temperamental (McGowen, 2002). Alternatively, they could reflect upon a recent activity they completed, goal they reached, or value they pursued that evoked pride and satisfaction (Koole, Smeets, van Knippenberg, & Dijksterhuis, 2006). Finally, they should trust their intuition and decide which of these suggestions to promote.

When individuals feel relaxed and secure, a circuit in the brain, called extension memory, is activated. This circuit, when activated, enables individuals to choose courses of action that align with their core values (Kazen, Baumann, & Kuhl, 2003). That is, they become more inclined to select alternatives that promote fulfilment and satisfaction instead of regret or disappointment. Consequently, these individuals are less inclined to change their decisions or goals and will thus act persistently and consistently rather than erratically and unpredictably.

Pre-empting the vision

Step 1. Even after leaders decide upon the vision, objectives, or values they would like to pursue, they should not communicate this strategic direction immediately. Instead, leaders should, if possible, institute a few changes that align with this vision of the future--minor initiatives they feel that most employee will embrace.

To illustrate, an executive of a local hospital might want to launch an extensive and ambitious initiative--perhaps a campaign that enhances the capacity of residents to diagnose the complaints, and choose the most suitable remedies, for ill and elderly relatives. Initially, before introducing this campaign, the leader might ask an employee to develop a suite of brochures, stipulating the food that individuals with intolerances to glucose, fructose, or gluten should avoid as well as supplements that could alleviate symptoms.

Subsequently, leaders could allude to these brochures, as well as other simple initiatives, when they convey their vision to their team, workgroup, department, or organization. They might, for example, announce: "Some of our ongoing activities, such as the creation of brochures on intolerance, are consistent with my vision".

Employees are more likely to be committed to some vision or goal after they reflect upon activities that are already underway--or tasks that have already been completed--that align with this direction (Minjung & Fishbach, 2008). Hence, after leaders demonstrate how previous initiatives align with their vision of the future, employees become more committed to this strategy, augmenting the likelihood that such goals and objectives are ultimately fulfilled (Minjung & Fishbach, 2008).

Furthermore, after employees engage in tasks that align with a vision of the future, they can more readily imagine how this strategy might unfold. Strategies or goals that can be readily envisaged are also more likely to be realized (e.g., Petrova & Cialdini, 2005).

Characteristics of an inspiring vision and set of values

When leaders convey their vision and values to other individuals, some words, phrases, styles, and other literary devices are especially likely to engage the audience and instill confidence in the message.

Focus on benefits

Step 1. When leaders disseminate a strategic vision, depicting a series of broad aspirations for the future, members of the audience are more inclined to adopt a promotion focus--an orientation in which they strive to maximize progress rather than minimize shortfalls (Molden & Higgins, 2008). When individuals adopt this perspective, they are more convinced by messages that:

That is, when individuals direct their attention towards possible opportunities or benefits, they consider limitations in their own ability not the constraints that other individuals impose (Keller, 2006) and thus focus on whether the activities are convenient. In addition, because their attention is directed towards possible benefits and gains, they prefer products and services that are excellent on some attributes, regardless of the potential complications or drawbacks (Zhang & Mittal, 2007).

Step 2. During the introduction of this speech or presentation, leaders should include some words that are synonymous with fascination, such as "absorbed", "interested", "delighted", "initiative", or "challenge" (Levesque & Pelletier, 2003). These words have been shown to foster engagement, ensuring that employees become immersed in the presentation.


Step 3. This presentation should include at least one story, depicting a person, team, or organization. The leader should first delineate some vivid and tangible features of the characters or context. Perhaps the main protagonist shares an attribute, perhaps an aversion to the corporate world, with many members of the audience. The attribute or characteristic must engender sympathy and compassion, not competition or resentment. Second, the person, team, or organization must experience some conflict or obstacle--an impediment that could threaten their status or viability. Finally, this conflict or obstacle must be resolved.

When an audience becomes absorbed in a story, as if they are transported to another world, they become less inclined to question the morals or opinions this anecdote implies. That is, they become less cynical (Green & Brock, 2000). For example, if the anecdote depicts a person who flourishes after dedicating more to their family, the audience is also more inclined to adopt this behavior, provided they feel immersed in the story (Green & Brock, 2000). A person who is portrayed as inspiring is especially likely to rouse members of the audience, provided these individuals feel a sense of compassion, camaraderie, and empathy with this protagonist (Kemmelmeier & Oyserman, 2001).

Green, Brock, and Kaufman (2004) stipulated some other properties of a story that absorb the listeners and stem their cynicism (see also Maill & Kuiken, 1994). In particular, the presentation could include:

Instilling the vision and values

Step 1. Towards the end of this presentation, leaders should ask members of the audience to consider two or three activities they might undertake in the next month that align with this strategic vision. Finally, these individuals should be asked to imagine the precise time and place in which they will implement these intended actions as well as how they will overcome obstacles (see implementation intentions).

Some members of the audience might, for example, telephone contacts at other organizations, informing these individuals about the strategic vision, as soon as they complete an ongoing report. They would then imagine completing this report, and then telephoning their closest contacts.

These plans, called implementation intentions, are especially effective when the behaviors that need to be enacted are inconvenient (Gollwitzer & Brandsttater, 1997)& these images shield individuals from distractions. That is, when the imagined time and place arises, the motivation to engage in the desired act is rapid and effortless (Gollwitzer, 1993, 1999& Gollwitzer & Brandstatter, 1997).

Nevertheless, implementation intentions should not be formed if individuals formed the goals under duress (Powers, Koestner, & Topciu, 2005). That is, they should apply this approach to personal goals--goals that, if unfulfilled, will not disappoint anyone else.


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Last Update: 5/11/2016