During times of crisis, a leader's language should not reflect fear

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In an economic crisis, leaders gain more support when they use words like progress, change and ideal. Followers are then more likely to co-operate with their plans. Using words such as safety, danger and responsibility is an ineffective strategy to win support in hard times. These were the findings of a research project conducted by Daan Stam, Daan van Knippenberg, Barbara Wisse and Anne Nederveen Pieterse at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). Stam and his colleagues arrived at this conclusion by studying, among others, the inaugural speeches of 35 American presidents since George Washington.

The language people use is closely related to important motivations in life, also called ‘regulatory focus’ says Stam. People with a dominant ‘promotion-focus’ are motivated by achieving a positive goal. Such a basic motivation is expressed in words such as growth, revolution, and ideal. Conversely, people with a ‘prevention focus’ aim to avoid negative situations. In their communication they tend to use words such as anxiety, obligations, and security.

Economic crisis

It is generally believed that leaders win more support when they use words that correspond with the ‘regulatory focus’ of the public. Followers then feel at ease, and are more likely to regard the leader as being effective and motivating. But is that still true in an economic crisis? After all, such a crisis often gives rise to feelings of fear, which in turn lead to a more ‘prevention-focused’ public. Do people still want leaders who send out a message driven by fear?

From Washington to Bush

To determine this, the researchers first studied the inaugural speeches of 35 American presidents between George Washington and George W. Bush. They compared the presidents’ use of language against the economic climate – measured as growth rates and inflation – and the support the presidents received in the form of re-election and reviews of their ‘greatness’ by groups of experts. Results showed presidents who used more promotion-oriented words in their inaugural speech achieved more success during economically difficult times. And it takes only a relatively mild economic crisis to see this effect come into play, says Stam. An inflation rate of 0.63 per cent or higher, or economic growth rates lower than 2.14 per cent is all that’s needed to make promotion-oriented communication an effective communication strategy to garner support.

According to the researchers, people don’t want their own fears stirred up during hard times by listening to the anxious words of leaders. Rather, they want a leader who can turn their feelings around by using communication that paints a brighter picture.

The leader’s plans

Researching presidential speeches indicates what kind of language results in gaining the most support in times of crisis, even though the researchers concluded that the sample of 35 presidents was too small to give conclusive results. However, further studies in the laboratory with 106 participants, plus a scenario study with 304 respondents confirmed the earlier conclusion. It appears that the use of promotion-oriented language makes people more inclined to support the leader’s plans, which, in turn, leads to an increase in support for the leader.

The results of this study can help managers motivate their staff in difficult economic times. During these periods, using promotion-oriented communication is the best way to get support for new plans, Stam concludes.

The article: Stam, D. Van Knippenberg, D., Wisse, B., Nederveen Pieterse, A. Motivation in Words. Promotion- and Prevention-Oriented Leader Communication in Times of Crisis, Journal of Management, Published online before print July 15 2016 


Crisis-related Research Series

This article is part of our crisis-related research series: a growing collection of research-based thought pieces and opinions from RSM’s academics and researchers. Topics range from tips for battling loneliness to the ethical dilemmas faced by managers and leaders.


Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s leading research-based business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who carry their innovative mindset into a sustainable future thanks to a first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China. www.rsm.nl

For more information about RSM or this article, please contact Danielle Baan, Media Officer for RSM, via +31 10 408 2028 or baan@rsm.nl.

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