The Key to Leadership Communication

Spoiler alert: it’s the pronoun “we” (or “us”). But how do we turn it into a livable reality?

When discussing leadership communication, plenty of texts and materials out there will have you believe that it has everything to do with a leader’s personal qualities (such as charisma and interpersonal skills), their professional ability (competence, reliability, information processing), with legitimacy and the capacity to reward and punish. And while all those things certainly do matter a lot, more recent research by renowned social psychologist Alex Haslam (The New Psychology of Leadership – second edition, 2020) chooses to place the emphasis elsewhere – and with compelling arguments.

According to Haslam, effective leadership is “a process of social identity management”, which makes it just as much (if not more) about the followers. To motivate and influence others and get them to work together toward a common goal (of their own accord and not as a result of coercion) requires – first and foremost – the creation of a shared sense of “us-ness”.

Haslam’s claim: “It is not possible to have effective leadership and effective organization without a shared identity.” But why is that? Well, for one, a shared identity generates affinity. It makes us feel more similar to one another and less like strangers – which in turn engenders cohesion and collaboration. And since we are more likely to like and trust those who are more like us, a shared social identity also increases the level of trust which in turn leads to more engagement, effective communication, and more coordination among the group’s members. As soon as we no longer focus exclusively on our own idiosyncratic individuality, we become more attuned to the people around us, we can connect and develop a shared sense of purpose.

Recent research by Haslam and his colleagues shows that engaging and involving people in decisions and tasks not only gives them more of a stake in the final outcome, making those decisions more tenable in the long run, but it also leads to the development of a shared social identity, to less isolation, and to better health. Empowerment and inclusivity are good for people – and leaders and decision-makers at all levels need to take this into account.

We tend to think of communication as mainly verbal but, in fact, what Haslam proposes is that while the verbal markers of social cohesion do play a crucial role (the frequency with which political candidates use the pronouns “we” and “us” seem to be fairly reliable predictors of their electoral success), non-verbal communication, corporeal experiences, and material structures play a huge role as well.

In brief, effective leaders need to accomplish 4 things:

  1. Cultivate a shared sense of identity = craft group identity, frame things in terms of “us”, create collective meaning and a shared sense of purpose (narratives), engender followership through participation and promote the collective identification with shared values
  2. Advance that shared social identity, once established = through inclusion and engagement with the collective and by making it clear the leader is there to serve and empower the group, further their common purpose; but also shape, develop (and, possibly) redefine group identity and norms, understanding its boundaries and content
  3. Represent the social identity = champion and model the values of the group; act as identity prototypes; “embody who we are and who we want to be” – because research shows we are more easily and profoundly influenced by those we perceive as “one of us”; care and be seen to care about the group (one of the fastest ways to lose your influence is to use naked power, to be perceived as “only in it for yourself”, or as “one of them”)
  4. Embed the group’s shared identity in real life through livable experiences = devise and implement structures and practices that allow followers to live out their group membership and participate (including participate physically); create a shared and livable reality through events, rituals, traditions, celebrations; enable an embodied experience of group identity, as well as tangible outcomes.

A major takeaway is that the things, ideas, and groups we identify with influence our behaviors.

Having listened to his lectures, I could not help but wonder how many of our social organizations (families, businesses, state institutions, or nations as a whole) would stand to gain from inclusion, participative management, and a shared sense of identity – and how these identities can be communicated and consolidated through accessible structures, personal example, linguistic choices and verbal narratives. (Simultaneously, one cannot help but wonder about the potential effects of these same tools in the hands of narcissistic, toxic, and manipulative leaders… Engaged followership is a two-edged sword.)

More participation means more identification, and more identification leads to more coordination toward a common goal, in a feedback loop of cooperation and empowerment. Our sense of self depends so much on our interactions with others, and Haslam argues that it is shaped and enhanced by participation in groups/society.

I hope this helps,