Article: Tuesday, 23 August 2016

In an economic crisis, leaders gain more support when they use words like progresschange and ideal. Followers are then more likely to co-operate with their plans. Using words such as safetydanger and responsibility is an ineffective strategy to win support in hard times. These were the findings of a research project conducted by Daan StamDaan van KnippenbergBarbara 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.

AI-generated image of a well-dressed man passionately delivering a speech on progressive values to an attentive audience.

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

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 growthrevolution, and ideal. Conversely, people with a ‘prevention focus’ aim to avoid negative situations. In their communication they tend to use words such as anxietyobligations, 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.

Prof. dr. D.A. (Daan) Stam
Professor of Innovation Management
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Daan Stam

dr. A. (Anne) Nederveen Pieterse

Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior

Department of Organisation and Personnel Management

Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam

Profile picture of Dr. Anne Nederveen Pieterse

prof.dr. D.L. (Daan) Van Knippenberg

Professor of Organizational Behavior

Department of Organisation and Personnel Management

Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam

Profile picture of Prof. Daan van Knippenberg
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