Team Talks

The ability to deliver a motivational pep talk spurring employees to better performance is a must for any business leader, yet few managers receive formal training in how to do it. Instead, they learn from trying to copy inspirational bosses, coaches they had at school or college, or even characters from films. Some people turn to executive coaches for help, but often the advice rests on the coaches’ personal experience, not research.

There is a technique to motivating people via team talks. The winning formula includes using three key elements:

  • direction giving;
  • expressions of empathy;
  • and meaning making

Once leaders understand these three elements, they can learn to use them more skilfully.

Team Talks!

Direction giving is the use of “uncertainty-reducing language.” This is when leaders provide information about precisely how to do the task at hand by, for example, giving easily understandable instructions, good definitions of tasks, and detail on how performance will be evaluated.

“Empathetic language” shows concern for the performer as a human being. It can include praise, encouragement, gratitude, and acknowledgment of a task’s difficulty. Phrases like “How are we all doing?” “I know this is a challenge, but I trust you to do it,” and “Your well-being is one of my top priorities” all fit into this category.

“Meaning-making language” explains why a task is important. This involves linking the organisation’s purpose or mission to listeners’ goals. Often, meaning-making language includes the use of stories—about people who’ve worked hard or succeeded in the company, or about how the work has made a real difference in the lives of customers or the community.

A good example of this is the language used in one California pharmaceutical start-up focused on drugs to alleviate heart disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Many of the company’s employees have lost family to these ailments, so they bring an unusual sense of purpose to their work. As a result, at all-hands meetings, the CEO can easily make statements like this: “I know everybody here wants to help save lives and make people’s lives better. That’s what our work is all about.”

A good pep talk—whether delivered to one person or many—should include all three elements, but the right mix will depend on the context and the audience. Experienced workers who are doing a familiar task may not require much direction. Followers who are already tightly bonded with a leader may require less empathetic language. Meaning making is useful in most situations, but may need less emphasis if the end goals of the work are obvious.

Research into sports psychology across a variety of sports has explored which types of speeches best motivate athletes in different situations. The pre-game pep talk really matters: 90% of players say they enjoy listening, and 65% say the speeches affect the way they play. Players prefer an information-rich (uncertainty-reducing) speech if they’re playing an unknown opponent or a team to which they’ve narrowly lost in the past. If a team is an underdog or playing in a high-stakes game, a more emotional pep talk (with more empathetic and meaning-making language) is more effective.

Military speeches also tend to use the three elements though the terminology is different. Before battle generals have always addressed their troops, trying to give them the strength, courage and determination to keep fighting to victory. Speeches dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans have been analysed (including literary accounts, such as the speech the night before Agincourt by Henry V in Shakespeare’s play of the same name: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;”). Traditionally there were 23 common topics that generals called on as motivators. These included language that qualifies as direction giving (“Follow the plan”), but most of the themes appeal to soldiers’ reason (by comparing their superior army to opponents’ weaker forces) or emotions (by saying God is on their side or by highlighting the evilness of the enemy). Since the soldiers are about to risk their lives, it makes sense that a commander would focus on the larger purpose of the battle and why the risk is worthwhile.

So if you’re giving a pep talk, make it effective. Give directions (“Here’s what I’m asking you to do”), give it meaning (“Here’s why it’s important”) and build on empathy (“Here’s why I know you can do it” and “Think about what you’ve done together before”). End with a recap (“Now let’s go and do it”).

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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2018 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.