By Erin Lebacqz
Imagine you receive an email from your supervisor, asking you to attend a new committee meeting because “the VP wants someone from each department there” or because “we need to have representation there,” or so you can “take notes and report back if anything important comes up.”
Can’t wait to go, right!? Not really.
Now imagine their email states, “the committee’s work could affect important changes,” or “your experience with [x] project will help steer the committee in the right direction,” or "there's a lot to learn about [x] in what they're doing."
More eager to go now? Maybe so.
What differences can we identify between the less motivating examples and the more motivating examples? The latter three examples build on intrinsic motivation instead of extrinsic motivation, provide the reader with empowerment and agency, and are solution-minded and grounded in forward-thinking. Leaders and managers can incorporate these three areas when writing to their teams.
Leaders’ Language Choices Can Inspire Motivation
Leaders who write with intention, clarity, and empathy can better motivate, inspire, and include their teams; and can more successfully create trust and initiate change and progress. Supervisors and managers who address their teams with a collaborative and inspiring communication style – both in person and when communicating via writing – can likewise encourage engagement and strong morale, and in doing so, boost production.
Because communication is the vehicle through which leaders lead, leaders can easily make intentional writing part of their Leadership Strategy. Let’s take a closer look at how to apply strategy when you write to motivate your team.
Leadership writing can build on intrinsic motivation instead of extrinsic motivation.
Just as leaders can motivate team members by providing intrinsically-fulfilling roles and projects, then, their writing likewise can highlight intrinsically motivating factors and reasons. When we feel motivated intrinsically – from the inside, because of the satisfaction of the work itself and the empowered role we get to play in it – we naturally care more and try harder. To put it another way, we engage more deeply when we’re interested in something, and when we’re being respected as we do it.
We engage more deeply when we’re interested in something, and when we’re being respected as we do it.
In writing, this manifests in two ways, mainly: orienting communication around the right focal point, and analyzing the writing situation until you are able to make the right word choice.
Put the team member, their expertise, or their learning front-and-center in your sentences by placing them in the driver’s seat or the protagonist's role – the “subject” position, grammatically. Leading sentences with “your work,” “your project,” “your expertise,” or “your success on similar measures” ensures sentences are about what team members do best.
Beyond starting sentences with a strong and empowered subject, also ensure word choice throughout the correspondence bolsters intrinsic motivation. This means you should highlight learning, growth, future applications of knowledge, challenges, problem-solving, the important role a team member plays, and the crucial results they bring to your team.
Looking back at our opening examples, we can see this at work: being told a warm body is needed because a higher-up demanded it (extrinsic motivation) keeps the focus outside the team member and fails to provide motivation. The more motivating examples highlight the useful applications of the work, and the team member’s ability to perform it well.
Leadership writing can provide empowerment and agency.
Relatedly, motivation grows when we have choices and options, and when we’re entrusted to decide among them. Writing that restricts team members to static or boxed-in positions or roles falls flat and provides little reason to engage and move forward. Choose your verbs well when writing to team members, potentially asking them to analyze, critique, advise, recommend, affect change, and advocate – words that suggest they are not only taking action but steering that action from the beginning. These verbs respect the reader’s intellect and competence.
The examples listed earlier in the “motivating” category suggest the team member’s experience is so valuable that it will be able to “steer” the committee at large, or that the team member is respected as a problem-solver. This means somebody’s expertise is not only respectable, but respected and applied.
As a leader, however, not all of your communication or written messages concern positive content; you may at times be writing to correct action or to provide guidance when needed. How can we motivate readers while delivering news that asks them to up their game? How can we tell someone to do better in a way that doesn’t undermine their agency and abilities as an individual?
By once again shifting focal points. In negative-content written communication, shift your focus from the person to the product. When things are going smoothly, it’s ok – even advantageous – to use “you.”
When offering criticism, however, avoid undermining motivation by shifting focus to the product instead of the person. Instead of "you," focus on the product at hand: the application, the project, the email, the results, the data, the notes, or the agenda. For example, replace “You didn’t provide enough data on the third point,” with “The third point needs more supportive data.”
When things are going smoothly, it’s ok – even advantageous – to use “you.” When offering criticism, however, avoid undermining motivation by shifting focus to the product instead of the person.
Leadership writing can be forward-thinking and solution-minded.
Ultimately, when leaders correspond in writing with their teams, where we’re going is more important than where we’ve been. I’m not suggesting we ignore history, or brush over mistakes and learning experiences. I am, however, advocating another focal shift: to the future, to the solution, to progress and success. This means that if you’re emailing a team member to address an error or unsatisfactory performance on a task, it’s only worth a small percentage of the email's content. Stick to somewhere between a 10:90 to 30:70 ratio, with the smaller portion spent revisiting what went wrong and the larger portion spent on where we’re going next.
The example about data in the previous section illustrates this concept. Though the team member didn’t provide enough data originally (past), the second sentence example focuses on the solution – researching and offering more data (future). Focusing on what went wrong doesn’t reflect good leadership writing because it doesn’t motivate: it paralyzes. State the criticism or need at hand, but spend more of your time focusing on what’s next: the solution, the steps, the progress we’ll make as soon as we correct for what happened.
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