The Science of Pep Talks

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Every manager finds they need, at some point, to give their team a “pep talk.”  While almost every experienced manager has ideas of their own about what works, we don’t have to rely solely on our own observations. 

As it turns out, there is a science to motivating people in this way.  To better understand the various tools that help people get psyched up in the moments before important performances, Daniel McGinn of Harvard Business Review talked extensively with academics and practitioners in business and a variety of other fields.  He discovered that most winning formulas include three key elements: direction giving, expressions of empathy, and meaning making.

The most extensive research in this field forms a body of knowledge called “motivating language theory,” (MLT).  MLT was developed by Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield, a husband-and-wife team at Texas A&M University who have studied its applications in the corporate world for nearly three decades.  Their findings are backed by studies from sports psychologists and military historians.  And all the evidence suggests that once leaders understand these three elements, they can learn to use them more skillfully.

The Mayfields describe “direction giving” as 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 can 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 organization’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...

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