The best person to communicate with an employee is the person who works day-in, day-out, shoulder-to-shoulder with that employee. This should be no surprise: Giant hierarchies like the military still use the buddy system in recognition of what academics call the “construal level theory.” Simply put, the theory says the more remote a leader is from a follower, the less likely the leader will be in influencing the follower.
Recently, two business school professors, Nir Halevy, of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Yair Berson, a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, conducted research that examined who employees consider the most effective communicators of both concrete messages and abstract messages.The results? No surprise: The effectiveness of the communication from a CEO grows less-and-less effective the greater the distance in hierarchy the workers perceive themselves to be from the leader. Employees perceive the most effective communicator to be their immediate supervisor.
“We’re not telling leaders beware of your rank; we’re saying consider the distance, within the organization, of your audience from you. You should change and adapt the way you communicate to create some construal fit, because it has positive downstream consequences,” says Halevy. Those include greater job satisfaction, commitment, and social bonding.
What does this mean for small businesses?
With giant corporations, CEOs and other executives often concoct employee-relations programs designed to make them appear to be out on the “front line.” According to Halevy, “A lot of people think it’s ideal to be a hands-on manager, that even though I’m the CEO, I’m very ‘hands-on.’ What we’re saying with this paper is that sometimes that might actually backfire. Maybe it’s not such a good idea.”
In a small business, the leader is rarely perceived as a remote and far-away figure. (No employee-relations campaign necessary.) Indeed, much of what is perceived as the flexibility of a small business may simply be the streamlined nature of communications when the CEO is sitting a few feet away from the entire hierarchy of a company.
Recognize that as an advantage. Treat proximity as a great opportunity to communicate, lead, mentor, teach and grow together with your entire team. As your company grows, you may never have such an opportunity again.