In October, I decided to conduct an experiment which pushed me out of my comfort zone. In light of current political tensions, I have been thinking about my own observations regarding how much more productive and successful positive people seem to be than people who tend to be negative in their approach to working with others, and in how they choose to communicate generally.
To test this, for the first time since I was a teenager, I hitch-hiked from the outskirts of York to the University where I have an office. Rather than just sticking out my thumb I displayed a sign with a big smiling face on it. Sure enough, within 20 minutes a very nice chap called Tim picked me up and gave me a lift. On our journey, I asked him why he stopped. He replied ‘you look like a nice bloke, and it’s always good to help somebody out if you can’.
This has not been a scientific experiment, but I will continue to use this method to test the theory that positive language and positive communication in general will lead to better outcomes.
Exploring the recent research in this area, it is evident that positive words (and metaphors) can help create a shared mindset, articulate the mission and vision, and channel the energy of all people toward the common goals and objectives of an organisation (Muthusamy, 2019).
This is particularly relevant when organisations are going through change. An interesting example would be that of Renault and Nissan. In their recent joint venture, they experienced cultural and geographical boundaries. To overcome these barriers they reinforced the importance of messages such as “marriage of equals,” “union of opposites,” “pact of different perspectives”.
Similarly, the company Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M) prides itself on its culture of constant innovation and transformation, achieved through storytelling and positive metaphors. Managers are encouraged to engage messages such as ’don’t kill ideas’ and ‘failure is OK’. As a result there is a conviction within the business’ culture that virtually any idea is acceptable, and will find its customer someday.
These examples give food for thought for anybody involved in leading change. The positive stories or metaphors that leaders use can help to improve the clarity of communication, encourage positive emotional responses amongst followers, and perhaps engage people into the discussion who might otherwise feel disengaged.
Furthermore, stories and metaphors can stimulate the desire for learning and curiosity, and in the case of 3M, lead to a culture where change is seen as necessary, healthy and the norm, rather than a difficult process that has to be endured.
Bringing the idea back to the day-to-day, I will provide an update on my hitchhiking experiment in my next blog. I may even test the idea out in Manchester as an alternative to using Uber, although the next step is to see whether it takes longer to get a lift without the ‘smiley-face’ sign. Given what we know about the power of positive communication, I suspect that it will.
Muthusamy, S. (2019). Power of positive words: communication, cognition, and organizational transformation. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 32 (1): 103-122.