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The Science Of Psychological Distance And Communication

New research suggests psychological distance makes a difference in how employees respond to feedback.

The Science Of Psychological Distance And Communication
[Photo: Flickr user Jason Corey]

Lots of ink has been spilled about how to motivate your employees–from financial incentives to recognition among peers. But new research suggests it’s not just the message that motivates, but the source that matters.

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It’s called construal level theory–or the study of how people react to psychological distances. According to Nir Halevy, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, it factors into helping motivate employees at work.

Laura W. Geller, senior editor of strategy + business, a management publication from PwC (formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers), recently interviewed professor Halevy about his research and it’s impact in the workplace. Here’s what he said:

Finding Construal Fit

The idea behind construal level theory is people perceive individuals and events that are close or far apart in time, space, and other dimensions of psychological distance, Halevy explains. For example, if someone’s very polite in their tone, you would likely infer a large psychological distance between the two of you because your friends and family speak more informally.

Distance can also be inferred when the information being communicated is concrete or abstract. If your counterpart from another department starts talking about the future of the company and high-level ideals, you may think they’re being pretentious because you’re on the same level–there’s no psychological difference between you.

Halevy and his team surveyed 2,000 employees at a telecommunications company, asking respondents about the amount of feedback they receive from their supervisor, or someone one level above them, and whether that person is a visionary leader who speaks about abstract values and ideals.

“We found that visionary leadership increased job satisfaction only when people referred to their boss’s boss,” Halevy says. “When [respondents] talked about their direct boss, visionary leadership just didn’t do the trick. Conversely, when people rated their direct boss, concrete feedback and mentoring improved job satisfaction. But it didn’t improve job satisfaction if the source of feedback and mentoring was their manager’s boss.”

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In other words, who’s providing the message and what’s being said matters. When higher-ups–or company leadership–farther from the employee use more abstract terms or people closer to the employee’s level–such as their manager–use concrete terms, there’s construal fit and, when the opposite happens, it’s a misfit.

“Our research shows that you’ll get a better boost in motivation, satisfaction, and commitment if you create the conditions to achieve fit,” Halevy says. Subsequent research supported this theory.

Fulfilling Mentoring Relationships

How can you apply this at your office? You can start with your mentoring program. Pairing mentees with mentors close in rank provides the opportunity for concrete feedback, Halevy notes. Being a level or two above you, they know what difficulties you’re facing on a day-to-day basis.

While leaders can serve as role models to younger employees and offer a big picture view of the company, he cautions that they might not be able to provide specific feedback on job performance. In addition, research suggests employees are more receptive to guidance provided by someone closer to them in psychological distance.

[h/t: strategy + business]

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About the author

Lindsay LaVine is a Chicago-based business and lifestyle freelance writer who's worked for NBC and CNN. Her work has appeared online in Entrepreneur.com, Reuters.com, Today.com, NBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo, Business Insider, BlogHer.com and Fox Business.

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