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ATD Blog

The Language of Leaders: Motivating People to Act

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Many managers realize they need to improve their team’s performance, but few will acknowledge that they are not good at what it takes to do that.

Motivating people to take action is at the heart of managing, and many managers are not adept at inspiring employees through the skillful use of language. Words don’t merely inform; when information from a manager is consistently clear, helpful, transparent, and empathetic, people perform at higher levels.

That is the essence of motivational language theory, developed by Jeremiah Sullivan, who discovered that managers were not using all the language tools at their disposal. Strategy and tactics aren’t the keys to managers’ successes, Sullivan said; it was their words that directly affected their employees’ motivation.

Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield, authors of Motivating Language Theory: Effective Leader Talk in the Workplace, have expanded Sullivan’s research and tested MLT principles in the corporate environment.

When leaders clearly explain tasks and expectations, show sensitivity and care toward employees, and help employees make sense of how they fit into the company culture, the leader can strengthen their connection to them.

The theory advocates three types of language as essential to motivating employees.


Directive language (DL), the one that managers use most frequently, refers to such things as giving clear directions about how to perform a task. Does the manager clearly explain the steps, what skills should be used, the desired outcome, and what the reward will be? DL also covers giving effective feedback, setting expectations, and establishing priorities.

A manager who is adept at directive language provides context by explaining why the task is necessary, how it aligns with the organization’s goals and vision, and what the rewards will be.

Clear guidance reduces uncertainty in employees’ minds, which is the primary goal of directive language. When people are uncertain because of ambiguity, they get anxious.


Empathetic language is becoming increasingly important and tends to be one that leaders use the least. Empathetic language conveys respect for the employee, helps build self-confidence, and expresses caring about the person’s well-being.

Peter Salovey, social psychologist at Yale and an early pioneer in the field of emotional intelligence, says empathy is your ability to comprehend another person’s feelings and to re-experience them yourself. It is critical to helping others grow. When you give advice to someone, your ability to be empathetic is a significant factor in whether the person views your advice as worthwhile.

Meaning-making language, the third dimension of MLT, refers to words and statements that help an employee understand how she fits into the company culture. It consists of language that conveys respect for the person’s strengths, helps link her abilities to workplace goals, provides a sense of belonging, and communicates how her job connects to a higher purpose that she holds in life.

Language is central to all managerial communication. Employees want to clearly understand their assignments, their role, and the expectations. They want to work for managers who are compassionate and they want to feel valued. When managers express these qualities in the ways they communicate, they have a powerful tool to motivate people to achieve.

About the Author

Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach who has helped thousands of business professionals worldwide improve their ability to craft clear, compelling messages. He started Writing With Clarity following a long journalism career with the Associated Press and now conducts corporate workshops and provides one-on-one coaching. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill). His clients include Facebook, GE, Dell, Chevron, Cisco, Georgia-Pacific, KPMG, Campbell’s Soup, Oracle, Motorola, Reebok, Dow Chemical (China), SAP (Singapore), and Vale Mining Corp. (Brazil).

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Well written. Thank you!
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I can’t help but see this as a way of squeezing contemporary leadership theory into a still Industrial Age business structure and management mindset. I suggest coupling this with a book like L. David Marquet’s “Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say-and What You Don't“. To teach how language matters, the author of “Turn the Ship Around!” uses 25 hrs of transcript from the “black box” recovered from a freighter that sank during a hurricane as case study for what could have been.
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