Wharton’s Carton: CEOs Have Real Vision Problems

Andrew Carton of Wharton is Poets&Quants’ Professor of the Week

Bill Gates of Microsoft wanted to put a computer on every desk and in every home. Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos aimed “to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

Those are just two examples of clear visions from leaders who communicated where they wanted to take their companies and were wildly successful in getting there. 

Unfortunately, they’re the exception, not the rule. 

A study by Poets&Quants’ Professor of the Week, Andrew W. Carton of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-author Brian J. Lucas of Cornell University shows that most chief executive officers fail to communicate their visions successfully. 

OVERCOMING ‘BLURRY VISION’ BIAS

They use vague words and generic terms rather than concrete language with specific images and vocabulary. Their paper, “How Can Leaders Overcome the Blurry Vision Bias?,” was published late last year in the Academy of Management Journal. 

Carton and Lucas use the example of Gates (along with John F. Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth) as the kind of clear vision CEOs need to rally their organizations behind a common goal. 

Successful vision statements, they found, “can inspire employees by communicating a vision of the future with image-based rhetoric—words and phrases that are readily envisioned in the mind’s eye…” It is language that depicts objects, events, and actions that can be observed with one’s senses

‘A VISION IS A PORTRAIT OF AN IDEAL FUTURE’

“By vividly depicting an event or outcome that an organization can one day realize, image-based rhetoric reflects the notion that a vision is a ‘portrait’ of an ideal future…and underscores the very essence of the word ‘vision’—the ability to see,” the co-authors write.

By contrast, most CEOs fill their vision statements with abstract, empty rhetoric, what the authors call the “blurry vision bias.” That occurs because “people tend to think abstractly as they ponder the distant future,” they write. The result: a jargon-filled word salad that has no impact on the people they’re trying to motivate.

“Less than 10% of leaders communicate visions with strong imagery—and, in total, they tend to communicate three to 15 times as much conceptual rhetoric as image-laden rhetoric when articulating visions,” the researchers find.

VERBAL DESCRIPTIONS OF IMAGES TRIGGER MORE POWERFUL EMOTIONS

Why? Abstract words and phrases are part of the “meaning-based” system, the part of people’s minds, the authors write, “responsible for considering abstract concepts,” such as “excellence” or “superior customer service.” 

The “experience-based” system of thinking, on the other hand, uses specific, concrete imagery. “Verbal descriptions of images trigger emotions more powerfully compared to statistics and concepts,” the researchers explain. 

“The impact of image-laden rhetoric on emotion and clarity causes people to be spurred into action more than does abstract rhetoric. For instance, a story of a single hungry child elicited more charitable giving compared to statistics about thousands of starving villagers.”

DON’T EXPECT YOUR CEO TO BE A CHURCHILL

“A vivid vision may also boost motivation by helping employees feel more connected to the organization’s overarching purpose…,” Carton and Lucas write

A famous example of that was in 1940 when Winston Churchill became prime minister of the United Kingdom and told the House of Commons, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” That crescendo of almost palpable images of heroism and sacrifice helped rally the British people to fight the seemingly invincible Nazi war machine. 

There are few Churchills in history, let alone among the ranks of CEOs, but corporate leaders  can learn to better articulate their visions by engaging “in a two-step process: drawing on the experience-based system and then having this form of cognition ‘spill’ into the meaning-based system by driving the retrieval of image-based rhetoric,” the authors maintain.

EXPLOITING THE OFTEN UNTAPPED RESOURCE OF THE IMAGINATION

“They can do this by mentally projecting themselves to a day in the future and envisioning what the world will look like,” they write. Temporal projection, which “impels leaders to vividly imagine a real-life scenario in the distant future and then translate it into words… places leaders into a mindset that exploits the often-untapped resource of the imagination, leaving them poised to communicate a verbal portrait that captures attention and inspires action,” they conclude.

Carton, 37, is an associate professor of management at Wharton, having just been awarded tenure this year. His research focuses on how leaders establish a common purpose and how they manage conflict and discrimination. He teaches introductory management classes and a class on teamwork and interpersonal influence for MBA students.

A recipient of several awards for teaching and research, Carton has taught at Wharton since 2013, following stints at London Business School and the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State University. He received his BA in Psychology and Political Science from Rutgers and his Ph.D. in business administration from Duke.

Howard R. Gold is a contributing writer to Poets&Quants. He is a columnist at MarketWatch and his work has appeared in Forbes, Barron’s, Money, and USAToday. Follow him on Twitter @howardrgold.

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