Construal Leadership: How employees construe your direction

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In psychology a concept called “construals” looks at how individuals interpret the world around them, and especially the way they expect others to behave with regard to themselves. You’re right if you expect construals to have quite an impact on the way leaders should behave, if they want to be effective.

Nir HalevyConstrual theory was developed as a way to understand motivation by examining how social distance affects the way people respond to feedback. In Nir Halevy on Motivating Your Workforce, the assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University talks about two approaches at opposite ends of the leadership spectrum from a construal point of view.

Construal Leadership Spectrum

At one end, leaders are advised to give people a vision and mission and let them figure out how to implement. As General George Smith Patton, Jr., famously advised, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” We advise the same at Align4Profit.

SMARTAt the other end, leaders are instructed to get closer and more involved with their teams, as we also advise. We’ve even devised the acronyms SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time Bound) to help leaders remember the elements of effective feedback.


Rather than contradict, both approaches work together. Construal theory provides guidance for when to use each kind of leadership approach, or more accurately, who should use which.

Halevy’s research has uncovered how people react to psychological distances. That is, how close or far one is to the person one is dealing with. Using this information, he advises how to motivate employees in different construal situations. “When the distance and the communication style are in sync,” according to Halevy, “construal fit exists.”

Allow me to simplify. When construals fit, people are more motivated. It makes sense to an employee, for example, to hear broad, abstract, inspiring direction and vision for the CEO or one’s boss’s boss. When a peer or immediate supervisor speaks loftily, says Halevy, it can be construed as inappropriate. Employees want SMART direction from their managers. But from a CEO, it can be construed as out-of-touch micromanaging.

Leadership Intimacy

Delivering direction and feedback that will be properly and effectively construed, requires Leadership Intimacy. Know who you are, where you stand, and what each team member expects from you. Unless you possess an intimate understanding of what each person expects as motivation from you, you may well lead less effectively than leaders who do.

I strongly recommend our CoachQuest Leader-as-Coach Program. There you will learn and practice the leadership skills you need to address alongside leaders like you from other organizations with many of the same challenges. Learn more about CoachQuest.

See also:

One Feedback Style Does Not Fit All
Where Do You Stand on the Feedback Staircase?
4 Reasons for Feedback from Multiple Sources
Feedback—the Breakfast of Champions


Helanie Scott
Helanie Scott
Helanie (pronounced yeh-LAH-nee) Scott, CEO and founder of Align4Profit in Dallas, Texas, has driven stunning leadership and cultural transformations for an impressive list of organizations. She has mastered the ability to connect with her audiences in the boardroom, classroom, on stage, or in one-on-one coaching sessions. Helanie’s Align4Profit clients rave at the way her engaging programs freshen outdated mindsets and deliver results-oriented, aligned action.