Six guidelines for responding to hostile challenges to change

Credit: Vasko Miokovic
Credit: Vasko Miokovic

I’m breaking my silence here at Pros Write with these guidelines. They’re the result of a study made available today in Business and Professional Communication Quarterly. With my co-authors (Pierson Carmichael and Jefrey Naidoo), I offer six practical lessons to help change agents manage communication and maintain credibility with stakeholders who have made a hostile challenge like “Why are we changing a successful system?”

Lesson #1: Diagnose the source of the stakeholder’s hostility in order to determine the component of readiness you need to address.

Once you are familiar with the five components of change messages, you will become adept at diagnosing which of these you must address to neutralize the stakeholder’s hostility toward your change initiative. Does your response need to focus on the discrepancy between where your organization is and where it needs to be? the appropriateness of the planned change for dealing with the discrepancy? the likely efficacy of the planned change? the support of leadership? or the benefits of the planned change to individuals?

Lesson #2: Claim dealing with the challenge isn’t timely as your default response strategy.

Our recommendation is backed by the consistency of findings in studies about strategies for responding to hostility. It may well be most preferred because it implies that the change agents are already addressing the concerns the stakeholder has raised.

Lesson #3: With an efficacy challenge, either deny something about the challenge exists or explain why answering the challenge isn’t desirable.

Because the timing strategy was not preferred with challenges focused on the potential efficacy of the planned change, you need alternatives in this situation. Our recommendation to use the existence strategy is based on our own findings, with nothing in an earlier study to warn against its use. Similarly, our recommendation to use the desirability strategy is based on earlier findings, with nothing in our own to warn against its use.

Lesson #4: Deny something about the challenge exists to deal with challenges to discrepancy and appropriateness, as well as efficacy.

Because the timing strategy may not always be applicable with challenges focused on the the need for or appropriateness of your planned change, you need an alternative in these situations. Our recommendation to use the existence strategy is based on its consistently high preference rankings in our own and earlier studies.

Lesson #5: Claim you aren’t able to handle the challenge with caution and only when dealing with principal support or personal valence challenges.

Preferences for the ability strategy were highly inconsistent. It ranked 2nd overall in our study because of its effectiveness dealing with principal support and personal valence challenges. In contrast, it ranked among least preferred strategies for dealing with other types of challenges in our study and for dealing with all challenges in an earlier study.

Lesson #6: Don’t deny you are the right person for handling the challenge.

Although our results for the agency strategy were inconsistent with an earlier study, we feel justified in cautioning change agents not to use it because it “passes the buck.” Benoit notes that “denial and shifting the blame are not considered by those who are injured by the actions to be as appropriate or effective as other potential image restoration strategies”. Earlier research found the agency strategy least preferred when responding to hostility about environmental concerns, and in interviews with experienced organizational spokespersons, some noted they had been explicitly taught not to use it in public affairs training.

After using these lessons to deal with the hostile challenge in a way that maintains your credibility, you can continue your on-going dialogue about components of the change which your stakeholder finds troubling. My single-minded focus on research has been inevitable during my sabbatical this fall. But I intend to share more often here when 2015 arrives. At least that’s the plan.

Further Reading

Armenakis, A. A. (1993). Creating readiness for organizational change. Human Relations, 46(6), 681–703.

Benoit, W. L. (1995). Accounts, excuses, and apologies: A theory of image restoration strategies. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Campbell, K. S., Follender, S. I., & Shane, G. (1998). Preferred strategies for responding to hostile questions in environmental public meetings. Management Communication Quarterly, 11(3), 401–421. 

Campbell, K. S., Parker, F., & Follender, S. I. (1996). Responding to hostile questions: More insights from speech act theory. Technical Communication Quarterly, 5(2), 151–167.

Gore, M. S. (2003). Strategies leaders should use to respond to hostile questions regarding organizational changes: An empirical investigation. Thesis. Air Force Institute of Technology.

Persuade readers with an appeal to logos

Photo Credit: soukup via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: soukup via Compfight cc

People who have influence at work know how to write persuasively. Persuasion is how you successfully lobby for resources from your boss or win funding from an investor. Research found that persuasion was central to the success of 10-30% of all internal, written communication in an organization.

The negative connotation of persuasion is created by trust (ethos) problems with the organizations where writers work. (Or with some individual writers.) And also the fact that unethical individuals often rely solely upon appeals to audience emotion (pathos) rather than reason (logos). Workplace writers can use written language both (a) to sell the need for higher health insurance co-pays to their company’s employees while the CEO buys a villa in France or (b) to sell the value of alternative energy sources to government representatives. The writer’s intent — not the writer’s prose — is the key to differentiating between these two messages.

Creating persuasive prose is briefly explained in Chapter 4 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using the book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to practice identifying and fixing problems with persuasion in professional texts. But here are some additional resources to help you become a more persuasive writer:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can do something to make the resources more useful.

Sample Document

Read this executive summary from a business plan, which was adapted by me based on a sample available from the Center for Business Planning (businessplans.org).

  • Writer: the owner of a manufacturing company
  • Readers: potential investors (like venture capitalists)
  • Bottom line message: the company is a good investment because it has developed an innovative product at reasonable cost with high market demand

Here’s a revised version of that business plan’s executive summary, with more persuasive content.

Video Tutorial

The business plan’s executive summary, along with other examples, is included in this video about persuasion in workplace documents. My goal is to provide a succinct guide to the essentials of writing more persuasively by appealing to your reader’s logos (reason). This content is not easy to grasp. Although this tutorial follows my rule for length (it’s less than 12 minutes long), you’ll have to pause and read at several points in order to follow the material.

Related Readings

There are posts here at Pros Write that deal with persuasion in workplace documents. Just enter the term in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you might check out the following sources.

Cialdini, R.B. (2001). Harnessing the science of persuasion. Harvard Business Review, 79(9), pp. 72-79.

Gilsdorf, J.W. (1986). Executives’ and academics’ perceptions on the need for instruction in written persuasion. Journal of Business Communication, 23(4), pp. 55-68.

Halmari, H. & Virtanen, T. (Eds.) (2005). Persuasion Across Genres: A linguistic approach (Pragmatics & Beyond, New Series). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Sproat, E., et al. (2012). Aristotle’s Rhetorical Situation.  Purdue OWL. The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University.

What (else) do we know about writing white papers?

A couple of months ago, I summarized the available evidence on writing white papers. I’ve done more digging and want to provide a follow-up with a few more details on developing content, organizing it, and using an appropriate style. (See the earlier post for a description of the white paper as a genre.)  The bottom line is that we still don’t have definitive guidance based on quality evidence. I’m planning to fill in the blanks with some of my own research. In fact, I’m completing a proposal to present a paper on this topic with a colleague at the IEEE’s International Professional Communication Conference (IPCC) at Carnegie Mellon next October.

Photo Credit: paurian via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: paurian via Compfight cc

[begin sidebar] Just a word about the sources I consulted (listed at the end of this post). I mentioned only three experts in my earlier post. I still refer to Russell Willerton’s research, including a couple of articles I hadn’t read earlier, and Cynthia McPherson’s dissertation as the best evidence available. Both authors have investigated white papers systematically, and somewhat objectively, based on data. And I purchased a data-based report from Michael Stelzner, who was also mentioned in my original post. Stelzner’s report is based on a survey of hundreds of white paper writers in 2006. Willerton has generously guided my digging, and I uncovered a couple of experts I did not mention earlier: Gordon Graham (author of White Papers for Dummies) and Bob Bly (author of The White Paper Marketing Handbook). I investigated Graham’s website, but like Stelzner’s website and book, the information is highly subjective so I find it less persuasive. I read an article by Bly, which is also based on personal experience. (I’ve written before about the limitations of personal experience as evidence.) [end sidebar]

Developing the Content of a White Paper

Developing content is the area sources talk most about when discussing white papers. I created a table to show the most common areas mentioned about content. I should remind you that McPherson was considering a much broader range of white papers than any of the other authors. The others are all basically interested in marketing by tech companies — arguably the most common source of white papers.  See a syndicator of white papers for evidence: Bitpipe or KnowledgeStorm or TechRepublic.

Willerton

McPherson

Stelzner

Graham

Bly

Determine specific goal

Persuade through informing

Do secondary research

Cite secondary sources

Interview SMEs

Be current

Create informative graphics

My sources provide near universal recommendations to determine a specific marketing goal for a white paper. As Willerton said,

“Increasing sales” is a good goal, but it is too broad; you must know how your white paper will fit into the sales cycle with your prospective customers.

Stelzner’s survey of writers found that generating sales leads was the most popular marketing use for white papers.

All of the sources discussing high tech marketing white papers agree that effective ones adopt a “softsell” approach where persuasion is secondary to informing or educating readers.  Graham writes,

If you can’t avoid giving a sales pitch, don’t call what you’re writing a white paper. Just write a brochure, a sales letter or a product brief; then call it what it is.

The one universal recommendation is to do good secondary research as the basis for the content of a white paper. Almost all sources also note the importance of explicitly citing those sources in a white paper. And the three practitioner sources agree that interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) is essential to writing a quality white paper.

Most sources agree on the need for informative (not superfluous) graphics to support the verbal content of a white paper. Finally, a couple of sources mention the time-sensitive nature of white paper content. Willerton found that readers believe white papers have a limited shelf life.

Organizing the Content of a White Paper

My sources provide near universal mention of two aspects of organizing content for a white paper once its been developed:

  • Begin with the reader’s problem or challenge before describing your solution or product.
  • Use effective and efficient document design to help readers scan and navigate the white paper’s content.

It looks like both Stelzner’s and Graham’s books provide more guidance on the sections of content and their optimal arrangement.  But I didn’t buy their books because they are both based on personal experience. Not worth it for my purposes here.

Crafting the Style & Tone of a White Paper

The sources I consulted say relatively little about this aspect of writing white papers. Perhaps with the exception of crafting the title. Both Stelzner and Graham emphasize the importance of the title for enticing readers: Graham’s list includes

  • state business benefits (make or save money, save labor, streamline processes, increase productivity, etc.)
  • name target readers (for CFOs, IT Executives, etc.)
  • use active verbs or “how to”
  • state as a question
  • use a numbered list
  • omit jargon
  • omit product names

Beyond the title, Graham mentions the importance of following any existing style guides used by the company sponsoring the white paper. In general, sources mention choosing vocabulary appropriate to the target audience. So avoiding jargon, including acronyms, is discussed. Stelzner warns against the use of humor as it doesn’t fit the educational tone expected by white paper readers.  Graham mentions the importance of a tone with you-perspective.

Final Thoughts

The sources I located provide some decent information about developing content for white papers. I should note that several agree the right length for a white paper is between 5 and 12 pages. The quality and quantity of help offered for organizing that information is lacking. And we don’t have data-based evidence for making style and tone recommendations either. To develop that guidance, I’ll repeat what I said a couple of months back: we need at least one study of rhetorical move structure for a sample of successful white papers. My colleague and I are on it. Stay tuned . . .

Further Reading

R.W. Bly (2010). Writing White Papers for Fun and Profit: How to Get these “Plum Assignments” that Blend Elements of Articles and Brochures. The Writer, Mar., p. 38.

G. Graham (2014). The White Paper FAQ. That White Paper Guy website.

C. McPherson (2010). Examining the Gap Between Workplace White Papers and Their Representation in Technical Communication Textbooks. Doctoral Dissertation. Texas Tech University.

M.A. Stelzner (2007). White Paper Writer Industry Report: Trends, Pricing and Standards for White Paper Writers (2nd edition). WhitePaperSource Publishing.

R. Willerton (2007). Writing White Papers in High-Tech Industries: Perspectives from the Field. Technical Communication, 54(2), pp. 187-200.

R. Willerton (2008). Proceeding with Caution: A Case Study of Engineering Professionals Reading White Papers. Technical Communication, 55(4), pp. 370-382.

R. Willerton (2012). Teaching White Papers Through Client Projects. Business Communication Quarterly, 76(1) 105–113.

Guest Post: Analysis of Nelson Mandela’s Leadership in “Invictus”

nelson mandelaMy name is Jessica Crew. I’m a graduate student at the University of Alabama studying Communication Studies and have a personal interest in business and organizational communication. For these reasons I enrolled in Dr. Campbell’s Leadership Communication course.

The exam below is an analysis of Nelson Mandela’s effectiveness as a leader in the movie InvictusThis was the final exam in the course, and, as such, we were able to fully understand and evaluate the various communication tactics employed in the dialogue.

The Assignment

The dialogue used as the basis for this exam comes the film, Invictus, released in 2009.

The story is based on the John Carlin book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation about the events in South Africa before and during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted in that country following the dismantling of apartheid. Nelson Mandela, in his first term as the South African President, initiated a unique venture to unite the apartheid-torn land: enlist the national rugby team on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. (from IMDb.com)

morgan freeman as nelson mandelaYour task is to assess whether President Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) was thinking and interacting like a leader in his interaction with Jason (played by Tony Kgoroge). More importantly, you must demonstrate your ability to explain Mandela’s success as a leader, using what you have learned about the TILL system. Organize your response using the summaries in chapter 5 and 11 of your TILL textbook. All of you should consider the roles of readiness, values, and media choice as discussed in Chapter 5. And you must give specific pieces of evidence from the dialogue to support your claims.

The dialogue that appears in the table comes from a scene in which Jason, one of Mandela’s subordinates, visits Mandela because security officers from the former segregated administration have reported to Jason for work in the new integrated government. Complete your analysis in the table. Then write your opinion of whether Mandela was thinking and interacting like a leader, drawing on your analysis. You may find it helpful to watch the scene from the film.

My Response

Speaker Dialogue contributions

Your Analysis

Purpose(s) Rapport   Effects Strategy Tactics
Jason Sorry to disturb you.
Mandela You look agitated, Jason. Directing Positive Off record Be cursory[K1]
Jason That’s because I’ve got four Special Branch cops in my office.
Mandela What have you done? Directing Negative On record plainly[K2] Be brief
Jason Me? Nothing. They say they’re the Presidential bodyguard. They have   orders . . . Signed by you.
Mandela Yes. They’ve had special training those boys – with SAS. And lots of   experience. They protected de Klerk. Informing Positive On record plainly Be explicit
Jason Yes, but
Mandela [interrupting] You asked for more men, didn’t you? Direct Negative Off record Be cursory
Jason Yes, but
Mandela [interrupting] In public, when people see me, they see my bodyguards, too. You represent me, directly. The rainbow nation starts here. . . Reconciliation   starts here. Directing Negative Off record Be irrelevant
Jason Reconciliation?! Mandiba, not long ago they tried to kill us! Maybe even these four guys. They tried and, often, they succeeded!
Mandela Yes, I know. Forgiveness starts here, too. Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon, Jason. . . Please try   it.[K3] Directing Positive Off record Be figurative
Jason Yes, Madiba. Sorry to disturb you.

In-depth analysis of dialogue

When Mandela says, “You look agitated Jason,” he is going off record to direct Jason by being figurative. Mandela uses this strategy and tactic instead of going on record plainly by stating, “Tell me what’s wrong.” We know that this is effective because Jason understands Mandela’s meaning and explains why he is agitated.

When Mandela asks, “What have you done?” Mandela is directing Jason to tell him what he did. This is plain on the record briefly. It has a negative rapport effect because Mandela is assuming that Jason did something wrong, when Mandela actually requested that the men be there (and it seems had forgotten about it). It is an effective strategy and tactic because if Jason had done something wrong the situation could be urgent.

When Mandela says, “Yes. They’ve had special training those boys – with SAS. And lots of experience. They protected de Klerk.” He is giving Jason more information about the guard. He is informing on the record plainly.

When Mandela interrupts Jason to ask, “You asked for more men, didn’t you?” Mandela’s primary goal is to direct Jason; Mandela goes off the record and asks this question instead telling Jason to shut up and quit complaining because Mandela complied with Jason’s request for more help.

Jason then begins to protest and again is interrupted by Mandela: “In public, when people see me, they see my bodyguards, too. You represent me, directly. The rainbow nation starts here. . . Reconciliation starts here.” The primary purpose of this off the record message is to direct Jason to get used to working with these new men—that is the future of South Africa that Mandela is trying to shape. The content of the message is irrelevant in that it does not directly depict the message that Mandela is trying to send, which is “Get used to it, bud.” The secondary purpose is to value; Mandela shows that he values Jason as well as the other guard members because he mentions that the guards represent him and the future of the nation. This is intended to have a positive effect, but only makes Jason indignant.

After Jason’s indignant response, Mandela says, “Yes, I know. Forgiveness starts here, too. Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon, Jason. . . Please try it.” In this line Mandela is directing Jason to move forward emotionally and try to get past the resentment he seems to harbor against these men. The real message in this line is, “It is time to move on. Get over your personal issues with these men. Something bigger is at stake.” By going off record, Mandela is able to maintain his rapport with Jason and not jeopardize Jason’s level of commitment. The tactic Mandela uses is “be figurative” by using fear and forgiveness metaphorically. In the last sentence he says, “Please try it,” but it is actually a directive, Mandela is just being polite by using the word please.

Analysis of Mandela as a leader

1. What is the purpose driving Mandela to communicate and how urgent is the need to act? The purpose is to direct Jason to adjust to the new way things are going to be done now that Mandela is President of South Africa. The need to act is fairly urgent because Mandela needs to immediately begin his term as President in a way that reflects the change he is implementing and persuades the country (both blacks and whites) to feel loyalty and commitment to the new regime, for lack of a better word. In this excerpt of dialogue Mandela is trying to direct one of his in-group members to accept his white co-workers and embrace the rainbow nation that Mandela is constructing. Mandela effectively communicates this and manages to maintain rapport with his group member.

2. Is the member one of the in-group? Some of Mandela’s individual messages above are more effective than others. Overall, Mandela is an effective leader. Jason is clearly part of Mandela’s in-group and this helps with much of the communication above. That Jason is part of the in-group is evidenced in the statements where he refers to Mandela as “Mandiba” a name used amongst the in-group members that identify with Mandela up to this point.

3. How will the message affect the member’s ego needs? Mandela consistently goes off the record in the dialogue to protect his rapport with Jason—thus tending Jason’s ego needs. He clearly values Jason and the other members of the guard by speaking of them as the future of the rainbow nation and including Jason by speaking of him and the other guards as representatives of Mandela himself.

4. How will the message affect the member’s autonomy needs? The only way that Jason’s autonomy is threatened is that Mandela does not give him the option of working with the Special Branch cops. Instead he tells him (off the record) that these are Jason’s new co-workers, that Jason needs to get over his anger, and that he needs to move forward by forgiving these men.  Although this threatens Jason’s autonomy, Mandela negotiates this by speaking of forgiveness and inspiring Jason to be a good example for the rainbow nation.

Overall Mandela is an effective leader in this management situation. The media choice of this exchange is effective as Mandela is able to engage his member more because he is speaking to Jason in person. Although Jason’s not ready to comply with Mandela’s decision to hire these new guard members at first, he is willing to comply with Mandela’s directives by the end of the conversation. This is evidenced by his acquiescent statement, “Yes, Mandiba. Sorry to disturb you.” Mandela clearly values his organizational members, and fosters commitment and loyalty by including Jason and the other guards as an important part of changing the feelings of the nation.

[K1]I think you’re the only one who analyzed this “my” way!

[K2]Not sure about this one. How can he direct plainly, using an interrogative?

[K3]What about this? Doesn’t this make the purpose/message fairly clear?

Guest Post: Effective Leadership in “Norma Rae”

My name is Eric Longenecker. I am a senior and graduating in December 2012 with a degree in Management Information Systems. I am taking part in Leadership Communications (MGT 422) as a part of my specialization, Management Communication.

This is an exam I submitted in response to whether leadership was effective or not in the movie “Norma Rae.” Personally, this assignment fit my goals very well. I came into this specialization hoping to improve my leadership and communication skills. What better class to take, right? This assignment gave me a good glimpse of how to review the way others become leaders.

Background on the Film Used for the Assignment

The leader behavior used as the basis for this exam comes the film, Norma Rae, released in 1979.

Norma Rae finds Sally Field cast in the title role, a minimum-wage worker in a cotton mill in Georgia in the 1970s. The factory has taken too much of a toll on the health of Norma Rae’s family for her to ignore her Dickensian working conditions. After hearing a speech by New York union organizer Reuben (Ron Leibman), Norma Rae decides to join the effort to unionize her mill. This causes dissension at home when Norma Rae’s husband, Sonny (Beau Bridges), assumes that her activism is a result of a romance between herself and Reuben. Despite the pressure brought to bear by management, Norma Rae successfully orchestrates a shutdown of the mill, resulting in victory for the union and capitulation to its demands. Based on a true story, Norma Rae is the film for which Sally Field won her first Oscar.

The original trailer for the film may give you insight into the context of the leader’s behavior.

The Assignment

Your task is to assess whether Norma Rae was thinking like a leader in the scene described below. More importantly, you must demonstrate your ability to explain Norma Rae’s success or failure as a leader of the mill workers, using what you have learned so far about the TILL system. Organize your response using the four questions that summarize TILL on pp. 51-52 of your Thinking and Interacting Like a Leader textbook. You should consider the roles of readiness, values, and media choice as discussed in Chapter 5. And you must give specific pieces of evidence from the dialogue (or script) to support your claims. You cannot perform adequately by providing BS about the movie or about leadership. Your response must apply the terminology from TILL in a persuasive analysis of leader behavior.

The excerpt comes from the original script. It describes a scene in the mill where Norma Rae works. She is on the mill floor where all of the workers can see her. Clipboard in hand, Norma goes straight to the bulletin board where the company that owns the mill has posted a letter. It tells the white mill workers that black workers are going to run the union and use it to take control and push them around. Norma and the other union organizers know the company posted the letter to keep the union out of the mill. If they can show the letter to attorneys, they can use it to gain support for the union.

Norma stands in front of the letter and writes briskly, snatching a phrase off the letter with a glance, then looking down as her hand scrawls quickly. In order to transcribe accurately, she reads each phrase aloud.

NORMA (quoting): . . . that where unions are strikes occur. Strikes mean loss of work, loss of pay, and often loss of jobs. . . . Strike and trouble, which often end up in serious violence. . .

BOSS LUJAN: You can’t take down that letter.

NORMA: It’s up here on the bulletin board – and I’m gonna copy it.

BOSS PETERS (walking up): Norma, you better not.

NORMA:  I’m gonna take down every word of this letter. It’s my break time, and I’m gonna take down every word.

Boss Peters reaches out for her arm, but she pulls away fiercely.

NORMA: Just keep out of my way! I’m gonna take down this letter!

BIG BOSS MASON (approaching): Hello, Norma.

NORMA: Why, Mr. Mason, you know who I am.

BIG BOSS MASON: Norma, you just put your pencil and paper away.

Norma ignores him and continues to write as rapidly as she can.

BIG BOSS MASON: You just stop what you’re doing – right now – ‘cause you’re about to leave.

NORMA: You better not put a hand on me.

Everyone looks at Big Boss Mason.

BIG BOSS MASON: The law’s coming and it’s gonna take you right out of this plant.

NORMA: Mr. Mason, I started this and – I’m gonna finish this –

The men are stunned into silence. She calmly finishes, folds her notes, and shoves them in her pocket.

BOSS PETERS: Let’s go to the office, Norma.

Everyone on the mill floor watches as they walk to the office. Two other company men join them in the office. The group of men try to bully her but she won’t back down.

BIG BOSS MASON (exploding): I don’t want you on the premises. You make a phone call to your husband and tell him to come fetch you. I want you out of here right quick.

NORMA: You’re gonna have to call the law to get rid of me. And you better make it the Sheriff, too. It better be Sheriff Lamar Miller to come get me, it better be him, it better not be any policeman, ‘cause he was a friend of my daddy’s. I got a jealous husband and he knows Lamar and I won’t just go with anybody. Lamar Miller’s the Sheriff of Millageville so he better be the one.

She walks out of the office and goes back to the looms. She merely stands there. Everyone on the floor watches in silence. A policeman approaches her.

NORMA: It’s gonna take you and the police department and the fire department and the National Guard to get me out of here. I’m waiting on the Sheriff to come drive me home and I’m not budging until he arrives.

Keeping her eye on the policeman, she fumbles for a piece of cardboard and her lipstick. She writes something. Then she hoists herself on top of a table. She holds her sign high over her head with both hands and slowly turns in a circle so that everyone can read what she has written.

UNION

The first hand in the crowd to rise is Norma’s mother’s. Slowly the old woman’s arm rises above her head and stays there. The man next to her follows. James Brown raises his. Lucius White is next. George Hubbard follows. One by one, they join in. Norma continues to turn slowly with the sign held high. Each time she turns another batch of hands shoot up, holding their arms in the air, black and white. Finally, the entire mill floor is a forest of upraised hands. Finished, she climbs down. The Sheriff escorts her out of the mill and into a police car.

My Response

Norma Rae was able to effectively lead the workers in the mill. She did not have to do much coaxing of the mill workers to get them on her side. In fact, it was almost as if she created a massive in-group in which all workers on the mill floor were in it. Norma Rae knew what she had to do to get her co-workers on her side. All they needed was for one person to stand up to management and lead the way.

Norma Rae’s organizational purpose of her message was to direct members. She earns the respect of her members when she stands up to Big Boss Mason. She makes it very clear that she has every intention of being instrumental in forming a union. The action she is supporting is extremely urgent. When she says “Just keep out of my way! I’m gonna take down this letter,” she is alerting the members that they cannot let Big Boss Mason stand in their way of forming a union. And any resistance (such as the letter) is just a scare tactic used by Big Boss Mason and the mill.

As mentioned earlier, it was simply as if Norma Rae created one large in-group that each mill worker was a part of. As far as Big Boss Mason and the management at the mill is concerned, Norma Rae is definitely in their out-group.

“Keeping her eye on the policeman, she fumbles for a piece of cardboard and her lipstick. She writes something. Then she hoists herself on top of a table. She holds her sign high over her head with both hands and slowly turns in a circle so that everyone can read what she has written.”

It is in the above passage in which Norma Rae makes all the mill workers a part of her in-group. As soon as she came out of Big Boss Mason’s office, she made it very clear that she was ready to make a statement and she was going to make all the mill workers a part of it. Not leaving even a single person out is an example of very effective leadership. At this point, the mill workers are willing to go along with Norma Rae. If for nothing else, they would agree with her simply because of the respect she earned by standing up to Big Boss Mason.

Norma Rae’s message will strongly and positively affect the ego needs of the members. She effectively met the need that each member had to be included by others. She made all of the mill workers a part of what was about to happen. With each member who went along with the idea of a union, Norma Rae’s message became stronger, and she gave everyone the opportunity to be valued. The script says, “Everyone on the floor watches in silence.” She knew she had the attention of the entire floor. Through her silent actions that would follow, she delivers an effective message to each member and values every hand that is raised. This is an extremely effective example of leadership.

Meeting the autonomy needs of each member might have been the most effective display of leadership in the entire passage by Norma Rae. She does not demand anything from any of the members. She stands silently on the table. All she does is take a piece of cardboard and writes one simple word on it, “UNION.” As she turns slowly around to all of the members, she says nothing to anyone. All she does is give them a choice. Now, each member believes that agreeing with the union is his own choice. The members make their own choices in the following passage:

“The first hand in the crowd to rise is Norma’s mother’s. Slowly the old woman’s arm rises above her head and stays there. The man next to her follows. James Brown raises his. Lucius White is next. George Hubbard follows. One by one, they join in. Norma continues to turn slowly with the sign held high. Each time she turns another batch of hands shoot up, holding their arms in the air, black and white. Finally, the entire mill floor is a forest of upraised hands.”

As they each raise their own hands, they are validating themselves. The members feel freedom to raise their hand and agree with Norma Rae.

In terms of readiness, clearly each member is ready for this message. The script states that each member has raised his or her hand. All the members needed was someone to step up against the boss, and that made them ready to deliver their own message. Clearly, Norma Rae shares many of the same values as the other members. It seems as though none of the members are satisfied with the current situation at the mill. Norma Rae had to have known this, or she would not have been as willing to step up against Big Boss Mason in front of the entire mill. She shows effective leadership by  knowing the values of the members she is trying to affect. Norma Rae effectively chooses to present the message face-to-face, but she does not say a single word when addressing the audience. She writes the message in one single word. By utilizing face-to-face and written communication, she is able to positively affect the autonomy and ego needs of the audience simultaneously. Her leadership choices were extremely effective, and she did not waste any opportunity she had.

The bottom line is that Norma Rae knew exactly what she had to do. She gave each member the freedom to decide, but she showed them how important it was that they side with having a union. So, while each member felt individual freedom about their decision, they all still knew exactly what choice needed to be made. Norma Rae sold her message while valuing, freeing, and directing the members, and it was extremely effective. This is why her leadership got the job done.

The video tutorial on persuasive prose

To influence people at work, you’ll need to earn their trust (ethos) and make good arguments (logos).  See yesterday’s post for more on these rhetorical terms.

Evidence is the cornerstone of effective arguments. Not all evidence is equal, of course. The video tutorial I’m posting today focuses on the use of evidence, as well as several other aspects of persuasive prose in workplace writing. My goal is to provide amateurs with a succinct guide to the essentials of writing persuasively.

This content is not easy to grasp. Although this tutorial follows my rule for length (it’s less than 12 minutes), you’ll have to pause and read at several points in order to follow the material if you don’t have a copy of Revising Professional Writing.  You can get a copy of the original and revised excerpts from the business plan referred to in the tutorial by checking out the “Docs” page.

Amateurs equate persuasion with manipulation

Most amateurs and at least some pros are willing to ascribe the unethical intentions of individuals to linguistic forms. (See my post on passive voice.) No where is this more obvious than in the case of “persuasive” language.  Yes. Workplace writers can use language to

  • market unhealthy food to the children of their customers
  • convince government regulators their company was not responsible for an accident
  • sell the need for higher health insurance co-pays to their company’s employees while the CEO buys a villa in France

But workplace writers can also use language to

  • market local, organic produce to their customers
  • convince their CEO to invest in an onsite daycare facility
  • sell the value of alternative energy sources to government representatives

The writer’s intent is the key to differentiating between these two lists–not the writer’s prose.

I believe the negative connotation of persuasion is created by trust (ethos) problems with the organizations where writers work. And also the fact that unethical individuals often rely upon appeals to audience emotion (pathos) rather than reason (logos). (The links take you to definitions of these terms from the Purdue OWL.)

I’m proud of the role I’ve played in helping amateurs write persuasively. It not only helps them become pro writers, it EMPOWERS them. The video tutorial on persuasive prose I’m updating gives amateurs some guidance in the use of reason based on a chapter in Revising Professional Writing. It refers to a page from a Business Plan for Investors, which was adapted by me based on a sample available from the Center for Business Planning (businessplans.org).

  • Writer: the owner of a manufacturing company
  • Readers: potential investors (like venture capitalists)
  • Bottom line message: the company is a good investment because they’ve got an innovative product at reasonable cost with high market demand