Analysing the language of leadership

When Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer stepped up for their final head-to-head debate, something was notable about their language.

Man stood in from of General Election campaign

Professor Matt Slater has been analysing the language of Conservative and Labour party leaders

Recent research demonstrates that successful leadership is not an “I” or “me” thing. It is a “we” and “us” thing.

Professor Matthew Slater

The two very evidently took different approaches to the task, as is to be expected at this stage of an election campaign, writes Professor Matthew Slater in The Conversation.

Sunak was on the attack and, as the one with something to lose, took more risks. Starmer, aiming to maintain his lead, continued with his Ming vase strategy – cautious to the last.

But the two also used quite different language at the podium, and this tells us a lot about them as leaders.

In the one hour and 15 minutes of questioning, Sunak used the personal pronouns “I” and “me” 165 times. He said “we”, “us” and “our” – collective pronouns only 75 times. So he used more than double the number of personal pronouns than collective pronouns.

Starmer also used “I” and “me” more often than “we”, “us” and “our” but his usage was more balanced – 140 of his words fell into the former category and 113 fell into the latter.

These patterns were even more pronounced during the previous TV election broadcast on June 20, a Question Time special. On that occasion, Sunak used personal pronouns 129 and collective pronouns just 63 times.

Starmer used more collective pronouns during that session than personal pronouns – a rate of 83 to 67.

In referring to himself in this way, Sunak was perhaps aiming to demonstrate how he had previously, and can in the future, deliver, personally. He has a record as prime minister to defend and his messaging was, “I was right then, and that is why you trust me now.”

There’s no ‘I’ in team

People think and act not just as “I” and “me” (their personal identity), but also as “we” and “us” (their social identities). It was once thought that the best leaders are those with a particular personality. In other words, it was all about the leaders individually in terms of “I” or “me”. It was all on them.

But recent research demonstrates that successful leadership is not an “I” or “me” thing. It is a “we” and “us” thing.

When people perceive themselves and others in terms of shared social identity, this provides the basis for excellent leadership. In other words, excellent leadership is about speaking to, and on behalf of, “us” as a collective. In the case of this general election, it is about bringing together a nation.

In one project, my colleagues and I investigated whether leaders creating a sense of togetherness through shared values influenced their team’s individual behaviours.

We found that people in teams with a sense of togetherness spent 63% more effortful time on tasks than people in teams without this togetherness.

As well as motivation, leaders acting for “us” rather than themselves is important for health. In another project, we found that when people have a poor connection with their boss, they are more likely to have unhelpful responses to stress.

Using collective language including “we” and “us” signals that a leader empathises. It signals a leader seeks to understand “us”. And more than that, it signals that we are in this together, developing and achieving a vision for “us” to progress and fulfil our potential.

A study carried out in Australia by psychologists Nik Steffens and Alex Haslam, found that political leaders across 43 elections who used more collective language in their campaign speeches were more likely to go on to win. These candidates used 61% more references to “we” and “us”.

Victors used collective language, on average, once every 79 words. Their unsuccessful opponents used collective language, on average, once every 136 words.

Starmer said during the debate that he understood the role of prime minister to be about “bringing people together” and he perhaps aimed to rattle Sunak by telling him: “If you listened to people in the audience and across the country more often, you might not be quite so out of touch.”

Sunak focused more on what has been delivered “under me”, and on a plan for the future, trying to pitch that the voting public can have confidence in “him”. His record can be debated, but in terms of the language of leadership, he lost this debate.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the full article: 'Analysing the language of leadership' at The Conversation

The Conversation

Matthew Slater

Professor Of Sport & Exercise Psychology

Matt is a Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology and recognised as an internationally leading scholar on the psychology of leadership and group dynamics.

Matthew's profile

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