Topic: Leader Conversation

Author(s), Title and Publication

Barge, J. K., Downs, C. W., & Johnson, K. M. (1989). An Analysis of Effective and Ineffective Leader Conversation. Management Communication Quarterly, 2(3), 357-386.


Leaders may interact with followers through various channels: written memos, presentations, and so forth. But research has demonstrated that leaders spend most of their time in conversations, though few studies have examined the conversational structure of managerial talk. This study investigated the relationship between leaders’ conversations and symbolic outcomes.

A field descriptive method was used to examine the managerial talk of 47 members within two large midwestern hospitals. Data were collected in two steps. First, in interviews, the participants identified two individuals they worked with (e.g., co-worker, supervisor, friend). One was effective in providing direction towards goals of the work group, and one was an ineffective leader. Then the participants recalled a conversation with each person. Second, based on the conversations recalled, the participants completed a survey regarding their perceived prefigurative logical forces (the degree to which they feel they should perform a speech act because of strong antecedent conditions), practical logical forces (the degree to which they feel they should perform a speech act in order to achieve a desired consequent condition), and consequent message valence. The survey also measured the perceived symbolic outcomes of each conversation (e.g., whether the conversation was desirable, impact on the follower’s organizational identification, and the need for legitimation).

Results showed that effective conversations by leaders were positively or neutrally valenced, and primarily used patterns such as negotiating to achieve respective goals,  (e.g., praising each other), recognizing employees’ productivity, and perfunctory rituals (e.g., routine greetings). In contrast, ineffective leadership was characterized by negatively valenced conversations, such as being compelled into unwanted conflicts repeatedly, and enigmatic episodes (e.g., not knowing how to respond). The study also found that effective conversations helped accomplish work-related and personal goals, increased followers’ organizational identification, and decreased members’ need for legitimation processes.

Implications for Practice

Leaders may communicate with employees more effectively by 1) monitoring employees’ comprehension and understanding of the entire conversation; 2) legitimizing employees’ goals and helping them understand how their work is related to organizational objectives; and 3) adapting their messages in conversations with employees.

Location of Article

The article is available online at: (abstract free, purchase full article)


Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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