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The Executive mind: Leader self-talk, effectiveness, and strain.

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Abstract

Purpose – The theoretical and practical criticality of self-talk for leader success receives extensive multidisciplinary discussion, without a great deal of empirical research given the challenge of assessing actual self-talk. The purpose of this paper is to advance research and theory on self-leadership by examining leader self-talk and its relationship to effectiveness and strain. Design/methodology/approach – In total, 189 senior executives’ self-addressed, future-oriented letters were collected. The executives wrote these letters to themselves for their own personal development; thus, the language used represented a form of naturally occurring self-talk. Two types of self-talk were coded: constructive and dysfunctional. Supervisor and direct report ratings of leadership of others and creativity and self-ratings of job strain were collected. Findings – Extensive variability among leaders in constructive self-talk was found. Exemplars of constructive and dysfunctional self-talk are presented. Constructive self-talk positively related to effective leadership of others and creativity/originality as evaluated by subordinates and superiors and was negatively related to job strain. Dysfunctional self-talk related negatively to creativity/originality. Originality/value – In addition to illustrating the types of self-talk used by leaders, research is extended by providing some of the first empirical evidence of how leaders’ free-flowing thoughts are related to their effectiveness and their overall well-being, lending direct support to a principal proposition from the self-leadership framework.
The executive mind: leader
self-talk, effectiveness and strain
Steven G. Rogelberg and Logan Justice
Department of Organizational Science,
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
Phillip W. Braddy
Center for Creative Leadership, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA
Samantha C. Paustian-Underdahl, Eric Heggestad and
Linda Shanock
Department of Organizational Science,
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
Benjamin E. Baran
Haile/US Bank College of Business, Northern Kentucky University,
Highland Heights, Kentucky, USA
Tammy Beck, Shawn Long and Ashley Andrew
Department of Organizational Science,
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA, and
David G. Altman and John W. Fleenor
Center for Creative Leadership, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA
Abstract
Purpose – The theoretical and practical criticality of self-talk for leader success receives extensive
multidisciplinary discussion, without a great deal of empirical research given the challenge of
assessing actual self-talk. The purpose of this paper is to advance research and theory on
self-leadership by examining leader self-talk and its relationship to effectiveness and strain.
Design/methodology/approach – In total, 189 senior executives’ self-addressed, future-oriented
letters were collected. The executives wrote these letters to themselves for their own personal
development; thus, the language used represented a form of naturally occurring self-talk. Two types of
self-talk were coded: constructive and dysfunctional. Supervisor and direct report ratings of leadership
of others and creativity and self-ratings of job strain were collected.
Findings Extensive variability among leaders in constructive self-talk was found. Exemplars of
constructive and dysfunctional self-talk are presented. Constructive self-talk positively related to
effective leadership of others and creativity/originality as evaluated by subordinates and superiors and
was negatively related to job strain. Dysfunctional self-talk related negatively to creativity/originality.
Originality/value – In addition to illustrating the types of self-talk used by leaders, research is
extended by providing some of the first empirical evidence of how leaders’ free-flowing thoughts are
related to their effectiveness and their overall well-being, lending direct support to a principal
proposition from the self-leadership framework.
Keywords Leaders, Motivation (psychology), Stress, Leadership, Leader performance, Self-leadership,
Self-regulation, Self-talk
Paper type Research paper
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
www.emeraldinsight.com/0268-3946.htm
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mind
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Received June 2012
Revised July 2012
July 2012
August 2012
Accepted August 2012
Journal of Managerial Psychology
Vol. 28 No. 2, 2013
pp. 183-201
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
0268-3946
DOI 10.1108/02683941311300702
Self-leadership, broadly defined by Manz (1986), is “a comprehensive self-influence
perspective that concerns leading oneself toward performance of naturally motivating
tasks as well as managing oneself to do work that must be done, but is not naturally
motivating” (p. 589). The theory recognizes that effective self-leadership is a
foundational element for effective leadership more broadly — that is, to lead others
effectively, one must effectively lead himself or herself (Houghton et al., 2003).
At the core of how individuals lead themselves is their internal or inner dialogue
(Manz and Neck, 1991), which is a concept that has also been referred to as self-talk.
Hackfort and Schwenkmezger (1993) defined self-talk as “dialogue through which the
individual interprets feelings and perceptions, regulates and changes evaluations and
convictions, and gives him/herself instructions and reinforcement” (p. 355). As
Houghton and Neck (2002, p. 674) write, “self-dialogues usually take place at
unobservable levels as individuals evaluate, instruct, and mentally react to
themselves”. Interestingly, despite self-talk’s centrality to self-leadership (Locke and
Latham, 2004), there is a lack of empirical attention on the topic in the organizational
sciences. Scholars, therefore, know very little about leaders’ self-talk and its
work-related implications the purpose of this study.
The theoretical rationale underlying self-leadership and the importance of one’s
thoughts in understanding behavior proposed by Manz and colleagues is social
cognitive theory (SCT; Bandura, 1977, 1991). SCT is an agentic theoretical framework
for understanding how human behavior can be comprehended, analyzed, and changed.
SCT is based on the notion that human behavior involves an interaction of personal
factors, behavior, and the environment (Bandura, 1991), with each of these three factors
dynamically and reciprocally relating to one another.
The active influence of one’s mind is strongly emphasized in SCT. Here, the power
of one’s cognitions is involved in constructing an individual’s reality, encoding
information in one’s mind, and leading a person to behave in correspondence to his or
her expectations of what consequences will follow from particular actions. In SCT,
through actions such as thought self-regulation and self-reflection, a person can
develop the agency and motivation to think and behave in ways that actively create
positive future experiences. Therefore, there is a constant interaction between thoughts
and the environment that leads to the creation of one’s reality. The individual receives
feedback from the environment, which he or she then cognitively interprets. Through
self-reflection on experiences, an individual can gain knowledge on how his or her
thoughts and corresponding behaviors lead to positive or negative experiences. Then,
through the regulation of thoughts and the use of constructive self-talk to reflect on
experiences, an individual can become motivated and develop the self-efficacy to act in
ways that positively influence his or her future. In sum, how an individual constructs
his or her reality is what enables behavior to be understood, predicted, and changed.
The concept of self-talk is not specific to the leadership literature; in fact, it has been
embraced by multiple disciplines. Sports psychologists have discussed the
implications of self-talk for athletic performance (e.g. Hatzigeorgiadis et al., 2004).
Clinical and counseling psychologists espouse the positive benefits of constructive
self-talk to improve the psychological health and well-being of their clients (e.g. Burnett,
1994; Treadwell and Kendall, 1996). In education, there has been interest in self-talk
training as a tool for enhancing academic performance (Swanson and Kozleski, 1985).
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Most of the organizational research on self-talk is conceptual in nature (Neck and
Houghton, 2006). There is a notable lack of empirical organizational research on actual
leader self-talk likely due to the challenge of capturing the thoughts of leaders through
verbal protocols and expressive writing (Englert et al., 1991; Ericsson and Simon, 1993;
Isenberg, 1986). There is organizational research that examines the self-talk construct
indirectly. Several studies (Neck and Manz, 1996; Yanar et al., 2009) implemented
self-talk training interventions in hopes of increasing job performance or employment
opportunities for individuals seeking work. For example, Neck and Manz (1996) found
that training leaders in effective self-leadership and self-talk (e.g. learning how to
replace cognitive distortions with more functional forms of thought) resulted in
increased mental performance, positive affect, job satisfaction, and self-efficacy, and
decreased nervousness in participants.
Another stream of research related to leader self-talk is work on self-leadership
strategies (e.g. Houghton and Neck, 2002). In this research, participants report their
cognitive approaches and strategies for dealing with organizationally relevant issues
and events. The measures used are broad-based self-assessments akin to how
personality and skills are assessed (e.g. participants indicate agreement with various
statements, such as: “I think about my own beliefs and assumptions whenever I
encounter a difficult situation”).
The literature consistently demonstrates that self-leadership skills relate to a host of
personal and organizational outcomes. The leaders reporting more effective
self-leadership skills (e.g. self-reported engagement in constructive thinking) tended
to be more innovative (Carmeli et al., 2006) and have higher generalized self-efficacy
(Prussia et al., 1998). Self-reported self-leadership skills have also been related to more
positive reports of health, stress, and spiritual fulfillment (Dolbier et al., 2001; Lovelace
et al., 2007; Neck and Milliman, 1994). Constructive self-reported thought strategies
have also been linked to job satisfaction ( Judge and Locke, 1993; Houghton and
Jinkerson, 2007). A longitudinal study found that the mental health and job-search
efforts exerted by unemployed individuals were poorer in weeks when they reported
self-defeating thoughts (Wanberg et al., 2012). Finally, lower performing managers
tended to report that their thoughts focused on personal deficiencies while higher
performing managers tended to report that their thoughts centered on external factors
such as hindrances to overcome (Manz et al., 1988).
Despite the clear benefits of self-reported self-leadership skills, it is important to
recognize that self-leadership skills are not synonymous with actual self-talk.
Self-leadership scales do not assess actual internal dialogue directly. As Glass and
Arnkoff (1997) discuss, “The obvious disadvantage of structured inventories is that the
items contained in these questionnaires are prototypical statements and may not reflect
an individual client’s actual thoughts. Consequently, the idiosyncratic nature of the
individual’s thoughts is not fully captured” (p. 912). They go on to note that self-talk or
inner speech standard self-reports “do not capture the ongoing flow of
stream-of-consciousness thoughts” (p. 911). Glass and Arnkoff (1997) also discuss
that the self-leadership skills types of measures have unique challenges around the
accuracy of participants’ memory recall as well as demand characteristics and
cognitive dissonance given that self-talk is measured retrospectively rather than
concurrently.
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Leader self-talk and leader effectiveness and well-being
In this study, we first examine actual leader self-talk. Although the labels may slightly
differ, self-talk research and theory consistently identify two principal types of
self-talk: constructive and dysfunctional self-talk (e.g. Houghton and Jinkerson, 2007;
Neck and Manz, 1992, 1996). Constructive self-talk is characterized by accurate
self-analysis, well-grounded beliefs, and an encouraging orientation (e.g. Prussia et al.,
1998). Constructive self-talk has a depth to it in that it seeks more nuanced
explanations to people’s behavior, one’s personal situation, and their responses to
challenges, rather than surface-level or superstitious explanations (Epstein and Meier,
1989). Overall, constructive self-talk is thought to be thoughtful, substantive,
motivational, insightful, and self-reflective. Dysfunctional self-talk is a tendency to
focus on and perseverate about the negative aspects of challenging situations (Neck
et al., 1999). This type of thinking does not embrace change or challenge; instead, it
shies away from it and focuses on the situation’s obstacles.
RQ1. What is the base rate of constructive and dysfunctional self-talk in leaders?
What are examples of these types of self-talk in a leader population?
Second, in this study, we examine self-talk and three work-related outcomes.
Specifically, this study is the first one, based on our review of the literature, examining
the relationships between actual self-talk and effective leadership of others
(e.g. supportiveness, mentorship, helpfulness, and promoting collaboration),
creativity/originality, and leader job strain. These outcomes were chosen for two
primary reasons:
(1) each has been discussed extensively in the literature as being theoretically
relevant to self-talk or self-leadership more broadly (e.g. Neck and Manz, 1996);
and
(2) considering this is an introductory empirical examination of the importance of
leader self-talk, we chose outcomes that are broad in nature to provide overall
evidence regarding the importance of self-talk for both the effectiveness and
well-being of leaders.
Self-talk and leadership of others
As mentioned earlier, effective self-leadership through constructive self-talk should
help with the main job of leaders that is, providing leadership to others. There are
several reasons why constructive self-talk is postulated to result in more effective
leadership of others. Leaders who are able to regulate their own emotions effectively
through self-regulatory methods such as constructive self-talk should be better able to
adapt to the needs of followers (Depape et al., 2006). Morin (2005) supports this
perspective by suggesting that constructive self-talk allows a leader to reproduce the
perspectives of other people more effectively and take these perspectives into account
when making decisions. Here, self-talk provides the individual with an expanded frame
of reference from which to view a problem, be it task or interpersonally focused, which
is critical for effective problem solving. At the same time, this nuanced understanding
of behavior and situations allows the leader to more effectively address individual and
team-level needs, problems, and challenges. Depape et al.’s (2006) work further
demonstrates how constructive self-talk tendencies are associated with higher
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emotional intelligence, which has direct implications for the effective leadership of
others (Co
ˆte
´et al., 2006):
H1. Constructive self-talk will be positively related to leadership of others.
Dysfunctional thinking patterns lead people to see challenges as irreversible or
unchangeable (Beck, 1987). Therefore, challenges confronting the leader and his or her
team may remain unresolved. This, in turn, can lead subordinates to experience
frustration with the leader’s supportiveness and helpfulness in dealing with
work-related problems:
H2. Dysfunctional self-talk will be negatively related to leadership of others.
Self-talk and creativity/originality
Leaders using more constructive self-talk strategies should be more creative and
original. From the self-leadership skills literature, constructive self-talk is inherently
linked to optimistic or opportunity thinking. This, in turn, leads to not only greater
persistence in the face of challenges, but also a greater propensity to recognize a
challenge to be overcome (which is stage one of the innovation process) and trying a
myriad of approaches to seek effective resolution (DiLiello and Houghton, 2006; Neck
and Manz, 2010). Constructive self-talk is also linked to positive emotional states (Beck,
1987). These positive emotional states can in turn broaden a person’s way of thinking
about the world, which allows him or her to be more open to new people and experiences
(Fredrickson, 1998; 2001; Fredrickson et al., 2003). The self-leadership skills literature
supports this connection. Constructive thoughts can increase the self-efficacy of leaders,
allowing them to be more open to new approaches, risk taking, and innovative solutions
(Neck et al., 1999). Carmeli et al. (2006), for instance, found that self-leadership skills were
related to higher self- and boss ratings of innovative behavior:
H3. Constructive self-talk will be positively related to creativity/originality.
Dysfunctional thinking can reduce a leader’s ability to develop innovative solutions to
organizational problems and to adapt to new challenges that arise. Neck and Manz (2010)
suggested that perceiving problems as obstacles rather than as opportunities decreases a
person’s willingness to persist, which is a necessary component of developing creative
ideas and adapting. Psychologists help to provide an explanation for why dysfunctional
thinking can be so detrimental to creativity or adaptability. Beck (1987) discussed how
dysfunctional thoughts lead to decreased cognitive capacity for ideas that require effortful
processing. Dysfunctional thinkers develop negatively biased schemas characterized by
chronic misconceptions, distorted attitudes, invalid premises, and unrealistic goals. The
abstract thinking needed for innovation requires more sophisticated cognitive schemas
that are free from these cognitive distortions (Beck, 1963). Additionally, dysfunctional
thinking leads to “arbitrary inference” with a corresponding inability to accept alternative
explanations, as well as “selective abstraction” (Beck, 1963) in which the person is fixated
on negative aspects of the situation, leading them to ignore other features of the
environment. This tendency towards fixating only on certain aspects of the situation
suggests that the leader would be less likely to be flexible and adaptable to alternative
solutions that can promote creative ideas:
H4. Dysfunctional self-talk will be negatively related to creativity/originality.
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Self-talk and job strain
Constructive self-talk is likely able to reduce job strain by helping a person cope with
anxiety-provoking situations on the job. While self-talk does not eliminate the source of
stress per se, it can be an effective regulation strategy. Establishing constructive thought
patterns through self-talk is an “approach” versus “avoidance” coping style that allows
the individual to proactively mitigate demands and work to solve the source of the strain
(Dolbier et al., 2001). For instance, Voight (2009) examined the coping strategies of soccer
officials for combating job stress and found that constructive self-talk was a frequently
used strategy. Constructive self-leadership strategies and self-talk enable individuals to
feel more in control and capable of coping with simultaneous demands (Frayne and
Latham, 1987), which in turn allows them to gain greater control of their work
environment through increased resources (Lovelace et al., 2007):
H5. Constructive self-talk will be negatively related to job strain.
The link between dysfunctional self-talk and emotional challenges dates back to Ellis
(1962), who was one of the first to broadly define self-talk. He described how patterns of
irrational thinking produce emotional distress or strain, and these thinking patterns
are heavily influenced by our self-talk. Ellis (1962, 1975, 1977) suggested that
dysfunctional thoughts lead to emotional challenges and distress whereas constructive
thoughts lead to positive emotional states. This perspective is consistent with Beck’s
(1963) classic work in which he discussed how beliefs influence our internal dialogue
which in turn influences our emotional state. Self-talk that is obstacle-oriented
ultimately does not promote a sense of self-efficacy, engender support from others, or
work effectively to solve the sources of stress:
H6. Dysfunctional self-talk will be positively related to job strain.
Method
Participants and procedures
Data were collected from 189 senior executives who attended a five-day leadership
development program at an organization with headquarters in the Southeastern USA.
This particular leadership program is designed for senior executives (top three tiers of
their organization) with 15 or more years of management experience and leadership
responsibilities for 500 or more people. The sample was primarily male (83.7 percent),
Caucasian (85.8 percent), middle-aged (M ¼48 years, SD ¼6:2), and represented a
wide range of industries and organization sizes. Typical titles of executives in this
sample included CEO, President, Managing Director, Vice President, and Senior
Director.
Approximately six weeks prior to attending the leadership development program,
360-degree surveys were sent out to the executives’ direct reports and supervisors and
returned directly to the organization. Data from these surveys were used for the
measures of leadership of others and creativity/originality. Participants chose between
one and three supervisors (M ¼1:34, SD ¼0:54) and between one and 11 direct
reports (M ¼4:48, SD ¼1:57). Participants were also asked to complete a general
work environment survey prior to their participation in the program that included the
measure of job strain. Self-talk was assessed through a letter that each executive wrote
to himself or herself at the conclusion of the five-day program. See Table I for a listing
of all items.
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Measures
Leadership of others. All 11 items from Beck et al.’s (2010) leadership of others scale
were used. This measure is designed to be a Gestalt measure that assesses the leader’s
ability to use interpersonal leadership skills to effectively lead others, and it focuses on
the importance of leader support (e.g. Baran et al., 2012), mentorship (e.g. Haggard,
2012), helpfulness (van Dierendonck and Nuijten, 2011), communication (e.g. de Vries
et al., 2010), and promoting collaboration (e.g. Naidoo et al., 2011) among the leaders’
direct reports. Ratings were made by leaders’ supervisors and subordinates using a 1
(“deficient”) to 5 (“exceptional”) rating scale. Scale scores on this measure were created
by aggregating ratings from both supervisors and subordinates. The scale’s coefficient
a
was 0.96, and the median rWGðJÞvalue across all leaders was .95.
Creativity/originality. Leader creativity/originality was assessed via a four-item
scale taken from the Campbell Leadership Index (Campbell, 1991). Ratings were made
using a 6 (“never”) to 1 (“always”) rating scale (the scale was reverse scored prior to
analysis for ease of interpretation). Scale scores were again calculated by aggregating
Leadership of others
Helps subordinates resolve their conflicts constructively 0.80
Delegates work that provides substantial responsibility and visibility 0.65
Identifies and removes barriers to effective teamwork 0.80
Publicly praises others for their performance 0.75
Acts as a mentor, helping others to develop and advance in their careers 0.84
Supports the decisions and actions of subordinates 0.81
Develops staff through constructive feedback and encouragement 0.87
Understands what motivates other people to perform at their best 0.79
Encourages direct and open discussions about important issues 0.68
Seeks common ground in an effort to resolve conflicts 0.71
Tailors communication based on others’ needs, motivations, and agendas 0.74
Creativity/originality
Creative – produces many novel ideas, products, or methods 0.92
Imaginative has a flair for seeing the world differently 0.85
Inventive – comes up with clever new products or ideas 0.90
Original – thinks and acts in fresh, unusual ways 0.95
Constructive self-talk
This letter seemed insightful 0.93
This letter seemed thoughtfully constructed 0.88
The letter writer seemed engaged in constructive self-talk 0.86
This letter writer seemed self-reflective 0.88
The letter writer seemed engaged in motivational self-talk 0.76
Dysfunctional self-talk
Sees challenges associated with change 0.51
Appears to shy away from challenges rather than embrace them 0.87
Focuses on the negative aspects associated with challenging situations, rather than the
positive aspects 0.93
Has a pessimistic perspective about change 0.87
Notes: All factor loadings were statistically significant at p,0:001. Given that job strain was
measured with a single item, we constrained its factor loading to 1 and its residual (error) variance to 0
Table I.
Factor loadings from the
confirmatory factor
analysis
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across all raters. The
a
for this scale was 0.94, and the median rWGðJÞvalue across all
leaders was 0.87.
Job strain. To assess leader job strain, a single item self-rating from the Campbell
Organizational Survey (Campbell and Hyne, 1995) (“job stress is affecting my health”).
Participants completed this item using a 6 (“strongly disagree”) to 1 (“strongly agree”)
rating scale.
Self-talk measures. Participants were asked to write letters addressed to themselves
about issues related to their work and personal lives. In the letter, the participants were
asked to remind their future selves of the goals and lessons that they had learned in the
program and to discuss their hopes for future self-development. Participants were
completely unaware that self-talk was being assessed. Participants were given up to 45
minutes to write the letters. No training around the topic of self-talk was provided.
Because very few parameters were specified regarding what the letters should contain,
these letters represent the free-flowing self-talk of leaders. Of note, we were not
interested in the topics of the letters per se (as those were shaped by the leadership
program in many ways) but rather how the leaders “spoke” to themselves about a
topic. Overall, this method represents a natural and subtle method for assessing
self-talk that lends itself well to a field setting such as ours and is less subject to
distortion (Englert et al., 1991).
Seventeen leadership researchers were provided with extensive training on self-talk
and coding procedures. Coding was letter-based rather than utterance/sentence based.
This was found to be necessary as context of the entire letter was essential to
understand self-talk. This means that the judges provided general ratings of the
leaders’ self-talk after reading the entire letter. Each letter was randomly assigned to
three judges for coding. In total, the judges rated 216 letters including 238
single-spaced pages of text and 75,560 words. However, we were only able to link
performance data for 189 of these leaders.
Constructive self-talk was assessed by five items rated on a 1 (“to a little extent”) to
4 (“to a great extent”) scale (a “to no extent” value for constructive self-talk was found
to not be applicable for this sample). Please see Table I. These items were consistent
with definitions of constructive self-talk as being thoughtful, substantive,
motivational, insightful, and self-reflective. The judges’ ratings on each item were
averaged, and the items were then averaged to create a scale score. There was a high
degree of agreement between the judges, with the median rWGðJÞ¼0:94 across letters,
suggesting that it was acceptable to aggregate ratings across judges. Cronbach’s
a
was
0.94.
Dysfunctional self-talk was captured by four items rated on a 1 (“to no extent”) to 5
(“to a great extent”) scale. Please see Table I for the items. These items were consistent
with the literature indicating that dysfunctional self-talk is a tendency to focus on and
perseverate about the negative aspects of challenging situations (Neck et al., 1999).
Ratings on the items were averaged across the judges and then averaged to create a
composite score. There was a high degree of agreement between the judges, with the
median rWGðJÞ¼0:95 across letters. Cronbach’s
a
was 0.72.
Results
Research question one asks about the base rates of constructive and dysfunctional
self-talk in a leader population. The mean score for constructive self-talk was 2.71
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(SD ¼.62) which was just above the scale midpoint. Fourteen percent of the scores
were low ranging from 1 (to a little extent) to 2 (to some extent). Fifty-five percent of
scores reflected moderately levels of constructive self-talk, between 2 and 3 (to a good
extent). Thirty-one percent of scores were high in that they ranged between 3 (to a good
extent) and 4 (to a great extent). The mean score for dysfunctional self-talk was very
low at 1.38, with little variability (SD ¼0:34). Scores ranged from 1 to 3.08. The largest
majority of the scores (ninety-five percent) fell between 1 (to no extent) and 2 (to a little
extent). As the sample contained mostly individuals who have risen to the highest
levels of leadership in their organization, the low levels of dysfunctional self-talk are
not surprising. Age, gender and race were not correlated with the propensity to engage
in constructive or dysfunctional self-talk (p.0:05).
Next, as part of research question one, we seek to illustrate the type of self-talk
displayed by participants. Note again, themes were not coded in the letters. What was
coded was how the participants talked to themselves about the topic that is what
made the assessment a measure of self-talk. Although self-talk coding was done at the
overall letter level as it was helpful to understand the full context when rating letters
on self-talk, we extrapolated sample statements for illustrative purposes.
For example, these next two leaders were both talking about work/life balance
issues in their letters. However, how they talked to themselves about the topic was very
different and provides insight into their self-leadership approach. Example one: “I find
some areas are receiving too much attention. Adjustments must be made. Yes, change
will occur and the proper balance will be achieved”. This quote clearly reflects a leader
who aspires for a goal, but the self-talk is not expressed in a highly constructive
manner. Example two: “You have always known that you adored your son. You even
cried this week for the first time in years when you talked about your son. This is
because you realized you are not spending enough time with him. How are you doing?
Are you spending at least 4 hours with him during the weekend? Did you write him a
letter for him to open when he goes to college?”. The latter was considered a better
exemplar of constructive self-talk than the former given its supportiveness, guidance,
self-insight, and multifaceted approach. Another example of constructive self-talk
around a different topic is: “You are good at what you do, so you are going to start
giving yourself some credit publicly. And the next time someone compliments you
on something, do not brush them off before they finish with a quick ‘thank you’ take
it all in. You’ve made it through the 2004 process and you ‘done good’. CFO is happy”.
Two examples, from two separate leaders, that do a nice job exemplifying
dysfunctional self-talk are:
(1) “At this point, I am not sure what the end result will be. Retirement and free
time is tempting. It would be the easy path. I am not used to going down the
easy path. It may be time to take the easy journey”; and
(2) “And how’s the mess at the office? Still cancelling appointments or showing up
in wrong meetings? Hope you can handle your schedule a little better now. Say
no to some stuff. Otherwise one day you’re going to be the only one in the
meetings. Don’t say I didn’t tell you”.
Finally, in other letters, how the leader concluded their letter revealed some substantive
differences among participants in self-talk. For example, one letter ended with: “P.S.
How the hell are you going to find the time to do this, you have a career to worry
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about”. Another person writes, “In closing, I can’t wait to get back to you with the full
plan and details. You have been of great support”. The latter leader used self-talk that
is supportive and positive in nature, indicating constructive self-talk, whereas the first
leader appears heavily career progress focused where addressing other life aspects is
seen as a barrier. This is an example of dysfunctional self-talk.
Confirmatory factor analysis results
We conducted a confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) to examine the factor structure of
all measures. This resulted in testing a 25-item, five-factor model in which all items
were specified to load onto their respective factors, and latent factors (but not residuals)
were allowed to freely correlate. We evaluated the fit of the model using several
criteria. Specifically, “acceptable” model fit is indicated by a comparative fit index (CFI)
value greater than 0.90 and a root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA) value
less than 0.08 (Browne and Cudeck, 1992; Medsker et al., 1994). For “good” fit, CFI
values should approximate 0.95 or higher, RMSEA values should be approximately
0.06 or less, and the standardized root mean square residual (SRMR) should be less
than 0.08 (Hu and Bentler, 1999).
The results of the CFA indicated that our 25-item, five-factor model provided a
reasonably good fit to the data, as the fit indices (
x
2¼517:39, df ¼266, p,0:001;
CFI ¼0:93; RMSEA ¼0:07; SRMR ¼0:06) closely approximated or met their
respective cutoffs. As shown in Table I, all standardized factor loadings were
statistically significant and were relatively large in magnitude. These items are
therefore reliable indicators of their respective latent factors. Moreover, the latent
factor correlations ranged from 20.19 to .35, suggesting that these factors are related
yet empirically distinguishable constructs. Overall, the CFA results provide strong
evidence in support of the construct validity of this study’s measures.
Self-talk and outcomes
As we were not testing a model, mediators, the existence of relationships across levels
of analysis, and no empirical reason was identified to control for demographic
variables (i.e. they were unrelated to self-talk), simple correlation coefficients were used
to test this study’s propositions. The correlations among self-talk measures and the
outcome variables are presented in Table II.
Constructive self-talk was positively correlated with leadership of others (r¼0:20,
p,0:05) and negatively correlated with job strain (r¼20:15, p,0:05) such that
those leaders engaging in constructive self-talk reported less job strain and were
MSD 1 2 3 4 5 6
1. Gender
2. Age 48 6.19 20.10
3. Constructive self-talk 2.71 0.62 20.06 20.08
4. Dysfunctional self-talk 1.38 0.34 0.07 0.01 0.04
5. Job strain 3.94 1.38 0.00 0.10 20.15 *0.04
6. Leadership of others 3.45 0.53 20.02 0.22 *0.20 *20.03 20.03
7. Creativity/originality 4.48 0.61 20.05 20.02 0.11 20.14 *20.09 0.26 *
Notes: n¼189; *p,0:05 (two-tailed tests)
Table II.
Descriptive statistics and
intercorrelations for
self-talk indices and
leader outcomes
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evaluated by others as being a more effective leader of others. Constructive self-talk
was not correlated with creativity/originality. Despite its very low scores and
variability, dysfunctional self-talk was negatively correlated with creativity/originality
(r¼20:14, p,0:05) such that those leaders reporting higher-levels of dysfunctional
self-talk were also evaluated by others as being less creative/original. Dysfunctional
self-talk was unrelated to job strain or leadership of others. No curvilinear relationships
were found in any of the above analyses.
Discussion
In this study, we explored the nature of leader self-talk and whether it relates to his or
her effectiveness as a leader as well as to the strain he or she experiences on the job.
With regard to the former, considerable variability in constructive self-talk was found
among participants. Although, on average, this leader sample was quite constructive in
their self-talk, differences among leaders in the supportiveness, insightfulness and
overall motivational quality of their self-talk were readily exemplified. This was not
the case for dysfunctional self-talk, though some limited variability still existed.
With regard to work-related outcomes, what a leader says to him/herself does
indeed seem relevant. Constructive self-talk was associated with an increased ability to
lead others and less job strain. This is consistent with self-leadership theorists who
emphasize that constructive self-talk reduces leaders’ stress at work (Lovelace et al.,
2007), and enhances their ability to lead followers (Lovelace et al., 2007; Neck and
Houghton, 2006) as it allows them to manage and construct a productive environment
more effectively. Dysfunctional self-talk was related to decreased leader creativity.
Perhaps this exists because dysfunctional thinking can undermine a person’s
self-efficacy and lead a person to fixate on only one aspect of the environment, stifling
his or her ability to think more broadly (Beck, 1963). Furthermore, seeing problems as
obstacles, rather than opportunities, decreases a person’s willingness to persist, which
is often necessary for developing and implementing creative ideas (Neck and Manz,
2010). Surprisingly, dysfunctional self-talk was only related to one outcome. This could
be due to a restriction in range in our sample. The variance was rather low and
positively skewed, meaning that our leaders did not display dysfunctional self-talk as
often as constructive self-talk through their letters, likely due to the fact that these are
highly successful individuals. This is further discussed in the Limitations section.
Although the correlations observed were small for the quantitative portion of the
study, but not at all atypical when studying senior leaders (Peterson et al., 2012), we
believe they are conservative low-end estimates of larger effects for a few reasons.
First, we assessed self-talk at only one point in time. Second, six weeks of time
separated the performance indicators (assessed quantitatively from different sources)
from the assessment of self-talk (assessed qualitatively), which also mitigated against
common method bias inflation (Conway and Lance, 2010). Third, our sample was
composed of mostly senior leaders highly successful individuals. These participants
generally “live” in the right tail of the distribution. Overall, given all the factors that
can impact senior leader performance and well-being, the fact that a single qualitative
indicator of self-talk correlated with senior leaders’ performance appears particularly
noteworthy.
Regardless of the above caveats, even small correlations can have practical
importance in real-life settings. For example, leadership researchers Eagly and Carli
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(2003, p. 825) explain that small observed correlations provide an important example
regarding a study examining the effects of aspirin: “the relation between taking aspirin
and the prevention of heart attacks in a randomized double-blind experiment was only
r¼:034, yet this effect corresponded to 3.4 percent fewer people experiencing heart
attacks, a drop meaningful enough to induce researchers to end the experiment
prematurely because it was deemed unethical to deny the benefits of the treatment to
the individuals in the control group” (Rosnow and Rosenthal, 1989). Rose (1992, p. 24)
wrote about a fundamental finding in prevention science: “a large number of people
exposed to a small risk may generate many more cases than a small number exposed to
a high risk”, Extending these findings to the current study, even if constructive
self-talk by executives has small relations with job strain and leadership of others,
since the participants in this study were the senior most leaders of large organizations,
their behaviors, when repeated over individuals and occasions, can produce practically
important benefits in terms of leaders’ well-being and effectivenessm which in turn
could well affect those with whom the leader works and influences. We should also
note that this was a similar conclusion drawn from the sports psychology literature
regarding self-talk. While meta-analyses involving athlete self-talk and athletic
performance yield small correlations nearly identical to what was found here
(Hatzigeorgiadis et al., 2011), the practical value of self-talk is highly emphasized as a
differentiator between very good and great athletic performance (Gee, 2010).
Practical and societal implications
The practical implications of this study are robust. Most notable is the opportunity for
developing interventions to promote constructive self-talk. Sports psychologists and
clinical psychologists have long used self-talk training interventions for enhancing
sports success and personal well-being. Our results support the need for similar
constructive self-talk training interventions in organizations. Self-leadership scholars
have begun to address this need. For instance, a few scholars have highlighted how
self-talk or verbal self-guidance training can increase an individual’s likelihood of
being hired (e.g. Latham and Budworth, 2006; Yanar et al., 2009). See Appendix A for a
proposed training program. Given the cognitive nature of the training, influencing
learning states pre-training might be particularly important to pay attention to as well
(e.g. Weissbein et al., 2011).
Leaders can create situations conducive to more effective self-talk in themselves and
in others. For instance, Oliver et al. (2008) found that individuals in more autonomous
and supportive environments used more positive emotional and informational self-talk
and less controlling or negative self-talk than participants in the control condition.
Importantly, Yun et al. (2006) found that leaders who had good self-leadership skills
tended to create more empowering versus directive work environments, which led in
turn to greater self-leadership behaviors in followers. Members of an organization take
cues and derive meaning from others to interpret their environment (Bandura, 2001),
especially from their leader. Therefore, leaders who encourage self-leadership
behaviors such as allowing participation in decision-making or allowing subordinates
to control aspects of their work-role are likely to have followers who feel positive and
empowered towards their jobs which can result in better self-talk.
From a societal perspective, our results speak to a pathway to success and
well-being that is, in part, self-determined. Namely, constructive self-talk appears to be
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a mechanism for navigating the challenges of life that when compounded across people
and time, can propel organizations, communities, and society forward. Obviously,
constructive self-talk alone is not the answer to all problems. However, through
constructive self-talk, humans would appear better able to seek solutions, synergies,
and answers in a psychologically healthy manner. Imparting the value of, and tools
necessary to promote, constructive self-talk in society’s youth and adults would appear
to be of great value to our individual and collective success and well-being.
Limitations and future research
Despite extensive theoretical work that postulates that self-talk begets the outcomes
studied here (e.g. DiLiello and Houghton, 2006) plus the experimental work on self-talk
training interventions that led to changes in behaviors/attitudes (e.g. Neck and Manz,
1996), the nature of our design does not permit the identification of cause and effect.
Furthermore, because self-talk is measured after leaders had completed a cognitively
intense leadership development program, the type of self-talk shown through the
letters may not be the same as an individual would use on a “typical” day. This may be
one of the reasons for the low prevalence of dysfunctional self-talk we found. Future
research would benefit from having multiple indicators of self-talk that are measured
over time. This would also allow researchers to study self-talk across time, which is
needed given that there may be considerable within-person variance in self-talk, which
also allows for more causal analyses of the effects of self-talk on outcomes.
Furthermore, given that this was a naturally occurring field study as part of an
actual leadership development program, we were limited in the range of theoretically
meaningful variables to include in our models. Most notably, future research should
include process variables necessary to explain why self-talk impacts outcomes.
Self-efficacy is a prime candidate for inclusion. Much of Bandura’s (1991, 2001) work
focuses on how constructive thoughts can enhance one’s self-efficacy.
We also recognize that future research will benefit from the study of self-talk
antecedents, covariates and outcomes. The relationship of self-talk to personality stands
out most in this regard. While some argue that self-leadership is a “repackaging” of
personality (e.g. Markham and Markham, 1998), scholars have recently demonstrated
self-leadership skill’s distinction from personality (Furtner and Rauthmann, 2010). This
work, however, has not looked at self-talk and thus is an area ripe for future research. In
the same vein, examining self-talk in relation to other cognitive constructs such as
rumination and self-leadership skills will further serve to establish the construct validity
of self-talk. Additional outcomes of theoretical/conceptual interest could include
work/family balance and time investment (Odle-Dusseau et al., 2012) as well as leader
turnover/derailment (Carson et al.,2012).
Overall, self-leadership continues to show great promise for the organizational
sciences with self-talk in particular being a wide-open area of inquiry. Practical
implications abound given Seligman’s (1991) optimistic assessment of humans: “one of
the most significant findings in psychology in the last 20 years is that individuals can
choose the way they think (p. 8)”.
Acknowledgements
The first two authors, Steven G. Rogelberg and Logan Justice, are co-first authors and
contributed equally to the manuscript.
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Further reading
D’Intino, R., Goldsby, M., Houghton, J. and Neck, C. (2007), “Self-leadership: a process for
entrepreneurial success”, Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, Vol. 13 No. 4,
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workplace”, Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 25 No. 4, pp. 356-83.
Stewart, G., Courtright, S. and Manz, C. (2010), “Self-leadership: a multilevel review”, Journal of
Management, Vol. 37 No. 1, pp. 185-222.
Tamres, L.K., Janicki, D. and Helgeson, V.S. (2002), “Sex differences in coping behavior:
a meta-analytic review and an examination of relative coping”, Personality and Social
Psychology Review, Vol. 6 No. 1, pp. 2-30.
Appendix. Example self-talk training protocol
Note: This example self-talk training protocol was adopted from Neck and Manz (1996) and Neck
et al. (1999).
In this training, employees will receive detailed knowledge and instruction regarding ways
that they can use cognitive strategies associated with self-talk to enhance their well-being and
job performance. This training will focus on the following strategies:
.understanding the nature of self-talk and evaluating their own self-talk;
.how to manage and evaluate your beliefs and assumptions;
.examining and changing your thought patterns; and
.teaching good self-talk habits and preventing relapse.
Diverse instructional media and resources such as lectures, group work, videos, and online
resources will be used to teach and reinforce the self-talk strategies learned in the training. This
training is designed in four primary sections, but the training itself can range from four weeks in
duration (one week each) to four days’ duration (one day each) depending on the extensiveness of
the training.
In the first section, a general overview of self-talk and specific instruction to highlight
constructive self-talk strategies will be given. Also in this section, employees would be taught
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how to replace their dysfunctional self-talk at work with more constructive self-talk. Butler’s
(1981) approach in this step will be adopted and utilized to reinforce good self-talk strategies.
In the second section, employees will be taught how to identify and change their cognitive
distortions, which can lead them to have dysfunctional cognitive beliefs. Here the training will
first describe what beliefs and assumptions are and explain how these beliefs lead to enduring
negative thought patterns. The ten most common categories of dysfunctional thinking suggested
by Burns (1980) will be used in this section.
Thirdly, employees would receive thought pattern training similar to the training used by
Manz (1992), whereby employees would be taught to identify their own dysfunctional thinking
habits such as obstacle-oriented patterns thinking, and replace these habits with more
constructive ones such as opportunity-focused thinking. In this section, the instructor will
explain how dysfunctional beliefs relate to the self-talk they use, and how these in turn lead to an
enduring emotional state and habitual thought patterns. They will also emphasize how enduring
thought patterns/ways of thinking are hard to change, and change needs to start with the way
they talk to themselves and being able to be self-aware enough to identify dysfunctional beliefs.
Last, in the fourth section, instruction would be given on how to prevent relapse into
dysfunctional self-talk habits. Employees will be told how important continual practice is to
promote good self-talk habits. They will also be given a specific process to follow to apply the
learned self-talk strategies whenever a threatening or negative situation occurs and be given
tools to promote good self-talk on a continual basis. Marx (1982) proposes several principles
regarding the prevention of relapse into bad habits, which will be primary basis of this section.
Corresponding author
Steven G. Rogelberg can be contacted at: sgrogelb@uncc.edu
The executive
mind
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