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Painting a Clear Picture while Seeing the Big Picture: When and Why Leaders Overcome the Tradeoff Between Concreteness and Scale

Andrew M. Carton, Karren Knowlton, Constantinos Coutifaris, Timothy G. Kundro, Andrew P. Boysen
Published: 18 October 2021

Abstract: One of the most effective ways leaders can promote change is by generating visions with image-based rhetoric (“make children smile”). By conjuring visual snapshots of the future, leaders paint a portrait of what their organizations can one day achieve. It would thus stand to reason that leaders who naturally think and speak in terms of picture-like detail (a concrete orientation) would promote more organizational change than those who are inclined to think abstractly (an abstract orientation). Yet research has established that individuals with a concrete orientation tend to focus on short-term, narrow details (e.g., small features of a single product) rather than long-term visions requiring the coordinated effort of all employees. To determine how and when concrete-thinking leaders induce large-scale change, we integrate theory on attention, organizational hierarchy, and construal. We predict that leaders who have a concrete orientation will promote change by redirecting their attention toward long-term visions of the future if their organizations have strong, rather than weak, hierarchies. By contrast, hierarchical strength will have no effect on leaders with an abstract orientation. We test these predictions in an archival study of CEOs and then examine the attention-based process that helps explain this effect in a pre-registered experiment.
Keywords: children / concrete / leaders / hierarchies / orientation / paint / Picture / attention / term visions

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