Leaders's language and employee proactivity

European Management Journal xxx (2017) 1e11
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European Management Journal
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/emj
Leaders's language and employee proactivity: Enhancing
psychological meaningfulness and vitality
Galy Binyamin, Yael Brender-Ilan*
Department of Economics and Business Administration, Ariel University, P.O.B 3, Ariel, 44837, Israel
a r t i c l e i n f o
a b s t r a c t
Article history:
Received 3 April 2016
Received in revised form
11 June 2017
Accepted 6 September 2017
Available online xxx
Today's volatile environment and pressure for continuous improvement require leaders to play a central
role in fostering and nurturing employee proactivity. Effective leaders use their communication skills as a
key tool to motivate employees to achieve organizational goals. In this study, we tested a model in which
leader motivating language (manifested as direction-giving, empathetic, and meaning-making language)
fosters the development of employee proactive behavior by shaping a psychological context of meaningfulness and cultivating a motivational state of employee vitality. The findings indicate that the leader
motivating language is related directly and indirectly, through psychological meaningfulness, to
employee vitality. We also found that psychological meaningfulness and employee vitality are mediating
mechanisms through which leader motivating language can result in enhanced employee proactivity.
This study advances theory and research on employee proactivity as a contingency of leadership motivating language by integrating three emerging streams of researchdrelational leadership, relational
communication, and proactivity. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.
© 2017 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Motivating language
Leader communication
1. Introduction
The continuous pressure for improvement and for adaption to
technological, structural and strategic changes in the work environment, combined with increasing decentralization, has intensified the need for individual proactivity. Employees are compelled to
increasingly work under their own initiative without relying on
directions from their supervisors (Crant, 2000; Parker, 1998). Thus,
proactive behaviors are now an essential component of job performance (Crant, 2000) and are desirable for enhancing organiza
tional performance and development (Batisti
c, Cerne,
Kase, &
Zupic, 2016), especially in global virtual settings (Kayworth &
Leidner, 2000).
However, proactivity might result in adverse consequences as
change is not always welcome and efforts are not always successful.
Consequently, leaders face a great challenge in mitigating the risks
of and motivating employees who engage in proactive behaviors
(Parker & Wu, 2014). They cannot dictate or instruct their employees to be more proactive and expect them to comply; rather,
they need to intrinsically motivate them to do so (Griffin, Parker, &
* Corresponding author.
E-mail addresses: [email protected] (G. Binyamin), [email protected] (Y. Brender-Ilan).
Mason, 2010; Martin, Liao, & Campbell-Bush, 2012).
Recent studies have shown that employee proactivity is related
to leaders' positive behaviors such as support, encouragement, and
empowerment (e.g., Parker & Wu, 2014) and to various styles of
leadership: transformational leadership (Den Hartog & Belschak,
2012), extraverted leadership (Grant, Gino, & Hofmann, 2011),
directive leadership and empowering leadership (Martin et al.,
2012), and visionary leadership (Griffin et al., 2010). However,
there is a need for further research into managerial actions that
encourage employee proactivity (Crant, 2000), particularly on the
mechanisms through which these actions influence it (Parker &
Wu, 2014).
In the current study, we explored whether and how leaders can
motivate employees to act proactively through their communication with employees. Previous studies have argued that relational
communication of leaders (Heracleous & Klaering, 2014; Sorenson
& Savage, 1989) is one of the most powerful influences in leaderemember relationships (Carli, 1990; Huffaker, 2010; Mayfield &
Mayfield, 2010), especially in global virtual settings (Kayworth &
Leidner, 2000).
The growing literature on relational leadership theory (Cunliffe
& Eriksen, 2011; Uhl-Bien, 2006) “focuses on communication as the
medium in which all social constructions of leadership are
continuously created and changed” (Uhl-Bien, 2006, p. 665). It
0263-2373/© 2017 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Please cite this article in press as: Binyamin, G., & Brender-Ilan, Y., Leaders's language and employee proactivity: Enhancing psychological
meaningfulness and vitality, European Management Journal (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.emj.2017.09.004
G. Binyamin, Y. Brender-Ilan / European Management Journal xxx (2017) 1e11
views leaderefollowers relationships as generative and thus a key
source of leadership effectiveness (Binyamin, Friedman, & Carmeli,
2017; Stephens & Carmeli, 2015). Relational leadership theory goes
beyond the focus on dyadic or leaderefollower singular relationships or even a static state of relational quality; rather it focuses on
relational dynamics by which leadership emerges and evolves
through the interactions and negotiation of social order between
leader and employees (Brower, Schoorman, & Tan, 2000; Uhl-Bien,
The linguistic choices of leaders in daily interactions with employees communicate power (Baxter, 2009; Huffaker, 2010;
Morand, 2000), but more crucially, they determine the quality
and the generative nature of leaderemember relationships
(Sorenson & Savage, 1989; Uhl-Bien, 2006) and thus can motivate
employees to strive for organizational goals (Campbell, White, &
Johnson, 2003). However, although leader communication is
highly valued, much remains to be discovered and understood
(Mayfield & Mayfield, 2010). To the best of our knowledge, no study
in the extant leadership literature has thus far undertaken the examination of the multifaceted relationships of relational communication and proactivity.
In this study, we integrate three emerging streams of research,
namely relational leadership, relational communication, and proactivity, to explore and unpack the relationships between leadership and proactivity. We focus on leader motivating language
(LML), as manifested by three types: direction-giving, empathetic,
and meaning-making language (cf. Mayfield & Mayfield, 2010;
Mayfield, Mayfield, & Kopf, 1998).
The question that remains is how leaders can shape work contexts that nurture proactive behaviors, a notion that is relatively
understudied (Grant & Ashford, 2008; Batisti
c et al., 2016). Thus,
we followed recent research that examined the combined effect of
both contextual factors (e.g., uncertainty, organizational norms, job
autonomy, work design, and interpersonal or supportive climate)
and motivational states (e.g., proactive personality, self-efficacy,
flexible role orientation and positive affect) on employee proactivity (cf. Crant, 2000; Parker, Bindl, & Strauss, 2010; Parker,
Williams, & Turner, 2006). We suggest that the psychological
work context of meaningfulness in work (Kahn, 1990) stimulates an
employee motivational state of vitality (Ryan & Frederick, 1997)
and that they both provide employees with the psychological resources to engage in proactive behaviors.
We propose and test a mediation model (see Fig. 1) in which
LML fosters the development of employee proactive behaviors by
shaping a context of psychological meaningfulness and enhancing
the motivating state of employee vitality. In so doing, we aim to
expand contemporary research on positive organizational scholarship (POS), which draws attention to the importance of studying
the motivations and effects associated with positive phenomena in
organizations, such as vitality and proactivity (Cameron, Dutton, &
Quinn, 2003).
In what follows, we develop our process with regard to the
mechanisms that mediate the influence of LML on employee proactivity. We first elaborate on the mechanism of psychological
meaningfulness and then discuss the role of employee vitality.
2. Theory and hypotheses
2.1. Leader motivating language
LML refers to the strategic ability of leaders to use language to
motivate their employees. The motivating language framework
categorizes all leadereworker communication into three practical
and all-inclusive types (Mayfield et al., 1998; Sullivan, 1988):
direction-giving language (uncertainty reducing), empathetic
language (relationship building), and meaning-making language
(cultural transmission). Each type of communication has its role,
but leaders should be able to appropriately use all three forms to
maximize worker outcomes (Mayfield & Mayfield, 2012).
The three roles of language are as follows: Direction-giving language is used to reduce worker uncertainty by clarifying tasks,
goals, and rewards. Empathetic language is used to establish human
connectedness and bonding with workers through genuine
consideration. Meaning-making language serves to explain to employees the cultural reasoning behind the organizational process
(including its structure, rules, and values) and how their work is
integrated therein.
Researchers have found several associations between these
three types of LML and various facets of work behaviors and outcomes, such as worker performance, job satisfaction, turnover, selfefficacy, commitment, perceived supervisor effectiveness, creativity and idea generation performance, communication satisfaction, and leadership style during change (Mayfield & Mayfield,
2010, 2012; Sarros, Luca, Densten, & Santora, 2014; Sharbrough,
Simmons, & Cantrill, 2006).
Relational communication is a powerful means for leaders to
influence their employees (Carli, 1990; Huffaker, 2010). Their selective use of language determines the quality of their relationships
with employees (Huffaker, 2010; Sorenson & Savage, 1989), which,
in line with the relational leadership perspective, influence
employee outcomes (Binyamin et al., 2017; Stephens & Carmeli,
2015). In what follows, we further develop our research model to
unpack the associations between LML and employee proactivity.
2.2. Leader motivating language and psychological meaningfulness
Meaningfulness is important to individuals across nations and
cultures (Oldham & Hackman, 2010). Psychological meaningfulness1 is the sense of receiving a return on investment of the self in
the currency of physical, cognitive, or emotional energy (Kahn,
1990). It refers to the feeling that work is valued according to the
individual's own ideals or standards and that work is intrinsically
motivating and purposeful (Pratt & Ashforth, 2003; Rosso, Dekas, &
Wrzesniewski, 2010). Psychological meaningfulness in work is
shaped by job enrichment, work role fit, and coworker relations
(May, Gilson, & Harter, 2004), thus facilitating employee personal
growth and motivation at work (Hackman & Oldham, 1976;
Spreitzer, Kizilos, & Nason, 1997). Psychological meaningfulness
drives the extent to which employees are personally engaged in
task situations; a lack of meaningfulness in one's work can lead to
disengagement or alienation (Kahn, 1992).
The interpersonal sense-making perspective (Wrzesniewski,
Dutton, & Debebe, 2003) builds on social information processing
theory to suggest that individuals scan for, read, and interpret cues
in their work environments that inform them of work meaning
(Peng et al., 2015). These social cues are received through various
activities at work, such as hearing coworkers talk about their work,
watching coworkers interact with clients, or getting instructions
from leaders.
Relational leadership theory suggests that the ways in which
leaders and followers interrelate with and treat each other serve as
social cues for determining identity and self-meanings (Stephens &
Carmeli, 2015). Through relational communication with followers,
There is a difference between meaning-making (language) and meaningfulness.
Meaning/Meaning-making is an external cultural concept that refers to the reason/
rationale for doing things. Meaningfulness is an internal psychological concept that
refers to the feeling of doing something important or valued in terms of return on
investment of the self (for more on this distinction, see also Rosso et al., 2010).
Please cite this article in press as: Binyamin, G., & Brender-Ilan, Y., Leaders's language and employee proactivity: Enhancing psychological
meaningfulness and vitality, European Management Journal (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.emj.2017.09.004
G. Binyamin, Y. Brender-Ilan / European Management Journal xxx (2017) 1e11
Fig. 1. The hypothesized research model.
leaders can signal messages and transmit behavioral intent to
employees (Sorenson & Savage, 1989). For example, when they
spend their valuable time talking about employee's work, they
communicate its value and meaningfulness (Dutton, 2003). Moreover, leaders can construct organizational reality through choices of
relational communication (Cunliffe & Eriksen, 2011; Ford, 1999;
Heracleous & Klaering, 2014). They can instill work with meaningfulness by prompting employees to transcend their personal
needs or goals in favor of those tied to a broader mission or purpose
(Rosso et al., 2010) or by encouraging them to explore and recognize new elements of their work (Peng et al., 2015).
To further study the relationships between LML and meaningfulness, we used Chalofsky's (2003) conceptual framework for the
meaning of work, which is composed of three intertwining themes:
sense of the work itself, sense of self, and sense of balancing self and
work. We posit that these three themes can be coupled with the
three types of LML. The first theme, the work itself, refers to the
opportunity to achieve one's purpose through work (Chalofsky,
2003). In using direction-giving language, leaders provide clear
delineation of roles, tasks, and objectives (Mayfield & Mayfield,
2010) and thus help employees to carry out their purpose
through work and thus to perceive their work as meaningful (Kahn
& Fellows, 2013; Kahn, 1990). In addition, giving directions is
associated with mentoring, coaching, and development (Kahn &
Heaphy, 2014). Providing feedback on role performance creates a
sense of challenge and an incentive for investment in the role. It
provides a return on investment of the self, i.e., a greater sense of
meaningfulness (Rich, Lepine, & Crawford, 2010). On the other
hand, unclear assignments, uncertain authorizations, and weak
leadership make employees feel that their work is less valued
(Kahn & Heaphy, 2014). Thus, leaders who use direction-giving/
uncertainty-reducing language contribute to employee perceptions
of meaningfulness.
The second theme in Chalofsky's (2003) conceptualization of
meaning, the sense of self, refers to bringing the whole self to the
job, including emotions in connecting to others (Chalofsky &
Krishna, 2009; Chalofsky, 2003). When leaders use empathetic
language, they enhance interpersonal relationships with their employees through verbal expressions of emotional support, praise for
good performance, and human bonding (Mayfield & Mayfield,
2010). In rewarding interpersonal connections and satisfying
emotional bonds, rather than employees treated as mere occupants
of their roles, they are more likely to experience psychological
meaningfulness, (Kahn, 1990).
Finally, Chalofsky's (2003) third theme, the sense of balancing self
and work, is conceptualized as the alignment of values, purpose,
and culture between work and personal self (Chalofsky & Krishna,
2009; Chalofsky, 2003). When leaders use meaning-making language, they explain values, norms, and cultural rules and introduce
employees' tasks in a broader meaning context (Mayfield &
Mayfield, 2010) and are therefore a source of meaningfulness for
employees (Kahn & Fellows, 2013). When organizational values are
congruent with individual personal values, employees perceive
these values as congruent with their own preferred self-image
(Kahn, 1990, 1992) and thus find more meaningfulness in their
work (Rich et al., 2010).
From the above, we reason that relational communication between leaders and employees, and particularly LML, enhances
employee psychological meaningfulness. We suggest the following
Hypothesis 1. There is a positive relationship between leader
motivating language and psychological meaningfulness.
2.3. Psychological meaningfulness and employee vitality
Vitality is defined as a subjective feeling of aliveness and positive energetic arousal (Ryan & Frederick, 1997). It is a specific
psychological experience of possessing enthusiasm and spirit and
hence is an accessible and salient phenomenal marker of one's
personal well-being, health of spirit, strength, and full functioning
(Ryan & Bernstein, 2004; Ryan & Frederick, 1997; Shirom, 2011). As
Park and Peterson (2010) put it, vitality (or “zest”) refers to
“approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things
halfway or halfheartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive
and activated” (p. 540). However, although vitality is believed to be
crucial to enhancing employee outcomes (such as creativity, innovation, job performance, and low turnover intentions), few studies
have dealt with vitality in organizational settings (Baruch,
Grimland, & Vigoda-Gadot, 2014; Kark & Carmeli, 2009).
Employees can derive vitality and compensate for resource
erosion through meaningfulness and inner values (Baruch et al.,
2014). Meaningful tasks influence how employees are enlivened
or deadened during role performances and determine how they
employ physical, cognitive, and emotional energy during role performance (Kahn, 1990). Moreover, psychological meaningfulness
cultivates personal growth and motivation (May et al., 2004),
which, in turn, enhances individual feelings of energy and aliveness. This is well grounded in Hackman and Oldham's (1976)
research on job characteristics theory. Their research has supported the relationships between psychological meaningfulness
and positive personal and work outcomes, such as intrinsic motivation, high satisfaction with work, and personal growth. People
who sense meaningfulness at work are likely to be highly motivated and energized. Conversely, a lack of meaningfulness may
deplete employee energy and lead to feelings of emptiness,
depression, and unwillingness to carry out work tasks.
Drawing on this line of research, we suggest that psychological
Please cite this article in press as: Binyamin, G., & Brender-Ilan, Y., Leaders's language and employee proactivity: Enhancing psychological
meaningfulness and vitality, European Management Journal (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.emj.2017.09.004
G. Binyamin, Y. Brender-Ilan / European Management Journal xxx (2017) 1e11
meaningfulness infuses energy and vitality into individual work
activities. Thus, we hypothesize,
Hypothesis 2. There is a positive relationship between psychological
meaningfulness and employee vitality.
2.4. The mediating role of psychological meaningfulness in the
relationship between leader motivating language and employee
Previous work has found that positive forms of leadership
stimulate vitality. For example, Atwater and Carmeli (2009) found
that positive dyadic exchanges or higher quality connections between leader and follower (LMX) are related to greater employee
energy. Nielsen and Daniels (2012) found that transformational
leadership is related to employee vitality and well-being because
visionary and inspirational leadership realigns personal values,
enabling followers to pursue meaningful shared goals. On the other
hand, autocratic, malevolent, and self-centered leadership was
related to low vitality among employees because of higher demands (such as the need to hide emotions), lower level of control,
and poorer social support (Nyberg, Holmberg, Bernin, & Alderling,
2011). Nevertheless, the role of leaders in promoting vitality has
been understudied (Paterson, Luthans, & Jeung, 2014), especially
when stressing the relational communication between leaders and
When employees interpret leaders' speech acts and conversations as increasing their autonomy, competence, or relatedness,
they feel that their basic human needs are met, and this may
stimulate their feelings of energy (Quinn & Dutton, 2005). For
example, directive speech acts can increase employee energy if
they believe that they can fulfill the direction or that it was made in
a respectful way (Quinn & Dutton, 2005). Moreover, in using
direction-giving language, leaders resolve employee feelings of
uncertainty and stress and release psychological resources, which,
in turn, enhance employee vitality. Similarly, providing information
about strategic direction and organizational performance helps
employees to better understand the meaning of their work and
contribute competently, which may also enhance employee vitality
(Spreitzer, Porath, & Gibson, 2012).
We thus suggest that leaders can use motivational languages
(directive, empathetic, and meaning-making) to augment
employee vitality by creating a context of psychological meaningfulness. When employees feel more meaningfulness in work tasks,
they will be intrinsically motivated and thus more energized and
vitalized to engage in their work.
Hypothesis 3. Psychological meaningfulness mediates the relationship between leader motivating language and employee vitality.
2.5. Employee vitality and proactivity
Proactivity refers to the extent to which employees take selfdirected action to anticipate or initiate change in their work
(Crant, 2000; Grant & Ashford, 2008; Griffin, Neal, & Parker, 2007;
Parker et al., 2010). Being proactive is about making things
happen and challenging the status quo rather than passively
waiting for problems to occur or instructions to be given (Crant,
2000; Parker et al., 2010). Proactive behaviors differ from passive or reactive behaviors in two ways (Grant & Ashford, 2008):
(a) they are about acting in advance and in anticipation with
foresight about future events and (b) they are intended to make an
impact and a meaningful change. Accordingly, proactive behaviors are characterized as self-initiated, future-oriented, and
change-oriented behaviors.
Researchers have defined various types of proactive behaviors.
For example, proactivity can be expressed both in-role (e.g., seeking
feedback and information to improve job performance) and extrarole (e.g., identifying and acting on opportunities to manage one's
career) (Crant, 2000). Grant et al. (2011) discussed proactive
behavior as voicing ideas, taking charge, and exerting upward influence. Grant and Ashford (2008) examined positive framing
(interpreting the environment positively), meaning making
(seeking out information and feedback), and relationship building
(general socializing, networking, and building relationships with
Engaging in proactive behaviors at work requires having the
energy and motivation to do so. Vitality at work was found to be an
affective motivational state that prompts proactivity (Janssen,
2004; Parker et al., 2010; Tummers, Kruyen, Vijverberg, &
Voesenek, 2013). This is mainly because vitality helps employees
to exhibit greater action tendency, expand their ability to think in a
broad and flexible manner and accumulate more cognitive, social,
and psychological resources required for proactive behaviors (Lam,
Spreitzer, & Fritz, 2014). Vitality, as with many positive emotions,
broadens individual momentary thoughteaction repertoires,
prompting pursuit of a wider range of thoughts and actions than
automatic (everyday) behavioral scripts (Fredrickson, 2001).
When individuals feel vital and energetic, they feel both physically and mentally well and are fully functioning (Ryan &
Bernstein, 2004; Ryan & Frederick, 1997). They can invest more
effort in activities, go beyond their normal roles and responsibilities, and hence think and act proactively. This is consistent with previous studies that argue that when employees
experience vitality, they are more likely to have the energy and
motivation to engage in creative and innovative work (Carmeli &
Spreitzer, 2009; Kark & Carmeli, 2009). Vitality enables employees to come up with new ideas and develop emotional and
cognitive capacities necessary for their implementation.
Thus, we posit that vitality is a motivational state enabling
employees to take initiatives and proactively engage in work tasks.
Hypothesis 4. There is a positive relationship between employee
vitality and employee proactivity.
Conversely, Lam et al. (2014) argued that the relationships between employee vitality and proactivity are in fact more complex as
highly vital employees may think they are achieving and thus do
not need to be proactive and initiate changes. However, we suggest
that psychological meaningfulness plays a key role in mitigating
these negative implications on employee proactivity. In what follows, we shed light on these complex relationships.
2.6. The mediating role of employee vitality in the relationships
between psychological meaningfulness and employee proactivity
We suggest that when employee vitality is driven by psychological meaningfulness at work, they are more likely to invest their
vital resources in improving and initiating proactive changes and
not enjoying the status quo. We reason that psychological meaningfulness serves as a sense of purpose (or “calling”) that motivates
people to initiate changes and to keep improving their work, even
when excellent.
Being proactive is not trivial because it can sometimes lead to
unfavorable consequences or even failures (Parker et al., 2006).
People often consider the potential costs and benefits of proactive
behavior for their image, job performance and attitudes, career
progression, and other outcomes, so that when perceived as risky
and harmful, they are less likely to act proactively (Crant, 2000).
However, we believe that such negative consequences may
transpire to a lesser extent in an environment of psychological
Please cite this article in press as: Binyamin, G., & Brender-Ilan, Y., Leaders's language and employee proactivity: Enhancing psychological
meaningfulness and vitality, European Management Journal (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.emj.2017.09.004
G. Binyamin, Y. Brender-Ilan / European Management Journal xxx (2017) 1e11
meaningfulness. When employees feel that what they do is valuable and useful, risks may be worth it. They would be more vitalized
and motivated to invest the energy and efforts required to engage
in proactive behaviors (Kahn, 1990). Individuals with a sense of
meaningfulness are more likely to be deeply curious and eager to
initiate new experiences and perceive change as a positive challenge to further development (De Vries & Balazs, 1998).
Thus, we hypothesized that in a context of psychological
meaningfulness, employees are more energetic and vitalized and,
in turn, will have the psychological resources to act proactively.
Hypothesis 5. Employee vitality mediates the relationship between
psychological meaningfulness and employee proactivity.
2.7. The mediating role of psychological meaningfulness and
employee vitality in the relationships between leader motivating
language and employee proactivity
Previous studies have examined the relationships between
leadership and employee proactivity (e.g., Griffin et al., 2010; Parker
et al., 2006; Grant et al., 2011). However, these relations remain
unclear (Parker & Wu, 2014). We suggest here that leaders play a
critical role in cultivating employee proactivity by using three
forms of motivating language.
Directive leadership was found to enhance employee proactivity (Martin et al., 2012), However, scholars have argued that
employees are more likely to display proactive behaviors when
trying to reduce feelings of ambiguity and uncertainty (Crant,
2000; Grant & Ashford, 2008; Griffin et al., 2007; Grant et al.,
2011). Thus, when leaders give directions and reduce uncertainty, one should expect that they might lower employee motivation to pursue proactive behavior. However, we believe that
using direction-giving language (by leaders) can free employees'
energies to invest in proactive behaviors, rather than deplete them
by coping on their own with uncertainty and ambiguity. This
positive effect of directing and guiding employees may occur when
their psychological meaningfulness and vitality are enhanced
because the motivation to initiate changes does not derive from
the need to reduce ambiguity and uncertainty but rather from the
sense of doing something meaningful.
In the same way, when leaders use empathetic language, they
may also foster employee proactivity, by reducing potential costs of
proactivity and enhancing employee psychological meaningfulness
and energies to cope with these costs. Leading employees in
empathetic manners was found to be more effective in terms of
employee outcomes (Kayworth & Leidner, 2000). When leaders
share their affect with their employees and compliment them for a
job well done, the employees feel valued and appreciated. They feel
that their work is valued and worth the efforts to act proactively.
These feelings are likely to increase their motivation to reproduce
these feelings and may lead to self-directed actions and the initiation of changes at work.
Finally, when leaders use meaning-making language, they
explain the organization's cultural environment and provide a
rationale for role tasks and activities. By doing so, they signal the
importance and meaning of acting proactively to improve work
continuously. Understanding the reasoning (i.e., the meaningmaking) cultivates employee psychological meaningfulness,
which also increases employee vitality and energies to act
In sum, we suggest here a mechanism to explain the complex
relationships between leadership and employee proactivity. The
three forms of LML shape the context of psychological meaningfulness, thus enhancing the motivational state of vitality and, in
turn, cultivating employee proactivity. This proposition relies on
the relational leadership perspective that perceives leaderefollower relationships as generative and specifies how people
grow in such relationships. The theory of relational leadership
points to the role of dyadic work relationships in enhancing selfmeanings and in turn building resources that are beneficial for
individuals to realize their full potential at work (Stephens &
Carmeli, 2015). Thus, we hypothesize the following:
Hypothesis 6. Psychological meaningfulness and employee vitality
mediate the relationship between leader motivating language and
employee proactivity.
3. Method
3.1. Sample and procedure
Sampling was carried out using a referral method (MirelaCristina, 2011), such that existing or committed respondents recruit fellow respondents. We used the assistance of graduate students who contacted coworkers and members in their
organizations and distributed the research questionnaire. As a
result, employees from 16 organizations were surveyed, with the
aim of achieving a better external validity and increasing the generality of our results (Cook & Campbell, 1979). A total of 533 employees working in different fields (including insurance, communication, high-tech, and service and credit companies) participated
(82% response rate). Thirty-four percent of the participants worked
for public sector organizations and the remainder for for-profit
organizations. The participants were asked to complete a structured questionnaire. Each employee rated his or her supervisor's
use of motivating language and his or her own level of psychological meaningfulness, vitality, and proactivity.
The average respondent age was 32 years (SD 10.2), and the
average job tenure was 4.9 years (SD 7.32). Thirty-eight percent of
the respondents were male. Educational levels varied from a high
school diploma to a PhD: 5% of the participants had not completed
high school, 31% had a high school diploma, 25% had earned a
technical diploma (following high school graduation) or university
credits, 32% had a bachelor's degree, and the remainder had a
Master's degree or above. Fifty-four percent of the respondents
were nonmanagerial employees, 29% were low-level managers, 12%
were mid-level managers, and 5% were senior managers.
3.2. Measures
3.2.1. Leader motivating language
LML refers to the leader's ability to strategically use language to
motivate employees. Following Mayfield et al. (1998), we examined
LML as a second-order concept composed of three types: directiongiving, empathetic, and meaning-making language. Respondents
were asked to indicate on a five-point scale ranging from 1 (never)
to 5 (always) how frequently their direct manager behaved as
described in the items.
Direction-giving language. We used eight items to asses this type
of leader language. Sample items were “Offers me helpful directions on how to do my job” and “Provides me with easily understandable instructions about my work.” Two items that were
not related to the specific job (but rather to organizational
achievements and financial state) were excluded from the original
10-item scale. The Cronbach's alpha for this measure was 0.91,
similar to the reliability of 0.95 reported by Mayfield et al. (1998).
Empathetic language. We used six items to assess this type of
leader language. Sample items were “Shows me encouragement
for my work efforts” and “Expresses support for my professional
development.” The Cronbach's alpha for this measure was 0.91,
Please cite this article in press as: Binyamin, G., & Brender-Ilan, Y., Leaders's language and employee proactivity: Enhancing psychological
meaningfulness and vitality, European Management Journal (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.emj.2017.09.004
G. Binyamin, Y. Brender-Ilan / European Management Journal xxx (2017) 1e11
slightly lower than the reliability of 0.97 reported by Mayfield
et al. (1998).
Meaning-making language. We used eight items to evaluate this
type of leader language. Sample items were “Tells me stories about
key events in the organization's past” and “Tells me stories about
people who have been rewarded by this organization.” The Cronbach's alpha for this measure was 0.92, similar to the reliability of
0.93 reported by Mayfield et al. (1998).
3.2.2. Psychological meaningfulness
Psychological meaningfulness refers to the degree of meaning
that individuals discover in their work-related activities (Kahn,
1990) and was assessed using five items drawn from May et al.
(2004). Respondents were asked to assess each item on a fivepoint Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5
(strongly agree). Sample items were “The work I do in this job is very
important to me” and “The work I do in this job is worthwhile.” The
Cronbach's alpha for this measure was 0.88, similar to the reliability
of 0.90 reported by May et al. (2004).
3.2.3. Employee vitality
Employee vitality indicates the degree to which an individual
feels positive arousal and energy in connections with others at
work (Dutton & Heaphy, 2003). We assessed vitality using eight
items employed by Carmeli and Spreitzer (2009). Respondents
were asked to assess how each item characterizes them on a fivepoint Likert-type scale ranging from 1 ¼ “not at all” to 5 ¼ “to an
exceptional degree.” Sample items were “When I am at work I feel
vital and alive” and “I feel active and energetic at work.” The
Cronbach's alpha for this measure was 0.92.
3.2.4. Employee proactivity
Employee proactivity refers to the extent to which individuals
engage in self-starting, future-oriented behavior to change their
individual work situations, their individual work roles, or themselves (Griffin et al., 2007). We used the three-item scale employed
by Griffin et al. (2007). Respondents were asked to assess on a fivepoint scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 5 (to an exceptional degree)
the extent to which each item characterized them at work. A
sample item was “I made changes to the way core tasks are done.”
The Cronbach's alpha for this measure was 0.88, similar to the
reliability of 0.90 reported by Griffin et al. (2007).
3.2.5. Control variables
Consistent with previous research (Griffin et al., 2007; Lam et al.,
2014; Tummers et al., 2013), we controlled for participants' gender
and educational level to test whether they accounted for some of
the variance in proactive behaviors.
3.3. Data analysis
The research comprised several dependent and mediating variables, and the directionality of the relationships is unknown.
Hence, a structural equation modeling (SEM) approach is the most
appropriate (Barrett, 2007) to explore the relationships and pathways among the different constructs (Jose, 2013). SEM allows for
the prediction of possible scenarios in an established model by
examining relationships among variables (George & Kaplan, 1998).
It also allows for the examination of relationships among several
variables simultaneously and the identification of the model for
their optimization (Hooper, Coughlan, & Mullen, 2008; Kline,
2005). Importantly, SEM estimates are more robust than correlational analyses and less likely to be biased than ordinary multiple
regressions as it does not require stringent assumptions such as
zero correlations between independent variables (Nieswandt,
To estimate the research model, we used a two-step approach to
SEM, in which construct validity was assessed using confirmatory
factor analysis (CFA) followed by a comparison of a sequence of
nested structural models (Bollen, 1989). We used several goodness€reskog &
of-fit indices in assessing the fit of the research model (Jo
€ rbom, 1993; Kline, 1998): chi-squared statistic divided by the
degrees of freedom (c2/df), comparative fit index (CFI), TuckereLewis coefficient (TLI), normed fit index (NFI), incremental fit
index (IFI), and root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA).
4. Results
4.1. Preliminary analysis
4.1.1. Descriptive statistics
The means, standard deviations, and correlations among the
research variables are presented in Table 1.
The three types of LML (direction-giving, empathetic, and
meaning-making) were significantly related to psychological
meaningfulness (r ¼ 0.21; r ¼ 0.31; r ¼ 0.28, p < 0.01, respectively).
Psychological meaningfulness was significantly related to
employee vitality (r ¼ 0.60, p < 0.01), and employee vitality was
significantly correlated with employee proactivity (r ¼ 0.51,
p < 0.01).
4.1.2. Validity and reliability
To test for convergent validity, we calculated the average variance extracted (AVE). All factors showed adequate convergent
validity because the AVE was above 0.50 (Hair, Black, Babin, &
Anderson, 2010). To test for discriminant validity, we compared
the square root of the AVE (on the diagonal in Table 2 below) to all
interfactor correlations. All factors demonstrated adequate
Table 1
Means, standard deviations, correlations, and reliabilities.
1. Gender
2. Education
Leader Motivational Language
3. Direction-giving Language
4. Empathetic Language
5. Sense-making Language
6. Psychological Meaningfulness
7. Vitality
8. Proactivity
Note: Reliability coefficients are displayed in the diagonal. N ¼ 533.
*p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.
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G. Binyamin, Y. Brender-Ilan / European Management Journal xxx (2017) 1e11
Table 2
Validity and reliability.
CR ¼ Composite Reliability; AVE ¼ Average Variance Extracted.
discriminant validity because the diagonal values were greater than
the correlation (Hair et al., 2010). We also computed the composite
reliability (CR) for each factor. The CR ranged from 0.86 to 0.92,
indicating good reliability for all factors (Hair et al., 2010).
Prior to testing the model hypotheses, we sought to provide
evidence of the construct validity of the research variables. LML
was represented as a second-order variable of three latent constructs, while the other variables were represented as latent constructs. We performed a CFA to assess whether each of the
measurement items loaded significantly onto the scales with which
they were associated. The results of the overall CFA showed an
acceptable fit with the data: c2 ¼ 1100.42; df ¼ 460 (c2/df ¼ 2.39);
CFI ¼ 0.951; TLI ¼ 0.944; IFI ¼ 0.951; NFI ¼ 0.919; RMSEA ¼ 0.051.
Standardized coefficients from items to factors ranged from 0.63 to
0.96. In addition, the results of the CFA indicated that the relationship between each indicator variable and its respective
construct was significant (p < 0.001), establishing the posited relationships among indicators and constructs and thus convergent
validity (Hair, Anderson, Tatham, & Black, 1998).
4.2. Model comparisons and hypothesis tests
We tested the hypothesized mediating relationships through a
series of nested model comparisons, using SEM (Bollen, 1989). The
results are shown in Table 3. In each model, all analysis constructs
(except education and gender) are represented by latent variables
with multiple indicators. The indicators are the respective items in
each case.
The results in Table 3 show that the baseline model fit the data
reasonably well. We specified direct paths from LML to psychological meaningfulness, from psychological meaningfulness to
Table 3
Comparisons of Path Coefficient and fit indices of Structural Equation Models.a
Baseline Model 1 Model 2
LML/PM 0.42***
VIT/PRO 0.59***
Model 3
Model 4
Fit indices
20.23 p < 0.00 20.60 p < 0.00 20.63 p < 0.00
***p < 0.001.
LML ¼ Leader Motivational Language; PM ¼ Psychological Meaningfulness;
VIT ¼ Vitality; PRO¼ Proactivity. Each model also tested the control variables of
employee gender and education in the organization; only gender was significantly
related to employee proactivity (0.13***).
vitality and from vitality to employee proactivity. No indirect paths
were specified. Table 3 shows that the model fit the data well
(c2 ¼ 327.78; df ¼ 100; c2/df ¼ 3.28; CFI ¼ 0.951; TLI ¼ 0.941;
IFI ¼ 0.951; NFI ¼ 0.931; RMSEA ¼ 0.063).
We also tested four alternative models (these results are summarized in Table 3); all models were identical to the baseline
model, but to each model, we added one or more direct paths. In
Model 1, we added a direct path from LML to proactivity. In Model
2, we added a direct path from LML to vitality. In Model 3, we added
two additional paths: from LML to proactivity and from LML to
vitality. In Model 4, we added three direct paths: from LML to
proactivity, from LML to vitality, and from psychological meaningfulness to proactivity.
The results in Table 3 indicate that all the models fit the data
relatively well. However, Model 2 was the only one in which all
additional paths specified were statistically significant (p < 0.001).
The results of Model 2 support the hypothesized relationships between LML and psychological meaningfulness (0.40, p > 0.001)
between psychological meaningfulness and employee vitality
(0.56, p > 0.001), and between employee vitality and employee
proactivity (0.59, p > 0.00). Furthermore, the findings of Model 2
support the mediating role of psychological meaningfulness in the
relationship between LML and vitality. However, the results also
showed a direct path from LML to vitality (0.22, p > 0.001), thus
indicating that LML was related directly and indirectly, through
psychological meaningfulness, to employee vitality. This signifies
that psychological meaningfulness serves as a partial mediator
between LML and vitality. Finally, the relationship between
meaningfulness and proactivity was found to be fully mediated by
employee vitality. In sum, the findings support our hypothesis that
LML is associated with employee proactivity through the mediation
of psychological meaningfulness and employee vitality. The findings are illustrated in Fig. 2.
5. Discussion
In this study, we sought to explore the processes underlying the
ways in which leader language can motivate employees to act
proactively. The findings indicate that when leaders use motivating
language (manifested as direction-giving, empathetic, and
meaning-making language), they create a psychological context of
meaningfulness, which enhances employee vitality and, in turn,
their proactivity. The findings also show that psychological meaningfulness partially mediates the relationship between LML and
vitality and that vitality fully mediates the relationship between
meaningfulness and proactivity through vitality.
5.1. Theoretical implications
Studying language behavior provides a unique window on the
study of leadership in organizations (Morand, 2000). We presented
a theoretical foundation for studying language as a key tool that
may enable leaders to influence the psychological context of employees and their motivational states, thereby driving them to act
proactively in their role. We highlighted the importance for effective leaders to harness relational communication (e.g., Sorenson &
Savage, 1989) to achieve interpersonal influence as it sends messages to employees of leader expectations and influences leaderemember relationships.
The current study is the first of its kind that addresses the
complex relationship of LML and proactivity. While ample research
has discussed LML (Mayfield & Mayfield, 2010; Mayfield et al.,
1998), we found that little is known about how leaders shape
work contexts and nurture proactive behaviors. To our knowledge,
no previous study has thus far undertaken to investigate the
Please cite this article in press as: Binyamin, G., & Brender-Ilan, Y., Leaders's language and employee proactivity: Enhancing psychological
meaningfulness and vitality, European Management Journal (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.emj.2017.09.004
G. Binyamin, Y. Brender-Ilan / European Management Journal xxx (2017) 1e11
Fig. 2. Results of Model 2.
Note: ***p < 0.0.001.
multifaceted relationships of LML and proactivity all the more so
the theoretical and empirical examination of a model that takes
into account the mediation role of meaningfulness and vitality.
In studying the effects of leaders' language patterns and the
communication in leaderefollowers relationships, our study extends the growing literature on relational leadership (Cunliffe &
Eriksen, 2011; Uhl-Bien, 2006). In addition, it reveals how people
grow, are energized, and feel meaningful through generative relationships between leaders and employees. Thus, this study advances theory on relational leadership as a key source of leadership
effectiveness in terms of employees' performance (Binyamin et al.,
2017; Stephens & Carmeli, 2015).
Because relational communication of leaders plays a key role in
motivating employees to engage in proactive behaviors (e.g., Grant
et al., 2011; Griffin et al., 2010; Parker et al., 2006), the current study
responds to the need to explore managerial actions that elicit
employee proactive behavior (Crant, 2000). Moreover, the findings
serve as a stepping stone toward integrating three streams of
research: relational communication, relational leadership, and
proactivity. Our research contributes to each of the three topics
separately and in integrative fashion.
We also provide a more precise perspective on why leadership
relates to proactivity by pinpointing the indirect and the direct
ways in which leaders shape employee proactivity. Understanding
the psychological mechanism through which leadership can cultivate proactivity is of great importance, especially because scant
attention has been devoted to these relationships (Parker & Wu,
2014). We found that leaders shape a psychological context of
meaningfulness and motivational state of vitality, thereby indirectly influencing proactivity. Exploring this psychological mechanism also sheds light on the combined effect of contextual and
individual states as catalysts for employee proactivity (Crant, 2000;
Parker et al., 2006, 2010).
Furthermore, we also examined the complex relationships between vitality and proactivity, which remain controversial and not
well understood (Tummers et al., 2013). Our findings indicate a
positive linear relationship between these two constructs. However, they are inconsistent with Lam et al.'s (2014) findings that
employee proactivity is reduced at high levels of vitality due to
employee sense of achievement translating into self-perception of
lack of need to take initiative. We contend that the difference between their study and ours lies in the effect of LML and employee
psychological meaningfulness. LML indicates leader expectations
that employees should make an additional effort to make things
happen without being prompted to act. Employees' psychological
meaningfulness drives them to initiate actions that improve their
meaningful work. In other words, employees will be motivated by
the leader and by the context to initiate changes to improve things,
even when they perceive that they are doing well and that initiative
is not needed.
Finally, our theory and findings also advance the emerging
literature on POS (Cameron et al., 2003) that focuses on understanding the contextual enablers and the psychological motivations
associated with human strengths and virtues, such as vitality and
proactivity. This line of research explores how leaders and highquality relationships can shape positive environments to foster
positive individual outcomes, thereby meeting the organizational
requirement to thrive and develop.
5.2. Limitations and future research
The implications of this study should be considered in the
context of its limitations. First, the results are based on employee
self-report questionnaires as we were interested in individual experiences, attitudes, and psychological states. Individuals appear to
be biased when judging their own behavior (Harris & Schaubroeck,
1988), thus self-ratings raise questions of external validity (Goffin &
Gellatly, 2001). However, Chan (2009) pointed out that many of the
alleged problems associated with self-reports “are overstated or
exaggerations.” In addition, recent studies allay apprehensions
associated with self-reported data (e.g., Gardner, Abraham, Lally, &
de Bruijn, 2012; Jones & Miller, 2012), and some found them to be
even better than other sources (Silvia, Wigert, Reiter-Palmon, &
Kaufman, 2012). In addition, specifically for the measurement of
employee proactive behavior, Griffin et al. (2007) found that selfreports of proactivity were positively correlated with two
external measures of proactivity.
Second, the data for both the independent and dependent variables were collected using a single source of information
(employee self-reports), which may be associated with common
method bias. Thus, we conducted a common method bias (CMB) test
to determine whether a method bias affected the results of our
measurement model. The test we used was the “unmeasured latent
factor” method recommended by Podsakoff, MacKenzie, Lee, and
Podsakoff (2003) for studies that do not explicitly measure a
common factor (as in this study). Comparing the standardized
regression weights before and after adding the common latent
factor (CLF) showed that none of the regression weights were
dramatically affected by the CLF, i.e., the deltas were less than 0.20.
In addition, following Podsakoff et al.’s (2003) study, we also
empirically assessed the effects of CMB by running a one-factor
model (the Harman one-factor test). The results showed that the
one factor model accounted for only 33.2% of the total variance.
Both procedures indicated that CMB is of little concern. The other
two-factor, three-factor, four-factor, and five-factor models did not
show good fit with the data either, unlike the hypothesized
Please cite this article in press as: Binyamin, G., & Brender-Ilan, Y., Leaders's language and employee proactivity: Enhancing psychological
meaningfulness and vitality, European Management Journal (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.emj.2017.09.004
G. Binyamin, Y. Brender-Ilan / European Management Journal xxx (2017) 1e11
structure model. This set of analyses provides some indication that
the common method variance may not be a severe problem in our
study. Nevertheless, one cannot fully determine the magnitude of
CMB, and thus a longitudinal study and use of different sources of
data (such as peers or supervisors) are desirable. Like many studies,
this study employed a cross-sectional design but makes causal inferences. Future research that uses a longitudinal approach should
allow for stronger causal interpretations of the model. In terms of
empirical expansions, the data in this study were gathered from a
single source. Multisource data, gathered from leaders, employees,
and peers, would allow for a more comprehensive understanding of
the relationships between LML and meaningfulness and vitality
and a more inclusive measurement of employee proactivity.
Several theoretical expansions could derive from this study.
First, although our data support the model we presented, the directions of the relationships we show are not definitive. Future
research could further investigate the possible bilateral relationship between vitality and proactivity as well as meaningfulness and
proactivity. That is, employees who engage in proactive behaviors
may feel more vital, energized, and alive, especially when these
behaviors lead to positive and successful outcomes (Shirom, 2011;
Tummers et al., 2013). In addition, when employees feel that they
can make a positive change, they may experience greater meaningfulness in their work (Grant & Ashford, 2008). This type of
research could lead to a better grasp of these constructs. Second, to
expand the literature on LML, we suggest further investigation of
the differences between the three types of motivational language to
uncover contingencies for the effective use of each mode. Third,
future research could devote attention to gender differences and
determine whether female leaders use different motivational languages than their male counterparts and if or how gender differences affect employees. Finally, research on psychological
meaningfulness in modern organizations is important and should
be broadened to discover what other leader behaviors can promote
it and the scope of the leader's role in stimulating meaningfulness.
5.3. Practical implications
This study has practical implications for organizational leaders
and HRM staff. As there is a growing need for proactive employees
in contemporary work environments (Batisti
c et al., 2016), organizations should invest considerable effort in nurturing proactive
employees who are self-initiated and can “make things happen”
rather than merely adjust to a situation or wait for detailed instructions. This is of great importance especially because it is an
increasingly essential component of job performance (Crant, 2000).
Our study shows that leaders play a key role in driving employee
proactivity by communicating in a motivating way. Each of the
three types of leader language has its own advantages, and leaders
should be able to interchangeably use all of them to boost employee
proactivity. This typology is a useful tool when recruiting, training,
evaluating, and rewarding leaders. For example, organizations can
develop programs to train leaders to use each of the three types of
language in appropriate situations so as to improve their ability to
motivate employees to generate positive outcomes. In addition,
organizations can evaluate leaders using LML as criteria and provide them with feedback from their own supervisors and their
subordinates. On the basis of these evaluations, organizations can
foster leadership development so that they can become more
effective in motivating their employees.
The findings also suggest that by interchangeably using these
three types of motivating language leaders can enhance employee
psychological meaningfulness in work. Understanding the factors
that influence employee psychological meaningfulness is crucial in
modern society, in which individuals seek ways to capitalize on
returns of their investment in work. Finding meaningfulness in
work has become essential in organizations as people are more
willing to “go the extra mile” in their search for meaning.
Finally, this study also indicates that the psychological context of
meaningfulness fosters employee vitality, which in turn drives
employee behavior. This emphasizes the need to attend to the
psychological variables that affect proactive behaviors. Promoting
proactivity is a major challenge for leaders, especially in critical
times of stress, change, and pressure. Proactive behaviors require
continuous efforts to achieve improvement at work; therefore, organizations should invest efforts not only to develop employee
perceptions of meaningfulness and vitality at work but also to
sustain them. Keeping employees motivated and energized is an
important goal in today's organizational environment.
5.4. Conclusion
In this study, we attempted to contribute to the growing
research interest in the role of leadership in cultivating employee
proactive behavior. We tested a research model in which both
contextual and individual motivational states influence employee
proactivity at work. The results indicate that LML fosters the
development of employees' proactive behaviors by shaping a psychological context of meaningfulness and facilitating their motivational state of vitality.
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