Harvard Business Review


From “a chicken in every pot” to “a computer in every home,” concrete images have long been used to convey a sense of purpose and galvanize action. Yet when articulating visions, leaders overwhelmingly gravitate to mushier, abstract language. Studies have found that they use three to 15 times as much conceptual rhetoric as image-based rhetoric, issuing lofty pronouncements about “changing the world” or “serving the community”—phrases that invite people to merely consider the future, not actually envision it. New research tests a remedy for the so-called blurry vision bias: using “mental time travel” to help leaders imagine how events will be perceived by the five senses instead of focusing on what those events mean.

In a series of lab experiments, researchers divided participants into several groups that received different prompts and asked them to write a vision statement. In one experiment, conducted the day after the UK voted to exit the European Union, 166 British government officials were asked to craft a vision relevant to both their individual agency or unit and the national government. Some were given language-based prompts—asked to choose words that reflected certain attributes of a successful vision statement, such as specificity and achievability. Others were asked to project themselves into the future and take an imaginary photograph. Still others served as a control group. Those in the “time travel” group used significantly more imagery than the other participants did. “The vast majority of experts assume leaders are best positioned to improve vision communication by carefully scrutinizing the words they choose,” the researchers write. “Our findings upend this assumption. Leaders who averted their immediate attention from the words they use and instead employed mental time travel…communicated visions that possessed greater imagery while not altering…the other features of vision quality (achievability, specificity, and values).” Indeed, the study shows that asking people to imagine the future results in more vivid imagery than does directly instructing them to use vivid images. The technique might also be helpful to managers giving employees feedback and leaders instructing others in how to perform tasks, the researchers say.

ABOUT THE RESEARCH “How Can Leaders Overcome the Blurry Vision Bias? Identifying an Antidote to the Paradox of Vision Communication,” by Andrew M. Carton and Brian J. Lucas (Academy of Management Journal, forthcoming)