Philosopher and professor Marshall McLuhan pioneered one of the most influential communication theories today: The medium is the message. That is, the way we send or receive information is of equal or of greater importance than the information itself.
When a newscaster reports on a crime, the message is actually less about the story but more on the change in public attitude towards the crime, and perhaps the emergence of a climate of fear. We can also say the same thing about theater productions where the message isn’t the production itself but rather the change in the audience’s perspective, which will then be followed through by action.
Because people tend to focus on the obvious when communicating, we miss how our behavior is being subtly influenced and eventually altered through time. In a managerial setting, McLuhan’s theory is an apt measure in identifying the manager’s impact in the workplace—namely how it can alter perspectives and spur movement.
How the manager becomes the message
In Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks’ book “Messengers,” they used McLuhan’s theory to explain how managers determine the success of an organizational structure by being the primary media of communication. How can so much responsibility, even going as far as determining the lifespan of a career, rest on one person’s shoulders?
“We tend to judge an idea not on its merits, but according to how we judge the person putting it forward,” wrote Martin and Marks. “We fail to separate the idea being communicated in a message from the person or entity conveying it. This commonly overlooked insight… illuminates a fundamental feature of the effective messenger. They become the message.”
“Messengers” centers on 60 years’ worth of research in identifying traits that determine whether a messenger (in this case, the manager) will be heeded. Martin and Marks categorized these traits into two types of messengers: The hard messenger and the soft messenger. Whereas hard messengers are more likely to be received because of their perceived superiority, soft messengers are regarded for their deemed connection with the audience.
A hard messenger has four traits: position, competence, dominance and attractiveness. Martin and Marks’ study reveals that anyone can actually “dress for success” as it is human nature to be swayed by what’s visually appealing. The authors noted that high status individuals are more likely to be given importance, respect and recognition as opposed to those with lower positions since a prominent reputation already commands great attention in itself.
According to Martin and Marks, trustworthiness is the most important among the soft traits and is right away established in a face that generally looks happy (psychology reveals that an expression of anger is easily associated with disloyalty and unreliability).
Business ethics professor Arthur Brief from the University of Utah once asked his students during a board meeting if they were in favor of the recall of a certain drug with significant risks of adverse effects—a case the chair wasn’t in favor of. Thirty-three percent voted for the recall. But when asked the similar thing—but approving the recall this time—voter percentage in favor of the recall went up to 76 percent. This is one among many examples of the predetermined effects of authority on communicating messages and influencing behavior.
Meanwhile, a soft messenger has these four traits: warmth, vulnerability, trustworthiness and charisma. As social beings, humans tend to want to achieve a certain relationship, bond or connection with those around them. According to Martin and Marks, trustworthiness is the most important among the soft traits and is immediately established in a face that generally looks happy (psychology reveals that an expression of anger is easily associated with disloyalty and unreliability).
Despite the differences between the two, the authors noted that all traits can be combined. Moreover, the culture in which the traits are being applied to responds differently with each messenger type. An interdependent culture, one that’s centered on collaboration, is likely to heed to someone with soft traits while an individual performance-based environment is inclined to those with hard traits.
Similar to the idea that it matters not what religion is taught but on the manner through which it is inculcated, the role of managers as media that become the message silently works through interpersonal dynamics until it slowly takes effect to the society at large.
The medium is any extension of ourselves and from which change emerges. It is the character of the medium that is its real message. As managers, whatever they bring to the table already sets “the change of scale or space or pattern” in an environment. Similar to the idea that it matters not what religion is taught but on the manner through which it is inculcated, the role of managers as media that become the message works through interpersonal dynamics until it slowly takes effect to the society at large.