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THE ROLE OF LEADER MOTIVATING LANGUAGE IN EMPLOYEE ABSENTEEISM

Jacqueline Mayfield Milton Mayfield

Texas A&M International University

This study investigates the relationship between strategic leader language (as embodied in Motivating Language Theory) and employee absenteeism. With a structural equation model, two perspectives were measured for the impact of leader spoken language: employee attitudes toward absenteeism and actual attendance. Results suggest that leader language does in fact have a positive, significant rela- tionship with work attendance through the mediation effect of worker attendance attitude.

Keywords:

motivating language; absenteeism; leader communication; leadership; structural equation model

The impact of absenteeism in the workplace is enormous in many respects, including direct costs, global incidence, indirect costs, and service quality. In terms of straightforward expenses, recent surveys estimated that time- off costs from annual payroll have risen to about $40 billion annually (Dalton & Mesch, 1991; Gaudine & Saks, 2001; Unckless, Mathieu, & Kelley, 1998). Furthermore, high outlays for absenteeism have also been reported internationally in such countries as the United Kingdom and Sweden (Robbins, 2005). Annual absenteeism losses in Canada have been recently cited as increasing sharply from an existing base cost of billions of dollars (Gaudine & Saks, 2001; Lu, 1999). Even more important, direct financial losses that are associated with absenteeism fail to capture considerable

Jacqueline Mayfield is an associate professor of management at Texas A&M International University. She has published numerous articles on business communication, leadership, and other management areas. Milton Mayfield is an associate professor of management at Texas A&M International University. He has published numerous articles on business communication, leadership, and other management areas. The authors express special thanks to those who have been instrumental in developing this article, including Jim Cashman and Ron Dulek at the University of Alabama, and at the Journal of Business Communication, Margaret Baker Graham (editor), and two anonymous reviewers. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jacqueline Mayfield, Texas A&M International University, PO Box 1430, Cotulla, TX 78014; e-mail: jackie.mayfield@gmail.com.

Journal of Business Communication, Volume 46, Number 4, October 2009 455-479 DOI: 10.1177/0021943609338665 © 2009 by the Association for Business Communication

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indirect costs that are attributed to excessive absenteeism such as wages for replacement workers, overtime pay, and lower performance (Cascio, 2000; Robbins, 2005). Fortunately, even modest reductions in absenteeism rates can gener- ate impressive cost savings to organizations. A recent Canadian study of 70 hospital employees found that a 0.81 decrease in annual absenteeism reduced organizational payouts by approximately $42,980 Canadian dollars (Gaudine & Saks, 2001). Just as striking, Prudential Insurance Company saved $80,000 in annual absenteeism costs following the introduction of a back-up day care facility (Cascio, 2000; VanDerWall, 1998).

Despite such promise, much territory remains unexplored in the realm of strategic leader behaviors that might foster optimal levels of employee attendance. Management literature strongly supports leader behaviors (communication, in particular) as significant interventions to increase employee motivation, a key factor in reduction of discretionary absence (Levin & Kleiner, 1992; Mayfield & Mayfield, 2002; Mayfield, Mayfield,

& Kopf, 1998; Pettit, Goris, & Vaught, 1997; Robbins, 2005). In fact,

multiple studies have measured the effect of leadership behaviors and absenteeism, with outcomes that indicate significant relationships (Gaudine

& Saks, 2001; Johns, 1978). These same researchers have recommended an

expanded study of these links. Yet to date, the connection between leader communication and absenteeism remains largely unknown. As a result, this article will investigate the impact of leader spoken communication (as modeled with Motivating Language Theory and its companion scale) on employee absenteeism. Because employee absentee- ism is both avoidable (discretionary leave) and unavoidable (serious per- sonal illness that demands bed rest or family member care, for example), and because there is comparably scarce knowledge about the inherent processes, the effects of strategic leader spoken communication will be evaluated from two perspectives, employee attitudes toward absenteeism and actual absenteeism (Robbins, 2005). With these objectives as a frame- work, we have organized this article in the following sections: Absenteeism Behavior and Leader Communication, Motivating Language Theory, Methodology, Results, and a conclusive Discussion, which includes study implications, limitations, and recommendations for future research.

ABSENTEEISM BEHAVIOR AND LEADER COMMUNICATION

This review of leadership communication and its influence on employee absenteeism will begin with a working definition. Our study will adopt

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Cascio’s (2000) explanation of absenteeism as “Any failure to report for or remain at work as scheduled, regardless of the reason” (p. 59). As pre- viously emphasized, the cost of absenteeism is substantial to organiza- tions and is therefore a logical target for managerial intervention. For instance, the approximate annual bill for sick leave was $757 per employee in the United States according to a 1998 survey. This estimate is expected to be conservative because it did not include related, indirect absenteeism costs such as lost productivity, the cost of hiring contingent workers, or overtime payments necessary to cover missed work hours (Cascio, 2000; VanDerWall, 1998).

As previously emphasized, the cost of absenteeism is substantial to organiza- tions and is therefore a logical target for managerial intervention.

Yet within this context, all absenteeism is not created equal. Some employee absences cannot be avoided, such as in the cases of serious per- sonal or family member illness. These times of missed work can often be recognized as long in duration (defined as more than 1 or 2 days) on review of organizational records. However, research also indicates that an esti- mated 52% of total employee absences are discretionary in nature. These absences are the result of factors such as stress, personal needs, and entitle- ment mentality (Cascio, 2000; VanDerWall, 1998). These avoidable cases often appear as 1- or 2-day occurrences in organizational documents. Such discretionary absences have been categorized as “utility maximi- zation and choice” or the body of research that approaches absenteeism as an outcome of individual decision making and inherently influenced by motivational states (Harrison & Martocchio, 1998). Employee moti- vation has been closely associated with managerial behaviors, including explicit and implicit communication practices. Previous investigations have uncovered links between avoidable absences and negative employee perceptions of the workplace, including procedural and distributive jus- tice, and similarly, with low organizational commitment in workers (De Boer, Bakker, Syroit, & Schaufeli, 2002; Farrell & Stamm, 1988; Harrison & Martocchio, 1998). All of these undesirable employee atti- tudes have also been moderated by leader behavior (Cole & Kleiner, 1992; Levin & Kleiner, 1992; Robbins, 2005; Yukl, 2006). However, the

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actual processes entailed in these interactions are comparably unexplored. Currently, most management researchers agree that key attitudinal mod- erators may include such factors as specificity, importance, and social pressure (Robbins & Judge, 2007). Furthermore, numerous robust and existing research reports substanti- ate the role of leader communication in transmission of these behaviors. For example, the amount and quality of information exchange between leaders and subordinates have been strongly supported as key moderators in employee attitudes, such as job satisfaction and loyalty, which have been clearly associated with absenteeism (De Boer et al., 2002; Gellatly, 1995; Mayfield & Mayfield, 1998; Reina & Reina, 1999; Robbins, 2005; Yukl, 2006). More overt leader communication tactics have been recently pinpointed as effective management tools in the reduction of discretionary absentee- ism. Self-management training and goal setting have both been recog- nized in studies as feasible interventions. And leader initiated feedback on absenteeism behaviors to followers showed promise in the same vein (Frayne & Latham, 1987; Gaudine & Saks, 2001; Unckless et al., 1998). Notwithstanding this progress, the specific communication elements of these behaviors remain relatively uncharted. Leadership communication researchers have called for future studies to remedy this dearth of knowl- edge (Mayfield & Mayfield, 2007; Sharbrough, Simmons, & Cantrill, 2006; Zorn & Ruccio, 1998).

MOTIVATING LANGUAGE THEORY

Motivating Language Theory (MLT; Sullivan, 1988) may offer a bridge to help close the leader communication knowledge gap in reduction of discretionary absenteeism. MLT proposes that strategic leader communi- cation can be directly linked to critical worker outcomes, including per-

formance, turnover, absenteeism, loyalty, and job satisfaction. In brief, MLT predicts that key employee outcomes can be positively affected by enhanced motivational states that arise from appropriate leader use of three basic linguistic groupings, commonly known as speech acts. These building blocks represent a comprehensive model for “the basic or mini-

mal units of linguistic communication

of ‘rules governed,’ intentional behavior” (Searle, 1969, p. 16). These three types of speech acts are expressed by leaders in the follow-

ing ways:

where language takes the form

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1. Perlocutionary or direction-giving language takes place when management speech boosts employee performance through reduced ambiguity. Embodied in practices such as goal setting, management by objectives, and perfor- mance feedback, direction giving language is used when the boss clarifies priorities, objectives, and rewards for the subordinate. Thus, direction- giving language occurs when a leader reminds an employee of organiza- tional absenteeism policies.

2. Illocutionary or empathetic language occurs when managers share concern and humanity with employees. To illustrate, a leader uses empathetic lan- guage to compliment an employee on a job well done or to commiserate with a subordinate’s personal frustrations. Thus, motivating language is transmitted when a leader orally validates a direct report’s stress associated with lax employ attendance.

3. Locutionary or meaning-making language happens when a leader explains and interprets the symbols that comprise each organization’s unique cul- ture. This type of communication is often indirect and shared via stories and/or metaphors. For example, a leader’s description of a company party as a “command performance” or narration of an organizational success story to a subordinate falls into this classification. Although this latter speech genre is not always as literal as the two preceding classifications, meaning-making language holds the potential to become a primary channel during times of organizational orientation and change. Thus, meaning- making language is shared when a leader reminds a new call center employee that faithful attendance reinforces the company culture of excel- lent customer service.

According to MLT, these forms of language will improve employee motivation when based on the following three basic assumptions. First, and as stated in speech act theory, MLT encompasses most cases of leader to employee discourse. Second, leader actions must be perceived as con- gruent with words. Expressly, managers must walk the talk, and subordi- nates must understand the intended messages. Third, motivating language will have the greatest probability of attaining desirable outcomes when all three categories are used strategically (Sullivan, 1988; Mayfield & Mayfield, 1995; Mayfield et al., 1998). At present, this theory has shown substantial promise as a motiva- tional tool. MLT has been operationalized into a valid and reliable scale (Mayfield, Mayfield, & Kopf, 1995). Furthermore, the theory was tested for its influence on performance and job satisfaction with a structural equa- tion model (Mayfield et al., 1998). Equally important, Sharbrough et al. (2006) substantially extended motivating language theory by exploring

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hypothesized relationships between motivating language and a subordi- nate’s communication satisfaction, and perceptions of leader effectiveness and communication competence. Results from all of these investigations strongly corroborate the basic tenets of MLT. In addition, Sharbrough et al. (2006) expanded theoretical generalizability by investigating predominantly male technology employ- ees, and introduced new research horizons for future motivating language study that focus on subordinate loyalty effects and electronic communica- tions. Finally, a recent article has supported the positive link between moti- vating language and worker innovation (Mayfield & Mayfield, 2004). On the other hand, valid criticisms have been raised about MLT that merit recognition, consideration, discussion, and response. Zorn and Ruccio (1998) argued that motivating language theory did not embody integration of the three core speech acts. Simply stated, the authors perceived that MLT does not account for multiple goals when used. Moreover, Zorn and Ruccio (1998) observed that motivating language is restricted in its assessment of simple outcome goal variables such employee performance and affective measures, while not accounting for the “dynamic interplay among the com- municators, the messages, and the context” (p.474). In addition, the same authors suggest that qualitative measures will improve understanding of leader communication influences. These challenges deserve review and address, especially because moti- vating language is still developing, and such valid criticism is instrumen- tal to theoretical refinement and extension. In response to the perceived restrictions on multiple motivating language speech act use, interpretation has been clarified in subsequent research. Sullivan (1988) originally con- ceptualized MLT competency as strategic use of all three types of speech. This assumption has been consistently included with MLT specifications, and covariance among factors was allowed in a test that strongly sup- ported this tenet (Mayfield & Mayfield, 2007). For example, a leader may use multiplex forms of motivating language at the same time; that is, a boss gives a subordinate task requirements (direction-giving language) that include cultural norms of delivery such as a required presentation on an organization’s intranet (meaning-making language) along with verbal reassurances of task encouragement (empathetic language). Regarding the limitations on communication processes that are cap- tured in the motivating language model, such boundaries initially created a parsimonious theory that facilitated evaluation of motivating language’s original purpose: to improve valuable organizational performance indica- tors through leader language to employees. To date, these specifications

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have resulted in building a mostly consistent and robust model. Yet as motivating language research is extended, greater understanding of the motivational component, including affective states is needed to support progress. Similarly, qualitative measures have been restricted in develop- mental stages to focus on establishment of valid and reliable scales. Indeed, such techniques will be valuable contributions as theoretical grounding and examination of relationships with major outcome variables become more firmly rooted. For these reasons, much headway needs to be made toward theory building through unleashing the full potential benefits of MLT. To priori- tize, greater insights about the motivational and affective states that are companions to motivating language should be gained in order to realize MLT’s efficacy as a training and development tool. Among this requisite understanding, more research should address the relationship between motivating language, attitudes, and leading individual outcome indicators such as absenteeism. In response, this study’s methodology will opera- tionalize an important step in this process.

METHODOLOGY

Based on the preceding discussion, the following hypotheses are pro- posed for testing:

Hypothesis 1: Leader motivating language use is significantly and posi- tively related to employee attitude toward attendance. Hypothesis 2: Employee attendance attitude is significantly and negatively related to worker absenteeism. Hypothesis 3: Leader motivating language use is significantly and nega- tively related to actual employee absenteeism.

The motivating language construct is theorized to be applicable over most worker types and organizational settings (Sullivan, 1988), and this proposition has been supported through evaluation across varying settings that that have yielded consistent model testing results (Mayfield & Mayfield, 2004; Sharbrough et al., 2006; Zorn & Ruccio, 1998). As such, there are advantages to drawing samples from heterogeneous work envi- ronments. These samples can (when hypotheses are supported) indicate relationship generalizability, and reduce systematic bias due to single set- ting data analysis. Therefore, this study collected data from a cross-section of work environments.

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To obtain such a sample, information was gathered from workers enrolled in graduate and undergraduate courses (specifically, principles of management and organizational behavior classes) as part of a larger, ongoing management study. All potential respondents were screened for work experience and to ensure that a respondent was only included once in the analysis (in the case of a subject being enrolled in more than one class). All surveys were confidential and voluntary. As a completion incentive, all participants were provided feedback on research findings. Respondents were asked to answer questions on their immediate supe- rior’s motivating language use (Mayfield et al., 1995), their own atten- dance attitude, and the number of days that they had been absent from work in the past month. (All three scales are reproduced in the appendix.) The inclusion of the attitudinal scale and the short-term self-reporting window were drawn from previous research that indicates absenteeism has significant relationships with workers’ ability and motivation to attend work over a relatively immediate time frame (Harrison & Martocchio, 1998; Harrison & Shaffer, 1994; Steers & Rhodes, 1978). Furthermore, the presence of an attitudinal scale responds to recommendations for bet- ter understanding of motivating language processes (Mayfield & Mayfield, 2004) and methodological diversity that have been offered by leading absenteeism scholars (Johns, 2003; Martocchio & Harrison, 1993). In fact, Johns (2003) observed that “the absolute level of methodological diversity is less critical than its mere existence” (Johns, 2003, p. 158). Since the attendance attitudinal measure was newly developed for this study, its validity and reliability should be examined. Traditionally, reli- ability for this type of measure is assessed through using Cronbach’s alpha, with a minimum score of 0.70 being required for sound measure- ment properties (Churchill, 1979; Price, 1997). Also, the measure’s dimensionality needs to be determined—typically examined through factor analysis. It is expected that if multiple items all measure the same underlying construct, then item intercorrelations will be relatively high, and a factor analysis of these items will demonstrate strong structural properties (DeVellis, 2003).

Since the attendance attitudinal mea- sure was newly developed for this study, its validity and reliability should be examined.

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There are a few simple requirements for a scale to demonstrate a strong, single factor structure. The first requirement is that one factor accounts for a substantial percentage of variance present in the entire scale—at least 50%. A second rule of thumb for determining if a single factor underlies all items is that the eigenvalue of the first factor is greater than 1, and all remaining factors are less than 1. Finally, a chi-square test can be performed on the factor, with a nonsignificant result indicating that a single factor is sufficient to account for the variance in the items. Once a single factor structure has been established, the individual items will need to be checked to determine if each is sufficiently related to the underlying factor to warrant scale inclusion. This check can be performed by examining each item’s factor loadings. These loadings can be viewed as the correlation between an item and an underlying factor, with higher load- ings indicating a greater relationship between the item and the factor. The absenteeism measure also needs to be validated. It is a single item question which asks the number of work days that the respondent has missed in the past 30 days. As a single-item measure, it is not possible to perform a Cronbach’s reliability test or a factor analysis test for validity. However, this measure’s validity can be compared with a previous study’s findings on absenteeism. Fortunately, a large-scale study exists that com- pared company record–based absenteeism reports with worker self-reports (Kim, Cyphert, & Price, 1995), and identified a strong congruence between the two absenteeism assessment methods. Therefore, the results from the current study and Kim et al.’s previous study can be compared. If results are similar, there is evidence that the current measure shows construct validity. The main analytical method for testing this study’s hypotheses is struc- tural equation modeling (SEM). SEM can be described as a form of directed factor analysis. The technique allows for the analysis of the relationship between observed items and their associated factors (called latent vari- ables), and the relationships between latent variables. Specifically, SEM permits a researcher to propose a set of hypothesized links between various latent variables, and then test the proposed model against real-world data. Therefore, SEM has two very useful analytic properties for this study. First, it allows testing of complex models, and is capable of including latent variables. Models can be considered complex when there is not a strict separation between independent and dependent variables, or when models propose mediating relationships. For the hypothesized model, both conditions hold true. Attendance attitude serves as both a dependent vari- able (in relation to leader motivating language use), and as an independent variable (in relation to worker absenteeism). Second, the hypotheses set

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forth a partially mediated model with motivating language that is expected

to have direct and indirect effects on worker absenteeism. Testing out such

a model would be less efficient and parsimonious using regression or other

statistical techniques rather than SEM. Also advantageous over alternative analytical methods, SEM permits analysis of latent and manifest variables. Latent variables are hypothe-

sized constructs that cannot be directly measured. Rather they can be inferred through indirect observation such as questionnaires. (Examples of latent variables include constructs such as intelligence, job satisfaction, and work motivation.) Manifest variable are those that can be directly observed, such as days absent. In addition, previous motivating language research has shown that SEM analysis fruitfully captures the complex nature of the motivating language construct (Mayfield & Mayfield, 2004; Mayfield et al., 1998). The proposed model’s combination of latent variables, mediated design, an observable outcome measure, and congruence with previous research makes SEM application an especially appropriate statistical method. Despite these benefits, effective structural equation analysis must be based on a well-grounded initial model. MLT and the hypothesized employee outcomes have reached such a development stage. The proposed model is presented in Figure 1. This model can be viewed as an alternative, graphical hypotheses presentation. While SEM graphic hypotheses figures are based on common model presentations, there are conventions specific to SEM that require further explanation. Latent variables are shown as circles. These variables repre- sent the constructs driven by the research questions in most investigations. For this study, these constructs are leader motivating language discourse with a worker, the worker’s attitude toward attendance, and the worker’s actual absenteeism. These latent variables are in turn measured through manifest (observable) variables. Manifest variables are depicted by rect- angles in the model. The arrows between the different variables signify expected causal linkages. The tail of the arrow comes from a variable that is predicted to create a change in another variable at the arrow’s head. Therefore, moti- vating language is expected to cause a change in worker attendance atti- tude. A plus sign on a path indicates an expected positive relationship, and

a minus sign shows an expected negative relationship. When no sign is

given for a path, the hypothesis indicates an expected link, but no infor-

mation on whether this link is positive or negative. An explanation should be shared about arrow directions between the latent and manifest variables. These arrows run from the latent variables

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Mayfield / MOTIVATING LANGUAGE AND ABSENTEEISM 465 Figure 1. A Model of the Effects of Leader

Figure 1.

A Model of the Effects of Leader Motivating Language on Worker Attendance Attitudes and Absenteeism

to the manifest variables because the assumption is that the latent variable causes changes in the manifest variables. Intuitively, it might seem that the arrows would run from the manifest variables to the latent variables due to calculation source. However, the causal diagram represents expected relationships between the variables—not mathematical opera- tions. Therefore, since the manifest variable scores are theorized to origi- nate from the latent variable state, it is appropriate to place the arrows running from the latent variables to the manifest variables. Testing a SEM is a two-stage procedure. The model’s overall quality is evaluated during the first stage. In this stage, the proposed model is com- pared to the actual data, and the model’s quality is assessed through a set of measures. Model acceptability occurs if most of these evaluations are at or above accepted guidelines. The most longstanding measure is a chi-square test. This test probes for significant differences between the proposed model and the data. However, the chi-square test can be misleading because it is sensitive to large sam- ple sizes, and risks showing a misleading significant difference even when only trivial discrepancies exist. To remedy this problem, a rule-of-thumb applies that a model can be considered acceptable if the chi-square to degrees-of-freedom ratio is equal to or less than 2.5. Multiple fit indices are also available for model testing. These fit indices all range from 0 to 1, with results closer to 1 pointing to better models. The

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goodness-of-fit index (GFI) is the most commonly applied fit index. A GFI of .90 is required to indicate a good fit between model and data, and a fit of .95 or better is considered to be a very good fit. The other fit indices impose more stringent calculation methods, and so a somewhat lower fit is allowable for these measures. A score of .85 is required as a minimum for model acceptability, and a score of .90 is considered to be good. Preferably, multiple indices are scrutinized for any major discrepancies between the measures because each fit index is calculated somewhat differently. Two other model fit measures examine the variance not accounted for by the model. These measures are the root mean square average error and the standardized root mean residual. Lower scores on the measures imply a better fit between the model and the data, with a score of 0 indicating a perfect fit. Scores are generally considered to be acceptable when they are below 0.10 and good when they are below 0.05. The Bayesian information criterion (BIC) is a final assessment mea- sure. Lower measure values are associated with better accuracy of a model’s fit with the data. While the measure is most useful for comparing different models, it can also be used to determine model adequacy. A positive score suggests a poor fitting model, and negative scores imply a better fitting model. After determining a model’s overall quality, path significance and strength must be examined. This analysis is performed using a t test. If a path tests as significant, the relationship strength can be examined through standardized path estimates. These path estimates are similar to standard- ized beta weights in regression analysis.

RESULTS

Data collection resulted in 305 usable surveys. Although sample respondents were technically students, all retained subjects had appropri- ate work experience. The average respondent had 5.1 years of full-time work experience, and 2.5 years of part-time work experience. Also, the average respondent had spent 2.7 years at his or her current place of employment. In this sample, 20% were employed in nonskilled positions (defined as a job requiring little or no training), 51% in a skilled position (defined as a job requiring training or experience), and 29% in a profes- sional position (defined as a job requiring a college degree or extensive work experience). Respondents worked in the following institutional set- tings: academic (19%), government (17%), small private (29%), large

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private (23%). The remaining respondents (12%) classified their organi- zational type as other. The average sample respondent’s age was 25 years, and 49% of the sample was female. One potential sample generalizability limitation was the subject’s aver- age work experience. While the respondents may have enough work expe- rience to provide them with sufficient workplace acclimatization, the average time employed appears to be low compared with more general norms. Therefore, low work experience levels could differentially affect study results. To investigate this possibility, several analyses were con- ducted. One such test applied multivariate regression, with a subject’s work experience as the independent variable and all model variables as the dependent variables. Test results showed no significant difference in the variables due to worker experience. Based on this evaluation, we can assume that there is no substantial difference in leader motivating language use, attitude toward attendance, or absenteeism due to work experience. To further probe for potential sample group limitations on generalizabil- ity, a second test was used to search for differences in variable item inter- relationships between subjects with higher and lower work experience. To accomplish this task, the sample was split in half based on work experience, and a correlation matrix was computed for each group. Next, the difference was computed between these two matrices, and the average difference was determined. This average difference was 0.02—a small discrepancy that indicates similarity between high and low experience workers. Based on both these analyses, work experience does not appear to be a major factor in either the relationships between variables or in the model variables’ means. Therefore, it seems that this sample can be considered generalizable across work experience.

Based on both these analyses, work experience does not appear to be a major factor in either the relationships between variables or in the model vari- ables’ means.

To further assess the sample’s generalizability, multivariate analysis of covariances was used to test for differences between any sample demo- graphic characteristic and model variables. As with worker experience,

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none of these tests were significant at the .05 level—indicating that worker demographic characteristics do not influence variable scores. While sample results appear to be generalizable across a range of work- ers, an important note needs to be made about the cross-sectional nature of the study. Because this information was collected at one point in time, the study’s analysis methods do not guarantee that the relationships per- form causally. The SEM analysis method employed can only indicate significant relationships, not fully determine the direction of these rela- tionships. The expected direction of the relationship is based on theory, and awaits later testing through different means (such as a time-series study, an experimental design, or other more sophisticated analytical pro- cedures) to fully establish causality. As for reliabilities, all measures fall within acceptable levels. For the motivating language scale, item reliabilities were all above .92. The absenteeism measure’s reliability was .81. A reliability for the measure of days missed could not be calculated because it was a single-item mea- sure. However, the sample results were compared with a prior work (Kim et al., 1995), and this study’s absenteeism results were very similar to prior findings. The absenteeism results also lend evidence of the mea- sure’s validity since the study by Kim et al. found a strong similarity between their sample’s self-reported absenteeism and company absentee- ism records (Price, 1997). Item interrelationships and means are pre- sented in Table 1. Reliabilities are presented in Table 2. A comparison between this study’s absenteeism results and those in Kim et al.’s study is presented in Table 3. Because the attitude toward attendance scale is new, it is appropriate to more carefully scrutinize the scale. Thus, the new measure was tested using factor analysis, item-to-total (scale score) correlations, and indi- vidual item reliabilities. It was predicted that the items should all load on one factor, have high item-to-total correlations, and high individual reli- abilities. All of these expectations were met. The factor analysis strongly indicated a single underlying latent factor, with all items appreciably load- ing there. In addition, all item-to-total correlations were high (.53 or greater), as were individual item reliabilities (all above .71). Further infor- mation on analysis results is presented in Table 4. The SEM analysis results indicated a good fit between the proposed model and the data. While the chi-square test was significant at the .05 level, the chi-square to degrees of freedom ratio was 1.7 (31/18)—well below the recommended rule-of-thumb of 2.5. Additionally, all fit indices were at or above .95, with several approaching the 1.00 maximum score.

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Table 1.

Variable Interrelationships

469

 

Attitude

Attitude

Attitude

Attitude

Toward

Toward

Toward

Toward

 

Direction

Meaning

Days

Attendance:

Attendance:

Attendance:

Attendance:

Giving

Empathetic

Making

Absent

Item 1

Item 2

Item 3

Item 4

Direction

1.02

0.80

0.71

0.33

0.32

0.27

0.45

0.36

Giving

Empathetic

0.69

1.31

0.64

0.24

0.29

0.28

0.38

0.39

Meaning

0.59

0.47

1.43

0.41

0.25

0.21

0.27

0.40

Making

Days

0.21

0.13

0.21

2.52

0.70

0.67

0.52

0.71

Absent

Attitude

0.27

0.22

0.18

0.38

1.37

0.87

0.81

0.73

Toward

Attendance:

Item 1

Attitude

0.25

0.22

0.16

0.39

0.68

1.17

0.85

0.73

Toward

Attendance:

Item 2

Attitude

0.34

0.26

0.17

0.25

0.54

0.61

1.67

0.72

Toward

Attendance:

Item 3

Attitude

0.26

0.25

0.25

0.33

0.46

0.50

0.41

1.83

Toward

Attendance:

Item 4

Mean

3.15

3.30

2.59

0.95

2.97

3.47

3.29

3.21

Note: Numbers in bold are covariances. Numbers in italics are correlation coefficients. Item means are presented in the last row of the table.

Table 2.

Measure Reliability Results

Measure

Confidence Interval

Cronbach’s α

Lower Limit

Upper Limit

Direction giving

.93

0.91

0.94

Empathetic

.92

0.91

0.93

Meaning making

.93

0.92

0.94

Attitude toward attendance

.81

0.78

0.84

The error tests showed similarly good scores, with the root mean square error of approximation at 0.05, and the standardized root mean residual equal to 0.04. In all, these statistics strongly support the hypothesized model as well suited to represent the actual variable relationships. Model adequacy measures are presented in Table 5.

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Table 3.

Absenteeism Comparison Information

 

Current

Kim et al. (1995); Self Report Based

Kim et al. (1995); Records Based

Days Absent

Study Sample

0

65%

66%

77%

1

18%

23%

19%

2

13%

9%

3%

3

4%

2%

1%

Note: Kim et al.’s (1995) study focused on short term absenteeism. Therefore, the authors only reported on absenteeism of 3 days or less. The current study included all absenteeism lengths in data collection and structural equation modeling analysis. For validation pur- poses, the comparison between the studies was limited to 3 days to match construct con- ceptualizations. The percentages of days absent in the current study sample are based on respondents with 3 or fewer days absent.

Table 4.

Attitude Toward Attendance Factor and Scale Analysis Results

 

Item-to-Total Correlation (Without Item)

Item Reliability

Item

Factor Loading

(Without Item)

1

.79

.68

.79

2

.87

.74

.79

3

.69

.61

.79

4

.58

.53

.71

Note: Eigenvalue = 2.19. Percentage of variance accounted for by factor = 55%. Chi- square test: χ 2 = 0.13, df = 2, p = .94.

The variable path relationships were examined next. As hypothesized, motivating language significantly affects worker attitude toward attendance. Based on the standardized model results, we can expect that a 10% increase in motivating language use will be accompanied by an approximate 4% increase in worker attitude toward attendance. Also as hypothesized, atti- tude toward attendance is significantly related to worker absenteeism. A 10% increase in attitude toward attendance will have an expected 6% decrease in actual absenteeism. Surprisingly, and contrary to hypothesis expectations, motivating language has no direct significant link with worker absenteeism. Model path relationships are depicted graphically in Figure 2, and the standardized paths are presented numerically in Table 6. By using these results, the indirect and total effect of motivating lan- guage on absenteeism can be transformed into metrics that are meaningful to organizational scholars and decision makers. Direct effects are calculated

Mayfield, Mayfield / MOTIVATING LANGUAGE AND ABSENTEEISM

Table 5.

Overall Model Test Results

471

Model Overall Quality Measures

Model Quality Results

χ 2

31 (df = 18, p = .03)

BIC

72

Fit indices GFI

.98

Adjusted GFI

.95

Bentler–Bonnett NFI

.97

Tucker–Lewis NNFI

.98

Bentler CFI

.99

Error tests Root mean square error average

.05

RMSEA confidence interval

.01 to .08

Standardized root mean residual

.04

Note: GFI = goodness-of-fit index; NFI = normed fit index; NNFI = nonnormed fit index; CFI = comparative fit index; RMSEA = root mean square error of approximation; BIC = Bayesian information criterion.

of approximation; BIC = Bayesian information criterion. Figure 2. Leader Motivating Language Use and Worker

Figure 2. Leader Motivating Language Use and Worker Attendance Attitudes and Absenteeism Results Note: Paths presented in standard font are significant at the .05 level. Paths presented in italics are not significant at the .05 level.

by examining the path coefficients for all direct variable links. Indirect effects are calculated by multiplying paths between connecting variables. In the case of this model, the paths to be multiplied are from motivating

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Table 6.

Test of Model Paths

Path

Standardized Estimates

Motivating language to direction giving language

.93**

Motivating language to empathetic language

.75**

Motivating language to meaning-making language

.63**

Attitude toward attendance to Item 1

.79**

Attitude toward attendance to Item 2

.86**

Attitude toward attendance to Item 3

.70**

Attitude toward attendance to Item 4

.60**

Motivating language to absenteeism

.08

Motivating language to attitude toward attendance

.38**

Attitude toward attendance to absenteeism

.56*

*p < .05. **p < .01.

language to attitude toward absenteeism and attitude toward absenteeism to actual absenteeism. Total effects sum all relevant direct and indirect effects. The derived metrics can be translated as follows: when considering the indirect effects of motivating language on actual absenteeism, there is an expected 2% decrease in absenteeism for every 10% increase in motivat- ing language use. Total effects show an approximate 3% decrease in absenteeism for every 10% increase in motivating language. Direct, indi- rect, and total effects are presented in Table 7.

Total effects show an approximate 3% decrease in absenteeism for every 10% increase in motivating language.

DISCUSSION, IMPLICATIONS, AND CONCLUSIONS

This study’s model analysis leads to some predicted and unex- pected results. True to theory, motivating language significantly reduced employee absenteeism. However, the motivational process for this reduction was not as originally hypothesized. Instead of both direct and indirect effects on worker absenteeism, the motivational impact of this leader speech appears to be completely mediated through worker atten- dance attitude. The remainder of this article will examine the implications of the study findings in greater detail.

Mayfield, Mayfield / MOTIVATING LANGUAGE AND ABSENTEEISM

Table 7.

Direct, Indirect, and Total Effects Between Latent Variables

473

Latent Variable

Direct

Indirect

Total

Relationships

Effects

Effects

Effects

Motivating language to absenteeism Motivating language to attitude toward attendance Attitude toward attendance to absenteeism

.08

.21

.29

.38

Not applicable

.38

.56

Not applicable

.56

To restate the analytical results, the overall hypothesized model appears to be quite congruent with the sample data. All model quality statistics showed acceptable levels of compatibility, and most of these measures indicated that the proposed model did a very good job of reflecting the actual variable relationships. Such a model fit is indispensable for theory validity because these confirmatory statistics reduce doubts that unex- pected findings may be due to conceptual weaknesses in the model or to poor measures of the study variables. This strong framework is insightful due to surprising analysis results on the proposed variable interrelationships. Although there is a robust asso- ciation between motivating language and worker absenteeism, this link is not a direct one—a finding contrary to the study hypotheses. Instead, this relationship is mediated by worker attitude. While the general effect was predicted, the unexpected process flow improves our understanding of how motivating language actually occurs with workers and is subse- quently expressed in organizational outcomes. In sum, this study suggests that motivating language—at least in terms of worker absenteeism— operates by altering worker attitudes. Furthermore, this process does seem consistent with Sullivan’s (1988) original conceptualization of motivating language, though it differs from the implied model as elaborated by Mayfield and Mayfield (2004; Mayfield et al., 1995, 1998). In broad practical terms, motivating language has a significant and moderate link to worker absenteeism. Path results show that for every 10% increase in motivating language, we can expect to see a 2% decrease in worker absenteeism. Accordingly, we can predict that even small improvements in motivating language use will have a positive and appre- ciable impact on attendance and related cost savings. These insights improve our theoretical understanding of potential orga- nizational value associated with the motivating language construct. Most importantly, this study enriches the investigation and understanding of the

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motivating language process. Prior work has been mainly directed at mea- suring the motivating language use–outcome link, and with a few excep- tions, ignored the causal process by which these links were forged. While such analysis is perhaps necessary in the early stages of theoretical devel- opment, researchers must travel beyond simple input-output relationships to a deeper understanding of how these processes operate if the benefits of motivating language are to be fully realized. Fortunately, Sullivan’s (1988) original conceptualization provides a rich foundation for such examinations by assuming an attitudinal path between leader language and employee behavior. And this study reveals an initial indication that leader motivating language does in fact operate through the vehicle of worker attitudinal change. Similarly, this study extends the range of motivating language–related outcome variables. In addition to worker performance, retention, innovation, and job satisfaction, a new association has been shown to exist between motivating language and worker absenteeism. Simply put, motivating lan- guage now has more credibility to theoretically address some of the most pressing outcome variable challenges with which management scholars con- tend (Price, 1997; Staw, 1984). Equally encouraging to this prospect, study respondents were drawn from a heterogeneous and wide ranging set of work settings, thus expanding applicability. Moreover, the data were nearly evenly balanced between male and female respondents, hence strengthening gener- alizability inferences about motivating language and worker gender. From a practice viewpoint and as discussed in this article’s background section, absenteeism is a costly and pervasive organizational problem. While not expected to be a panacea to a complex issue, motivating lan- guage can now be adopted as a significant resource with which to promote employee attendance. Furthermore, training investment and curriculum design will benefit from these new insights about the communication- attitude-behavior relationships. Despite these contributions, there are study limitations that must be acknowledged. The two major weaknesses are found with the study’s cross-sectional nature and the sample’s demographic characteristics. As discussed earlier, a cross-sectional study does not easily permit causal statements. Instead, we can only infer based on variable linkages and existing theory. And while motivating language has considerable theoreti- cal foundation for making such inferences, non-causal studies are still constrained in their predictive power. Additionally, the study sample consisted of a relatively young set of respondents in the early stages of their careers. While it is not expected that

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475

this sample group’s characteristics greatly effected research findings—and several tests were performed seeking an indication of such problems— there may still be substantive, undiscovered demographic impact that var- ies from the experiences of workers at other career stages. As a result, the generalizability of this study is tentative. This second limitation orients motivating language research toward some suggested new directions. More credible and extended generaliz- ability needs to be further explored through future studies. For instance, the sample was drawn from U.S. respondents. Yet in a globally flat world where communication interdependence is crucial (Friedman, 2007), a cross-national motivating language investigation should be conducted at some future date. Furthermore, longitudinal research may lend more sup- port to causal predictions. Finally, much of the early motivating language research has been oriented toward theory building. These goals benefited initial conceptualization through simple research questions and models with limited scope. In the future, motivating language’s full power may be best disclosed by exploring new avenues such as qualitative measures and translation into written, especially electronic communication. In conclusion, a small amount of progress can make considerable headway toward cost-effective reduction in employee absenteeism, while promoting other desirable employee behaviors at the same time (Gaudine & Saks, 2001). Motivating language may well offer such an opportunity by nurturing employee attendance incentives through leader communication.

APPENDIX MEASURES USED

MOTIVATING LANGUAGE

The examples below show different ways that your boss might talk to you. Please use the following selections to choose the answer that best matches your perceptions, and then place an X in the bracket beside the appropriate response.

Direction Giving/Uncertainty Reducing Language

1. Gives me useful explanations of what needs to be done in my work.

2. Offers me helpful directions on how to do my job.

3. Provides me with easily understandable instructions about my work.

4. Offers me helpful advice on how to improve my work.

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APPENDIX (continued)

5.

Gives me good definitions of what I must do in order to receive rewards.

6.

Gives me clear instructions about solving job related problems.

7.

Offers me specific information on how I am evaluated.

8.

Provides me with helpful information about forthcoming changes affect- ing my work.

9.

Provides me with helpful information about past changes affecting my work.

10.

Shares news with me about organizational achievements and financial status.

Empathetic Language

11.Gives me praise for my good work.

12. Shows me encouragement for my work efforts.

13. Shows concern about my job satisfaction.

14. Expresses his/her support for my professional development.

15. Asks me about my professional well-being.

16. Shows trust in me.

Meaning-Making Language

17. Tells me stories about key events in the organization’s past.

18. Gives me useful information that I couldn’t get through official chan- nels.

19. Tells me stories about people who are admired in my organization.

20. Tells me stories about people who have worked hard in this organiza-

tion.

21. Offers me advice about how to behave at the organization’s social gath- erings.

22. Offers me advice about how to “fit in” with other members of this orga- nization.

23. Tells me stories about people who have been rewarded by this organiza- tion.

24. Tells me stories about people who have left this organization.

All items were provided the following response categories:

Very Little

[

]

A Little

[

]

Some

[

]

A Lot

[

]

A Whole Lot [

]

Mayfield, Mayfield / MOTIVATING LANGUAGE AND ABSENTEEISM

APPENDIX (continued)

477

ABSENTEEISM

Approximately how often were you absent from your job in the past month?

ATTITUDE TOWARD ATTENDANCE

1. I feel bad if I have to miss work.

2. I don’t care if I have to miss work. (R)

3. I feel like I have let my company down if I miss work.

4. I enjoy days when I am absent from work. (R)

(R) denotes a reverse scored item. All items were provided the following response categories:

Strongly Disagree

[

]

Disagree

[

]

Neutral

[

]

Agree

[

]

Strongly Agree

[

]

The motivating language, absenteeism, and attitude toward attendance scales have been released under a Creative Commons Share-Alike by Attribution license. The attribution authors are Jacqueline Mayfield and Milton Mayfield for the motivating language scale and Milton Mayfield and Jacqueline Mayfield for the remaining two measures. A license summary can be found at the following Web site: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ The full license and legal terms are available at this Web site: http://creative-

commons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode

Please note that these licenses apply only to the scales and do not apply to other text, tables, graphics, or similar items in this document.

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