Business Communication is Goals-Oriented

The first principle of business communication is that it is goals-oriented. Notice the “s” on the end of goals. That’s right—there is more than one goal. There are three goals, each relating to one of three meanings embedded in every message you send or receive: an instrumental meaning, a relational meaning, and an identity meaning.

All Messages Carry Three Meanings

First, the instrumental meaning is the message that says what you want to accomplish by communicating. This part of the message is usually explicitly and directly addressed. It can be something as simple as informing your team of a room change for a meeting to something as complex as persuading top management of the cost-effectiveness of adopting sustainable business practices.

Understanding the instrumental meaning you intend to convey helps you create an instrumental goal, which is clear statement of what you intend to accomplish. The clearer and more specific you are with your instrumental goal, the better. Your focus not only should be on what you want to say, but what you want the outcome to be, or how you want your receiver to respond to your message. For example, a general goal might be “to persuade an investor that my business idea is a good one.” A specific goal will be more explicit about the action or outcome you want as a result of your message. For example, it might be “to get a one-on-one meeting with an investor” or “to get an investor to invest $50,000 in my start-up venture.”

Second, the relational meaning is the message that says something about your relationship with your receiver. Unlike an instrumental meaning that you explicitly say or write, the relational meaning often is embedded in subtler ways. It can be inferred from the tone of your message or the way you address your receiver. The point here is that even if you don’t intend to say something about your relationship with your receiver, you always are saying something. For instance, a message that says, “Jenni, Thanks for your reply” conveys a friendly, peer-like relationship; whereas one to the same person that says, “Ms. Thompsen, Thank you for your reply” conveys a more formal relationship.

In terms of your relational goal setting, the biggest thing to consider is whether you want the relationship to stay as it is or to change. If an existing relationship with your receiver is positive and you want to continue that positive relationship, then you must appropriately acknowledge the existing relational dynamics in your business messages. But if you want to transform the relationship in some way—or if something about the relationship changes—then you will need to be strategic about what you intend to change and how to go about changing it. For instance, if you are a new leader in an organization, you might want to let your employees know what kind of relationship you want to have with them, whether it’s formal or friendly or somewhere in between.

Third, the identity meaning is the part of the message that says something about you as a communicator and as a business professional and possibly even something about your company. Again, this may not be addressed explicitly in the message. But it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Have you ever read a message or listened to someone and thought, “That person has no idea what they’re talking about” or “Wow, this person is so thoughtful”? Those are identity meanings.

The only real hard and fast goal for identity meanings is that you should always strive to be professional. There is never a time in business when being unprofessional is an acceptable goal. But beyond that, there is no right or wrong identity meanings to aspire toward. Those goals are all up to your judgment. At times, you may want to be seen as tough, smart, compromising, understanding, “The Boss,” funny, compassionate, principled, trustworthy, hardworking, confident, sincerely apologetic, no-nonsense, kind, or a force to be reckoned with. The point here is that you need to identify your own identity goals to fit the situation. One way of thinking about setting your identity goal is to generate of list of adjectives that you want your receiver to use to describe you.

Competent Communicators Set a Goal for Each Meaning

Competent business communicators strategically set a goal for each of these three meanings. They are specific about what they want to accomplish, the kind of relationship they have or want to have with their receiver, and how they present themselves to the receiver.

Take for instance the example of a new project manager, Drew. Drew recently was given his first project to manage, and now he needs to provide a status update to his boss. He might set his goals this way:

Instrumental Goal: Inform my boss about the status of the project, including information about the timeline and budget.

Relational Goal:  I’m a new project manager. Our relationship is generally positive, but the boss doesn’t really know me or my abilities very well. So I need to build a stronger, more trusting relationship.

Identity Goal: I want to be seen as professional, competent, trustworthy, and a good project manager.

Once you have set your goals, then you can strategize how to meet these goals. In simple messages, these goals might be easy to achieve. But in more complicated situations, they get harder to attain simultaneously because as one part of the message changes, it changes the other meanings. That means this step is not necessarily an easy one.

Going back to the example, if Drew’s project is going well, his message is simple. All he needs to do is provide an update that the project is on time and within budget. He will easily meet his instrumental, relational, and identity goals. But if the project is hitting some roadblocks, Drew’s message and his ability to achieve all three of his goals become more complex.

If Drew says he is behind on the project, it is going be more difficult for him to come across as competent and an effective project manager. If he leaves out key details about the status of the project and the boss later finds out Drew was withholding negative information, then it will raise concerns about his trustworthiness and challenge the quality of their relationship. And if he simply avoids sending the status update message altogether, then he will face problems in not meeting his instrumental goal of keeping his boss informed. Furthermore, he may damage his identity by behaving in a way that may be viewed as unprofessional.


Your Turn: Setting Goals

Assume that you began a summer internship two weeks ago. Things are going well and you really hope to be able to get a full-time position at the company when you graduate in less than a year.

On Monday, you will have your first big assignment. You will be assisting your boss with a client meeting. Your job is to get the meeting room properly set. That means getting coffee and bagels in the morning, setting out all the information packages and copies, and setting up the technology in the room. You’ve already done some of the legwork. But you have to get to work an hour ahead of everyone else to make sure everything is ready.

Unfortunately, it is Sunday evening and you are suddenly very ill—possibly with a case of food poisoning. It is looking doubtful that you’ll be able to make it to work in the morning.

As you don’t have your boss’s phone number, the only way you can reach her is by email. Identify your goals for this message.


Instrumental Goal
What outcome do you want to achieve?

Relational Goal
What kind of relationship do you have or want to have with your receiver?

Identity Goal
What are 3-5 adjectives that you would want your receiver to use to describe you?




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Business Communication: Five Core Competencies Copyright © 2023 by Kristen Lucas, Jacob D. Rawlins, and Jenna Haugen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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