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All in the Mind: How Understanding Human Psychology Improves Internal Communication

Picture this: Your company is introducing a new initiative, and you’re in charge of launching it. But staff members aren’t engaged. They’re not listening — they’re thinking of what they’re going to eat for lunch. Sound familiar?

Employees often don’t respond to business communication the way we expect. But why do some messages get through and others don’t? Why are some more successful? And if we know this, how can we change our way of messaging to ensure every message is equally successful?

It really is all in the mind.

Understanding human psychology helps improve internal communication. What follows are six key insights from psychology and an examination of how they influence employee behavior, plus suggestions for how you can take advantage of these in your workplace.

1. Environmental Influence

We are influenced by what we see around us, often without realizing it. The stimuli of a word or a picture can continue to influence long after exposure.

English mentalist and illusionist Derren Brown is well known for getting people to act in uncommon and outlandish ways. He manipulates the external environment to influence people’s behavior through street signs, shop displays, billboards and even clothing, as in this “animal zoo” example. Here, two advertising executives pitch a concept almost identical to what Brown predicts, because what they presented was influenced by carefully-controlled events which they were exposed to during a taxi journey.

Why does this work? There’s a concept in psychology called priming. It refers to visual cues “priming” people to act a certain way. In the workplace, priming teaches us that employees will respond to internal communication based on how they’ve been influenced.

Repeated exposure to environmental cues modifies the underlying assumptions employees hold and drive behavioral change.

Recommendation

Use teaser material prior to the launch of any new tool, process or campaign to prime employees to be ready and attentive. These could be visual, like computer screensavers or wall posters, or written, like snippets in your corporate newsletter.

Signpost big workplace announcements, like a restructure or change in operations, in advance by priming employees in all of your corporate communication to reduce the element of surprise.

2. Avoiding Cognitive Strain

Humans are wired to avoid things that are difficult to understand. If our brains need to work hard to extract the meaning of something, they’ll often give up.

That’s why iconography like the images below are used across the world. They’re visually simple but communicatively rich. We take notice of these things more because they’re easy to understand. The icons help create “mental shortcuts” which avoid the need to think to work out their meaning.

In psychology, this is the idea of salience, meaning people pay more attention to things that appear easy and accessible.

For communicators, salience means that personally relevant and easily digestible information is more effective. Delivering content in a consistent style and manner helps employees create a mental shortcut, which increases recognition and readership.

Recommendation

Send departmental or subject messages including a common symbol or the same heading (e.g., HR Update), and display this in the same place on employee screens for all communication of this type.

3. Liking What’s Popular

It’s no secret that we all like opinions that match our own. We feel secure with them, they bolster our confidence and they reduce tension or frustration.

As humans, we’ve survived because of our ability to band together. Being part of the group, or following the crowd, allows us to function in complicated and fast-changing environments.

Social psychology shows us that like-minded people reinforce one another’s viewpoints. The beliefs we hold are strengthened when we’re around others who hold similar views.

Think of advertising campaigns. Advertisers tell us their latest product is the “fastest-growing” or “most popular” or “best-selling.” They’re playing on the fact that popular is good — and that’s what helps sell products.

People inherently trust peers more than officials, and as communicators we can use this to our advantage.

Recommendation

Identify key influencers and thought leaders among your employees. They’ll be the ones on your online employee discussion forums commenting frequently, being asked for opinions and receiving lots of thumbs up reactions. Target messages to them and involve them in your campaigns early. They can then become valuable change agents who can help convert others.

4. Emotional Resonance

Think of a movie, book or song that you love. The reason this is one of your favorites is likely because you feel connected to it emotionally. Therefore, it has emotional resonance for you.

Below is an example of a message with strong emotional resonance. Messages like this are effective because they trigger emotions — in this case, fear. There’s no way you’ll knock on the door of that house!

Studies in psychology show how experiences with emotional stimuli are more effective at engaging us than non-emotional stimuli. We devote more of our attention to them. We remember them more vividly and accurately, and we recall them more easily over time.

One of the best ways of tapping into emotional resonance for employee communication is storytelling. Research from Stanford University shows that stories are up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone.

Recommendation

Consider the emotional element of the visuals and words in your campaigns. Think about what the message means at a personal level, not a business one — especially if your message is about a sensitive subject or is delivering bad news.

Make employees the focus of your messages to make scenarios feel more real and tangible. For example, the story isn’t about your organization’s commitment to staff development and personal growth, it’s about how amazing the experience has been for Carol in Accounts.

5. The Appeal of Positive vs. Negative

We all love a nice, positive story, right? Well, it turns out the answer is yes and no. Humans are attracted to both positive and negative messages for very different reasons.

Positive messaging can be used to appeal to psychological desire for pleasure, like the famous study of Pavlov’s dogs.

Negative messaging, or bad news, also has an innate appeal. An experiment at McGill University in Canada showed that participants more often chose to read negative news stories, even when they claimed they preferred good news.

There’s a concept in psychology called inattentional blindness. It describes how we fail to notice something obvious but unexpected because our attention is devoted elsewhere. There are lessons we can learn from all of this when communicating in the workplace.

Recommendation

Emphasize the negative consequences of non-compliance (such as loss of status) to improve adoption of behavioral change. This gets employees past the attention-grabbing headline to actually understand your message and respond appropriately.

Communicate often to reinforce key messages, even if there’s nothing new to report. This helps raise staff awareness of the details, inform them of the evolving situation and involve them in the resolution.

6. Attention Management

We’re living in a world with more distractions than ever. There’s a lot more competition for our attention at home and in the workplace.

It’s been shown that 28% of our workdays is eaten up by information overload. When a knowledge worker is interrupted at work, it takes 10–20 times the duration of the interruption to recover and get back to their previous task.

Attention management is how employees attempt to wrest control of their time back. But when staff are selective of which messages they read, internal communicators have no guarantee their messages are being seen, understood and acted upon.

This is even more challenging when all the IT, HR, information security, compliance, operations and marketing teams are communicating with staff using the same tools.

Recommendation

To get 100% of your messages read 100% of the time, deliver relevant content to targeted staff via a channel that suits them, and schedule it for times when they are best able to read it.

Introduce multi-channel communications to align your content with the channel best suited to deliver it, such as alerts for critical, time-sensitive messages or emails for lengthy business updates.

For more on how human psychology influences internal communication, read “Messaging That Works: A Unique Framework to Maximize Communication Success,” which describes a new framework that helps apply these psychology insights to deliver more effective employee messaging.

Philip Nunn

Philip Nunn is the general manager of business at SnapComms, a leading internal communication platform used daily by 2.5 million employees in 75 countries worldwide. In this role, Nunn leads an international team of internal communication experts who specialize in helping large organizations meet the challenge of effective employee communication.  Nunn has a background in product innovation, business development and customer service, as well as a passion for improving employee engagement through understanding what makes people tick.

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