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Behavioural Science: how it can help with internal comms

Earlier this month, we compiled our list of the top ten hot topics in Internal Comms for 2022. Within that list was the topic of Behavioural Science, and I promised then to write a separate piece on this slightly scary-sounding subject! And, so, I shall now don my Professor of Psychology mortarboard (it’ll be made from papier-mâché as I have no such qualification) and explain…

Effective internal comms is about so much more than sharing or imparting information. It’s more about inspiring people to act, to change a behaviour, to adopt change or to put policy or strategy into action. And this can be as difficult as it sounds!

The more we understand about how (our) people think, feel, and respond to different requests, instructions and general comms, the better equipped we are to achieve our desired outcome. Fortunately, you don’t need a Master’s in Psychology or Neuroscience (nor my papier-mâché mortarboard) for this.

I’d bet what’s left of my Christmas selection box (which admittedly isn’t much!) that you consider yourself to be a logical, rational person, and one who considers all available options before making a decision. But is that, in all honesty, always the case? Most human behaviour is actually driven by automatic thought processes. Because our brains are usually too busy processing the insanely large amounts of information and stimuli that we subject them to, decision-making shortcuts kick in subconsciously, allowing us to problem solve quickly but without always consciously considering all of our options.

If we can consider some of these automatic responses when we design our comms, can we maximise the chances of our comms landing as designed and influencing real action and actual change?

Mind The Gap

Behavioural scientists often refer to something called the “Intention-Action Gap”. I’m afraid there’s no bonus Christmas chocolate for guessing that this is science-speak for knowing what the right thing to do is, but not always actually doing it. It is the gap between what we know and what we (decide to) do. That decision (if you can call it that) may well be automatic or subconscious. It may be fed by habit, temptation laziness or hurriedness.

For example, you know that running across the road as traffic is oncoming is risky, but you’re running late so you do it anyway. As if making up that 45 seconds of time is worth risking the unspeakable?!

Similarly, you know what you need to do to lose that festive weight, and it involves going for a run rather than reaching for the selection box. But you do the latter anyway.

In the Frame

The best way to help your audience to close that gap with your internal comms is to think about the framing, the background information, and even the timing of the comms. Reminding people of their values and beliefs at the time they will be making the decision can help to shrink that gap. It’s the difference between simply sending out a link to the annual company survey and framing the invitation to partake with a reminder of why they should want to complete it – i.e. that it’s important for them to have their say, that they want their voice to be heard, and to think back to what changed off the back of last year’s survey.

FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)

We all hate to lose. Even if we don’t consider ourselves competitive, we still hate to lose or to lose out. Have you ever been persuaded into having something just because you were presented with the threat of losing it? (I’ve got dozens of “limited edition” vinyl sets in my music collection for that very reason.) “Strictly limited offer”, “last few remaining” and “when it’s gone, it’s gone” are all powerful and successful marketing tools based on this human behaviour.

We can apply the same “marketing approach” as an incentive to our people. With the company survey example, telling people that they have only 5 more days to have their say will reap much greater rewards than just advertising that the return rate is currently lower than expected.

In fact, loss aversion is often more powerful than the opposing draw of the positive outcome. For example, if communicating about a deadline for choosing employee benefits for the next year, leading with “don’t miss out on the package that’s right for you” will likely garner a stronger reaction and greater response than “have you thought about the benefits that will suit you?”. The threat of the loss trumps the lure of the gain.

A pack mentality

Humans are social creatures (a couple of my exes notwithstanding!). On an evolutionary level, we need others in order for us to survive and to thrive, and we are significantly affected by those around us. We may not like to admit it, but most of us do think, care, and sometimes worry about what people think of us. Even if we want to stand out from the crowd, we probably search for others who stand out in a similar way – there’s still some need to belong, to relate and, ironically, to fit in. This is why birds of a feather (no Dorien jokes, please!) flock together.

And so, within internal comms, it often makes sense to tailor your comms to the different groups within your organisation. Your internal comms strategy should consider your different populations and provide for them all via your channel matrix. And this pack mentality, or this important feeling of belonging, can be combined with human competitiveness to drive behaviour and results. To return to the earlier example of the employee survey, we at Guru HQ were recently supporting a client with boosting their annual survey response rate. By simply telling one site how poorly their response rate compared with other comparable sites, that “tribal” mentality kicked in and, by combining that with a FOMO-driven daily countdown to have their voices heard, the offending response rate percentage had almost doubled within a week.

This can be taken even further with the rise of social networking within the workplace. Just as “I’ve voted” or “I’ve been vaccinated” badges on Facebook have been shown to increase voter turn-out and improve vaccine take-up, a similar technique could be used within your work socials. An “I’ve had my say” badge to encourage survey completion, or an “I’m signed up” button to boost attendance at an upcoming training event can have that contagious effect through your teams.

Anchors Away

Humans tend not to love change. New can be scary. The automatic reaction is to look for a comparison, something else we have experienced and can relate to – an anchor of sorts.

With internal comms, particularly when communicating change, as you can’t stop comparisons being made by your audience, you’re wise to throw a few (favourable) comparisons out there yourself… anchors away! If you’re communicating around a new process, for example, can you offer comparisons with how another department (or even company) benefited from the same or a similar process?

Information Overload

Finally, it’s always worth remembering that, whilst people need to be given the right information in the right way to make the best decisions, it is possible to subject them to cognitive overload. Too much information will trigger those decision-making shortcuts or, worse still, bypass the decision making altogether, resulting in no action being taken at all. Cognitive overload will result in people ignoring, or not processing, the information, falling back into established and comfortable habits, or cherry-picking the bits of the information that they like to form their own version of your truth.

Our comms need to be carefully structured and presented so as not to overwhelm. This may mean breaking it up into smaller chunks. It could well mean using images and video content that are significantly easier to absorb and process. It may mean running a campaign, rather than a one-hit piece. Considering your audience and their capacity for the volume of, and level of detail in, your comms.

If you can consider some of these behavioural science concepts when planning and delivering your comms – by framing the subject, by pointing out the losses if requests aren’t followed, by playing up to your people’s pack mentality and need to belong, by anchoring changes to a favourable comparison, and by being mindful of potential cognitive overload – you are more likely to affect the changes you are striving for and inspire your audience to act as desired.


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