A better understanding of how the brain works can guide the way you engage and influence employees. Dominic Wylie, senior communication consultant at like minds, reports on how behavioural science can shape internal communication.

30th June 2017

Advancement of technology has enabled a multitude of communications to be unleashed on employees, competing for their attention. A key challenge for corporate communicators is to produce engaging communications that are not only read, but digested and acted upon. A truly successful campaign will go even further – inspiring commitment and motivation. 

Behavioural science provides important insights into employee behaviour, enabling communicators to optimise the level of employee engagement from their campaigns. These insights may go as far as to influence the content and style of messages, image design and chosen media, as well as timing of delivery.

Examples of where behavioural science can guide communications most effectively include employee surveys, organisational change and employee rewards and benefits. Here’s a quick look at some of the most relevant behavioural ‘biases’.


Status quo bias

The status quo feels comfortable and safe, while change usually involves risk and demands energy, and that can be an uncomfortable prospect unless the proposition is compelling.

So it’s important not to force too many changes, too quickly, on employees. Often you can present them in a way that makes them appear straightforward and painless, or you can offer some hand-holding to help them cope. Importantly, avoid overloading people with decisions that will make them feel confused and overwhelmed or they may well end up without making a decision at all.

It’s also helpful to break down any organisational change into structured phases. You can help people cope with the challenges if they can see a beginning, a middle and a final phase.


Loss aversion

It’s a fact that we all hate losing – actually, we’ll often put extra energy into having something when the threat of losing it is strong.

That’s why the “when it’s gone, it’s gone” message is so powerful. For example, deadlines for choices concerning flexible benefits should be positioned in the context of a lost opportunity – not just a target to be met. Similarly, the imminent deadline for an employee feedback survey could be stressed by highlighting employees’ missed chance of having their say/rectifying any problems they’ve experienced.



Hyperbolic discounting is the tendency for people to have a stronger preference for more immediate pay-offs than pay-offs at a later stage. This can affect employees’ decisions about financial wellbeing (spending on holidays vs pension savings, for example) or short- vs long-term training programmes. It’s wise to stress the immediate benefits of a long-term investment if these can be found.



If you can give your message some meaningful context, especially if personalised, you can change the way your audience might react to it. For example, when delivering negative news, you could set it in an industry-wide context, describing similar situations.

Good visual design can help support your context. For a positive campaign, such as promoting the company values and brand, bold images and bright colours will project a dynamic and vibrant environment. During periods of transformation, paint a picture of the journey you are asking people to take, using words and pictures, and emphasise the benefits they will gain at the end.



Whenever we’re presented with something new – a product, person or idea – we immediately compare it to something else we’ve already experienced.

Although you can’t stop comparisons being made, you can influence and inform them. Instead of allowing your audience to search for an “anchor”, suggest one yourself.

The principle works well when promoting a new company vision during periods of transformation. We can struggle to see very far into the future as humans and envisage what the company may look and feel like, so it helps to relate your plans to organisations that have previously successfully changed their product or service.

It can also work well with communication around a reward package. You could point to the generous range of benefits offered by the company compared to other typical employers in the same sector.


In-group bias

As humans, we all have an inherent tribal nature that is supported by oxytocin, the “group love” hormone. This helps us form strong bonds with members of our group, but also makes us suspicious of members from other groups and what they might be telling us.

You can use this to your advantage by showing your audience that you’re on their side. Empathise with them by showing how you understand their needs and concerns. This might apply to an office relocation, for example, or to options for pensions and financial wellbeing and the difficulties of employees making the right choices in how they might save and spend their money.


Bandwagon effect 

In times of uncertainty it helps to provide reassurance by showing what other, similar employees have done. If you can demonstrate that others have followed a particular course of action and told a positive tale, it gives them the confidence to proceed.

In the case of training programmes, benefit take-ups or organisational changes, you could tell stories of positive experiences that other colleagues can report. Look to play the “people like me” card to remove any concerns about risks and “whether it’s right for me”. 

So, understanding the principles of human psychology may make you think again about how employee-related matters can be communicated and promoted beyond the simple statements of fact and benefit features. And they can open up a new way of creative thinking, enabling you to deal more effectively with the challenges of today’s internal communications.


like minds is a team of communication experts who produce content, campaigns and strategies that makes a difference to people’s lives.


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