When employees process internal stories and announcements, a chemical reaction is triggered in the brain. With a greater understanding of behavioural psychology and the different personalities within an organisation, internal communicators can help colleagues make decisions and deal with information and change requests positively, rather than feel threatened.


9th December 2021

Since the days of cavemen, human beings have operated within social structures, protecting our tribes and using our instincts and quick decision-making skills to react to anything or anyone that poses a threat. These days, there’s less hunting and gathering in packs – but we still rely on our networks to keep us safe.  

Our brains are programmed to function within a social environment, but every day they are bombarded with information from all directions. To process this data, the brain operates as a prediction machine.

Deborah Hulme, director and neuroleader specialist at Minerva Engagement, says: “While we might like to believe we are thinking everything through logically, every second of every day, we’re not. We undertake most activities from our automatic habitual networks. If I am drinking a cup of tea, I am not thinking about it. I just do it. And if I understand my work inside and out, I do it as an unconscious habit.”

When creating content that is asking colleagues to do something, internal communicators should consider behavioural economics, which determines whether people make good or bad decisions and whether the information they are fed can motivate them to make the right decisions.

Nazia Nathu, senior internal communications manager at BDO, says: “More than 90 per cent of decision-making is preconscious or intuitive. We assume people make optimal decisions that give them the greatest satisfaction, but that’s not the case. Humans are not rational and we are incapable of making decisions.

“The brain needs energy to digest information, so it reverts to decision-making shortcuts. If we give people too much information, the decision-making process becomes harder and, rather than rationalising, the brain comes to the decision quickly through shortcuts. These allow people to problem-solve quickly, but it means we don’t maximise our decision-making options. If you send a long email with loads of information, the recipient might feel overloaded and may not be able to come to a decision, which means they may then use a shortcut.”

Responding to threats

If you are telling people their situation is about to change, and there are too many unknowns, the brain can’t default to its predicting process, so it feels threatened.

Deborah reflects: “Any change that causes a level of uncertainty, reduces my authority or impacts my feeling of inclusiveness or belonging, or that I feel isn’t fair or makes me feel I am not respected, will set off the threat response.”

This launches a cascade of activity. It releases cortisol – the body’s stress hormone – to get us ready for fight or flight.

“In the short term, the heart rate speeds up,” says Deborah. “We breathe faster and we want to get out of the way of danger. We’re not able to act rationally until the brain has understood, I’m OK, I’m safe.”

The pandemic experience has heightened our threat response and left many of us exhausted.

“Some people have been working with tech all day and have had added challenges of things like home-schooling,” says Deborah.

“We only have a certain capacity for change, and when more change is added, it affects our resilience and ability to cope.”

As communicators and leaders, we have to think carefully about how much change we are pushing through the pipe right now, adds Deborah: “What do we prioritise? What do we want people to focus on? And how much time are we going to take to do this?
“Everyone wants things done quickly, but trying to push a major change through in a month might be a fool’s game. You might spend a year unpicking the poor behaviours that have arisen from that approach.”

DiSC drive

Not everyone feels threatened by change to the same degree. Communicators must take into consideration different character types in their organisation. Some employees may take change in their stride or even see it as an opportunity.

“We have different stress boundaries,” explains Deborah. “I might have more or less resilience to changing situations than someone else. That could be because of my genetic make-up, but it’s more likely through my upbringing and having been through certain experiences. I might have been exposed to things that have built up my resilience, or I might have been brought up in a household where everything was seen as a problem.”

Additionally, there are four personality types considered in DiSC profiling – and some recognition of these, and which personality types are within teams, would help communicators, leaders and line managers adapt messages to get the best responses.

• D for dominance – people who are confident, focused on tasks and results, and often extrovert, getting their energy from others.
• i for influence – personalities who are open, people-focused and place an emphasis on relationships.
• S for steadiness – people who are dependable, reflective and focused on cooperation; they are often introverts, getting energy from within.
• C for conscientiousness – people who are analytical, with an emphasis on quality, accuracy and competency.

Personality types

Account for all four personalities, says Karen Dempster, communication specialist and co-founder of Fit2Communicate.

“D people want short, sharp, succinct information: tell me the goal and off I go. i people need to talk it through. S people want you to tell them slowly, one to one, how it’s the best change for people – and they shouldn’t be expected to change quickly. And C people will want evidence of how it will work.

“We tend to say, ‘We are changing, here’s the strategy’ and we don’t think about all four personalities. There are simple things we can do to appeal to everyone. We might write an article, but for D people, have a 10-second read or bullet points; for i people, use video and audio; for S people, cover the people aspects and report on real experiences; and for C people, include links to data and evidence.”

While it’s not always the case, those in senior roles tend to be D or C people: analytical, energetic, task-focused and driven by data and the bottom line.

“You need leaders like that to make things happen and cut through, but you can’t ignore you’ll have i and S people in your team,” continues Karen. “The D people are saying, ‘Just get on the bus and come with us.’ And the S people are saying, ‘Why should I get on the bus?’ That’s when you get resentment, cynicism and a lack of trust and belief.”

Employees may also respond differently according to the depth of their experience of the organisation. The extent of their familiarity with processes can work either way.

Nicholas Mansfield-Stuthridge, senior communications officer at Admiral, says: “We have seen less engagement on certain topics from people who have been in the business a short time, because they joined in a remote environment. So we have looked at how we can tailor messages to them. On the flip side, long-serving employees are sometimes more resistant as they are more ingrained in the company culture and a change is seen as personally significant.”

Put change in context

It doesn’t help that we are naturally drawn to threats and bad news – a survival instinct from prehistoric times.

“If I scan my environment, I will pick up threats five times quicker than anything that is going to be a benefit to me,” says Deborah. “I need to know where the danger is.”

Communicators should anticipate a negative response, but they can mitigate the backlash by the way they launch their campaign in the first place.

“Even though we know we shouldn’t, we still tend to communicate what, not why,” says Deborah. “We don’t spend enough time putting the change into context and making it relevant for different groups across our organisations. It’s all well and good having a well-put-together articulated story from the chief executive, but it needs flexibility, so when it gets to me and my team, I can adapt it for my people.”

We don’t spend enough time understanding the brain’s memory trace, suggests Deborah.

“If you have been communicating to an organisation for five years about hitting the numbers, it has become a deep-seated belief. If you go through a transformation and start telling people you are now going to focus on the customer, unless you’ve created a bridge between the old aim and where you are trying to go, the new vision isn’t going to land. Consciously, it might sound like a good idea, but my head is still in the old mindset. Over time, I can shift my brain – but it’s hard when there is a gap and no bridge.”

Have shorter term goals too, Deborah adds. “Even if we establish where we want to go and why, some of the new direction might be a long way into the future. If the goal is closer to me, I am more likely to focus on it to get there. If you explain the process and the work I need to do to get there, it releases dopamine – a wonderful chemical reaction – which gives me motivation. If the goal is too far in the future, it can feel like too much work.”

Karen agrees the visionary aim is often lost.

“What is really fundamental to human behaviour change is that people need a better place to move towards or things need to be so awful that people want to change. Explain the consequences of why you can’t stay where you are. Often that’s not articulated.”

Start by talking positively about change and help people to look ahead.

“It could be as simple as asking employees what excites or energises them about this change,” says Karen. “Suddenly people go, ‘Well, the fact that we have a new strategy’, or ‘That we are able to invest in something for the first time’, or ‘We are developing talent’. Then look at the challenges and how you can work on them together. You might not be able to overcome them, but acknowledging they exist helps.

“Talk about what the organisation has done that proves the strategy is fit for the future. Bring people to a proof point.”

Explain the personal impact

People need a compelling reason to change – and while leaders will have their sights on the bigger picture, employees will want to understand the personal impact, to temper the brain’s fight or flight reaction.

“Employees will ask how it is going to affect them as an individual,” says Nicholas. “How will it affect their day-to-day role? And talk about what isn’t going to change, so that people feel a sense of security.”

The type of information people crave to make them feel safe will vary.

“When we’ve talked about the change to a hybrid working model, we thought most people would want the high-level detail,” says Nicholas. “But there were a lot who wanted to know if they will still have a parking space or their own desk.”

When Admiral started communicating a smart working programme, it was clear from the responses to a pulse survey that clarity was needed.

“We became more open and transparent, and as we’ve focused our communication on ‘What’s in it for me?’, we have seen less uncertainty. Bringing managers on board has also helped us identify where things are not happening as they should be and where pockets of people are less engaged. We know things have not gone smoothly in the past when managers weren’t on message or they didn’t have all the information.”

When you have persuaded employees to take a new path, show you recognise and value the effort they have made to join you.

“When you are asked to do something different, you are rewiring your brain,” says Karen. “If you go to the trouble to do that and you don’t feel appreciated, you are unlikely to do it again. It was hard work the first time and your brain will work back to what you did before.

“In some organisations, the bank of appreciation is so low, it’s a toxic environment and any change is going to fail. You might as well not waste your money or time rolling out your programme.”

Driving psychological safety

Creating a psychologically safe environment is fundamental to culture, but Deborah insists psychological safety should drive the goals, rather than be the goal.

“It comes back to this idea that human beings are social and we like to feel included in our tribe. A tribe is an organisation, as much as it is our family. If I feel I have no voice, that sets off the threat architecture that gives me limited opportunity to do what I want to do.”

When people feel they have had a say in something and someone is listening to them, they feel at least partly in control of their own destiny. Even if an employee’s input doesn’t reverse the decision, giving them time and space to contribute has a huge impact.

At Admiral, making communication a two-way process is a priority, says Nicholas.

“We’re not just sending messages out, but listening and demonstrating that the feedback is being listened to and making changes based on feedback. If things can’t change, explain why. Be clear and transparent, even if there are things people may not want to hear. You create trust issues when you don’t give details. That can trigger a psychological reaction. People fill in the gaps and think it’s bad news, or they assume we don’t know.”

How leaders role model psychological safety is important.

“Creating a psychologically safe environment means encouraging people to put their ideas on the table,” says Deborah, “and share thoughts without being shouted at or humiliated or told they are wrong.

“Diverse groups bring diverse perspectives, some very different to our own. Therefore, to stay in dialogue we need to learn how to, for example, manage conflict, suspend judgment and remain calm in what can be very challenging discussions. Managing multiple perspectives and drawing topics to a successful conclusion is a highly developed skill and an essential component of psychological safety.”

A safe space for listening

In his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey outlined a five-step model of progressive listening: starting with ignoring, and working up through pretend listening, selective listening, attentive listening and finally empathetic listening, which is when, says Karen, “you take yourself out of your body and put yourself in someone else’s body and listen with an open mind”.

If your leadership team is largely resistant to the power of listening – and you can’t break through, even with evidence of the positive impact on the bottom line – find the leaders who have the energy to listen and work with them to be advocates.

“Get them to suggest a listening session as a leadership team – with focused listening, where everyone can ask questions,” advises Karen. “If they can see the power of listening within their own team, they can apply that within the organisation. They will have ‘A-ha!’ moments. They will remember that they were once employees with ideas.”

FOMO is real

Camaraderie, being part of a herd and community support – colleague to colleague, friend to friend – is critical to success. Our emotions are also influenced by what others are doing. We see this in how people vote in polls or elections, or the swell of support for a national sporting team or individual during a momentous competition. On social media, we click on trending topics to stay informed. The fear of missing out (FOMO) is real.

Internal communication can take advantage of this bandwagon effect, says Nazia.

“We recently sent out a D&I survey and we used networks and ambassadors to encourage completion, but we saw the bigger surge when we targeted people who didn’t initially complete it. Instead of sending a message saying, ‘Reminder: you have a week to complete the survey’, we said, ‘60 per cent of employees have completed the survey – now it’s your turn to have your say.’ That was key. Changing the language prompted that FOMO feeling. People felt that if 60 per cent of their colleagues had said something, they should say something too.”

As human beings, we like doing what others do, because it makes us feel socially connected and reduces the risk of rejection by our peers.

“In a corporate environment, it’s about role modelling,” says Karen. “If you see someone you respect telling you about a fantastic thing, and you see them living it, you’re going to believe in it.”

There are hotspots of influence in every organisation – and they don’t have to be leaders.

“They can be individuals on any levels,” continues Karen. “Recognise where you have that energy in your organisation – through networks or advocates. Make sure you choose the right people. The challenge is to influence leaders and help them understand the balance of role-modelling themselves, and the power of those influencers.”

Programmed for storytelling

Throughout evolution – going back to the days when cavemen drew pictures on walls – we have understood the world through stories, not data and dry facts. When you want to bring your people on board, draw them in with stories they can identify with or that make them feel good.

“When you communicate through facts, figures and data,” explains Deborah, “you activate the language processing and comprehension part of the brain. But through stories, you activate the motor, visual, auditory and refractory cortex, as well as language processing and comprehension. The whole brain lights up.

“I relive the story in my mind and wrap my own experience around it. Whatever the story is, there is a mirroring between me and whoever is telling the story – and if I know what it means to me, I will get it a lot quicker and faster. It releases happy chemicals – serotonin, dopamine – and it helps us pay attention.”

Our decisions are usually based not on logic, but on emotional investment. Research has shown that emotional content performs almost twice as well as factual content. To prompt behaviour change, start with the emotion you want to trigger, before thinking about intent or content.

“Emotions cut through intention,” says Nazia. “Feel first, think second. Personal reflections and life stories have more traction and engagement than, say, an IT update. Even though the IT update is important, employees invest emotionally when they can take a journey with a person.

“BDO is a character-led brand. On our intranet, we recently shared a story about two people who race boats as a hobby – their wins and losses – and another about an employee who cares for someone with autism and how the family has developed. Those stories are compelling – and we got loads of comments. Employees click on those stories to see what their colleagues are talking about and naturally scan what else is on the intranet.

“We have made storytelling part of our business leaders’ KPIs and we help them understand the stats and science behind that. Going back to basics like storytelling isn’t a step back – it’s the foundation for delivering great comms.”

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