Comms, Change and Neuroscience – what’s the link?



Last week we attended the first Talk/50 event on Communications and Neuroscience. Hosted by Trudy Lewis of Lewis Communicate we heard from author Hilary Scarlett who spoke about her research, all captured in her book – the Neuroscience for Organizational Change: An Evidence-based Practical Guide to Managing Change (2nd edition just out).

We heard more about the neuroscience of our brains and how, with that knowledge, we can more effectively manage change and improve our communications. Not in comms? That’s fine – we all communicate at work and at home and everything here is applicable to all. For those of us who do work in communications, it was particularly enlightening. By understanding more about the neurology of our brains we can be so much more effective.  Here are the three most helpful points:

  1. People are more supportive of change when you give them enough time to come to their own conclusions

Sounds obvious, but how many times have we communicated some element of intended change and then been frustrated when people haven’t immediately acted on it? People need time to take the facts into consideration and draw their own conclusions. We don’t always have the luxury of time with announcements but where possible, allow a little bit of time for absorption before action and you’ll reap the rewards later.

This also applies to goal-setting. Someone is far likelier to deliver a goal they have chosen, rather than one they have been given. Proven by the fact we process the goals we have chosen in a different part of the brain.

Managers – when it comes to annual reviews and setting goals for the year ahead, consider the two points above. You may want to let them pick the time/date/location and have them create a few of their own.

  1. Give bad news upfront and without unnecessary delay

Not knowing means we can’t make decisions and we feel a lack of control. To ensure survival our brains are still wired to predict threats so we can stay one step ahead. If the comms around a change programme doesn’t give clarity, or worse – there are no comms, we will instinctively think the worst. Energy wasted on speculation will take a toll on productivity.

Communicators often have the difficult task of negotiating with senior leaders as to when news should go out. Senior leaders may want to hold it back for as long as possible but be reassured that even if it is bad news, once employees have absorbed it (see above) they have certainty and can make plans. It is that focus that leads them back towards a positive state.

  1. Leaders need to be visible and vocal but remember – what gets said upfront sticks!

Both before and after big announcements leaders tend to bury themselves away not only working on the task at hand but also avoiding any confrontation. This avoidance has a real detrimental effect on employees who notice this behaviour and accept that as a communication of its own. As the comms professional supporting leaders throughout a change process be confident when insisting they don’t shy away. It’s ok to not know all the answers and admitting as much – they can promise to get back to them (and you make sure they do). At times of uncertainty, leaders need to bring people together, to create a sense of belonging. Disappearing after the fact leaves employees feeling abandoned.

Employees usually know when to expect a big announcement and can feel threatened. Now we know the brain wants certainty and that it is wired to think the worst we can understand why the initial messaging is critical. Employees are poised to take in every word but physiologically too. Did you know our eyes focus differently to take in the threat? Ensure that any veering off-script remains positive, flippant jokes or inappropriate comments will do much damage. A new CEO once told an entire company that we should all be working 15 mins more each day for less money as part of his welcome/introduction speech. Nothing he said after that mattered and he didn’t last long.

Longer-term, we are far more forgiving of those we know and recognise, those that we see more often. That familiarity means we are far more accepting. Think about that when the CEO or members of the leadership team are visiting other offices or sites. Are they just there to have a meeting in the boardroom or are they going to walk around, say ‘hello’? Are they hosting a gathering to give the latest news – or hear it? It’s those interactions that build the trust and relationships that mean messaging from that leader, whether it’s good or bad, are far more positively received.

Thinking about this in the current climate, we are all adapting to a new way of working during this time of change. How can this knowledge help us today?

  1. Support your leaders to step-up. Regular communications to employees will reduce anxiety, give a sense of belonging and give the opportunity to ask questions or raise concerns.
  2. People are likely operating in a threatened state, they are listening out for negative messages. Ensure your messaging is on point and delivered accordingly. Remember we communicate through words, tone and body language – 38%, 55%, 7%.
  3. Be patient when letting people absorb the messages, you’re giving them – there’s a lot to take in right now!
  4. Do not delay in giving bad news and minimise energy lost to speculation. Give people the facts so they can find certainty in making decisions for themselves.
  5. Ensure your content is consistent across all channels to avoid confusion. Employees working remotely will seek updates across the various platforms you have available. Remove discrepancies to avoid unnecessary confusion.

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