Thinking Fast & Slow – Behavioural Economics for Internal Communications & Employee Engagement

Organisations are investing significant time and resources in communicating with employees. What was once an afterthought is now a critical aspect of business continuity for leading organisations across the world. To optimise the value and impact of internal communications, organisations need to communicate, not just to inform, but also to stimulate new behaviour and action. The most important role of a communicator, therefore, is to inspire employees to turn company strategy and policies into action. This is also the most difficult part of the job.

This is where Behavioural Economics (BE) steps in – drawing on insights from economics, psychology and neuroscience, it can provide internal communicators with critical insights along with simple techniques motivating employees to answer a call to action. The debate between traditional economics and BE is on the assumption that human beings are rational actors. BE works on the premise that while people think of themselves as rational beings, most human behaviour, in fact, is driven by intuitive and automatic thought processes. 

Some of the principals that we can keep in mind while designing communication that spurs employees towards desired action are:

  • Cognitive Load theory

Human beings do not have an unlimited supply of energy each day, due to which we have to reserve energy in a way to make it available when we need it the most. Daniel Kahneman, in his book ‘Thinking fast & slow’ articulates this necessary efficiency, where he describes two mental systems – System 1 that is fast, emotional, intuitive and unconscious; and System 2 that is deliberate, slow, conscious and logical. By its very nature System 2 is a lot of work; so human beings spend maximum time engaged in System 1 – this ensures that we have the energy reserve for System 1 for when it is required. The thinking of System 1 explains why heuristics (mental shortcuts) and biases (mental tendencies) play a very significant role in human behaviour. It makes us capable of reaching decisions faster and with considerably less mental effort. However, while these shortcuts enable us to solve problems quickly, it does not ensure we put enough thought in maximising our options. 

While designing communications strategies, messaging and tactics for employees this idea of cognitive load is an important aspect to be kept in mind. It clearly tells us that our communications design needs to be simple and not overloaded with information. Information must be presented in a way that it doesn’t use up too much mental energy – it should be easy to follow, represented through infographics or grouped together in meaningful segments. This may often also mean that we should not attempt to accomplish too much at one go, but plan in the form of staggered pieces of communication that flow into each other as a campaign.

  • Intention-action gap

There are enough instances when people know that doing something is important but do not end up doing it. This is the ‘gap’ between what we know needs to be done and what we actually do. Communicators should focus on reducing the complexity from a desired behaviour – if people believe that an action is easy to do, they will act on their intentions. On the contrary, the more complex a task appears, the lower is the motivation to get it done. It is important to remove the ‘hassle factors’ from a task, i.e. reducing the number of options or needing to go through layers or many steps in a process.

‘Framing’ of information or the way we phrase it, is yet another way in which we can help close the intention-action gap in employees. This also takes into account the timing of when the information is shared – reminding people of their values and beliefs in their moment of decision making can increase action aimed at completing the desired task, helping them close this gap. While launching a sustainability campaign among employees, an organisation exhibited pictures of plastic pollution and its impact, at the point where employees would choose to use a disposable plastic cup. This caused a considerable reduction in the number of employees using non-biodegradable plastic items.    

 Another useful insight from the perspective of ‘framing’ communication is in terms of gain or loss. Perceived losses can be powerful motivators to bridge the intention-action gap, as human beings tend to feel the pain of loss more intensely than any pleasure they may get from similar gain. There is a two-step formula for success – 1. acquire an understanding of what it is exactly, that our audience is worried about losing and find out why; and 2. Design communication to address their concerns and empower them with a simple and viable solution. By aiming to be a problem-solvers, communicators, along with their HR teams, can help employees take constructive action towards organisational goals. 

  • Nudge

One of the reasons why people do not follow through on their behavioural intentions is forgetting, and reminders can be an excellent tool to nudge employees to follow-through on their intentions. This reminder is most effective when it comes at the right time and/ or right place. These are periodic prompts provided at multiple points during an intervention. In addition, when the prompt helps people plan how, when, what and where of their intended action, it can nudge them to complete the desired task. Situational clues or nudges in the physical environment installed where preferred action needs to take place reminds people sub-consciously to perform a new task. For instance, reminders placed near staircases encouraging employees to use the stairs instead of the lift as exercise during the work day, can motivate them to do so.

However, insights on the interplay between alteration in different parts of people’s choice architecture does not give communicators the freedom to manipulate or coerce people into making decisions that do not align with their values or support making an honest selection. Eventually, it is important to keep in mind that the alternatives offered through internal communications must be aimed at employee well-being, while upholding their autonomy and integrity of choice.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Vasudha Jha
Vasudha is Head of Corporate Affairs at Mars Pet Nutrition. She has more than two decades of experience in Corporate Affairs & Communications with Reliance Jio and Monsanto Holdings India Limited. She led Corporate Communications for Star India Pvt. Ltd. and Glenmark Pharmaceuticals Limited, besides having worked with leading PR firms like Clea PR, Genesis Burson Marsteller and her entrepreneurial venture, 24th June Public Relations.

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