Framing communication for the irrational mind: Three tactics to cater to human cognition

Framing communication for the irrational mind: Three tactics to cater to human cognition

Every day, targeted marketing leverages an individual’s tendencies and preferences to impact behavior. Most people would admit to being influenced to buy something they didn’t really need or try something they didn’t really want. In a world transformed by data analytics and behavioral economics, how can organizations use that information responsibly to effect culture change, while respecting the individuality of each person?

To be irrational is human. Every day, people are exposed to countless stimuli, pushing the mind beyond its cognitive limits. We rely on “gut feelings” for quick decisions when we don’t have time to consider our options. Intuition is powered by heuristics, or mental shortcuts, which enable us to make many decisions subconsciously, even if they’re significant.

Why is it that an opt-in program has fewer participants than an opt-out program? Why are employees not participating in developmental opportunities? Heuristics can explain both.

Although many factors guide choice, how that choice is presented can drive higher engagement and positive behaviors simply by catering to intuition. By changing the structure of their communication, leaders can nudge employees toward desired behavior, empowering them to make active, more effective choices and, in turn, boost desired business outcomes. Below are three tactics business leaders can harness to make heuristics work for—rather than against—their employee engagement and internal communications efforts.

  1. Tell employees what they’ll lose. Take the prospect theory, for example. It proposes that people are loss averse, meaning losing something registers more emotionally than gaining something of equal value. People usually behave to minimize losses rather than maximize gains.

    Employers could leverage loss aversion in their communications, reframing their message from what will be gained from the experience to what could be lost by not participating. For example, if your employees aren’t attending training or pursuing continuing education opportunities, rather than articulating the benefits, you could detail the losses: lost networking opportunities, lost talent development, and maybe even a lost promotion—all because that employee chose to skip the learning opportunity. By appealing to people’s innate tendency to avoid loss, employers could boost engagement rates.

  1. Market the desired behaviors. As one study notes, people draw on recent experience to make choices, often subconsciously. As an example, let’s say a terrible flood and its devastating impacts are publicized repeatedly by the media. In response, people begin to overestimate the likelihood of a flood affecting them. That’s the effect of the “availability heuristic.” To encourage behavior change, consider leveraging the availability heuristic principle by repeating ideas often, providing examples, and provoking more thought. Soon, the behavior becomes integral to employees’ everyday lives. If you want employees to live by certain values, put those values on the walls, reference them in meetings, and encourage conversation about them.

  2. Preserve the right of choice. Individuals will fight for their established freedoms. When people sense that they’re being told what to do or losing certain freedoms, they’re likely to resist the desired behavior. In the workplace, for instance, leaders may be instructed to “listen to employees.” Ironically, telling those leaders they must listen could lead them away from actually doing so. Why? You’ve taken away their freedom to choose the desired behavior. Instead, leaders could be presented with reasons for, and benefits of, listening to their employees, giving them the opportunity to take that information and apply it to their future decisions. To further remove these hurdles, employers could consider de-emphasizing threatening language, constraints, and absolutes, and instead emphasize information and choice.

Understanding human intuition and applying cognitive principles that work with those natural responses could pay dividends in more effective communication. But effective leaders also understand that trust is essential to changing behavior, and that transparency is key to trust. (Our president, Sherry Scott, wrote about trust in a recent blog post for the Institute for Public Relations.) Using these principles transparently to empower conscious choice may lead to an uptick in employee trust, effect positive behavioral changes, and even transform an organization’s culture.