The art of science and engagement in internal communication

We know that internal communicators are struggling to influence at the top, finding digital adoption hard across organisations and working with limited budgets. Some of the conversation we need to have are increasingly challenging and opinion or experience might not be enough to win your case. Last week, at the CIPR Northern Conference in Newcastle, I hosted a workshop talking about neuroscience and how the world of work might have evolved, but our brains have not.

The basics
Our brains have one core purpose – to survive. To survive they need two key things; to seek out rewards and to avoid threats. The rewards will be things like food and shelter and the threats will be the sabre-tooth tiger coming to kill you. The threat response in our brains is much stronger than rewards so we will always lean to that response – you can survive without food/shelter/water for a while, but you can’t survive the tiger killing you!

Our brains are constantly trying to predict to keep us out of harms way and when it comes to making decisions, 86% of them are based on feelings. This is important to understand because clarification and ambiguity play a big role in how we feel and are often some of our biggest challenges as communicators.

Dealing with ambiguity and the pace of change
We continually try to predict so when we don’t understand something, or we are left in the dark, our threat response is heightened. Our brains cannot deal with the speed and quantity of change we see today. The level of ambiguity that comes with this means we worry and we think about the adverse possibilities – our threat response.

Our reward state is not only triggered by those basic elements, it can also be triggered by information. Research shows that we are more comfortable with information that provides certainty regardless of whether that is good or bad. Think about waiting for test results – the unknown is much worse than when you have the answer.

The generational divide
I’m a big Simon Sinek fan and during the session I referenced both his golden circle TED talk and his interview about millennials. On researching this topic again, I came across articles challenging his thinking on millennials and while I struggle with generational theory (my diploma paper was on Gen Z and their communication styles) his insights can all play back to the basics of neuroscience.

He suggests that parenting, technology, impatience and environment all play a role in why millennials struggle in the workplace:

  • The failed parenting strategies that have devalued reward (last place medal, taking part medal)
  • The use of social media and the release of dopamine that happens when someone ‘likes’ a post alongside the danger of technology replacing meaningful social connections
  • Impatience and the immediacy of today – remember Blockbuster when you use to have to wait for something to come out and then post it back through the door – not anymore. You can get it all immediately from your sofa.
  • The work environment is so numbers focussed that we don’t consider people. We don’t consider relationships and culture over or even in line with the commercial elements of success and this is damaging trust.

When you revisit the key points from this interview they link back to neuroscience and how our brains work. The need for social connections, making time for each other, rewards – they all come through when you consider why millennials are struggling in the workplace today.

Data and ambiguity
We know that the brain doesn’t like ambiguity and since the research in 2017 with CIPR Inside I have talked a lot about alignment between the internal communication function and leadership. So how ambiguous are we as internal communicators? Does everyone have a definition of what internal communication is inside their organisation? Does everyone have a plan or a strategy? Research from Gatehouse tells us that only 50% have a plan and only 33% have a strategy. So, without these basics in place, are we allowing ambiguity to rule and therefore debilitating conversations with leaders?

Social connections and the struggle with digital tools
After The Big Yak I blogged about the main themes and how we are forgetting we are human. Our social brain impacts our ability to think and perform and people need to stay focussed and positive to work at their best. Neuroscience shows people have a strong need for social connections – so strong that without them we are in a state of threat. I don’t believe we think about this at work in terms of the culture or relationships that we encourage, or even in the content strategies that we create – how many are focussed on the operational aspect of the organisation?
We believed that digital tools would solve our problems. And while they solve some, they aren’t working quite how we hoped. Gatehouse data tells us that only 35% have an adoption rate of good or excellent and 86% say use is non-existent, embryonic or limited. We are forgetting that people are at the heart and from experience, I can tell you that the investment in digital tools will be completely wasted if you don’t invest in the people and the relationships/culture.

Remember that communication is conversation. Give people a voice, collaborate on the things that matter (not everything, but that’s another blog post) and take away the threat and ambiguity of business today. I hope you can use some of the points in this post/from the workshop to help you have conversations to make a difference in your organisation.

Resources

These are links to the books that I have read over the last six months that all contributed to the session at the conference:

Neuroscience for organisational change

Busy: How to thrive in a world of busy

Deep work: Rules for focussed success in a distracted world

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World