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Behavioral science: Your secret weapon for employee communications


 — May 8th, 2020

Behavioral science: Your secret weapon for employee communications

Managers, executives, and internal communications specialists are having to learn new skills in a hurry.

As with so many other things, the way these jobs today look very different than they did just a short few months ago..

Brands and publications have released a flood of resources to address the challenges of learning how to translate meetings to online channels and get used to working from home. But fewer have addressed another skill that can help businesses manage this crisis better: behavioral science.

Why behavioral science matters now

Every business is made up of people. Your ability to sell the products your business is based on or provide the services your clients expect depends entirely on the people who work for you.

And right now, those people are dealing with a really difficult situation. They’re stuck at home either feeling lonely, overwhelmed from a lack of alone time, or both at once.

They’re facing fear about what will happen with the economy in general and their job in particular. And they’re afraid of getting sick or watching loved ones fall ill with a really scary virus.

A saying has been making the rounds on social media right now: "You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work."

For your employees, this isn’t business as usual. The way they work is different now. Where their heads are during work has changed as well. And for company leaders to effectively manage and communicate with employees in the midst of all this, you need to understand what they’re going through.

Whatever other challenges your business is facing right now, you can’t overlook the emotional and psychological challenges your employees are dealing with.

4 behavioral science concepts relevant to the crisis

In our recent webinar on employee wellbeing, Lindsay Kohler of scarlettabbott and Jo Hooper introduced a number of behavioral science concepts anyone managing employees will benefit from knowing during a crisis.

1. Risk preferences

Risk preferences are someone’s attitudes toward risk and risk-taking. Different employees will have unique relationships with risk.

Some are comfortable taking risks, some actively avoid them, and others are more neutral on the subject. Understanding how your employees feel about risk can help you gain an understanding of how they’re likely to react to these uncertain times, and how best to manage them effectively.

It’s also helpful to understand that people tend to be bad at judging risk accurately. People often give too much weight to small probabilities, particularly in times of fear and uncertainty. If employees are scared about the prospect of keeping their job, their fears are likely to be outsized compared to actual risks, unless they’re given clear messaging to help appease those concerns.

2. Social isolation

“Social isolating” is a term thrown around a lot now to describe what we’ve all been told to do—stay home and minimize contact with others. But social isolation has also long been a concept in behavioral science. People are social animals. We evolved to want to be around other people. Being cut off from contact with other humans can cause serious emotional consequences for many people.

3. Coping mechanisms

When people are dealing with something difficult, they turn to coping mechanisms. The most obvious coping mechanisms many people adopt are unhealthy, such as stress eating and drinking more alcohol than usual.

Part of behavioral science is about learning more healthy coping mechanisms. For example, one coping mechanism for uncertainty is finding ways to take control back—creating a clear to-do list to put some structure into your day, for instance.

But that same mechanism can turn unhealthy. If you’re trying to gain control by seeking knowledge, right now that could mean internalizing a flood of bad news that leads back to anxiety.

4. Fundamental attribution error

When people are dealing with uncertainty, frustration, and anxiety—as many are right now—they tend to get more impatient and irritable.

For both those on the giving and receiving ends of that irritability, we run into the fundamental attribution error. This concept describes the tendency to attribute another person’s behavior to the worst possible motive.

Instead of assuming they got short with you on that phone call because they’re also stressed out, you decide they’re just a bad person. The fundamental attribution error can potentially cause a lot of issues in workplaces during times of abnormal stress.

Learn to Put Behavioral Science to Work

These behavioral science concepts can help you recognize some of the reasons behind people’s behaviors during a crisis.

But knowing how to handle them when they arise is a whole separate issue. To learn some strategies to help you manage people better in a difficult time, download our new guide on improving employee wellbeing during a crisis.

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