So you don’t understand your employees?

They don’t understand themselves either. This isn’t a belittling statement. It’s truth rooted in the neuroscience of how our brains actually work. And, while we’re at it, let’s mention — you understand yourself far less than you might assume too.

The immediate reactions you have to an email, the impressions you form about a candidate in an interview, the confidence you have about that new initiative… these things are far less deliberate and logical than you may assume. Most of your experiences are processed automatically and intuitively, without much analysis or decision-making from you.

To better explore what we mean by this, let’s talk about some brain basics — specifically two main systems that are in charge of the way we process experiences and messages.

The two main systems of our brain

In essence, there are two main systems at work within our brains — an unconscious system and a conscious one. The unconscious system is automatic, intuitive and quick. It draws associations, impressions and feelings from experiences. The operation of this unconscious system requires little or no effort.

The conscious system, on the other hand, is the home of the reasoning self. It makes deliberate choices and can construct thoughts in orderly steps. The workings of this system require a lot of energy, focus and attention. For that very reason, this system is a bit lazy in that it’s reluctant to invest more effort than necessary. Plus it tires quickly. When you hear references to the prefrontal cortex, also called the executive function, this is the conscious system.

The relationship between these two parts

These two systems work in tandem. The impressions and feelings of the unconscious system form the basis for the conscious system’s reasoning and choices. Most of the time, the impressions of the unconscious system are seamlessly adopted by the conscious system. When the unconscious system lacks a sufficient response, the conscious system is activated.

This means most of what we think and do originates in our unconscious system, which is essential for our well-being. We face so many experiences, messages and decisions each day that we cannot — and would not want to — take the time to process each of them predominantly through our conscious system. Our energy and attention reserves are far too lacking for constant conscious processing. And, for the most part, our unconscious system does a good job quickly producing appropriate initial reactions to situations. Yes, there are some challenges, which we’ll cover in another post.

A faulty assumption of leaders

Most leaders operate from the common flawed assumption that employees immediately receive and process ideas in a rational, deliberate way. As just explained though, the truth is that the unconscious system is more likely to run the show.

A leader may take time to craft a message strategically with his conscious brain at work. But, his employees receive this message through the automatic responses of the unconscious system. This system often produces impressions without engaging the brain’s executive function. An employee may unconsciously dismiss the message, characterize it as threatening or deem it unworthy of extra energy or attention. He may not even have a chance to think about and truly understand the message on a more deliberate level.

So, while you may think your employees aren’t on board with the message itself, the real issue could be otherwise. You may have inadvertently packaged the message in a way that was perceived as threatening. Or, employees simply may have lacked the extra energy or attention to engage their conscious focus because they were preoccupied with other priorities.


So, what does successful, brain-friendly communication look like?

To answer this question, let’s describe a real employee communication program we developed with one of our clients, Avery Dennison. Executives wanted to improve conversations with employees in an efficient manner, especially considering that 60,000 employees work in 50 countries around the globe.

Executives asked for our help launching a global employee ambassador program called “The Beat.” This program invited employees from all levels, regions, businesses and functions to provide feedback on strategic initiatives through quick monthly surveys or online discussions, called “missions.” By engaging these volunteer ambassadors, Avery Dennison aimed to create a strong connection to their employees and develop a more open communication culture.

In creating this program, we paid attention to potential hurdles we could foresee, including the need to make sure the introduction of this program didn’t inadvertently highlight or deepen a divide between employees and leadership. This brain-friendly program appealed to employees in many ways in that it:

Spoke to positive emotions

The communication about this program evoked positive emotions that would minimize potential threat responses. The playful nature of the internal launch video, which featured its own rock anthem, pleasantly surprised employees and helped create a spirit of openness.

Reduced the threat of leaders’ high status

The campaign presented the management team as “explorers” not the “smartest people in the room.” Great emphasis was placed on the value of leaders listening to employees at all levels. This helped break through some of the barriers inevitably present between leaders and employees. Employees could feel more open to this conversation, instead of threatened by the lack of status they had in contrast to leaders. Additionally, the role of ambassador was intentionally painted in an esteemed light, and volunteers gained their own sense of elevated status as leaders among peers.

Played to autonomy

It was completely up to employees whether they wished to participate in the program. No one was selected or forced to play the role of ambassador. And, if you opted in to be an ambassador, you could choose whether you wished to participate in each specific mission as it arose. This helped employees feel empowered.

Highlighted relatedness

The program was highly social in nature. Ambassadors felt a sense of camaraderie with one another and a mission to truly listen to and respect their peers. Barriers between leaders and employees were transcended, further communicating a sense of connection and respect for one another throughout the company.

Created a sense of fairness

Leaders committed to keeping employees informed throughout the process. This meant employees learned about the feedback leaders received and what the leaders decided to do with the feedback. This closed feedback loop added a sense of transparency, reduced skepticism and helped employees feel that there was a level playing field.

Invoked a sense of purpose

Volunteers gained a higher purpose within the company — they could help others solve problems and facilitate better understanding between employees and leaders. Further, communication about the program clearly explained WHY this program was in place, which helped employees feel open to the conversations it promoted instead of threatened by a lack of understanding.

The results have been remarkable and completely unprecedented in the company’s employee program history. Hundreds of people signed up in the first hour after the video launched. Participation grew quickly through word of mouth once employees realized their feedback was actually being heard and used.

After two years, to the Beat includes 1,300 community members, far beyond the initial goal of 100 participants. A large portion of this program’s participation success can be attributed to its brain-friendly appeal. Avery Dennison continues to be pleased with the way the program helps them listen to employee voices. By reaching out to diverse employees from around the globe, leaders are better able to push strategic thinking, avoid costly pitfalls, tap into innovative ideas and build employee champions.

This is just one example of what a brain-friendly program looks like. For more insights about our brains and organizational communication, look at our other pieces: The neuroscience behind employee engagement and Embedding brand behaviors.

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