Look up “communication” in the dictionary and you’ll find this: a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs and behaviors. That well-understood definition of conveying content is probably why internal communicators have historically been so focused on sharing company news and information.

But today, with all the other ways employees can get information, company news is rarely new. Either employees already know what’s being shared or the information is so general it’s not relevant. As a result, internal communicators have had to find a new purpose—a service-oriented focus—to support business goals by helping employees learn what they need to do and why they should do it. That means fostering understanding and compelling employees to take action.

But how? It’s a good thing we have a secret weapon: The human brain. Humans have innate learning abilities. And for decades, psychologists, behaviorists and sociologists have studied the power of learning and its influence on behavior.

Here are two key communication strategies that tap into learning research to coax employees from awareness to action:

1. Tell stories to help employees learn what to (or what not to) do
In both internal and external communication circles, storytelling reigns supreme as a gold-standard tactic. Just watch an NFL Super Bowl spot, open Instagram or read almost any blog and you’ll see that all walks of communicators are obsessed with telling stories.

Why? Stories bring ideas to life, often conveying an abstract idea in a concrete way. Stories help readers, listeners and viewers emotionally relate to an idea and retain information, which facilitates the learning process.

Social learning theorist and psychologist Albert Bandura called this observational learning. Bandura’s research supports how a person (say, an employee) who identifies with another person (say, a leader or key influencer) often imitates the observed behavior of that person.

In my world as an internal communication consultant, I’ve included this strategy in many communication plans for my clients. Here are a few examples:

  • Highlight success stories in a series of intranet articles that show how teams are supporting business strategy
  • Develop employee personas based on job level and performance to illustrate a complex compensation model
  • Build scenarios into data security training modules to emphasize what to do and not to do

Whether telling real stories about successful employees or fictional scenarios using personas, storytelling helps employees make connections between abstract topics—like business strategy, compensation and data security—and what they need to do.


2.Create a recognition program to reward desired behaviors
Celebration, which includes rewarding and recognizing employees for something positive, plays a critical role in the overall employee experience—how an employee feels from every interaction with your organization.

Why? Humans have an inherent need to “be all they can be,” according to humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow. In his famous Hierarchy of Needs, Maslow explains that recognition actually does double duty, not only fulfilling social needs of belonging and acceptance, but also the need to feel appreciated and respected.

In addition, recognizing employees who behave in a particular way reinforces that behavior and can actually influence how others behave. (Take that to all those who say praise is for sissies!) B.F. Skinner, American psychologist, behaviorist and social philosopher, called this type of learning operant conditioning. The idea is that using positive reinforcement strengthens a desired behavior.

As a communicator, I’ve seen successful recognition programs in many shapes and sizes. These programs don’t have to be complicated; creating one is easier than you think. Here are a few examples:

  • A global manufacturing company created a comprehensive program that ranged from formal annual awards to simple activities to celebrate employees who embodied the company’s purpose and principles.
  • My firm established Props to My Peeps for fun and easy peer-to-peer recognition.
  • An international provider of mobile communication services developed simple tools to more frequently recognize employees for great performance.

So, go ahead, advise your stakeholders that telling stories isn’t just a fad—and recognition isn’t just for snowflakes. Both are sound communication strategies to help you reinforce positive behaviors and influence others to follow suit. And feel confident because you’ve got decades of learning research behind you.

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