Behavioural science and employee engagement: Is HR doing enough?

Employees can feel overwhelmed by too many changes, so how you present them is hugely important

Behavioural science and its role in the workplace is becoming better understood all the time. Dominic Wylie looks at some practical scenarios where HR can use aspects of behavioural science to improve engagement. 

Behavioural science offers important insights into employee behaviour and can be really effective when communicating on HR issues. It not only benefits HR in its own role in the business, but also in advising senior colleagues on the complexity of human behaviour when they engage with employees.

Some of the areas in which behavioural science can guide HR communications most effectively include employee surveys, reward and benefits, and organisational change. But we also need to be able to recognise and address our behavioural biases. Here are some of the most relevant in the workplace.

Status quo bias

The status quo feels comfortable and safe while change usually involves risk and demands energy. That can be an uncomfortable prospect unless the proposition is compelling.

So it’s important not to force too many changes, too quickly, on employees. Often you can present them in a way that makes them appear straightforward and painless, or you can offer some hand-holding to help them cope.

Importantly, avoid overloading people with decisions that will make them feel confused and overwhelmed or they may well end up without making a decision at all.

It’s also helpful to break down any organisational change into structured phases. You can help people cope with the challenges if they can see a beginning, a middle and a final phase.

Loss aversion

It’s a fact that we all hate losing – actually, we’ll often put extra energy into having something when the threat of losing it is strong.

That’s why the ‘when it’s gone, it’s gone’ message is so powerful. For example, deadlines for choices concerning flexible benefit choices should be positioned in the context of a lost opportunity – not just a target to be met.

Similarly, the imminent deadline for an employee feedback survey could be stressed by highlighting employees’ missed chance of having their say or rectifying any problems they’ve experienced.


Hyperbolic discounting is the tendency for people to have a stronger preference for more immediate pay-offs than pay-offs at a later stage.

This can affect employees’ decisions about financial wellbeing (spending on holidays versus saving for a pension, for example) or comparing short and long-term training programmes. This is why it’s wise to stress the immediate benefits of a long-term investment, if these can be found.


If you can give your message some meaningful context (especially if personalised), you can change the way your audience might react to it. For example, when delivering negative news you could set it in an industry-wide context, describing similar situations.

Good visual design can help support your context. For a positive campaign such as promoting the company values and brand, bold images and bright colours will project a dynamic and vibrant environment.

During periods of transformation, paint a picture of the journey you are asking people to take, using words and pictures, and emphasise the benefits they will gain at the end.


Whenever we’re presented with something new – a product, person or idea – we immediately compare it to something else we’ve already experienced.

Although you can’t stop comparisons being made, you can influence and inform them. Instead of allowing your audience to search for an ‘anchor’, suggest one yourself.

The principle works well when promoting your reward package. You could point to the generous range of benefits offered by your company compared to other typical employers in your sector.

In-group bias

As humans, we all have an inherent tribal nature that is supported by oxytocin, the “group love” hormone.

This helps us form strong bonds with members of our group, but also makes us suspicious of members from other groups and what they might be telling us.

While in-group bias can have a negative impact on diversity at work, it is possible to use it to your advantage by showing employees that you’re on their side. Empathise with them by showing how you understand their needs and concerns.

This might apply to an office relocation, for example, or to options for pensions and financial well-being, in how you support employees to make the right choices in how they might save and spend their money.

Bandwagon effect

In times of uncertainty it helps to provide reassurance by showing what other, similar employees have done.

If you can demonstrate that others have followed a particular course of action and told a positive tale, it gives them the confidence to proceed.

In the case of training programmes, benefit options or organisational changes you could tell stories of positive experiences other colleagues have had.

Look to play the “people like me” card to remove any concerns about risks and “whether it’s right for me”.

Understanding the principles of human psychology may make you think again about how HR initiatives can be communicated and promoted beyond the simple statements of fact and benefit features.

And they can open up a new way of creative thinking, enabling you to deal more effectively with the challenges of today’s employee communications.


About Dominic Wylie

Dominic Wylie is a senior communication consultant at like minds

One Response to Behavioural science and employee engagement: Is HR doing enough?

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    Carla Ernst 26 May 2017 at 1:09 am #

    This is a very informed article. Behavioral science supports the fact that employees are the heart and soul of an organization, thus it’s critical to pay attention to their needs. An engaged and committed employee work force increases drives business results. Employee engagement encourages higher employee performance, results in lower turnover and offers competitive advantage. Even in a difficult economy, companies need to inspire and retain high performers.

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