Emotional Connections through Internal Messaging

EPISODE 97 |  Guest: Andrew Brown, co-founder of the Academy of Business Communications

It’s not engagement, it’s not communications, it’s not culture. Although each of these things play a part, none of them encompasses the whole idea nor the entire effort involved in forging emotional connections between an organization an its employees.

Andrew Brown walks us through what it takes to build emotional connections that benefit the wellness and success of both the organization and the people involved in it. Whether or not you’re using digital signage, this is an episode that every comms and C-suite professional should listen to.

  • Learn why it matters and who it matters to
  • Understand the most common obstacles to connections
  • Answer three questions to define your organizational culture
  • Hear five key areas to focus on for building emotional connections
  • Get real-world examples of what to do and what not to do

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Get more advice and free tools on the Academy of Business Communications website


Derek DeWitt: Whenever people talk about internal communications, one of the words that’s commonly bandied about is engagement. What do we mean by engagement? Yes, we mean intellectual engagement. But we also mean establishing some kind of emotional connection, shall we say, to the audience. Now, in things like emails and other internal messaging, especially with something like digital signage, how on earth are you supposed to accomplish that? I don’t know. Fortunately, I’m talking to somebody who might know, and that is Andrew Brown, co-founder of the Academy of Business Communications in Canada. Hello, Mr. Brown.

Andrew Brown: Good day to you, Derek. How are you?

Derek DeWitt: I’m quite good. Actually. I’m, I’m feeling like we should have an emotional bond at the end of this talk.

Andrew Brown: I, I, I like to think so. We won’t get too touchy feely. I like your intro where you suggested I might be able to provide some light on the topics.

Derek DeWitt: All right. But things should go quite nicely, but try not to cry.

Andrew Brown: Oh, all right. All right.

Derek DeWitt: Thank you everybody for listening to this episode of Digital Signage Done Right. Don’t forget that you can subscribe to this podcast, I say again. And you can follow along with a full transcript of our conversation on the Visix website, under Resources/Podcasts.

Okay. Emotional connection. Andrew, what do we mean when we say that?

Andrew Brown: It is a feeling, let’s face it. Emotional connection is a feeling, and some make call it loyalty. But it’s really a feeling that your purpose as an employee is, at least in the short-term, aligned with helping the organization achieve its goals. And as you spend more time (and it really is largely a function of time) with an organization, that feeling expands or deepens, depending on what metaphor you want, to the point where you actually, again, feel your professional identity and parts of your personal identity are defined by your fulfilling the goals of the organization.

Derek DeWitt: Huh? So kind of like a coming together of external and internal goals and motivations.

Andrew Brown: Exactly. There is an alignment. You are one. You’ve, you’ve consumed the Kool-Aid. You feel part of something bigger than you. You are connected to the organization, and it is emotional.

Derek DeWitt: Hmm. So why do organizations try and establish or sustain these connections? What’s in it for them? Do they just get like more productive workers or, you know, happy cows make happy milk? Or why, why would they spend time doing this? ‘Cause they didn’t used to.

Andrew Brown: Actually, I would say that over the years there’s been a back and forth as to the degree to which organizations have devoted time resources, energy. And it is based on certain values of people as to whether or not it is important or not. But what’s in it for them?

Key – when employees have that alignment, that emotional connection to an organization, it is a huge time savings and a cost savings and a risk reduction for the organization. Employees, you know, they’ll buy into most, if not all, of those cultural values and the behaviors that are acceptable in that organization, regardless of the nature of those behaviors. I think of a client from years ago that had a very deceptive culture, very lying culture, where leaders throughout the organization would promulgate lies and it became just part of it. And everyone started to accept it, and people bought into it, and they reinforced it and they lied themselves. So it doesn’t matter the nature of the behaviors. That’s the, that’s, I think, the important thing to remember. It doesn’t necessarily have to be positive things. We like to think that it’s positive.

What’s important to remember is that having an emotional connection to an organization doesn’t mean an employee is more competent, right? It doesn’t mean they’re more competitive or they’re more innovative. It makes them go along with the organization and its priorities. In that sense, having an emotional connection makes employees, if you will, less disruptive to the organization’s way of doing things.

And understandably, having an emotional connection with an organization then is I’ll call it a double-edged sword. An employee buys into the company’s values, acts in ways that are acceptable, but it makes it difficult to operate outside the box. And when separation comes, and let’s face it, the nature of organizations, the emotional upheaval for employees means they feel as they’ve been kicked in the gut. All you have to do is reflect on feelings, the emotional upheaval of being asked to leave an organization, right? Whether it’s because of downsizing or changes in direction, you know, COVID-related ripples, organization closing its doors, performance issues or whatever. The separation also, which I always find fascinating, has an impact on those with emotional connections who actually remain in the organization.

You may have heard of the survivor syndrome, right? It’s a feeling of guilt that people who stick around, they have a feeling of loss for the relationships they’ve had. But what is really essential is that there’s that separation undermines that implicit contract that organizations have with all existing employees. That is their system, their way of doing things works. And that, that emotional break that’s caused by survivor syndrome is multilayered and very disruptive. So emotions are that double-edged sword. They enhance continuity and alignment. They make sure that there isn’t disruptions. But if there’s any kind of proof point where that contract, that system of beliefs, if broken, or feelings broken, it’s devastating for all those involved. The people within the organization, as well as those who leave.

Derek DeWitt: That’s interesting because, you know, I was thinking the other day about how, you know, you see this all the time in television shows, but also news stories and so on, you know. People really just kinda melting down about losing their job for whatever reason. I’ve always kind of thought, oh my god, just go get another job. I mean, I know the job market is what it is. And if you’re, I don’t know, if you’re a coal miner and the whole area is going to solar power, obviously coal mining skills are not gonna come into play. But I always sort of approached it from an intellectual perspective, and I never really, it never really sunk in until just now, you talking that, oh it’s because there is this kind of perhaps extra-logical emotional connection.

It’s almost like you’re, you’re part of the tribe to a certain extent, you know? I mean in the old days, kicking people out, exile, was a very severe punishment. And it wasn’t just because you lost the safety and security of the city-state, for example. And now, good luck out there on the road with, you know, the barbarians and the, the robbers and, and the bears, you know. But, but also, like, you know, you really do have this maybe an emotional connection that gets suddenly severed.

Andrew Brown: Yeah. Well, well, think of it on a smaller level – social ostracism, right? If you’re a part of a group and all of a sudden, you’re on the out of the group, that can be really disruptive. And I mean, even if you go take to the extreme, solitary confinement. You know, people establish emotional connections with their jailers as well, just because of the need for social connection. And also, there’s that psychological layer that comes with being in solitary confinement. But any kind of social being pushed out of a group is inherent. We’re social beings. We need to develop emotional connections in order to survive.

Derek DeWitt: Now, why do you think that is? Do you think that that just comes out of our, you know, our history as a species? And is, you know, of course then we get into the question of, you know, can memories and things like this be genetically encoded as they are for some animals. You know, obviously, like I said, way back when, you know, saber tooth tigers roaming around out there, hey, it makes sense to stay with the group. But I mean, in today’s society, you know, there are plenty of opportunities for connection, right?

Andrew Brown: Yeah. We’d like to think that we’ve evolved from those species, but at the heart, we’re still hunter gatherers, right? And emotional connections provide things that we as human beings seek to some degree in all of our social relationships, like psychological safety, a sense of belonging, predictability, a sense of social order. You know, where you are, where you belong in the group. And you get a sense of community, and you also have power to influence. All those things are wrapped up in the need to establish emotional connections with one another and with our systems of one another, that is groups and organizations.

Just consider a sports team that you followed enthusiastically and cheer for, right? You, you are tethered to a community of people with a shared goal. And that goal is usually beat other teams, right? And over time, you’re comfortable with knowing who in the team are superstars and how they’re gonna perform, sometimes while competing and sometimes off the field. You may even forgive people, apologize for players’ bad behaviors. Think of that emotional rollercoaster you go through when the team does well or poorly. You have an emotional connection to an organization. And that’s an organization which you don’t have the additional reinforcement caused by, you know, bringing your personal effort and receiving compensation.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, that’s very true. I mean, if my team wins or doesn’t win the Super Bowl or the World Series, I personally get no benefit from it.

Andrew Brown: No, except that part of that community, that, that dopamine hit, that, the endorphins that kick in, that get the, you know, the pleasures being stimulated. And largely that is a social construct. We create that because we are part of a group.

Derek DeWitt: Okay. So an organization wants to establish emotional connections with its, with its staff, its employees, and obviously its customer base as well. And then once that’s established sustain that. How do they do this?

Andrew Brown: That’s a long question, but I think one way to tackle that is by addressing some questions that feed into how organizations. So I’m gonna break it down into a few parts. So one, what are some of the myths about how, when and why to create an emotional connection? So if we, if we want to figure out how to do it, we’ve gotta understand some of the myths. What are some of the obstacles creating emotional connection? Again, if you want to create emotional connection, you’ve gotta be aware of those obstacles. Understanding the right circumstances for creating an emotional connection and some of the foundations that have to be in place. So you see lots of, lots of bits and pieces.

So let me tackle some of the myths. First, and this, you know, these are endemic in organizations. You can’t buy emotional connections. You, so you can buy compliance with rules. You can buy conformity to social norms. But let’s face it, people are messy. We’re complex. We’re driven by several different and often conflicting motivations, and money is not typically the top one. So you can’t buy emotional connection. Myth number one.

Related to that, one size does not fit all. Establishing an emotional bond for some colleagues won’t work for others. Another myth, emotional connection is not employee engagement. Just because employees are engaged, that doesn’t mean they’re emotionally connected. And by the way, for some organizations, engagement scores and the benefits associated with engagement is all they really want. They don’t want emotional connection; they want to hit a score. And because a lot of organizations will define engagement differently, you really have to be careful of how you draw the linkage. However, in theory, most of the time, emotional connection, I would call an underpinning of engagement. It needs to be there.

Derek DeWitt: And it’s hard, it’s hard to measure though, too, I think.

Andrew Brown: There are, there are scores of consultants out there that do nothing but, that help measure engagement. And I would argue that many of them don’t actually look for those things that help you determine whether or not there is an emotional connection.

So if I were to measure, and we’ve often been asked to hone, help organizations with their engagement scores. Because people think, make the connection – communications equals engagement. And it is wrapped up in there. But some of the things that if you’re looking to measure an emotional connection, one thing is trust. Do you trust the organization’s leaders? Do you trust your colleagues? Will they support the mission and by extension you? If the organization succeeds, are you happy? I mean, I’ve never seen that question placed on a survey or asked. But yet, that is a window into the degree to which people are emotionally connected to an organization.

Do you still see yourself growing with an organization? Do you, do you see yourself contributing to the organization’s goals? How important is the organization’s purpose? How important are your colleagues to you? Those kinds of questions help to scratch away at the degree to which someone is emotionally connected. So it is difficult to measure, and those are some of the things that can help you measure. But let me get back to some of the obstacles.

A lack of interpersonal communication skills is, is a big obstacle. If you cannot connect with your supervisor, you are not going to have an emotional connection to an organization. But you and your supervisor have to be able to communicate well, clearly. And, and so, if there’s a lack of interpersonal communication skills, the trust bond, that emotional bond will never be established, and it can be completely separate.

Processes that prevent people from seeing themselves as part of the organization. And that, yes, does include poor communication, but it could be poor reward and recognition, poor performance and management processes, anything that gets in the way of people seeing themselves as being part of the organization and a contributing member.

And here’s a big one – I think I alluded it to it earlier – lack of leaders’ commitment to establishing and maintaining strong emotional connections. Remember when we started the discussion, we said, hey, is this something that is underway? Is it, is it built in to all organizations? No, it’s not. Some don’t care. There has to be commitment.

Derek DeWitt: Right. ‘Cause I was thinking that that’s the thing is how do you, yeah, how do you get all this? ‘Cause this is all kind of nebulous, and like you said, the boss, the bosses need to sign in. And they also need to… You know, I always think of, I know, I sort of badmouth large organizations a lot because I, I have it in my head that all through the 20th century, it really was very top down hierarchical, do what you’re told.

Some, I mean, I think for some employees, let’s say even when I was growing up, that was the only communication you ever got from your supervisor was an instruction or, uh, or being admonished for making a mistake. That was it. And now we’re starting to go, oh, maybe we need to identify this person doesn’t like to talk. This person won’t look at you in the eye. This person’s chatty, this person prefers email. So we have these, we’re trying to differentiate and individualized communication within the organization more.

Andrew Brown: Yeah. That’s because largely organizations came out of that Ford mentality, meaning the, the assembly line. Let’s make, let’s make things as standardized as possible. And that mentality filtered through how we were to communicate with one another. And I would say there’s still vestiges of that right now. I mean, you’ve probably heard organizations that are entrepreneurial that want to scale. And sometimes one of the primary methods by which they do that is they look to standardize. Processes are timesavers, but they can also sap out that, uh, nuance of working in a thriving, emotionally-laden organization. Let’s face it, once you get, you know, more than two people together, you’re, you’re an organization. So, those circumstances, the foundations in place in order to establish an emotional connection.

And, you know, we really can’t talk about establishing an emotional connection without calling out for a moment a critical component of any organization – it’s culture. And don’t, don’t worry. I’m not gonna stop there. I’m frustrated when too many folks talk about culture and use it as a catchall when they can’t explain away or address key organizational issues. I, that drives me crazy. So for many such folks, you know, I’m sure many of your listeners, they hear the word culture, they say it, you know, it’s nebulous, it’s fluffy, it’s intangible. Things that, that people refer to when they’re asked to, to describe the, you know, the company culture. And, you know, sometimes people do struggle with, with describing culture. They’ll use metaphors like entrepreneurials, or entrepreneurial, or use descriptive words like friendly or fast moving. Or, or they look to the espoused values, you know, the stuff that’s on the website, right? Because they sound good.

But here it is. Here it is. It is the most practical short form anyone can use to help wrap their heads around culture. Are you ready? And here it is, it’s really simple. Okay. It’s identify three behaviors that are truly acted upon in your organization. Here it is: what the organization truly hires for, what the organization fires for and what the organization rewards. Answer that and you have accurately summarized what your organization culture truly is.

I just think about one organization that was a client that had espoused some awesome values about creativity and inclusiveness and equality. And yet, it was the person, or rather a couple people, who generated more revenue than anyone else within the firm. They could make other people feel lousy. They could run roughshod over processes, but the organization kept them, and they kept on rewarding them. And so that organization by its actions – by who they hire, who they reward and who they fired – really demonstrated what the organization was all about, the culture.

So first thing in establishing emotional connection is to make sure that your organization culture wants to establish an emotional connection. I know that sounds silly, but again, think about the real values, the real priorities of the culture. If that’s not really on the agenda, then chances of creating a strong, positive, emotional connection between employees and the organization is unlikely. A quick caveat: you, you may create some emotional bonds, but they won’t be positive, right? They won’t be long lasting. They won’t contribute to long term organization or individual health. And that’s, that can happen.

Derek DeWitt: Well, I was also thinking they might be, um, they might exist, but they might not be the employees connecting to the organization per se, but to one another, you know? Like I just, I just read a whole book about, TSR, the company that invented Dungeon & Dragons. Once they had a new leader, the leadership really, they were focused on, on books, not the games so much. They didn’t really understand the games. They thought creatives were interchangeable.

And so, people, you know, for some of the people who got hired, they’d grown up as kids playing the game, so this was a dream come true job. And they connected with the other creatives, the other creatives, you know, these, these giants of art and writing and imagination and creativity who had been their heroes were approachable and friendly and they absolutely loved it. And there was this big, deep, emotional bond between the people, but management just treated them like garbage, basically. They, they would go on these random firings, you know, and things like this. And, and so the place ultimately had, it had this weird dual emotional life. On the one hand, a place of being ignored, of slight fear, and on the other hand, this feeling of being a family all at the same time.

Andrew Brown: I’m so glad that you mentioned that because we have talked about how important it is that we are social beings and that we have connections to one another. And there are five key areas if we actually want to build an emotional connection, and certainly one of them is colleagues.

But before I get there, I just want to stem off the discussion of culture. Because in addition to making sure that your organizational culture truly wants to establish an emotional connection, there must be from that deliberate action. That is, building a strong, emotional bond must be intentional. It’s not enough for company’s culture to be supportive of creating and nurturing emotional bonds. There must be action supported by resources, time, commitment to monitor it, measure and refine. And put another way, you don’t wanna build one by accident.

Now I wanna bring up your point because this is the third foundation that needs to be in place when it comes to building and sustaining emotional connections. And it’s, it’s, there must be a focus on five areas to build connection. One, this gets the most play – organization purpose. That thing that rallies everyone around and is meant to guide and inspire, right. Again, please don’t fall into that trap that lion share of organizations do, which is to focus so much on finding, refining, and promoting the organization’s purpose that the other four areas that I’ll mention get neglected.

Second, again, something that’s, that we all as organizational beings have to contend with, supervisors. There has to be a focus on supervisors. So I know you’ve heard it before – employees leave their jobs, or stay and flourish, mostly because of their direct supervisors. Supervisors who have credibility with their direct reports. Supervisors who are the organizational agents who draw the link between the organization’s purpose and the rest of the team. They also provide that support, the emotional support, the insights, the caring, and the direction employees need in the daily and very human process of learning.

Colleagues, colleagues must be leveraged to establish and reinforce emotional connection. The good thing is, hey, we’re human. So for the most part, we are social. We look for our we’re colleagues as opportunities to build strong emotional relationships.

Derek DeWitt: Right? We’re gonna kind of do it a little bit all on our own.

Andrew Brown: Exactly. Two other areas. The task at hand, that is the series of job responsibilities that employees have. You know, is that task structured in a way that people enjoy them? Which by the way, must include identifying where things don’t go right and ways to improve them. Right? We are learning beings. We don’t establish an emotional connection easily with every task. But if we make errors and then we correct, well, then we start to build a stronger connection.

And the fifth area is standards, believe or not. Just think about the job standards that every employee must buy into. Just in the last few years alone, organizations of all shapes and sizes have spent gotta be thousands of hours rolling out trainings and policies to help ensure tasks comply with standards. For instance, to help employees avoid being attacked by cyber criminals, right? These particular standards actually transcend any specific product or service, but focus on process standards. And whether they’re process standards or product standards, organizations really need to devote time to help employees feeling that these standards are critical to the organization and their own wellbeing.

So there you have it. Standards, task at hand, colleagues, supervisors, and organization purpose. Those are the areas that any organization that really wants to focus on emotional connection. And again, back to, just up to the next level so you’ve got those five components. So there’s gotta be deliberate action and there’s gotta be an organizational culture that values it. Those components, all of them have to be in place in order to establish a connection. I hope I haven’t exhausted everyone.

Derek DeWitt: <laugh> No, are you kidding? Talk forever about this stuff. We’re not going to. We’ll save that for another time. Establishing emotional connections is not something that happens haphazardly. And just because employees will naturally tend to do some of that themselves doesn’t mean that organizations shouldn’t actively engage in creating an environment that fosters and sustains emotional connections between workers, between workers and their supervisors, and between workers and the organization as a whole. Well, super interesting stuff as always, Mr. Brown. Thank you for talking to me today.

Andrew Brown: It’s been a pleasure. You know, I love being able to come and sharing some frameworks and some stories and some thoughts that will help your listeners in this case establish, or at least reflect on, how they are establishing and sustaining an emotional connection with their teams or with their colleagues or with their task or with their standards. But hopefully, providing enough so that people have some direction, some deliberate, some sense of agency over this.

Derek DeWitt: Righto. Mr. Andrew Brown is co-founder of the Academy of Business Communications. You can find a link to that website on the transcript page on the Visix website for this episode, and of course the previous ones that Mr. Brown has also been involved with. Or you can always go to fixmycomms.com and that will also redirect you to the Academy of Business Communications. They’re up there in Canada, but they constantly consult with organizations of all types to try and streamline and modernize the way that they communicate, which it’s, it’s a moving target. It’s always, it seems like it’s always changing. Every, every year now, I look at, uh, things on the web and I go, well, all that stuff from a couple of years ago is gone. So now we’re talking about new stuff.

Andrew Brown: <laugh> I like to summarize our mandate as we like to help organizations make their employee communications suck less.

Derek DeWitt: Always a good goal. Suck less. That should be like a company motto. We just wanna suck less.

Andrew Brown: <laugh>.

Derek DeWitt: All right. Well, thank you everybody out there for listening to this episode of Digital Signage Done Right.