Breakfast audience with Elizabeth Mohr on ‘Behavioural science in organisations: The neuroscience of influencing others’

We recently held consultant breakfast events in our Amsterdam and London offices, and were joined by Elizabeth Mohr who spoke about ‘Behavioural Science in Organisations’ to packed audiences in both.

She led that while consultants are often very strong in facilitating strategic decision making and often deploy meticulously honed ‘influencing techniques’, they often do not know how and why those techniques actually work.  Seeking to understand the science behind influencing and the psychology of decision making, Elizabeth recently undertook a Masters course in Cognitive and Decision Sciences, and her talk applied elements of what she has learned to the corporate and public sector, focusing on four techniques: Nudging, Priming, Cognitive Fluency and Emotional Contagion.

The first of these, Nudging, is the means by which specific actions can be encouraged through subtle prompts. One example is the way Shell increased driver safety by encouraging lorry drivers to place photos of their families in their cabs.

We then learned about Priming – how you can activate relevant memories in an audience to make them more responsive to the materials you present. Interestingly, juxtapositions of unusual combinations can stimulate creativity while images of money can drive independence. Corporate logos can also encourage certain reactions: Disney’s, for example, encourages honesty, while Apple’s can prime creativity.

The  technique of making communications simple for the brain to process is known technically as Cognitive Fluency. One example is that easy-to-read fonts can increase trust and the likelihood of an audience acting on the text’s content.  On the converse, we discussed the risk that the ‘lone voice’ in the room may not be heard, as their point is at odds with what people frequently hear and hence respond to most.

Lastly, Elizabeth discussed Emotional Contagion and how you can transfer your emotions to others, in particular noting that leaders’ behaviour strongly influences those of their teams. Surprisingly (and potentially worryingly), some research suggests that people can produce better analytical work when they are sad.

The talk prompted lively discussion and a number of questions – particularly about how consultants can make best use of these techniques. The session concluded with an interesting observation that slide decks prepared during the course of projects are often not in the optimal format for effective communication (given their high level of detail and small print) and that instead, we should seek to create presentation-level slides, and endeavour to circulate the more detailed pre-reading early to boost trust and the effectiveness of meetings.