Emotional Appraisal Theory + Zeigarnik Effect => Anxiety

Organizations are struggling to communicate with employees. Reports are consistent in that employees don’t believe their organization communicates effectively. One 2014 About.com survey is summarized in an article titled “Why lack of communication has become the number one reason people quit.” One of the specific findings was that employees don’t feel like change is communicated well. Most corporate communicators believe they’re communicating well, but the employees disagree.

Some of the challenges with communicating are real. We don’t repeat the message, or we don’t use communication channels that reach the employees. Those are misses that, given enough resources, we can address, but even communicators who effectively repeat the message and use multiple communications channels find that their communications still aren’t making it through. Communicators can review their use of best practices like inverted pyramid writing and writing taglines or titles that tease rather than inform.

The problem may be not so much that employees don’t hear the message, but rather they don’t understand what it means to them.

WIII-FM

Everyone listens to one radio station – WIII-FM. That is, in their own head, they always listen to “What is in it – for me?” They always evaluate the news from the perspective of how it impacts them. Sometimes we call it relevance. Sometimes we call it importance. Whatever we call it, employees are trying to understand how what we’re saying impacts their security, opportunity, and day-to-day work.

It’s a challenge to communicate across the organization and simultaneously speak into each person’s world. Good communicators use the primary communication to provide framing and then offer secondary support in the form of manager coaching about how they can – and should – communicate to their team about the specific impacts to them.

The problem is that even when the technical details of a change are communicated well, employees can feel like the change isn’t communicated well, because they don’t have a way to appraise the situation or know how to feel.

Emotional Appraisal Theory

One of the theories about how our emotions are formed includes a step between the reality of the situation, where our brain appraises the situation, and its impact on us. Richard Lazarus, in Emotion and Adaptation, explains that we evaluate our situation primarily from the context of whether it is:

  • Goal Relevant – Whether we believe it matters to me or not. This is the basic “Do I care?” filter.
  • Goal Congruent – Is the information in alignment with my goals – or not?
  • Ego Involvement – Based on my own idiosyncratic background, how does this news threaten what I believe about myself?

He further explains that there’s a secondary set of appraisal criteria, which shame our emotions about a situation:

  • Attribution (Blame/Credit) – Can we assign credit or blame for the situation to an another individual or to ourselves?
  • Coping Potential – Do we believe that we’ve got the capacity to cope with the news?
  • Future Expectancy – Do we expect that the situation will improve or get worse? (In essence, do we have hope?)

The appraisal of our situation based on these criteria shapes how we’ll respond emotionally to the information. The challenge for corporate communicators who hope to help employees feel good about their employment is ensuring that employees can evaluate information – even bad information – in a good light.

One problem that we fall into is that we communicate insufficient, incomplete, and partial information without expecting when more information will come, and, as a result, we accidently stumble onto the Zeigarnik Effect.

Zeigarnik Effect

Simply put, the Zeigarnik Effect says that we remember more strongly things that are incomplete than those that we’ve completed. It’s the reason why the song that is on the radio when you turn your car off can get stuck in your head. It’s the reason why we ruminate over the things that we didn’t get done.

When you communicate incomplete information – or information that can’t be completely processed by the employee – the necessary effect is that the employee will be focused on it. If you communicate ninety-nine things well and one not so well, which one will your fellow employees remember? Because of the Zeigarnik Effect (and perhaps a bit of negative bias), they will remember that one thing. In that one thing, they’ll find frustration.

Frustration because they can’t figure out what it means to them, because the information isn’t available to them. That frustration sets the emotional backdrop for an anxiety-producing situation.

Anxiety

Anxiety is simply a fear that there is an unknown issue that will negatively impact you or your goals. It is fear, but it’s not a fear that can be resolved, because there’s not a specific, known threat. Anxiety is produced when there are real risks that can’t be articulated – or when our brains fill in the gaps in the information that we have, and we fill it in with whatever seems most useful now.

When starting with a frustrated state, the information, ideas, and systems that get filled in can have a negative bias. The result is a set of predictions about things that might happen that would make the situation worse – and thus anxiety.

Changing the Equation

The good news is that, by specifically targeting the emotional appraisals that Lazarus points out, we can limit the degree to which people are unable to resolve how they feel, the Zeigarnik Effect, and, in the end, the anxiety that is produced. Less anxiety in our employees translates into greater psychological safety, more engagement, and lower turnover.

In the end, we want our communicators to be able to lower our turnover.