The Pistachio Principle and the Art of Internal Communication Dieting

Is your internal communication clogging staff’s mailboxes? Do your stakeholders engage intently with their communication to reduce flab? Are your efforts in sharing ‘bite’ size chunks of information adding up?

If you have ever been tempted to share more information so that your team ‘gets’ all they need or of passing on content without including context you could be guilty of adding ‘communication calories’. You probably need to take pointers from the ‘Pistachio Principle’.

 Dr. James Painter, a behavioral eating expert coined this technique to eat ‘right’ and yet keep people from feeling deprived.  I believe these tips can work wonders when you extend it to your communication effort.

Moored boats

For starters, visual cues help people soak in how much they have eaten if pistachios are in-shell. In his study participants ate lesser and consumed lower calories when they left behind empty shells.

Allowing your leaders and users to engage with content and get a ‘line of sight’ or ‘trail of communication’ helps them appreciate what it means to stay ‘light’ with messages.

Allowing self-selection helped people choose intake and therefore reduce calories.

Internal communication isn’t a volume game. Also from usability studies we are aware that users scan for information and don’t read every line that is written, especially online.

Therefore the recommendation is to keep communication simple, provide multiple avenues for information sharing and allow employees the options for having ‘served’ to them.

Healthier choices may not always be equal to lesser calories according to Dr. Painter’s research especially when they weigh one food vs another (be it a sandwich vs a burger or oil vs butter).

Content which works for one audience may not be of relevance to another. Consider the outcome of your communication and tailor your messages to suit your audiences. As a leader and communicator you are expected to help your employees make the right choices.

Less is more when it comes to using bowls and glasses. People feel full while eating or drinking from smaller plates and tall, slender glasses.

Likewise, presenting information succinctly gives communicators and employees the impression that they can ‘manage’ what is expected from their roles. Well structured communication wins you the battle of the mind.

Picked a ‘family’ pack and regretted later? The study shows that buying single serve packets improves your chances of staying slim.

In this age of information overload there can be nothing more empowering for a team whose supervisor or leader who shares ‘bite’ size chunks for easy digestion. Break up your communication into relevant sections that simplifies intake and action.

Your environment has an important part to play in your consumption habits. Bright lights and fast music encourages you to eat more and faster. Also whom you accompany for meals makes a difference too!

Often employees are overwhelmed by many messages simultaneously reaching them. As a leader and communicator you are responsible for reducing ‘noise’, managing traffic and employees’ ability to assimilate information. Remove roadblocks that undermine your communication effort and engage in active listening to know what they expect.

Lastly, ‘lean’ communication hinges on your ability to reflect on what makes the most sense for your audiences. It is vital to share messages consistently and periodically to create a climate of stability and trust, essential for the success of any communication.

Uncommon Lessons From the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games

With the dust settling after the successful completion of the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games many organizations in India are either heaving a sigh of relief or are simply delighted not just because we came second in the ranking but also since their business operations ran smoothly.

I can relate to the event and how we kept internal stakeholders in the loop with a structured communication plan and ready-to-use material well ahead and after the Games. I am sure many organizations prepared well to avoid any last minute rushes.

Here is the context before I dive into what challenges we foresaw and preempted with timely internal communication and initiatives.

The Games (October 3-14) was slated as the biggest multi – sport event conducted in India so far. With over 70 countries fielding teams and 3400 sports persons and 12000 delegates participating there were always going to be potential hurdles with employee availability, transport, accommodation, road passage and travel plans.

Bell tower

So even if you didn’t have an office in Delhi there could have been impact to work – with keeping clients informed, employees commuting to and from office, stakeholders transiting the country or someone needing visas to travel among others.

To begin, a core team comprising leadership and internal groups (office administration, internal communication, human resources among others) discussed potential concerns and challenges that the Games could throw at us.

A comprehensive business continuity and communication plan ensured that we shared updates with key stakeholders, anticipated scenarios and potential costs.

Experience matters: While employees knew that the organization had little control over what happened during the Games and the condition of the roads they expected to be involved and kept abreast of positive steps taken to improve their overall experience during that period. A central helpdesk allowed employees to seek clarifications on transport and potential issues that could crop up. Leaders were nominated to front-end any direct conversations and we listed key contacts on the intranet.

Crowdsourcing – a game changer: By inviting employees to play the ‘eyes and ears’ of the organization it helped us plan business contingencies better. For example, employees sent in presentations and other material they sourced from the Web pointing to impacted roads and other scenarios that we didn’t anticipate earlier. An employee who enrolled as a volunteer with the Commonwealth Games team had insights on areas to avoid during the event. Similarly, employees were asked to define what time worked best for them so that they could plan their work better and keep their stakeholders informed.

Better safe than sorry: By deciding to shutter the office during the Games’ closing ceremony and work on an alternate day we were taking no chances with enough warnings of chaos and increased security measures. It turned out that we made the right move – we heard about 75000 people attended the finale.

Travel with discretion: Even though we had visitors and clients coming in during the fortnight expectations were set on what they could see in the city and the inconvenience that they might face. There were questions on terror threats and if the event would finally get held apart from the news on corruption. Travelers were pointed to the CWG website, the internal intranet page and travel guidance for their clarifications. Advisories were published periodically so that all travelers were on the same page.

Transport blues: Most companies anticipated fewer cabs and even lesser drivers since most were going to be engaged during the Games. We preempted this by ensuring the company accounted for more vehicles, rescheduled pick-up and drops, leveraged the Metro and encouraged employees to car pool.

Saving for a rainy day: By stocking up dry food, fuel for generators, pre-booking guest houses in case of stay-overs and investing in back-ups for the premises we saved for a rainy day. Clients and partners were informed of our plans and kept in the loop of changes as we progressed. Laptops were provided to teams with critical needs.

Engaging employees with internal communication: Internal communication had a pivotal role to play in this exercise. Employees and leaders were requested to share updates with stakeholders, think of options to work from home if possible, retain key emergency numbers and ensure team members were equipped with spare laptops to tide over any eventuality. They were encouraged to carry their car papers and identification cards in case of security checks on Delhi roads.

Answering pertinent questions: Not surprisingly employees had many questions about safety, their role in the process, next steps in an emergency and if could work from home. By articulating these as consistent messages and cascading it through leaders allowed meaningful conversations and timely information sharing.

Crisis situations are welcome at times: This specific event gave us the opportunity to rally employees together, to work collaboratively, update their contact information (we had challenges with employees keeping their profiles current) and building rigor into business continuity planning.

I personally learnt from this experience – in terms of helping stakeholders plan ahead with their communication, agree on consistent messages and believe in sharing it widely.

Internal Communications Pointers from the Chile Miners Rescue Mission

I have been following the Chile miners rescue very closely and felt there were many lessons to learn from how the entire program was executed and communicated.

To begin, it was one of the world’s most successful operations to get miners out from the longest underground entrapment in history. The meticulous planning, the pace at which the government moved to locate the group, get help when needed, include necessary safeguards, keep their families united above ground and the media informed all showcased the key role of communication, both internal and external.

Here are some of the elements of the entire operation that got me thinking in relation to internal communications within organizations.


During the first few days while efforts were on to establish if the miners could be rescued or not the country promptly took steps to gain the confidence of their people by sacking those responsible for the mine’s safety. The first step after establishing contact was to send in supplies to get their digestive systems functioning before sharing solid food. Rescue teams also sent oxygen down to where they were trapped. To me establishing the ‘basics’ is crucial for stability and give employees confidence in the ability of their leaders and organizations.

With limited resources and technology infrastructure Chile reached out to NASA for help and sought support of their satellites and experts. NASA sent its team to consult on the rescue mission but also got involved in supporting how the miners were treated and looked after (based on their experiences with space station astronauts). Experts from the Chile Navy were called in to help design the rescue capsule.Establishing the right team and equipping them with the right tools enables consistent communication and accurate results.

A communications system was installed through which each of the men spoke and reported their feeling to doctors and psychologists on the top. Then a systematic plan was created to keep the miners informed and busy. According to media reports NASA experts were invited to share their expertise of helping people cope with long periods of solitude.

A conscious effort made to build trust by sharing appropriate news and set expectations ensured the miners were all on the same page. The miners were kept occupied with games and were made to get into a routine so that time was broken into chunks. The rescue team also reviewed communication that was exchanged between families and miners below so that wrong messages weren’t communicated. Building robust internal communication networks is essential to keeping employees focused on the goals; in this case – coming out safely and getting united with their families.

They also thought of ways to involve them in problem solving and plan for how they would cope after they came up to the surface, since there were fears of information overload and from separation from the real world. They were also instructed to wear eye shades so as to avoid vision concerns when they get rescued. Besides their immediate physical needs the team above ground prepared psychiatric counseling for all miners. To begin, they helped the group establish a leader with the help of a questionnaire.Involving and empowering employees during a crisis and getting them to chart their own success are crucial for organizational alignment.

 There were rumors of the forming of splinter groups frustrated by the delayed operations and periodic communication (through videos, photos, notes and even watching a soccer match!) and a seasoned leader (their foreman) kept them on track. Established leadership code of conduct to ensure communication flows smoothly and employees know how to focus on the end outcome.

 Finally it was phenomenal to see how the President of the country personally oversaw the operation with the Mining Minister and greeted each miner as they emerged to share messages for their families. Not sure how many other countries came as much for their people. This example reinforced the message. October 13, the day they were all rescued is also now a permanent holiday in Chile. Rallying a country just on hope is itself awe inspiring.

Are You Supporting Your Employees’ ‘Pay it Forward’ Effort?

Four unrelated events triggered this post. To begin, I had the opportunity to watch Pay It Forward, a Kevin Spacey-Helen Hunt – Haley Osment that introduces a concept that believes in the goodness of people while expecting nothing in return. A class assignment that challenged students to ‘change the world’ through an idea got Trevor (Haley) to do good to strangers and hope that they do the same to others. The power of the idea is the fact that ‘everyone is a loser’ if the act isn’t passed on.

Then, a couple of days ago I received a mail from a colleague seeking opportunities to participate in ‘social responsible’ projects for the company since she didn’t know how to differentiate between NGOs that were ‘fraud’ as opposed to the genuine ones.

In a team meeting my colleague commented on how divergent charity efforts within the organization and offices were sending mixed signals to our employees; on our commitment and the focus.

Finally, there were a spate of recent disclosures and announcements of global entrepreneurs who are joining hands to publically ‘pledge’ their wealth over the next few years. In India Shiv Nadar of HCL also promised to do his bit for philanthropy by contributing 10% of his wealth. Interestingly, most prefer to ‘see’ their wealth getting spent during their lifetime and therefore hoping the charities will be able to consume all the wealth while hopefully ‘doing good’.

Shooting star

So when people think of corporate social responsibility the images that usually come to mind is of large corporations funding even larger initiatives to improve the lives of the less fortunate.

I find it contradictory with corporations and wealthy business people wanting to give back to society while at the same time expecting the world to know about their contribution? Does it defeat the very purpose of social responsibility where ‘doing good’ is something that comes from within and anonymously so that you get ‘riches’ in heaven?

To me and I might be speaking for many others it doesn’t really matter how much wealth a person commits for the needy; what matters is the true intent and capacity that lasts beyond the individual’s life. That is corroborated by the employee who sought opportunities with NGOs that weren’t fraudulent. If your charity isn’t named after you or highlights you as a patron then you are probably at the starting point in your journey as a philanthropist.

My belief is that funding projects or creating large bodies to run charitable initiatives isn’t always the best way to give back. Even by giving time and effort, partnering with groups of people and leveraging the power of social media the impact you make can be very powerful.

My take is that by ‘paying it forward’ and not looking behind to check if others have appreciated what you do is probably the best way to contribute in this world. Quite like the way the ‘Pay it Forward’ concept became a movement and it led to many cities and states in the US. 

Which organization would you like to work for – one that you hear (from media sources) is pumping millions to eradicate poverty or the firm whose employees take time off their busy schedule to engage directly with the under privileged and leverage their skills and talent to address basic needs? My vote goes for the latter. I am all for grass root effort which is homegrown and sustainable. Organizations must only play the role of a facilitator by sharing directions, providing support in terms of resources and getting out of its employees’ way. Then watch as magic happens. The belief is that just like how every individual is different each organization also has its own special way to give back.

Probably the closest a similar program has come to matching the concept in India is the Joy of Giving Week, which ran from Sept 26 till October 2.

Although the window for making contributions though this opportunity is small it still allows people and organizations to reflect on ways to giving back.  The key differentiator is the freedom for the individual and the organization to choose a charity or a initiative to focus on. Alternately, you can even create your own event and have others support it.

To me this cause is successful as a model since it –

– puts a framework and a timeline to work towards

– doesn’t just focus on cheque book charity but believes in people sharing ‘goodness’ through time and effort

– allows the power of social media to shape the program

– finally, though there are corporate partners that support this initiative more to generate eyeballs and attention the glory is for those who give back without expecting in return.

If you missed the opportunity to engage this year it shouldn’t demoralize you. At my organization we got a leader to blog on the theme of CSR and build in the ‘joy of giving’ message. It helped reinforce our commitment and focus as an organization and demonstrate leadership attention.

So what does this all mean for the internal communicator?

As an internal communicator you play a crucial role in contributing to the success of any internal social initiative. You need to be intensely involved in supporting your organization’s corporate social responsibility then you should dive right in. Two reasons – unlike other functions in the organization you are best positioned to understand the focus and initiatives that run at a company level.  Your ability to spot opportunities based on your close interaction with employees gives you an advantage for championing and guiding employee-led initiatives. Most organizations have the corporate social responsibility function engage directly with communication for improved impact.

Here are some recommendations that you can take back to your workplace –

  1. Identify and nurture key stakeholders who can drive momentum on your social programs
  2. Provide communication coaching to these individuals since they may not be adept at communicating the right message. Also, reporting is essential to the success of any CSR initiative.
  3. Model the way with a project. Take up one initiative and demonstrate how timely and relevant communication can make a difference to stakeholders.
  4. Contribute ideas to make the program move ahead. I suggested storytelling as a way to get the program momentum and it is now translating into a video that features the fund’s recipients and volunteers.
  5. Highlight CSR champions often. It may not be their day job but there are a lot of enthusiastic employees who are making a difference everyday