The Gatehouse Blog

Making it personal: How AXA uses communication psychology

The following is an extract from the Journal of Internal Communication. See if you qualify for a free industry subscription at

Deborah de Satgé is Head of internal communication at AXA PPP healthcare. Here she looks into the communications psychology she applied, and the changes she made to increase engagement with HR communications, as well as to collaborate with HR more regularly.

HR policies and procedures are a large part of managers’ lives, but by no means their favourite topic to read about in our communication channels. A recent audit showed that HR communications were not well liked. People, and particularly managers, felt that HR communication was bossy, used too much technical jargon, put process ahead of purpose and used the word ‘mandatory’ far too freely! Armed with this evidence, I persuaded HR to let me experiment with a very different approach to both language and style on a discrete HR topic – performance management.

Nudged to change

I’d long been interested in Nudge theory, as practiced by behavioural economists at the Cabinet office. For example, a few years ago, the government launched a campaign to get people to insulate their houses by offering them free insulation. Surprisingly, very few people took them up. The Nudge Unit looked into it and found that people couldn’t be bothered to clear their lofts in order to put the insulation down, even when it was free.

They realised that the rewards of free insulation and reduced heating bills were not strong enough to win against the sheer effort required to clear the space. So the team advised a new approach – offer to clear the loft for people, but charge them for the insulation. Far more people took up the offer. The lesson? Removal of barriers and making it easy is a stronger motivator than getting something for nothing.

Another finding of the Nudge Unit is around the power of social inclusion – you may have seen signs at supermarket checkouts telling you how much fruit and vegetables other people have in their baskets, or the recent campaign to take litter home (other people do). People like to feel part of the social norm and will take action if they feel they are outsiders.

Communications about performance management tended to focus far more on the process – having a review meeting and documenting it on the HR system by a certain date – than on the quality of the conversation, let alone the benefits of managing performance really well. I wanted to turn it around completely.

I wanted to show managers that we trusted them to be able to do their job well, to reposition to both employees and managers the reason why it’s important to manage performance properly and to have a very light touch when reminding people of the deadlines (no more nagging). So for employees we told them “this is about you and your development, so make your manager give you the attention you deserve”.

With managers we made it more simple and trusting in our manager ezine: “You’re a manager, you know this stuff and how to do it. But if you want any help, here’s a onepager” (as opposed to the 52 page PowerPoint presentation held on the intranet!). Reminders were decidedly un-naggy “Just a gentle reminder, the deadline is coming up. I’m sure you’ve already got it in hand, but just in case you haven’t…” and following nudge principles, “Most people have completed their reports on the systems – thank you. For the few who haven’t, the deadline is coming up”.

Managers’ feedback on the new approach was that they massively preferred the new tone of voice and felt more inclined to respond to it positively. The opening rate of our electronic messages rose significantly. About 87% clicked through to the article – compared to about 30% previously. Best of all, 94% of managers completed the documentation by the deadline, which had never happened before – so a very good outcome for HR.

Research an development

Off the back of that success, I have started to get more people interested in the idea of using neuroscience and psychology in the way we handle the people side of change. In common with every organisation, we do a huge amount of change here on a continual basis and have well-honed project management practices.

And yet, every year in our annual survey, people tell us we don’t help people through change well. Change sets up uncertainty, and neuroscience shows that our subconscious brain reacts to protect us from the potential dangers that uncertainty may bring. Too often we focus on getting the process or the system in place, but don’t consider the reaction of employees to the change, we just expect them to get on with it.

An obvious starting point was in organisational design changes. Happily we don’t do huge amounts of these, but when we do we traditionally take a risk-averse HR approach, where the priority is on making sure we adhere to employment law and success is seen as no formal grievances being raised, rather than the speed at which people settled into efficient working post-change!

I spoke to people in areas where they had had restructures and found that poor communication greatly compounded the natural anxiety caused by the change itself. So we examined and rewrote everything from the initial announcements through all the formal scripts and letters, writing for the audience, not for the speaker or for HR.

For example, I found that for consistency, every script and every letter would start with the same long preamble covering the rationale – a rationale which employees had already been given. So at a point when all you want to know is ‘have I still got a job?’ you would have to read through the best part of an A4 page to get to the bit that tells you. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the language was incredibly corporate and cold, with managers doing consultations being advised to stick firmly to the script.

My task, therefore, was to put some humanity back into the process, and to help managers through what is a very uncomfortable situation. Obviously, change that involves redundancy situations is never likely to be a pleasant experience; my aim is to make it a bit less unpleasant by using more natural language, being sensitive to the needs of the recipient and recognising the stress both employee and manager are under at the time.

Stepping on

We’re still at the early stages of using psychology and neuroscience in our communi cations. Later this year I really want to get in with the local change managers, who are responsible for the vast majority of change communication on the ground, and whose communication skills are very varied. My plan is to demonstrate success by working on a few discrete projects and then start to ‘infect’ others who have communication responsibilities within their departments.

I wish I had done this sooner. I wasted quite a lot of time trying to persuade people to be interested in the theory without giving them the practical side. Pick a problem – preferably something measurable, like performance management, but where you could hopefully make a tangible improvement. If you can say, “We shifted this. We’ve got a better result”, then people will take notice.


Deborah de Satgé has been head of internal communication at AXA PPP healthcare for 16 years. During that time her role, the department’s purpose and the work itself have changed considerably and internal communication is now seen as a strategic enabler for the business, Deborah spent many years working in politics for the Conservative Party, firstly managing the approved list for prospective parliamentary candidates and then managing the Political Office in 10 Downing Street for both Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
From there she moved to an events management company where her role was to help shift the business away from event management and into communication consultancy. She was seconded to AXA PPP healthcare, a client, to help with communications when they were bought by Guardian and then AXA – and never left!