Sending the right message is trickier than you think

Corporate messages often fall short of their intentions, here’s why.

Patrick Heller
3 min readNov 28, 2022


All too often, management sends out company-wide messages to stimulate a certain type of behavior, or vice versa, to discourage certain behavior. If you don’t do this right, the results might be exactly the opposite of what you are aiming for.

When we take part in any social setting, we notice that people do certain things in specific ways. We can tell what is considered to be “normal” by the group and what is not. These what we call social norms are of great influence on our own behavior. Because we deal with social norms inside organizations as well — as part of the company culture — I want to highlight one specific aspect of social norms, and that is the power — or the lack thereof — of public messages.

American professor of psychology and marketing — and persuasion expert — Robert Cialdini, worked with the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona to see how they could prevent people from taking petrified wood out of the forest — in other words, to prevent stealing — by using different signs near the entrance of the forest. One message they tried out, read, “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest”, while another version read, “Please do not remove the petrified wood from the Park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest”. As a control setting, they also tested what happened when they didn’t place a sign at all.

As it turned out, without a sign, about 3% of the visitors illegally took petrified wood with them. When the first sign was tried out — with the “many past visitors have removed” — a shocking almost 8% of the Park’s visitors stole petrified wood from the Forest. The other sign — the “please do not remove” — resulted in a lot less stealing — less than 2% took some petrified wood in that case.

As Cialdini pointed out, the “many past visitors have removed petrified wood” resulted in setting a social norm of “stealing is quite common and considered normal over here”, which resulted in more actual theft. On the other hand, the “please do not remove the petrified wood, in order to preserve the natural state”-sign resulted in a much better outcome than no sign at all. Apparently, by conveying the rarity of theft, this message set a totally different social norm, namely that stealing is not normal.

If you’re part of the leadership in the organization, you better be careful in setting the tone of social norms by sending public messages into the company — a difference between less than 2% and almost 8% is significant by any standard, and could be crucial in a company-wide transformation process.

If you want people to follow the new guidelines, you might want to avoid a message that says, “we see that not enough people are following the new guidelines and that really needs to improve”, and go for the alternative, “we see that almost everyone is following the new guidelines already, so we’re confident that pretty soon everyone will be following the guidelines” — thus highlighting what is “the new normal” by stressing both the numbers (“almost everyone”) and that the “new guidelines” are actually “the guidelines”.

If you are interested in stories like these and more, you can buy Essential Psychology for Modern Organizations from Amazon and other bookstores:

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