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EP 99: Words, Weasels, Triggers & Threats – The Psychology & Neuroscience of Communication with Dr. Laura McHale

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Introduction:  Dr Laura McHale (PsyD, CPsychol) is a consulting leadership psychologist, executive coach and writer specialising in Leader Development, Team Psychology, Communication and Organisational Culture, Laura is the author of the acclaimed book: Neuroscience for Organisational Communication:  A Guide for Communicators and Leaders.


Podcast episode Summary:  This podcast explores and explains the impact of communication in organisational life employing the lens of Neuroscience and Psychology of Communication.  Topics covered include Gaslighting, Absentee Leaders, The use of Pronouns, Weasel Words and Communication Practices that undermine employees. Laura sheds a light on a discipline that is often unspoken.

Points made across this Episode:

  • Laura can you share a bit about how you got to where you are today?

Laura is now a Psychologist and in her mid-forties she made a radical decision to go back to school and take a doctorate in Leadership Psychology. Prior to this move Laura was working in major international investment banks as a Corporate Communications Specialist. In 2010 Deutse Bank moved her to Hong Kong to head up internal communications for the Asia Pacific Region. Laura loved her career working with International Banks & she was really curious about human behaviour at work and wanted to go deeper and in particular understand the mysterious process we call Leadership.

  • There were a number of reasons that prompted Laura to study Psychology including several transformative experiences with psychotherapy, She was curious about the way we frame and talk about work and the psychological injury experienced at work.
  • What inspired you to write your book? The book happened organically. As part of Laura’s Doctorate she had a required course on the Neuroscience of Leadership. Laura was fascinated by the discipline and had a sense it would become a big part of her intellectual life as well as her career. She noticed that nobody was talking about organisational communication and neuroscience and Laura wanted to close the gap with her book.
  • What are the salient messages housed in your book that explain Neuroscience and Psychology at work? There is a natural interest in behavioural science. It is often hard to make the link about how the science can impact a leaders presence or choices in communication. There is a fundamental tension between the promotion strategies employed by internal communication teams and the prevention strategies they employ. In promotion strategies communicators are very assertive about the companies value proposition, what it offers and its unique differentiator’s. A prevention strategy often results in very cautions communications, judicious and a little bit like politicians the communications are somewhat evasive. Whilst understandable it can be a slippery slope and sets off all kinds of triggers with employees. The tension between promotion strategies, a desire to be open & transparent and prevention strategies can be tricky to navigate. It is often a schizoid perspective where communicators are trying to toggle two different strategies.
  • The Psychology of communication is also important for another reason. It is a very difficult time for communication specialists. The scope of the role in the last five years has changed dramatically. Corporate affairs, ESG and Government affairs are rolled up into the typical role of a communications department. This is leading to increased stress. If you add AI, chat gpt and other generative models can pose an existential threat to these groups and teams.

The changing nature of the role of communication professionals is also one of the reasons Laura wrote her book to help make sense of the changing landscape.

  • The Neuroscience or physiology of behaviour is a bit different. Insights into neuroscience can shed light on how and why we are showing up at work. Understanding rewards and threat centres in the brain, knowing how we use pronouns and its impact on others is fascinating and can be leveraged to be more effective in our communications.
  • How do leaders and internal communications understand the paradigm from which they are operating? Important to understand the paradigm you are speaking or when you are moving too quickly between the two. Employees smell spin from a mile off. Internally it can be tricky for executives to over relying on prevention strategies in their communication. There are a lot of traps Leaders can walk into, sometimes unintentionally or at least unconsciously. Knowing about human needs can really help leaders be effective communicators.
  • What are some of those traps that Leaders walk into, maybe unintentionally? Some of it is structural. Pronoun use for example. I and We pronouns can signal more or less personal involvement in any given situation. Pronoun use can also reveal the many assumptions a leader is living. It can also give potent signals about who is in or out or who has a legitimate stake in an organisations success or failure. For example there are two different kinds of We, the inclusive or exclusive We. Senior Executives are often confused about which We they are in and how they are communicating exclusion or inclusion. This sends messages to the brain to trigger threat responses whether we are part of the in group or out group. If in the in group we get a dose of dopamine from the brain & if in the out group we can experience significant amounts of pain. I pronouns are also very interesting, some are cultural, and a really high proportion of I pronoun use can trigger a threat response in the brain. There is also an assumption in organisations that communication needs to be sanitised. This can infantilise employees and does an injustice to the complexities operating in an organisation.
  • What is your advice to executives and leaders who erroneously practice sanitising their communications. One of the biggest pieces of advice Laura gives is to speak the truth. Laura references The Loughran-McDonald sentiment analysis research to explain why telling the truth can be so instructive. The two financial researchers used sentiment analysis or the use of positive versus negative sentiment and modal or weasel words. The research showed the lengths that organisations go to obfuscate the truth or to describe adverse events. In fact many of the negative words were couched in positive words that the messages were almost impossible to work out. Curiously the negative words used were very weak words or weasels like impairment, disappointing which suggested something was bad but it was never clear. The companies using negative words more creatively had negative stock performances. The researchers noted that companies use of words in their corporate communications could be used as a smart investment strategy.
  • How do Leaders manage the responsibility they hold to use language appropriately and not Gaslight or cause unintentional emotions at work? Organisations are like people using all sorts of defence mechanism sometimes very elaborate ones to avoid difficult and painful emotions. It important to understand why we are using these words, weasel words. It is because of an environment that lacks psychological safety, where we are not allowed to fail, or ask a question that might be interpreted as stupid. Is it an environment where people get punished for taking risks. Laura does not wish to come across as the language police she also uses weak modals and weasels in her communications too, because they have a purposeful use to indicate uncertainty. None of us can speak in with absolute clarity all of the time.
  • The link to absentee leadership is for Laura an interesting link. She imagines that weak leaders, or those who are unable to fulfil the core functions of Leadership, would employ weasel words quite a bit more than strong leaders.
  • In 2022 Laura read a “cracker jack” of an article by Robert Hogan who mentioned this phenomenon called absentee Leadership. Laura was struck by the idea that absentee leadership is an epidemic that nobody had ever named but that most of us have experienced in one form or another. It speaks to the idea of people who occupy an authority position of leadership and fail to fulfil its core functions. Laura refers to those functions as giving direction, protection, role orientation, conflict resolution and setting and establishing and protecting group norms. The interesting thing about absentee leadership is how common it is. It is reported 7 times more than any other destructive leadership behaviour. Because it is so common and can feel so mild it can go unnoticed and is experienced as neglect.
  • Gaslighting surfaces when someone is at the mercy of an absent leader they can be blamed or they blame themselves for their inability to cope with whatever is occurring. One of the things that inspired Laura to write this article for the psychologist was because of her many conversations with coaching clients. Many of her clients were being given feedback that they were having trouble managing ambiguity. Managing ambiguity is becoming a core competency. The issue with managing ambiguity is that almost everyone struggles with it. Laura knows this from Neuroscience, it is a known stress trigger. This is a universal biological phenomenon albeit some people can handle ambiguity better than others. Laura wanted to highlight the subjects of Gaslighting, Absentee Leadership and emotions at work in her article in the Psychologist, to shift attention from blaming people for their lack of this competency as a  subjective fault to an understanding of the human needs within all of us and our need for Leadership support.
  • The fundamental attribution error is yet another trap that Leaders and executives can fall into.
  • What are some of the Villains of Communication, Threats and Triggers you would like to see squashed? The rapid communication of bad news. Communicating bad news badly. If bad news is not communicated in an open and transparent manner it can infantilise an audience. This tendency is really prominent in politics where there seems to be a tolerance for misinformation and it is seeping into the fabric of organisations too. Laura is not trying to malign all politicians but recognises that politicians regularly protect themselves against the loss of power and influence and often engage in this form of communication. This perpetuates cynicism and mistrust that Laura hopes we do not want to dial that up in our organisations.
  • The Corporate Communications Reset Workshop is a new workshop and is really the greatest hits from her book. Her workshop helps corporate communications professional access more joy at work by reclaiming their mo-jo and about being  more strategic in their work, whilst being cognisant of the changing landscape and being able to fend off some of the threats posed by Chat GPT and other generative language models. A lot of comms people are closeted behavioural scientists and this workshop gives them a taste or a lot  taste for Psychology and Neuroscience understanding. Included in her workshop is the methodology called Structural Dynamics, the building blocks for how we communicate and don’t.
  • Structural Dynamics is a methodology created by David Kantor. It is David Kantor’s theory of interpersonal communication dynamics. It is a very interesting theory to describe the patterns that emerge when teams are together. There are a few different levels to this theory and the ones that are most often used to explain team dynamics and patterns are what David describes as the action mode, the operating system and the communication domain. The least discussed is the last one called the Childhood Story, work made infamous now by Dr Sarah Hill and her work.
  • Structural Dynamics at its essence gives people a vocabulary to describe what’s happening in a room & a roadmap for how to change those patterns to develop a more balanced behavioural repertoire.


  1. Neuroscience for Organisational Communication: A Guide for Communicators and Leaders by Dr. Laura McHale.
  3. The Loughran-McDonald Master Dictionary Sentiment Words list
  4. David Kantor
  5. Ronald Heifetz, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Leadership
  6. Sarah Hill and her book Where did you learn to behave like that?
  7. Corporate gaslighting, absentee leaders and the emotions of work – 07 November 2023, The British Psychological Society.
  8. Robert Hogan:

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