Cultivate Yourself and Others for more Social and Material Benefit

A practical Coaching case …

Cultivate Yourself and Others for more Social and Material Benefit

What do you think about this statement?

Invoking a more strategic mode of behavior is a sure path to more social or material benefit.

When I ask this question, I usually see hesitance or reluctance. People really start pondering. Interestingly, asked in a workplace environment, the answer is eventually in support of the statement; though the magnitude of the expected benefit varies. Moreover, the answers correlate quite considerably with the hierarchy-level. Upper levels are clearly much more convinced of it than lower levels. And there is less support in private settings as well.

While the many advantages of a strategic mode of behavior are broadly seen, a very common counter-argument is that it may lack authenticity and seem artificial. However, when I then ask to take a stance towards this statement:

We learn our behaviors throughout our lifetime and they all look kind of artificial in the beginning.

There is almost always instant support. So the question is, where the learning stops and the authentic starts, which reminds me of Andy Warhol’s famous quote: “I don’t know where the artificial stops and the real starts.” Or translated onto our purpose: when do strategic modes of behavior become authentic?

The authenticity trap

By the way, isn’t authenticity often confused with an overt demonstration of self-esteem and self-confidence? Don’t we have enough people out there, who perfectly learned to just seem self-confident and knowledgeable? In a recent interview, Simon Sinek has put it this way:

“We’re good at putting filters on things and good at showing people that ‘life is amazing even though I’m depressed.’ So everybody sounds tough and everybody sounds like they’ve got it figured out. The reality is there’s very little toughness and most people don’t have it figured out. So when the more senior people say, ‘What shall we do?,’ they sound like, ‘This is what you gotta do,’ and they have no clue!”

The contemporary notion of authenticity and its importance may be one of the big inhibitors for learning. In Germany, we often use a related quote by Francois Duc de La Rochefoucauld: “The desire to seem clever often keeps us from becoming it.” In a world where lifelong learning has become a mantra for success and happiness: isn’t the mainstream’s notion about the meaning and importance of authenticity worth a revaluation? We need theoretic contributions, which leave classic notions about authenticity behind and praise some that take 21st century realities into account—practice will follow, no doubt. However, in this blog post, I would like to come back to my ingoing statement. And assuming that a more strategic mode of behavior is indeed favorable, let’s focus on how to adopt it.

Neuroscience boosts your chances to succeed

Cultivating a more strategic mode of behavior is easier than you may believe. With their insights into the neuroplasticity of our brains, Neuroscientists clearly invalidate classic views of human malleability. Today, we know that we are able to intentionally change over almost all of our lifetime—our attitudes, habits and even deeper laying traits and beliefs. For the latter, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a belief itself is changed. In fact, it is more likely that an alternative belief is cultivated, which becomes more dominant over time. In that case, being successful means that the new belief regularly dominates our behavior. But both remain available, and the “old” gets more dominant when we get excited or emotional—or simply tired. We are able to change faster and on a larger scale than most preachers keep spreading, and it happens more and more often these days. Moreover, there’s an unprecedented know-how and do-how for cultivating a more strategic mode of behavior.

Focusing on decisions

A major point that I am making here is that a more strategic mode of behavior will raise the quality of our decisions. First the more complicated decisions, and over time the totality of all the everyday decisions that just seem to happen intuitively, or automatically. Leaders and Managers have to make many difficult decisions. I mean the kind of decisions where it isn’t obvious which option is best and ethically most appropriate. Sometimes, the consequences could affect your entire career or the jobs of hundreds of people. We tend to think more thoroughly before making such decisions. However, most decisions refer to smaller issues, where the best options still aren’t always clear, but either their impact is deemed to be low or they have been decided long ago and an “automatized” response has been cultivated over time.

Raising the quality of your decisions—big and small—will inevitably lead to more social and material benefit. Do you want to make better decisions time and time again, even under difficult and uncertain circumstances? Then, how do you improve the quality of your decisions? How do you assess their quality? And how do you decide upon anything at all? Neuroscientists have made tremendous progress in understanding what happens at moments of choice in our brain. Understanding these dynamics and how they affect you and those around you will help you through this endeavor. But to see how exactly it helps, let’s first take a look at “Julia’s” case.

The Case

Note: I have permission to tell this story but cannot use the real name of the company or the individual and had to remove the company’s logo from the reference list on my website.

Julia is a plant manager, directly reporting to the CEO of a market leading food-packaging company. At the age of 33, after an impressive career, she became the first woman on this position in 2012. When the firm was suffering under a lasting stretch of diminishing profits, Julia had ideas to turn things around, but she was not included in the firm’s strategic discourse. Instead, all plant related issues — including product developments, reorganizations, layoffs, automations, new IT systems or programs — were delegated to her.

One year, she had to integrate people and equipment from another plant, which was shut down as part of an ongoing restructuring. 45 of the 180 employees and two production lines from the closed plant were relocated to Julia’s plant. She managed to make the integration, and thereby the entire plant restructuring was a broadly celebrated success.

But though she was so successful in operational and executional terms, the board members were having a hard time involving her into their strategic discourse. They believed that she was not ready to step out of her subjective, role-related perspective to take a more comprehensive stance in thinking through the firm’s problems. They thought they wouldn’t be able to talk openly and think freely in her presence, because they would have to be too cautious not to get in conflict with her interests as a plant manager. Another important point was that they thought her capacity to evaluate and discuss strategic options was not developed enough for the tough discourse, which the board members believed it would take to find the best possible solutions. Based on their experience in dealing with her, they feared she would consider it as being oppressive if they would dispute her ideas and comments as harshly as they normally did.

Julia, on the other side, made up a totally differing case of it. She was very disappointed about all this, because in her eyes, good leadership would need to be much more inclusive. And she could not think of any valid reason to exclude her. She believed to have everything it takes. Hence, she began to suspect why. For instance, she felt that the firm’s leaders don’t respect her: “… although I have contributed so much in the past”. Or: ”I’m just a plant manager, all important work is done by members of the board.” She used to assume these were accurate statements of reality. Over time, she increasingly focused on a variety of such deceptive brain messages that raised her negative stress and impaired her interactions.

As the company’s situation became even worse, more and more initiatives were raining down on her. She believed to have little support from her leadership, felt that she was tested, and under that pressure, she increasingly considered her direct reports as screw-ups who need to be tightly managed. She developed a tendency to see everyone but herself as prone to error. The tight management she conducted consumed lots of her time. Time she didn’t have. Negative stress took its toll. Julia worked 70 hours or more per week. Her relationship was seriously suffering, as was her family planning. She began to come to work anxiously and that became increasingly obvious within the organization. Deteriorating performance reviews left her panicking that if this goes on much longer, she won’t be able to cope and lose her job.

First step on the way out: Build up behavioral knowledge

Fortunately for Julia, there were people, including the CEO, who helped her see what was happening. As part of that, the CEO, with whom I have worked before, introduced me to her. After some introductory meetings, lunches and diners, we told the organization that we were conducting a culture study and that Julia was leading the internal efforts. I started to accompany Julia in her daily work from time to time—just attending, no contributions or comments from my side. In parallel to that, we went through an in-depth introduction into the neuroscience of behavior and interaction as well as into Neuroculturea brain based concept of culture. This was complemented with reviewing important insights from sociology and psychology.

Julia learned how her notions of the world—how things are, what’s normal, right or wrong, etc.—were embodied in her neural system, and how they shaped the way she perceived, decided and acted; i.e. behaved. Of course, that included the deceptive brain messages (notions), which constituted her problem. She gained knowledge about what happens in her brain, when she thinks, (self-)reflects and decides. And she learned what happens, when she becomes emotional; how stress and emotions affect her ability to think and her behavior. We went through emotion regulation strategies and tested them. We exemplified it all along actual happenings of those days. Julia gained in depth insight into the power of focused thinking and reflecting as a means to modify neural networks in her brain. Creating and strengthening neural connections is the neurobiological correlate of changing attitudes, ways of thinking or acting (including habits).

Julia was skeptical in the beginnings. But over time, she became enthusiastic up to the point where she seemed to love the whole matter and was extremely motivated to go forward. She began to drive the entire process in an incredible pace and we started to discuss things on grounds of a whole new knowledge and vocabulary. The sparring between Julia and me became much more productive. Consequently, she made a stunning progress in only six weeks.

We continuously reflected her situation, including her behavior, the behavior of others and things that were happening in the company. We did all this along the model of Neuroculture, identifying relevant dispositions in the building blocks Reflexivity (R), Notions (N) and Emotions (E). Using an approach, modified from Gerhard Kleining’s Qualitative Heuristics Approach, we iteratively reappraised various aspects of her situation. Two important guidelines of this approach are (1) an openness to repeatedly change the current understanding, and (2) to integrate all available information into a coherent/consistent whole.

This exercise really stepped up her ability to choose alternative ways of looking at her own situation. Figure 1 shows a summary of where we ended up.

CoachingCultureAnalysis-781x1024 Figure 1: Result of the analysis of Julia’s situation

It goes without saying that it takes a lot of conversation and confidingness to agree on statements as unadorned as those in Figure 1. Remember, not too long ago, Julia was considered to be a rising star. Very successful with great steps forward in her career. Now, she was deeply convinced that the statements in Figure 1 were accurately representing her situation. And the essence of that is that some very deceptive notions dominated her behavior, and that she was lacking reflexivity in many ways in order to maneuver out of this vicious circle. She simply would not zoom out and reflect her situation or challenge crucial notions thoroughly enough.

The essence in Neuroculture

  • step up reflexivity to engage more in strategic and less in automatic behavior
  • alter content and dominance (presence) of some most relevant notions

Julia had to generally lower the power of notions on her behavior (automatic mode). In the mean time, she had to increase her overall reflexivity (strategic mode). Reflexivity describes the way we think and reflect: how deep, sophisticated, multi-perspective, frequent etc. Reflexive acts may result in changed notions and cultural dispositions in general, which lays the grounds for changed behaviors. That’s why reflexivity can be seen as a kind of development sphere of the currently prevailing culture. For more details about reflexivity, please look up my blogpost “How are Culture and Neurosciences intertwined?

In the automatic mode, behavior is dominated by the most present notions and emotional patterns. We tend to judge other people’s actions instantly, from our subjective stance, and we are prone to get angry or elicit other emotions with a destructive impact. In this mode, conscious thoughts and considerations do occur, but only in limited ways. And even though these include some basic needs and desires of others, they still stay within subjective boundaries. They are part of our “fast” system, which means that everything that happens here is limited in time and complexity. Our behavior in this mode is fluent and appears to be intuitive, authentic.

The strategic mode of behavior is much slower. It allows us to reflect situations dispassionately for higher benefit and broader value in the long run. It’s not just oriented to our personal success, needs and desires, but to the overall long-term benefit of the whole system. It offers us the much more detached perception of a clear minded and neutral observer who considers multiple perspectives. People who are good at it develop a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of other people, which helps them manage others more effectively.

Interestingly, there is a different pattern of brain activity for thinking/reflecting in each of these modes of behavior. Thinking in the strategic mode comes along with a high activity, for example, of an area called dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), while the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is more active in the automatic mode. Symbolically, the dmPFC is located just above the vmPFC. Obviously, “higher” thinking employs “higher” laying brain structures.

The practical side of making it a success that sticks

During the four weeks after we came out with the result in Figure 1, we emphasized on increasing Julia’s reflexivity. Besides the measures that Neuroculture suggests, she practiced mindfulness-exercises, played chess (not in a professional manner, i.e. not memorizing positions but basically thinking through the most likely next steps), and employed some other techniques to increase her reflexivity. Overcoming inertia and testing one’s own limits is a crucial aspect of this. Mindfulness exercises, for example, help to disengage from mind-wandering. Being prone to mind-wandering makes you more likely to engage in automatic behavior. Hence, they help to disengage from automatic behaviors and to engage in more strategic ones. There are several other ways to reinforce this.

We focused and refocused attention on some aspired notions and behaviors—repeatedly picturing them in front of our minds eye and verbalizing them. Doing this again and again strengthened the respective neural networks, making them more responsive, more present (dominant). Julia went through a dramatically accelerated process of stabilizing and automatizing her newly gained view of her own situation and of other things. She became increasingly more capable of focusing on more constructive and strategic ways of dealing with situations.

Over time, the aforementioned practices—focused thinking and reflecting practices in particular—also improved her ability to think more intensely and deeply. Short-term neuroplasticity is the neural basis for this phenomenon: so-called spines, small thorn-like protuberances on dendrites, grow through practice and add synaptic connections to neural networks, augmenting their excitability. This increases their processing-performance and makes them more responsive, more present.

The combined effect of all this was that Julia developed a “high-voltage” way of paying attention and thinking. That made it considerably easier for her to alter the presence of neural networks (notions) and circuits (thoughts), and thereby their dominance on her behavior. It also skyrocketed her ability to capture accurate pictures of other people’s behavior and other events. But maybe most importantly, she not only started to change some notions, emotional patterns and modes of reflecting, she now could proceed all by herself. And while doing so, Julia developed a highly effective habit to switch on the strategic mode: an inner dialogue as a default way of reflecting situations—as if she would speak to herself.

A new reality

Less than three months after Julia was about to give up, she became much more engaged in strategic modes of behavior and found herself in an entirely new reality.

  • Before making critical decisions herself, she considers multiple perspectives and conducts focused thinking to find a solution that work best for the whole company and for many people.
  • She returns to the most promising alternatives and refocuses her attention on them again and again, playing them through in front of her minds eye.
  • Before any major meeting, she thinks about how others might respond to the points she will make. Her success rate in this regard was/is terrific.
  • Based on that, she predicts where and how certain people would jump in, and she smartly weaves that hypothesis proactively into her argumentation.
  • In all this, she takes a stance of a disinterested observer who was asked for guidance and perspective, and discusses her ideas with her virtual sparring-partner.

As our time came to a close, Julia asked me to suggest her some things she could do without me. I recommended her to read Edgar Schein’s terrific book “Humble Inquiry” and I offered her to call me and talk about it whenever she wanted. Ever since, she continuously improves her ability to avoid judging too early and to engage in humble inquiry—the fine art of asking questions and of drawing someone out, in order to figure out their “reality” as accurate as possible.

Today, more than a year later, Julia is regularly invited to conversations about strategy. Many people seek her advice first when they face a problem or if there is a possible crisis. The company’s prospects are stably turning around, in part because of initiatives Julia has brought up and is following through. Julia started to multiply the kind of guidance that she experienced within her plant. So far, the results look very promising. The plant’s overall performance indicators are on a constant rise. By the way, the return on the efforts made is astronomic. During the time of producing this article, Julia was in discussions about the next step in her career. Her plans for establishing a family were part of that discussion.

Looking back, it wasn’t the ever-stressed loooong time until behavior began to change. No. The learning was the hard part; but once it “clicked” in her head, everything started to flow faster than what’s most commonly expected.

In general, all this may have been possible without all the spooky neuro-stuff. But in Julia’s case, I doubt she would have made it without the “hard” knowledge about the neuro-behavior-culture-interface. She would not have changed so fast and so sustainably with the kind of information that Psychology and Sociology has on offer for the business world these days. And I believe that this is true for the vast majority of people.

What’s in it for you?

Unless you are quite unusual, you are much more engaged in automatic behavior than necessary. The better you are able to engage in strategic behavior, the more effective you will be. Invoking a more strategic mode of behavior is not a miracle. It isn’t a sure way of becoming rich or successful. But it is a sure path to more social or material benefit—big or small. It will make you more aware of beneficial opportunities, you will be more likely to act on them, and more able to make your efforts a success. And it seems to be a reliable process for building your behavioral acumen. With regular practice, it can become habitual for you to step back and look at any situation—in your organization or in your personal life—with a strategic frame of mind.


Neuroscience and Culture to Boost Innovation Power

Neuroscience and Culture to Boost Innovation Power

Neuroscience has become a rising star in the sky of management theory. The notion or conviction that we can improve behavior and interaction in the workplace to enhance performance, innovation and health by understanding how our brain—the organ that is most involved in determining our behavior—works is on the rise.

And that by itself is a snapshot of how progressed the culture of managing behavior and interaction has become in parts of the western industrialized world. There should be no doubt that working life in most parts of the world, including all BRICS nations, is far from this level of fine-tuning for performance and innovation. Hence, it’s not very surprising to see from where most technical, product and social innovations that are celebrated worldwide originate.

Becoming a culture that uses neuroscientific insights to fine-tune performance and innovation is the result of reflecting on the situations we find ourselves in anticipating how things will develop and deciding what’s best to do based on a self-reflection of our own abilities in order to ensure a successful implementation. Performing all the aforementioned tasks is highly associated with our neocortex and its prefrontal section, the prefrontal cortex (PFC). We need these parts of our brain for the most advanced cognitive operations we perform.

Our PFC is associated with complex and sophisticated thinking or combinatory processes, reasoning, planning, self-control, self-reflection and awareness. And it is essential for conscious operations. In my conceptualization of culture, Neuroculture, these operations are represented by the building block Reflexivity. Our neocortex is home to our most advanced and differentiated knowledge—neural networks that represent our most advanced notions of the world and life, how humans are, how we are, how things should or shouldn’t be. They constitute the building block Notions. And when we think, what we actually do is process and combine information that we have retrieved from our memory (including entire notions about something) and information from what we have perceived.

The Spearhead of Our Neurobiological Infrastructure

It’s not by coincidence that our most advanced cognitive operations are only possible by using the most advanced infrastructure that our brain has brought up throughout evolution: our neocortex, which includes the PFC. About three million years ago, our brain had a volume of 500-600 cc, which is about a present-day’s chimpanzee’s brain. Two million years later, the Homo erectus already had 1,000 cc; and today, i.e. another million years later, we have 1,400 to 1,700 cc. Most of what was added makes up today’s neocortex—the outer “shell” of our brain—the spearhead of evolution. The ever-increasing complexity of life imposed corresponding developments of our brain physiology. Today, it is our neocortex that allows us to consciously think in sophisticated ways about complicated things, using more finely differentiated representations of the world and more complex, abstract and aggregated memory content.

What all this means, is that we use the newest and most progressed part of our brains to produce the most progressed ideas of what we should do at present and in which direction we should develop in the future. Interestingly, it is exactly that part of our brain, which is inhibited or disabled, when we get exited and emotional. In a way, emotions set us back in time to an earlier stage of evolution. But that isn’t the main reason why emotions are virtually banned from most workplaces. It’s more because of the many other downsides. Anyone who has ever experienced or witnessed emotionally charged conflicts in the workplace knows that this can end very badly. Often, such turmoil makes a separation inevitable. There are many downsides of emotions that gave rise to the aim of keeping them out of the workplace, which laid the grounds for an entirely new discipline to emerge: Emotion Regulation.

But all this is not to say that emotions are negative, per se. They simply aren’t. And by the way, who wants to be without love and excitement? In fact, the working life of most people is dedicated to fulfill emotional needs and desires. Emotions are just there. The only question is, how we handle them. And that suggests improving our commonly shared understanding of emotions: what they actually are, how they are triggered and exert their impact, and how to deal with them. That would allow for a much more enlightened handling and management of emotions, which has a culpably underestimated impact on success.

Now, for practical reasons, let’s focus on the interplay between emotions and creativity for the rest of this blogpost. Therefore, I would first like to refer to an amazing experiment.

Attention, Creativity and the PFC

In a study to elaborate the relationship between attention and creativity, the activity of the PFC, which is associated with attention, has been suppressed by using what’s called a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). (Figure 1)


Figure 1: TMS induced suppression of the PFC

TMS induces a state that may well be described as “dozing”: Our attention, which can be measured via gamma waves in the EEG, is reduced to a minimum and we “involuntarily” retrieve and combine information, by which unconventional combinations emerge—our creativity is maxed.

Something similar happens when we sleep: Neuroimaging reveals that we activate neural representations from all possible knowledge-spheres, while the PFC is inactive. A frivolous concert of combining information takes place because the activity of our “inner watchdog” is disabled in forcing us to only make reasonable combinations of information. It’s no secret that our fantasy goes through the roof while we are sleeping.

Our PFC allows for a rule based retrieval and processing of information. Hence, it plays an essential role in organizing which information we retrieve from our memory and enables us to scratch “rational, logical, sensible” pairs of information together. Which explains why children are more creative than adults. It’s because the PFC does not become fully operable before puberty and increasingly before adolescence. The instance that is imperative for our most advanced thinking and knowledge is not yet fully operable. And it’s exactly what happens when we become emotional: The activity of our PFC gets impaired.

Emotions—a Demystification

When we detect a threat, annoyance, something joyful, or when we think about something that excites us, subcortical “emotion-structures” of our brain trigger the release of neuroactive substances (transmitters, hormones, endorphins, etc.) into our body and brain. These substances cause our heart rate and blood pressure to rise, which amplifies our physical responsiveness. The warmth that goes out from this process is what imparts us the genuine feeling of emotion. The altered concentrations also modulate our brain activity by inhibiting the signal processing here and amplifying it there. Think of a brain where the light is turned up in some areas and down in others, thereby modulating our attention, perception, thinking and acting. We become less mindful. Today’s organizational life is fully packed with situations that trigger respective emotions—meetings, presentations, performance reviews, conflicts, etc.

Under the influence of emotions or stress, we enter a state that I call neuroendocrine imbalance, which inflicts the following cognitive and physical changes (an excerpt):

  • modulated attention or altered selectiveness/focus/filtering
  • impaired to distorted perception
  • other, coarser notions become effective and dominate our behavior
  • access to our most advanced knowledge is altered, if not blocked
  • reduced reflexivity and self-control[1]
  • increased impulsiveness
  • increased creativity
  • increased physical performance/mobility

The aforementioned consequences are no on-and-off type of effects, but come rather gradually into effect.

Emotions and emotional moments of moderate intensity (neutral range in Figure 2) are a kind of lifeblood of organizations and their members. While slightly positive emotions—section of the curve that is marked with 1—have a very positive impact on creativity and performance, an excess of them causes impulsiveness and thoughtless behaviors. Then, we are inclined to do or say things that we often later regret. All by ourselves—we don’t need any external help or push to gain such insights. It happens because we calm down and gain back our ability to make full use of the those structures of our brains that allow us to perform our most advanced thinking and to access our most advanced knowledge in order to reflect what happened as sophisticated as we can.


Figure 2: Effects of increasing emotions

Extreme emotion, e.g. due to an immediate threat or a fierce conflict, may cause a reflex (critical range in Figure 2) and should be totally avoided in corporate life. They bear a very high risk of causing virtually irreparable damage for individuals as well as for an entire organization. Emotional incidents where people mutually shout out “what they always wanted to say” or hurt someone emotionally are clearly to be rejected. In a study on the effect of severe emotional incidents, it was found that such moments induce yearlong disturbances that actually almost never dissolve, but are rather “pushed out of mind” until they are “forgotten”. The authors describe impressively how a single misconduct of a superior that induces strong negative emotions, such as a publicly defamatory comment, clumsy utilization of power, or a convenient lie, drives people into inner termination for years. There are countless other destructive implications of negative emotions that shall not be further commented here.

Boosting Creativity and Innovation

Let’s assume for a moment that creativity is the ability to build unconventional combinations of information. Well, that’s exactly what happens when we get emotional. As we saw, it is this reduced ability to control our behavior and our thoughts, which gives rise to our creativity. The range of slightly positive emotion is particularly interesting because it promotes creativity without risking destructive consequences of unleashed emotions. And that’s why this state is not only recommended for brainstorming, but also as organizational credo in a more general sense.

The heart and soul of the company is creativity and innovation.
-Bob Iger

But how can we get there? Well, humor is a good option. Don’t worry; you don’t have to be a funster! But you also don’t have to take things or yourself too seriously. And even the least funny person can be very funny by making fun of one’s self. It’s also very helpful not to take every word all too literally. Does that sound quite self-evident to you? Unfortunately, it simply isn’t the widespread rule, but rather the exception. Anyway, there are many other proven ways to foster humor and positive emotions. Defining how exactly to go for it in a certain organization eventually depends on its culture. What’s funny in one culture, may cause confusion and harm in another. It is also important to find the right balance of humor. There are organizations out there that are in a good mood, having lots of fun, yet regularly failing to meet their objectives.

While creativity is important for the process of generating ideas, innovation is the result of their evaluation, prioritization and implementation. Innovations emerge where ideas face a constructive environment and that is a question of culture. Which ideas are condoned or tolerated, and which ones are refused immediately and without serious consideration? Maybe ideas are deemed inconceivable or offensive? Or, are ideas dismissed because they came from a person whom the provision of ideas isn’t attributed? Or, maybe because as introverts the way their idea was presented wasn’t outgoing enough? Biases and prejudices have an incredible unconscious impact on how we perceive ideas, but also statements in general. It’s a consequence of the prevailing culture.

The “fine-tuning” for performance and innovation, which I mentioned in the beginning of this blogpost, leads the most progressed and innovative organizations of our time to actively work against the destructive and often unconscious impacts of biases and similar phenomena. Google, Procter & Gamble and Apple are some examples.

The Role of Culture in Empowering Innovation

There are countless cultural dispositions that determine the innovation power of an organization. Ideas arise in all possible situations of daily business, particularly in discussions and in the course of being intensely engaged in something of intense concentration. How free do people feel about speaking out on an idea, even if it’s far from being thought through? It’s so easy to kill an idea but infinitely harder to defend it. Is there a culture of supporting colleagues in thinking the idea further to the next level? Freedom of uninterrupted speech is very crucial, as is the tactfulness of the speaker. Emotions have a strong impact on the aforementioned issues and the lower the level of emotional competence, the lower the probability to bring an idea through. Of course, ideas should be challenged. However, educated ways of handling emotions help ensure that good ideas don’t fall victim to senseless, interpersonal conflicts.

There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.
-Brene Brown

Innovation power depends highly on how ideas are or should be collected, evaluated, and projected. What happens if someone fails to meet expectations? How is feedback given and received? How are mistakes and failure mentored for improvement? These and other questions, values and beliefs relate to an organization’s culture.

Increasing innovation power may sound spooky and there are fancy concepts and theories out there that are praised to bring it about. However, it is no mystery that boosting innovation power turns out to be mainly a cultural initiative. Cultural factors that create an environment in which creativity and innovation can flourish are on top of the innovation agenda. Understanding how the brain works, dramatically improves our ability to pursue that endeavor. For example, because neuroscience helps us understand and overcome the limitations imposed by culture, neuroscientific insights about learning help us better understand how we can change culture. And they help us to dramatically improve our behavioral expertise, which allows us to better cope with oncoming problems.

Having worked for 20 years to bring forth such transformations, it took me three years to deeply delve into the neuroscience of behavior and interaction and test some of the outcomes. The result is a book dedicated to help everyone who wants to actively manage culture—for example, to boost creativity and innovation.

All you have to do is to get started.



[1] In particular, the ability to use sophisticated forms of thinking, such as reflecting a situation against higher values.

How Neuroscience helps to change organizational culture…and many other things

How Neuroscience helps to change organizational culture

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part post by Garo Reisyan. We’re pleased to feature his leading-edge content on the important subject of Neuro-Organizational Culture. Part one can be found here.

One of the greatest challenges our times is the deliberate change of behaviors, particularly when the behaviors of a larger group of people are at stake. Most people know how challenging it already is to change a simple operational process. Now, when it comes to behavior, we touch the most complicated thing in the world—human beings. There’s nothing more complex, capable and creative, but also odd and cruel than us out there.

Knowing that behavior is determined by some more general patterns to which it is commonly referred to as culture, most leaders start to work on culture, whenever they attempt to change behaviors in their organization in a more substantial way. And once they launch a culture change initiative, of course they take advantage of their existing knowledge on how to launch initiatives or projects in general, which usually looks somewhat like this:

  1. Determine the problem to be resolved and define the goal or desired outcomes
  2. Build and enable a team to define and implement the right measures
  3. Supervise / Monitor the progress on a regular basis
  4. Inspire, enhance and support the team
  5. Adjust / Refine goals or measures, define new goals,

…and things will be done. Well, doing so will grant them a free membership in the club of failed culture change initiatives. They’ll be in good company there, since there will be thousands of smart people welcoming them. What’s even more devastating than the failed culture change initiative itself, is the negative impact of that failure on any future attempt to change culture.

The uncomfortable truth

A common denominator of an approach like the abovementioned one is the deep- rooted notion that the leader and his team will find the “right” measures and be able  to implement them. And that if there is a lack of knowledge or expertise, some training and/or external support will fill that gap. The fallacy here is that, because it is about behavior, in virtually all cases not “some”, but “a lot of” training is required. Actually, so much more than what is normally deemed to be “a lot”, that it doesn’t seem to be reasonable at all.

There is usually a huge lack of knowledge about what culture is and how it affects. The link between culture and actual behavior remains a miracle and there is even a huge lack of knowledge about human behavior itself. In practice, people end up talking and working on changing something they don’t know well enough. However, most people believe they know a lot or at least enough about it. But what’s even more of a problem is that virtually everybody’s understanding is different. In the meantime, most people assume that others have the same or at least similar notions of behavior and culture.

Trying to change “it,” while an insufficient understanding of “it” prevails and that understanding even differs from one person to another, but everybody believes they have a common understanding can make talking about “it” one of the most annoying things in worklife—even for those who have a good understanding of “it,” because they can’t get through to the others. Sounds like a great prescription to fail.

A glimpse of the differences in notions about behavior

Let’s just shed light on a very small selection of behavior related notions: Some people say they fully trust their gut feelings in judging and deciding what to do next. Others believe that sympathy and antipathy at first sight determines the quality of cooperation, or that instinct and instinctive behavior is all that counts. Again others believe that behavior at work must be professional and thus fully controlled, while they have clear notions about how professional behavior ought to be. Others consider this to be unauthentic and therefore refuse it.

Some believe that a mindful approach is superior, or that a professional work environment must be as rationalistic as possible, while others emphasize on emotions and their role in human interactions. And still others have more spiritual approaches to the sources of our behavior or think that people exchange a kind of invisible energy, which determines interactions (most won’t openly tell). …

Although some of the examples above may appear weird to you, they usually coexist in most organizations. But, there’s usually a big vacuum on what a gut feeling or instinct actually is and how sympathy or antipathy emerges. What happens in the moment of perception? How exactly do we perceive? What exactly happens when we think and judge the things that happen around us to be right or wrong? How exactly is our perception or decision making influenced by our background, our experiences, attitudes and values—but also by our drives and desires? What exactly are emotions and how do they change the way we perceive, think, judge and act? What convinces us and what exactly happens then in our brains, in order to change our minds? How do we learn?…

Towards a way out of the misery

Well, as outlined in the previous blog post “How are Culture and Neurosciences intertwined”, most of what makes up our behavior happens in our brains. We can learn more about human behavior and interaction by better understanding behavior- related brain-processes and neuroendocrine processes.

We provide so much training. Most trainings relate to people’s specific duties and to more general presentation and communication skills. Some receive management or leadership courses. When we want to apply simple processual changes like those in an IT system, we train people extensively, but we only provide rudimentary training when it comes to change the most complex thing in the world: human behavior. It is naïve to send someone or some people to a three day training and expect any kind of readiness for an endeavor like that of a culture change.

Hence, we end up knowing more about our digestive tract than about the organ that is most important to our behavior, as Germanys 2nd most circulated magazine (Apotheken-Umschau) states.

Research shows that the level of knowledge about behavior not only correlates with the ability to change it, but also makes the change more sustainable. It also helps to create an emotionally more appealing work environment. For organizations, the crucial part is to increase the level of knowledge in a collective manner, so that it becomes effective throughout discussions—for example, while interpreting and making sense of behaviors or situations. That allows discussions to take place on an elevated plateau.

People will start using words that refer to entire conceptions and assume that the others will quite precisely understand what was meant, including all that was implied without saying. This is why Edgar Schein underlines the importance of “shared learning and mutual experience” in his recent interview with Tim Kuppler. The effect is that not everything has to be explained and agreed from the scratch, which is an extraordinary source for misunderstandings and disputes. Communicating about behavior becomes much easier and improves dramatically.

What it takes

The only way to get there is to increase the common behavioral and cultural competence of an organization. And that has to happen before and in parallel to what has been described under #1-#5 in the beginning of this blog post. The good news: The thirst among most organization members to learn about behavior, interaction and the self is huge. And that interest skyrockets, if that learning is designed around neuroscience. Thus, the recommendation here is to use a combination of

  • neuroscientific foundations focusing on behavior and culture
  • latest findings from brain and emotion research
  • experiences gained from organizational culture in the past 30+ years
  • important insights from sociology and psychology
  • a concept that helps to make practical use of all this knowledge

My experience is that people actually love to learn about these things and they realize that they can benefit from it in both their worklife as well as in their private life. This tremendously eases the installation of multipliers and of ‘train the trainer’ concepts to deploy the competence. A positive spirit spreads. Respective progress doesn’t only serve the next culture change initiative, but each and every upcoming effort. It improves organizational behavior in more general terms and thereby its effectiveness and efficiency. For example, it improves cooperation with internals as well as with externals and it generally lowers the chance that people get away with inferior or dismissed behaviors.

All this is still just a first step of a deliberate change of cultural dispositions and behavior. And it is by far not the only way how neurosciences help to manage culture. But it heavily pays on transforming an organization towards being smarter and more agile, which I call to be more dynawise (anticipatorily dynamic and wise: high reflexivity, mature and educated spectrum of notions, emotionally enlightened and a positive balance of emotions). Such organizations are sustainably more productive, creative and healthy, and they develop more successful and stable towards desired ends.

The payoffs

It is the elevated behavioral and cultural competence that makes an organization to conduct an apt analysis of what the problem is, to strikingly define what needs to be accomplished, determine the right measures, predict and avoid unintended side effects, implement resulting measures in the right manner, reflect the outcomes and adjust accordingly. The knowledge, concept, proven tools, inventories and measures to do so can be found in my new book Neuro-Organizational Culture: A new approach to understanding human behavior and interaction in the workplace.

By far the most effective way to avoid a failed culture change initiative is to increase the organization’s general capacity to do so, which means building the collective behavioral and cultural competence. Positive byproducts of that are that any kind of initiative becomes more efficient (let’s face it, there will be many) and the organizational behavior improves in general ways. Leaders will better understand their people and this will help them to really convince them of attempted changes, rather than persuading them.

One of our times most misleading notions is that people wouldn’t like to change, in general. In fact most people embrace change—if they are convinced, and that is the problem with most change initiatives. Leaders often lack credibility, trust, and knowledge to “really” convince their folks.

The genuine responsibility of each and every leader

Brain research leaves no doubt: We are unstoppable learning machines, constantly trying to understand what’s happening around us or to make clues about ourselves.

Once we’ve captured a better idea of something, we virtually can’t escape it anymore—you cannot not know of it. Standing against that better idea triggers neuroendocrine processes that make us feel stressed—actually up to a degree of physical pain.

These processes build up fast, but build back very slowly and they accumulate over time. Hence, if respective conditions persist long enough, in the extreme they cause depression or burnout. Leaving people to act against their convictions on a daily basis is perfectly suitable to create such conditions—with disastrous impact on creativity and productivity. It is the genuine responsibility of an organization’s leadership to avoid that from happening.

How are Culture and Neurosciences intertwined?

How are Culture and Neurosciences intertwined?

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part post by Garo Reisyan. We’re pleased to feature his leading-edge content on the important subject of Neuro-Organizational Culture. Part two will post in early April.

There is unprecedented evidence regarding the success-relevancy of an organization’s culture. Cooperation, leadership, innovation, mergers and acquisitions, strategy implementation, etc.—virtually everything is deemed to be depending on culture. A culture related competitive advantage is considered to be extremely hard to imitate. According to culture expert Larry Senn, “after 50 years, we’ve got there in terms of people getting that culture makes a difference.”

But let’s face it, in the beginning 21st century there is hardly another management topic as mysterious as organizational culture. While some people out there glorify it and decide to take action—to work on culture, most take a rather skeptical to critical stance. Actually, there are lots of resentments against words like “beliefs, values” as culture is frequently referred to.

In a study with German specialists and managers on the importance of values, especially managers at the age between 36 to 45, expressed great skepticism. They strongly doubt the measurable contribution of values on business results, such as sales or profit. Above all, they see a large to very large gap between espoused values and the actual behavior of their leadership. While this sheds a regrettable light on the majority of attempts to work on culture, it also reminds us that any attempt to work on values, mission statements or the like can cause lots of annoyances.

In general, culture is considered to be blurry, hard to grasp. Outcomes of culture studies are deemed to be too soft, not compelling enough to be prioritized or invested in. The confidence into the effectiveness of culture related measures is often even more than low.

It seems that those who eventually get it right—get right what culture is, how it affects and how to work on it—are so experienced, educated and wise that only few people reach that level.

We need more appealing and convincing concepts of culture to allow much more people to acquire a reliable understanding of it. New explanations to make it far more graspable, lifting it deep into spheres of well understood knowledge—knowledge that is deeply trusted to be valid and functioning. Only that will provide enough confidence to work on culture, to accurately analyze cultural phenomena and to define effective measures.

The search for new and better approaches in this regard is not new. However, latest neuroscientific findings significantly elucidated the understanding of culture related brain processes, such as perceiving or judging what’s right or wrong. That opens up unprecedented opportunities to the subject matter.

Concepts of organizational culture eventually aim at providing improved abilities to explain, predict and change human behavior in the workplace. But what exactly is behavior? It is perceiving, interpreting, feeling, thinking, deciding and acting—we do all that with our brains.

Principles of How Culture and Neurosciences are intertwined

PERCEIVING When we perceive, we translate sensory inputs into signals of our nervous system, which stimulate neurons or neural networks. Everything we know is memorized in neural structures of our brain. If a neural network is activated, we recognize what that particular network represents (which is the result of our learning history). We perceive a situation and immediately believe to “know” if everything is all right or if something is wrong. We can immediately judge, whether something is usual, normal or not.

FEELING/EMOTION When we perceive something that we’ve memorized as being exciting, attractive, annoying or dangerous, we immediately become emotional. We don’t have to think, before we judge or become emotional. It just happens in “the moment of perception”—as a result of a neural network that has been triggered by sensory inputs. It’s simply the result of our learning history (including what we’ve inherited) that makes a specific neural network to respond upon a specific input. The neural network, which is triggered already contains information about whether we find something right or wrong, positive or negative.

JUDGING That is, what constantly happens in our work-life. We constantly scan and appraise the things that happen around us and our attention is drawn by those things that are, for example, unexpected, unusual or in conflict with our own opinions and picture of the world. But that already depends on what we’ve experienced, learned and memorized in our brains so far—thus, what we’ve cultivated so far. Our culture!

If we come into an entirely new group, we promptly notice all the differences to what we consider as being normal. We may even consider some of these differences as being negative, although they may be the most normal things in the world to that group. We can get emotional when we witness a situation that touches us, while others aren’t touched at all. Culture related processes, no doubt about that.

THINKING We have cultivated notions (memory content) about everything we know throughout our lifetime. They allow us to immediately interpret situations and respond by adequate means. And if we do not immediately know, how to interpret or respond in a specific case, we derive it by thinking and reflecting the situation against some more general ethical standards, attitudes or principles that we personally find suitable for the situation. And of course, that again is a product of what we have cultivated so far.

DECIDING / ACTING Deciding is either a by product of perception, or it is derived through thinking. And when we act in line with our decisions, we are “guided” by notions about the “right” way of acting. Notions on how to actually do something, that we have cultivated.

LEARNING When we think or reflect, we use already existing memory contents, combine them with sensory inputs and process all that. We have cultivated the way (depth, sophistication, etc.) we do it and we memorize (or “write” back) the respective conclusions as opinions or notions. Such conclusions start to influence our behavior from there on. Newly formed opinions and notions will, for example, influence what we expect from others and thus influence what will draw our attention, how positive or negative we will find things and finally, how we will comment, act or feel about respective situations.

EMOTIONS When we get excited or emotional, our brain functioning changes. For example, our access to content of our memory and our ability to combine or think gets impaired. That in turn alters our behavior. And let’s remember that it is behavior, what culture concepts are finally after.

Perceiving, interpreting, feeling, thinking, judging, deciding, acting, learning, memorizing: As said, we do all that with our brains and emotions influence the way we do it. Neurosciences have significantly enlightened these aspects over the past decade. And these advances are utilized in all possible behavior-related topics, such as in neuromarketing, neuroleadership or even neurophilosophy. Neuroscience is the key to better understand, how culture emerges, how it actually works (its mechanisms) and affects our behavior, and how it changes. Our brain is the seat of our culture!

Considering such thoughts in a substantial manner, a new concept of culture has been developed—“Neuro-Organizational Culture,” in brief “Neuroculture (model, pdf). It combines the latest findings from brain and emotion research with experiences gained from organizational culture in the past 30 years, but also with important insights from sociology and psychology. Great emphasis is given to provide a high practical value for analyzing, fostering and changing organizational behavior and culture. Accordingly, the operationalization of the concept is supported with easy to use templates, methods, models and inventories.

From insight to concept

To describe the cultural profile of a person or a group, the model shown in Figure 1 is introduced. It shows the three building blocks of Neuroculture including their predominant neurobiological attribution: reflexivity, notions, emotions.

Building blocks that constitute the model of Neuroculture

Figure 1: Building blocks that constitute the model of Neuroculture

Notions build the core of the concept—neurally represented and networked memory contents that we’ve formed throughout our lifetime. Their entirety constitutes our subjective picture of the world, our worldview. Examples like notions about good or bad goals of an organization, about how they are to be achieved or how cooperation should be like are often relevant in organizational studies.

Our most advanced notions are stored in our long term memory, which is mainly associated with the neocortex. But our most advanced notions determine our behavior only in a single biological state: the homeostasis—a state in which we are calm, not emotional. However, we simply are not always in the homeostasis.

Important moments in organizational life are rarely calm, but excited, stressful or emotional and that creates highly biological alterations, which I call neuroendocrine imbalance. Then, brain-activity becomes inhibited in some areas and amplified in others—that simply alters functions and the presence of memory contents (including notions)—some become more “visible”, while others become “invisible”.

Thus, our behavior becomes determined by another set of notions, a less advanced and refined one. Our entire cognitive performance is impaired, which has a particular impact on our perception, our ability to think ambitiously or to reflect, and that again alters our behavior. Our behavior and appearance is transposed, as if we would be of another culture than normally.

But culture concepts are dedicated to explain, predict and change human behavior. The discussion so far made clear that without the consideration of emotions, this venture is completely hopeless and more than illusionary. The inclusion of emotions allows covering a much larger proportion of real life behavior.

Culture constantly changes. At a certain point of time, it is describable through the prevailing composition of reflexivity, the sum of all notions about the world, life and  the self, and emotional dispositions. This composition was developed, because it proved to be successful in satisfying needs and desires in the past, and because it is expected that it will prove to be successful in the future.

Based on the discussion so far, one might think that cultural phenomena or profiles could quite adequately be described by a set of prevailing notions and emotional patterns, which are identified as being relevant with respect to a specific task. But to put it bluntly, that would assume that people or groups simply are as they are just because they are as they are. This ignores in a culpable manner, why they are so  and how it came about.

To better understand behavior and cultural phenomena, it is necessary to move away from approaches that only determine “what is,” just to be delighted or disappointed about it. The question must rather be “why is it so“, but this shift from “what” to “why” compels to consider how a person or a group reflects—i.e. how it looks back on what happened and thinks in order to become what it is.

The building block reflexivity is dedicated to address these issues. The main questions here are: How do people or groups think and reflect, so that they (1) developed as they did and (2) decide and behave as they do? That includes how often and intense thinking or reflecting takes place, how logically correct it is or how many perspectives are usually taken in.

Two cultures with identical notions and emotional dispositions would be entirely different, if one was highly reflexive and the other almost not reflexive. Their  response characteristics are completely different. Reflexive dispositions cover the way we think and build up our minds or opinions, which may become consolidated notions if they prove their validity and effectiveness for some time.

Thus, reflexivity is a kind of development sphere of our culture and behavior— it gives the cultural profile its dynamic characteristics, like a kind of first derivative of the cultural profile. There is hardly a model that explains a living thing by purely considering static characteristics, neither in natural sciences nor in the humanities.

Finally, Neuroculture conceptualizes both the initial assessment of a situation as well as all subsequent assessment updates, which result from thinking. Notions and emotions together, surrounded by the dotted line in Figure 1, constitute our “automatic” system that models our ultra-fast initial (re-)action modes. It provides immediate assessments and responses—unconsciously, without any conscious thinking.

Our more sophisticated subsequent appraisals and behaviors are modeled by our “reflexive” or “manual” system. Our manual system covers anything that requires conscious effort such as sophisticated thinking, switching perspectives, more extensive assessments, weighing alternatives and planning or self-control.

Find out how to translate this into practice to improve the effectiveness of your organization in our upcoming Neuroculture blog post on and in my new book: Neuro-Organizational Culture: A new approach to understanding human behavior and interaction in the workplace

To access a descriptive model of Neuro-Organizational Culture, download this PDF.  Part two of this post will focus on the what leaders should do to translate these insights to action and improve effectiveness.