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.

About the Author

Avatar photo
Garo D. Reisyan

Garo D. Reisyan looks back on a professional experience of about 20 years, where he got to know a very diverse mix of organizational cultures ranging from very small to very big companies across sectors or industries, and in various situations. He held leadership roles at Procter & Gamble, Droege Group and Deutsche Bahn. As a Top-Management-Consultant, he advised renowned family businesses and DAX-30 Corporations, has led numerous strategic, reorganizational and M&A projects, and since 2009 he works as an independent management consultant and executive coach, accompanying change initiatives, M&A’s and culture projects. Garo is convinced that cultural competence is “the” key discipline to cope with the challenges of the 21st century – a must for sustainable leadership in organizations, but also with regard to entire societies. With his book Neuro-Organizational Culture: A new approach to understanding human behavior and interaction in the workplace, he introduced a new concept of culture that is based on latest findings from brain and emotion research. He aims at contributing to greater cultural competence in organizations and the general public. Read Garo's full bio here.