Organizations are filled with people with brains. These people have been using their brains -- granted, with varying degrees of success. Neuroscience, being the scientific study of the nervous system, is relatively new. However, it exists now not because we've only just found people with brains but because we've only just created the technology to look at those brains.
So what has neuroscience enabled us to see that is occurring in people in organizations all over the world? This blog post introduces three ways that people's brains are shaping their behaviors. We suggest how organizations can take a revolutionary stance and focus on approaches that deal with the organ that delivers all the results.
"Neuroplasticity" is a classic area of neuroscience. You will see a lot of people mention it as a new discovery. In fact, for many years scientists and philosophers have toyed with linked ideas. In case the technical term has so far not crossed your path, it simply means the capacity of the brain to change. We see neuroplasticity occurring every day in organizations. A stark example is when companies offer people training: By doing so they are acknowledging that people can change; they can learn new things.
It is worth mentioning that the reality of doing the job we do, in the environment we do it in, with the people we work with, has the potential to change our brain. The culture of an organization can be hugely powerful. For example, the people who work at ASDA (the British supermarket chain, a subsidiary of Walmart) are said to be, on the whole, fun people. They are caring toward one another and have fun at work, and, as you may have seen in a video on our website, the brain loves fun. In a recent interview, Matt Milbrodt, Senior Director of Talent at ASDA, acknowledges that just by coming to work, people were shaping their colleagues' brains.
The opportunity is to understand how to go about making the most of that effect to achieve lasting change. One of the ways this is happening is through "Hebbian learning," which adheres to Hebb's rule, the theory that "neurons that fire together wire together." If a leader has frequently responded abruptly to suggestions of different ways of doing things, then he is reinforcing the pathways of these responses, making it more likely that he will behave in this way again in the future. Conversely, if a team member sits down at their desk and gets straight to work, being super-productive, they will find this easier to continue doing over time.
"Neural Darwinsim" proposes that the neurons that we use most survive and get strengthened, whereas the others wither away. We can see this principle occurring at many levels within companies. Cultures are shaped by the critical masses that exert their influence. Being clear from the start about who you are is something that companies like Innocent have gotten right. They have evolved fairly consistently, and the values that were there at the start, with just three people, are still cited now.
The opportunity we have is to link within a company to what the company is about. This will be moving toward a place that takes full advantage of Hebb's rule. Most companies are just scratching the surface: Innocent has AstroTurf flooring, and their environment is pretty "on-brand." External environment is definitely a great place to start.
We use the term "connection" from the "Synaptic Circle" model described in my first book, Make Your Brain Work. Any concepts that make it into this model are thoroughly underpinned by neuroscience research, which we cover in depth in white papers and trainings. In essence, though, as a social species, we have evolved so that isolation heightens our sensitivity to social threats. This helps motivate us to renew social connection. Perceived social disconnection activates areas in the brain similar to the experience of physical pain.
Louise Fryer, L&D Director at Cath Kidston, told me about their Stanley Standards magazine, which goes out to the whole organization every couple of months. It is affectionately named after Cath's last dog and contains lots of personal stories and insights from team members. This is great, from a neuroscience perspective, because it has the potential to bring people together and facilitate connection.
Many organizations really consider their employees' external environments when trying to create opportunities to connect. They have nice, well-maintained cafés, staff rooms or games rooms. They arrange parties, informal drinks, themed events and other ways to draw people together to get to know each other.
You are unlikely to have missed the flurry of excitement around mindfulness meditation. Google is proudly extolling the virtues of mindfulness and drawing employees in with promises of increased emotional intelligence, resilience and focus. Benefits can occur quickly, and with long-term practice mediators can enjoy a shrunken amygdala and an enlarged prefrontal cortex, which correlate with the experienced benefits.
In this case, many people are attracted to these classes and ongoing personal practice initially because they hear that it literally changes your brain (pure neuroscience). They quickly feel the good it does them and choose to continue. With Google leading the way with provisions such as a labyrinth for walking meditations and silent, mindful lunches, the bar is being set for others.
Bucketloads of research support the practice from a neuroscience perspective, and it is great to see such a clear example of the science enabling people to engage with something that they shied away from previously.
As you can see, neuroscience can offer a lot to the corporate world. Based on these points, here are three valuable actions you can take now to positively and productively impact your culture, environment and organizational results: Get clear on how you are shaping your people's internal environments (their brains); ask people how many close friends they have at work; and find out what your culture really is and what effect that is having on people's performance.