THE HUMAN BRAIN AND COMPANY CULTURE

While more and more organisations are becoming intentional about developing an organisational culture that would support the achievement of their vision and strategic goals, a vast number of culture shaping initiatives continue to fail. The reason for this inability to successfully transform organisation culture might lie in one key element that is often overlooked – the quality of human connections.

I have yet to meet a person who would completely dismiss the power of culture. It is such an integral part of human experience that questioning it seems almost as unthinkable as questioning gravity. And although culture may seem elusive and hard to define, research indicates that it is one of the key determinants of organisational success.

A lot of my clients eagerly admit that culture is one of the key factors determining how successful they have been so far and how successful they can hope to be in the future. And while more and more organisations are becoming intentional about developing an organisational culture that supports the achievement of their vision and strategic goals, a vast number of culture shaping initiatives continue to fail. The reason for this inability to successfully transform organisation culture might lie in one key element that is often overlooked – the quality of human connections.


Direction CommunicationA relatively new branch of neuroscience – social cognitive neuroscience, pioneered by Matthew D. Lieberman, sheds some light on why connecting is so important for us as human beings and offers insights into how it may be related to phenomena such as organisational culture.

Lieberman, director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab spent decades using tools like fMRI to understand how the human brain responds to social context.

As a result, he was able to identify three neural networks within the brain that promote our social profile:

CONNECTION – involving our ability feel social pain and pleasure

MINDREADING – enabling us to read others’ emotions and predict their behaviour

HARMONISING   helping us to absorb cultural beliefs and values and linking us to our social groups

Lieberman summarises his work in his highly engaging TEDxStLouis talk, from which – as he claims – we can learn the secret to being smarter, happier and more productive:

 His findings not only reveal that our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental and more basic than our need for food or shelter. They also indicate that we are wired to create and absorb cultural context, continually scanning for social cues that will help us understand what is the socially acceptable way of behaving. And this happens even when we are completely unaware of the process.

socialIn his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect he says:

The neural basis for our personal beliefs overlaps significantly with one of the regions of the brain primarily responsible for allowing other people’s beliefs to influence our own. The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.

So what are the implications of these findings for developing a healthy organisational culture?

CULTURE DEVELOPS WHETHER WE PLAN FOR IT OR NOT

Depositphotos_7028112_original.jpgThe harmonising network in our brain continuously scans our working environment and social networks, looking for clues on social norms and values and trying to make sense of what is happening around us. If we design and create that environment intentionally, there are much better chances for the culture that develops to be aligned with the organisation’s mission and values.

What is a sobering realisation for many of my clients is that fact that culture develops continuously, whether they plan for it or not. Its development is never hindered by the absence of clear culture vision and strategy – it’s just that without that vision and strategy it is impossible to foresee what norms and beliefs will eventually prevail.

MOST SUCCESSFUL CULTURE INFLUENCERS ARE GREAT CONNECTORS

Depositphotos_13235003_original.jpgThose who tend to shape and develop organisational culture are the ones who connect with others in a consistent and authentic manner.

As our brains are wired to experience pleasure when we connect with others and to experience pain when we are disconnected, the only reliable way to influence culture development is to create real social bonds.

People rarely, if ever, embrace the values and beliefs of leaders who are distant and disconnected, but they do get deeply influenced by the ones who are visible, accessible, relatable and authentically connected.

The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.

-C.G. Jung

Based on my observations in companies I worked with or have come to know through my research, I discovered that the biggest obstacle to successful culture transformation tends to be the lack of those authentic, deep human connections when people are fully present with each other.


In view of Lieberman’s findings, it seems that any successful culture transformation initiative needs to focus on designing a work environment and enabling the creation of social networks that will be congruent with the wider cultural narrative.

Another important element is supporting people to re-discover the authentic way of connecting with others and improving their presence. More on this in the next post, The Secret to Being a Good Leader!

© Agnieszka Bajer, 2016


Lieberman, Matthew D. Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. New York: Broadway, 2013

About the Author Agnieszka Bajer

Agnieszka Bajer is a culture strategist, in-demand speaker, executive coach, facilitator and organisation development consultant. She is also a Senior Manager at PwC. Agnieszka has worked with senior leadership of many major organisations, including Citibank, Toyota, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi, Amdocs, the European Patent Office, SAP, PwC and many others. Originally from Poland, and with a home-base in Cyprus, she divides her time between Italy, Germany, Netherlands and a number of other places.

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