Over recent years, advances in neuroscience have dramatically improved our understanding of the human brain’s design and functionality, its ability to learn and change, and its direct and subconscious connection to our underlying motivations and daily behaviours. This new knowledge gives us the opportunity to better understand ourselves and engage with others to create happier, healthier and more productive lives, careers, workplaces, organisations and societies.
The human brain weighs between 1.3 and 1.4 kilograms, contains around 86 billion neurons each of which can have up to 15,000 synapses and is far more powerful than any supercomputer. Like microchips, neurons communicate with each other via electrical impulses (action potentials). But unlike a computer the brain continually rewires itself according to genes, nutrition, experiences and environments, strengthening the regions and connections that are used most often and recently, and neglecting those that aren’t.
The brain’s activities are also influenced by chemicals (neurotransmitters), some of which it creates and some of which are generated externally. Neurotransmitters influence emotional, behavioural, psychological and conscious thought responses and patterns as well as physical actions, and are linked to experiences, stimuli, neuropsychological needs-satisfaction balance and mental health.
The brain has three primary sections – one for maintaining basic survival functions, one for emotions and one for rational thought. The rational bit is the weakest and slowest, fully engaged only when the emotional brain, led by the threat-sensitive amygdala, is in a calm and settled state. To create this state, people need to feel they are physically, socially and psychologically safe. To appeal to the emotions of others (perhaps where the message is not predominantly rational or the situation requires stimulus of energy or thought) it is important to connect with the fast, intuitive, reactive emotional brain (perhaps with messages of fear, hope, affection or compassion).
This leap to rationality in times of distress (perceived threat) is not as easy as one might hope, because as a result of the panicked amygdala instructing the reptilian brain to prepare for action, that primitive brain has responded by sending energy and bloodflow to the large muscle groups, ready for fight or flight. By doing that, it also reduces the amount of blood available for the pre-frontal cortex (at the front of the neocortex), meaning the rational, intelligent brain is unable to do its work. This can be seen where people freeze when under pressure, or react aggressively.
These are natural defensive reactions that helped our predecessors to survive 50,000 years ago that still dominate our reactive behaviours now. Our initial survival response is the same for a psychological threat as it is for a physical one and it is pretty useless in most modern professional contexts. Where a higher level of rationality is helpful, especially where critical thinking and creative thought is required, it is essential that people feel safe and accepted. This results in a settled amygdala that is quite comfortable allowing the hippocampus, the brain’s home of short term memory, concentration, emotional control, long-term memory formation and the source of new brain cell growth to take a dominant role. In this way it can coordinate its activities with the intelligent, creative, conceptual, problem-solving pre-frontal cortex and allow its human host to perform at his or her potential, given the right physical condition, stimulation and environment.
Neuropsychotherapy deals largely with developing the strength of the pre-frontal cortex, engaging more effectively with the hippocampus and managing the sometimes troublesome amygdala in order to allow people to thrive not only in their brain, but in their life. In an organisational context, we strive to achieve the same thing within the workplace.
Other influences – The Social Brain
The brain is a social instrument designed for and shaped by our interpersonal interactions (Cozolino, 2010), especially through childhood attachment with a primary caregiver. Our social need is deeply rooted in anthropology, where survival relied on the ability to form social groups for survival and the ability to nurture children for much longer than other species. In this way, rather than thinking of our brain as a solitary biological computer, it helps to imagine our brain as a part of a larger (social) network. Social connections are created and maintained via our mirror neurons, the part of the brain that processes what we sense from the people around us and intuitively helps us to understand what others are doing, thinking and feeling, providing clues as to what their underlying motivations might be (Gallese and Goldman, 1998). In this way we are capable of empathy, understanding and learning at faster, deeper, more permanent and more nuanced ways than might be otherwise possible with spoken or written language, allowing for us to profoundly and instantly influence with, and be influenced by, moods, expressions and behaviours.
We are able to sustain a limited amount of relationships at different levels of intensity, trust and intuitive understanding. The maximum number for most people has been estimated at around 150, but in reality it is more useful to think of them as concentric circles. We most easily trust, and are most easily trusted by, those who we are closest with (those near the centre of our circle), feeling safe in their presence and with their intentions, while we feel less comfortable, or even suspicious of, those we do not know well or at all (those near the outside of the circle). This natural behaviour is anthropologically rooted, where the people that survived and passed their genes on were those who successfully formed tribes and alliances that protected them against threats, human or otherwise. In this way, the brain’s need for social behaviours, including “tribalism”, is inherent in its design and instinctive drive for safety and survival.
Implications for Leadership and Organisational Behaviour
Rather than being the independent, stable, highly rational organ we like to think of it, or at least our own, as being, our brains are emotional, social, reactive and ever-changing – with a little logical thought thrown in.
This means that for leaders and organisations to attract followers and engage with employees, customers and the public at large, they need to:
- Make, nurture and protect strong emotional motivations and connections
- Be perceived as authentic and worthy of respect and trust, and to help followers to feel valued, respected and trusted
- Help people to feel that their concerns, hopes and aspirations matter – that they, personally, matter
- Connect with (or at least not conflict with) deeply held personal or cultural beliefs, values and aspirations
- Help people to feel better off for being connected to the leader or organisation – perhaps materially but certainly in terms of self-esteem, social acceptance, hope and personal safety
The highly rational field of neuroscience dictates that pure rationality, as a dominant approach to leadership and management, is less natural, intuitive or influential than appealing to our common underlying emotionally-expressed neuropsychological motivators. For this reason alone, the most successful leaders and organisations will be those that best understand and attend to these deeply held “hard-wired” emotional needs of their followers, supporters, employees and customers, embedding neuropsychological principles into not only their leadership, management and marketing practices, but their very structure and composition.
21T Cellular Organisational Structure