Transform Organisational Culture with Neuroscience

Business is at a disconnect with what science is telling us. One of the top 10 TED talks of all time is by Daniel Pink in the puzzle of motivation. In this talk, he points out that in the last fifteen years, there has been unremitting neuroscience research that reveals fundamental insights about how we humans function and the way we run businesses today, does not support this.

Delloitte recently released its 2015 Global Human Capital Trends report . This was a comprehensive study of HR, leadership and talent challenges. The results came from surveys of leaders in 106 countries from around the world and there was one common denominator. The number one talent issue identified was poor culture and engagement (not really a surprise there). One such way to transform the way our people connect to culture is to consider the applications of neuroscience to organisational development and design. Or what is a new emerging field in business and research – organisational neuroscience (ON). ON integrates organisational design and behavior with neuroscience. Our knowledge of neuroscience and its application to practical business practices and leadership is fast evolving. Some would even suggest we are living in a neuro-revolution. The question becomes: So what?  How can we tap into emerging insights about the brain and apply them to the everyday work environment? How can we use what we’re learning to address the engagement and leadership crisis also regularly featured in the media?

Strange new world

This neuro-revolution opens us to a strange new world that takes a bit of getting used to. Not only does it challenge many of our basic assumptions about people and the way we work, it even occasionally compels us to question the very nature of reality. At times we need to act against our basic biology and recognise when the oldest part of our brains, in the quest to keep us ‘safe’, may be getting in the way of appropriate risk-taking, supporting innovation or building a strong organisational culture.

It can feel as if we’ve landed in the world of Alice’s Wonderland, but in a world of science rather than fiction. It may help to recognise that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift, something that is usually felt to be disconcerting, particularly if it challenges old assumptions. As leaders, we’ve been taught to structure our organisations in particular ways. And now, the wisdom of these ways is not only being questioned but shown to be wrong.

But, if we embrace this new lens (through what we call the ‘neuro lens’) to review and reinvent leadership and organisational practices and frameworks, we stand to be far more effective managers, leaders, CEOs, executives, and supervisors. The best organisations and the wisest leaders intuitively know how to create ‘brain-friendly’ environments, and they are reaping the rewards in productivity, staff retention, and engagement levels.

We are now seeing emerging organisational structures that are put in place to support more collaborative, flattened structures and purposeful approaches to how a business performs. In reality, while the people in the business need to be educated and supported to apply the principles of neuroscience, the organisation also needs to have a framework to support the development of a ‘brain-friendly’ environment.

Traditional hierarchical and paternalistic business structures provide limited availability for collaboration or free-flowing decision-making and problem solving which in turn builds strong culture and higher levels of engagement. New methods for structuring organisations are critical in the wisdom age, where many workers are employed to think. We need to be reviewing our governance structures, how decisions are made (and how transparent they are), as well as how power is distributed to support organisations to be agile in a time of constant change.Holocracy is one approach being adopted by organisations in Australia and overseas, which provides a good example of this move to new, wiser organisational restructuring.

Head + heart

Here at Neuresource Group, we have learned in our studies that the brain is a flexible and fluid organ that can be retrained to do anything you need it to do.  Only small actions are required: with focused attention, it’s possible to prune undesirable neural pathways and thicken up the ones you want to maintain. And it works the same way in organisations. Simply being aware of how the brain works can be enough to set these small changes in motion. Over time, this new way of doing things becomes embedded in the practices of employers and employees alike.

It isn’t just the brain that’s involved. Social connections and emotional intelligence are two of the highest predictors of a successful — and wise — organisational leadership. Scientists have even discovered there are neurons in the heart. That proves we don’t just process and respond to stimuli with our heads — something we should take to heart when considering building more robust organisational cultures.

5 questions to consider to be a brain friendly organisation – can you answer or measure them?

Brain-friendly organisations are intelligent enterprises and they score highly ( in our neu360 cultural survey) for each of these questions. They understand the importance of supporting people across the organisation to connect to the purpose or the why.

  1. Do you have a clear strategic vision?   – do your people know your “why” (watch Simon Sinek on TED Talks) and can they clearly articulate how they can support the execution of business strategy.
  2. Have you got the right people doing the right thing and are you supporting and developing human capital? – Brain-friendly organisations understand people are their greatest asset and tapping into their strengths and talents and having them doing the right job supports consistent high levels of motivation.
  3. Are your people consistently in a state of high engagement? – Brain-friendly organisations are committed to creating a workplace that engages the hearts and minds of people. Employees are not viewed as commodities with endless supplies of energy, rather they are viewed as a valuable resource.
  4. Can your people quickly respond to unexpected challenges? – In a climate of rapid change brain-friendly organisations have practices in place that support the organisation to be agile. Agile organisations are innovative and take advantage of unexpected opportunities as they arise. People in the business are supported to challenge the status quo and to think outside of the box.
  5. Do your people know what they need to do every day to execute on strategy and have they got a forum to collaborate to discuss this? – Brain-friendly organisations understand people need a clear roadmap to implement the business strategy and support people to pursue business goals by creating strategies that keep people’s attention focussed on the areas that are important. This is key in the current environment where invitations to distract us and derail our focus are rife.

One of the best compliments I had recently from a senior leader in a large transport infrastructure company we are working with is ‘What have you done to my people? They are thinking for themselves and coming up with solutions’. Some small ‘tweaks’ to how an organisation is operating can reap big rewards. Is your organisation taking advantage of the neuro-revolution? Is it time to address any disconnects between what science is showing us and what your business does?

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