How are Culture and Neurosciences intertwined?

neuro organizational culture

Editor’s Note: This is part one 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 two will post in early April.

There is unprecedented evidence regarding the success-relevancy of an organization’s culture. Cooperation, leadership, innovation, mergers and acquisitions, strategy implementation, etc.—virtually everything is deemed to be depending on culture. A culture related competitive advantage is considered to be extremely hard to imitate. According to culture expert Larry Senn, “after 50 years, we’ve got there in terms of people getting that culture makes a difference.”

But let’s face it, in the beginning 21st century there is hardly another management topic as mysterious as organizational culture. While some people out there glorify it and decide to take action—to work on culture, most take a rather skeptical to critical stance. Actually, there are lots of resentments against words like “beliefs, values” as culture is frequently referred to.

In a study with German specialists and managers on the importance of values, especially managers at the age between 36 to 45, expressed great skepticism. They strongly doubt the measurable contribution of values on business results, such as sales or profit. Above all, they see a large to very large gap between espoused values and the actual behavior of their leadership. While this sheds a regrettable light on the majority of attempts to work on culture, it also reminds us that any attempt to work on values, mission statements or the like can cause lots of annoyances.

In general, culture is considered to be blurry, hard to grasp. Outcomes of culture studies are deemed to be too soft, not compelling enough to be prioritized or invested in. The confidence into the effectiveness of culture related measures is often even more than low.

It seems that those who eventually get it right—get right what culture is, how it affects and how to work on it—are so experienced, educated and wise that only few people reach that level.

We need more appealing and convincing concepts of culture to allow much more people to acquire a reliable understanding of it. New explanations to make it far more graspable, lifting it deep into spheres of well understood knowledge—knowledge that is deeply trusted to be valid and functioning. Only that will provide enough confidence to work on culture, to accurately analyze cultural phenomena and to define effective measures.

The search for new and better approaches in this regard is not new. However, latest neuroscientific findings significantly elucidated the understanding of culture related brain processes, such as perceiving or judging what’s right or wrong. That opens up unprecedented opportunities to the subject matter.

Concepts of organizational culture eventually aim at providing improved abilities to explain, predict and change human behavior in the workplace. But what exactly is behavior? It is perceiving, interpreting, feeling, thinking, deciding and acting—we do all that with our brains.

Principles of How Culture and Neurosciences are intertwined
PERCEIVING When we perceive, we translate sensory inputs into signals of our nervous system, which stimulate neurons or neural networks. Everything we know is memorized in neural structures of our brain. If a neural network is activated, we recognize what that particular network represents (which is the result of our learning history). We perceive a situation and immediately believe to “know” if everything is all right or if something is wrong. We can immediately judge, whether something is usual, normal or not.

FEELING/EMOTION When we perceive something that we’ve memorized as being exciting, attractive, annoying or dangerous, we immediately become emotional. We don’t have to think, before we judge or become emotional. It just happens in “the moment of perception”—as a result of a neural network that has been triggered by sensory inputs. It’s simply the result of our learning history (including what we’ve inherited) that makes a specific neural network to respond upon a specific input. The neural network, which is triggered already contains information about whether we find something right or wrong, positive or negative.

JUDGING That is, what constantly happens in our work-life. We constantly scan and appraise the things that happen around us and our attention is drawn by those things that are, for example, unexpected, unusual or in conflict with our own opinions and picture of the world. But that already depends on what we’ve experienced, learned and memorized in our brains so far—thus, what we’ve cultivated so far. Our culture!

If we come into an entirely new group, we promptly notice all the differences to what we consider as being normal. We may even consider some of these differences as being negative, although they may be the most normal things in the world to that group. We can get emotional when we witness a situation that touches us, while others aren’t touched at all. Culture related processes, no doubt about that.

THINKING We have cultivated notions (memory content) about everything we know throughout our lifetime. They allow us to immediately interpret situations and respond by adequate means. And if we do not immediately know, how to interpret or respond in a specific case, we derive it by thinking and reflecting the situation against some more general ethical standards, attitudes or principles that we personally find suitable for the situation. And of course, that again is a product of what we have cultivated so far.

DECIDING / ACTING Deciding is either a by product of perception, or it is derived through thinking. And when we act in line with our decisions, we are “guided” by notions about the “right” way of acting. Notions on how to actually do something, that we have cultivated.

LEARNING When we think or reflect, we use already existing memory contents, combine them with sensory inputs and process all that. We have cultivated the way (depth, sophistication, etc.) we do it and we memorize (or “write” back) the respective conclusions as opinions or notions. Such conclusions start to influence our behavior from there on. Newly formed opinions and notions will, for example, influence what we expect from others and thus influence what will draw our attention, how positive or negative we will find things and finally, how we will comment, act or feel about respective situations.

EMOTIONS When we get excited or emotional, our brain functioning changes. For example, our access to content of our memory and our ability to combine or think gets impaired. That in turn alters our behavior. And let’s remember that it is behavior, what culture concepts are finally after.

Perceiving, interpreting, feeling, thinking, judging, deciding, acting, learning, memorizing: As said, we do all that with our brains and emotions influence the way we do it. Neurosciences have significantly enlightened these aspects over the past decade. And these advances are utilized in all possible behavior-related topics, such as in neuromarketing, neuroleadership or even neurophilosophy. Neuroscience is the key to better understand, how culture emerges, how it actually works (its mechanisms) and affects our behavior, and how it changes. Our brain is the seat of our culture!

Considering such thoughts in a substantial manner, a new concept of culture has been developed—“Neuro-Organizational Culture,” in brief “Neuroculture (model, pdf). It combines the latest findings from brain and emotion research with experiences gained from organizational culture in the past 30 years, but also with important insights from sociology and psychology. Great emphasis is given to provide a high practical value for analyzing, fostering and changing organizational behavior and culture. Accordingly, the operationalization of the concept is supported with easy to use templates, methods, models and inventories.

From insight to concept
To describe the cultural profile of a person or a group, the model shown in Figure 1 is introduced. It shows the three building blocks of Neuroculture including their predominant neurobiological attribution: reflexivity, notions, emotions.


Figure 1: Building blocks that constitute the model of Neuroculture

Notions build the core of the concept—neurally represented and networked memory contents that we’ve formed throughout our lifetime. Their entirety constitutes our subjective picture of the world, our worldview. Examples like notions about good or bad goals of an organization, about how they are to be achieved or how cooperation should be like are often relevant in organizational studies.

Our most advanced notions are stored in our long term memory, which is mainly associated with the neocortex. But our most advanced notions determine our behavior only in a single biological state: the homeostasis—a state in which we are calm, not emotional. However, we simply are not always in the homeostasis.

Important moments in organizational life are rarely calm, but excited, stressful or emotional and that creates highly biological alterations, which I call neuroendocrine imbalance. Then, brain-activity becomes inhibited in some areas and amplified in others—that simply alters functions and the presence of memory contents (including notions)—some become more “visible”, while others become “invisible”.

Thus, our behavior becomes determined by another set of notions, a less advanced and refined one. Our entire cognitive performance is impaired, which has a particular impact on our perception, our ability to think ambitiously or to reflect, and that again alters our behavior. Our behavior and appearance is transposed, as if we would be of another culture than normally.

But culture concepts are dedicated to explain, predict and change human behavior. The discussion so far made clear that without the consideration of emotions, this venture is completely hopeless and more than illusionary. The inclusion of emotions allows covering a much larger proportion of real life behavior.

Culture constantly changes. At a certain point of time, it is describable through the prevailing composition of reflexivity, the sum of all notions about the world, life and  the self, and emotional dispositions. This composition was developed, because it proved to be successful in satisfying needs and desires in the past, and because it is expected that it will prove to be successful in the future.

Based on the discussion so far, one might think that cultural phenomena or profiles could quite adequately be described by a set of prevailing notions and emotional patterns, which are identified as being relevant with respect to a specific task. But to put it bluntly, that would assume that people or groups simply are as they are just because they are as they are. This ignores in a culpable manner, why they are so  and how it came about.

To better understand behavior and cultural phenomena, it is necessary to move away from approaches that only determine “what is,” just to be delighted or disappointed about it. The question must rather be “why is it so“, but this shift from “what” to “why” compels to consider how a person or a group reflects—i.e. how it looks back on what happened and thinks in order to become what it is.

The building block reflexivity is dedicated to address these issues. The main questions here are: How do people or groups think and reflect, so that they (1) developed as they did and (2) decide and behave as they do? That includes how often and intense thinking or reflecting takes place, how logically correct it is or how many perspectives are usually taken in.

Two cultures with identical notions and emotional dispositions would be entirely different, if one was highly reflexive and the other almost not reflexive. Their  response characteristics are completely different. Reflexive dispositions cover the way we think and build up our minds or opinions, which may become consolidated notions if they prove their validity and effectiveness for some time.

Thus, reflexivity is a kind of development sphere of our culture and behavior— it gives the cultural profile its dynamic characteristics, like a kind of first derivative of the cultural profile. There is hardly a model that explains a living thing by purely considering static characteristics, neither in natural sciences nor in the humanities.

Finally, Neuroculture conceptualizes both the initial assessment of a situation as well as all subsequent assessment updates, which result from thinking. Notions and emotions together, surrounded by the dotted line in Figure 1, constitute our “automatic” system that models our ultra-fast initial (re-)action modes. It provides immediate assessments and responses—unconsciously, without any conscious thinking.

Our more sophisticated subsequent appraisals and behaviors are modeled by our “reflexive” or “manual” system. Our manual system covers anything that requires conscious effort such as sophisticated thinking, switching perspectives, more extensive assessments, weighing alternatives and planning or self-control.

Find out how to translate this into practice to improve the effectiveness of your organization in our upcoming Neuroculture blog post on and in my new book: Neuro-Organizational Culture: A new approach to understanding human behavior and interaction in the workplace

To access a descriptive model of Neuro-Organizational Culture, download this PDF.  Part two of this post will focus on the what leaders should do to translate these insights to action and improve effectiveness.

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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.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • James Morrill

    I intuitively get the concept, especially after recently reading Matt Tenney’s new book: The Mindfulness Edge, subtitle: how to rewire your brain for leadership and personal excellence… This was the first book that I’ve read that explicitly includes neurological explanations for the value of mindfulness practice. These explanations are provided by Tim Gard, PhD. and provide that hard science basis that may have been lacking in Culture works. I believe Mr. Reisyan is on the same track. I just struggled to follow his prose and use of reflexivity in what appeared to be multiple ways, sometimes contradictory. Perhaps this is due to translation issues from a non-English original language.

    • Garo D. Reisyan

      Good to read that you intuitively get the concept. Based on that it is a great idea to delve deeper into it and challenge your first impressions, including your struggle with reflexivity. In addition, I will be happy to answer your questions. You’ll find my contact details on my website (the link is at the end of the blog post). Looking forward to it.