Neuroscience has become a rising star in the sky of management theory. The notion or conviction that we can improve behavior and interaction in the workplace to enhance performance, innovation and health by understanding how our brain—the organ that is most involved in determining our behavior—works is on the rise.
And that by itself is a snapshot of how progressed the culture of managing behavior and interaction has become in parts of the western industrialized world. There should be no doubt that working life in most parts of the world, including all BRICS nations, is far from this level of fine-tuning for performance and innovation. Hence, it’s not very surprising to see from where most technical, product and social innovations that are celebrated worldwide originate.
Becoming a culture that uses neuroscientific insights to fine-tune performance and innovation is the result of reflecting on the situations we find ourselves in anticipating how things will develop and deciding what’s best to do based on a self-reflection of our own abilities in order to ensure a successful implementation. Performing all the aforementioned tasks is highly associated with our neocortex and its prefrontal section, the prefrontal cortex (PFC). We need these parts of our brain for the most advanced cognitive operations we perform.
Our PFC is associated with complex and sophisticated thinking or combinatory processes, reasoning, planning, self-control, self-reflection and awareness. And it is essential for conscious operations. In my conceptualization of culture, Neuroculture, these operations are represented by the building block Reflexivity. Our neocortex is home to our most advanced and differentiated knowledge—neural networks that represent our most advanced notions of the world and life, how humans are, how we are, how things should or shouldn’t be. They constitute the building block Notions. And when we think, what we actually do is process and combine information that we have retrieved from our memory (including entire notions about something) and information from what we have perceived.
The Spearhead of Our Neurobiological Infrastructure
It’s not by coincidence that our most advanced cognitive operations are only possible by using the most advanced infrastructure that our brain has brought up throughout evolution: our neocortex, which includes the PFC. About three million years ago, our brain had a volume of 500-600 cc, which is about a present-day’s chimpanzee’s brain. Two million years later, the Homo erectus already had 1,000 cc; and today, i.e. another million years later, we have 1,400 to 1,700 cc. Most of what was added makes up today’s neocortex—the outer “shell” of our brain—the spearhead of evolution. The ever-increasing complexity of life imposed corresponding developments of our brain physiology. Today, it is our neocortex that allows us to consciously think in sophisticated ways about complicated things, using more finely differentiated representations of the world and more complex, abstract and aggregated memory content.
What all this means, is that we use the newest and most progressed part of our brains to produce the most progressed ideas of what we should do at present and in which direction we should develop in the future. Interestingly, it is exactly that part of our brain, which is inhibited or disabled, when we get exited and emotional. In a way, emotions set us back in time to an earlier stage of evolution. But that isn’t the main reason why emotions are virtually banned from most workplaces. It’s more because of the many other downsides. Anyone who has ever experienced or witnessed emotionally charged conflicts in the workplace knows that this can end very badly. Often, such turmoil makes a separation inevitable. There are many downsides of emotions that gave rise to the aim of keeping them out of the workplace, which laid the grounds for an entirely new discipline to emerge: Emotion Regulation.
But all this is not to say that emotions are negative, per se. They simply aren’t. And by the way, who wants to be without love and excitement? In fact, the working life of most people is dedicated to fulfill emotional needs and desires. Emotions are just there. The only question is, how we handle them. And that suggests improving our commonly shared understanding of emotions: what they actually are, how they are triggered and exert their impact, and how to deal with them. That would allow for a much more enlightened handling and management of emotions, which has a culpably underestimated impact on success.
Now, for practical reasons, let’s focus on the interplay between emotions and creativity for the rest of this blogpost. Therefore, I would first like to refer to an amazing experiment.
Attention, Creativity and the PFC
In a study to elaborate the relationship between attention and creativity, the activity of the PFC, which is associated with attention, has been suppressed by using what’s called a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). (Figure 1)
TMS induces a state that may well be described as “dozing”: Our attention, which can be measured via gamma waves in the EEG, is reduced to a minimum and we “involuntarily” retrieve and combine information, by which unconventional combinations emerge—our creativity is maxed.
Something similar happens when we sleep: Neuroimaging reveals that we activate neural representations from all possible knowledge-spheres, while the PFC is inactive. A frivolous concert of combining information takes place because the activity of our “inner watchdog” is disabled in forcing us to only make reasonable combinations of information. It’s no secret that our fantasy goes through the roof while we are sleeping.
Our PFC allows for a rule based retrieval and processing of information. Hence, it plays an essential role in organizing which information we retrieve from our memory and enables us to scratch “rational, logical, sensible” pairs of information together. Which explains why children are more creative than adults. It’s because the PFC does not become fully operable before puberty and increasingly before adolescence. The instance that is imperative for our most advanced thinking and knowledge is not yet fully operable. And it’s exactly what happens when we become emotional: The activity of our PFC gets impaired.
When we detect a threat, annoyance, something joyful, or when we think about something that excites us, subcortical “emotion-structures” of our brain trigger the release of neuroactive substances (transmitters, hormones, endorphins, etc.) into our body and brain. These substances cause our heart rate and blood pressure to rise, which amplifies our physical responsiveness. The warmth that goes out from this process is what imparts us the genuine feeling of emotion. The altered concentrations also modulate our brain activity by inhibiting the signal processing here and amplifying it there. Think of a brain where the light is turned up in some areas and down in others, thereby modulating our attention, perception, thinking and acting. We become less mindful. Today’s organizational life is fully packed with situations that trigger respective emotions—meetings, presentations, performance reviews, conflicts, etc.
Under the influence of emotions or stress, we enter a state that I call neuroendocrine imbalance, which inflicts the following cognitive and physical changes (an excerpt):
- modulated attention or altered selectiveness/focus/filtering
- impaired to distorted perception
- other, coarser notions become effective and dominate our behavior
- access to our most advanced knowledge is altered, if not blocked
- reduced reflexivity and self-control
- increased impulsiveness
- increased creativity
- increased physical performance/mobility
The aforementioned consequences are no on-and-off type of effects, but come rather gradually into effect.
Emotions and emotional moments of moderate intensity (neutral range in Figure 2) are a kind of lifeblood of organizations and their members. While slightly positive emotions—section of the curve that is marked with 1—have a very positive impact on creativity and performance, an excess of them causes impulsiveness and thoughtless behaviors. Then, we are inclined to do or say things that we often later regret. All by ourselves—we don’t need any external help or push to gain such insights. It happens because we calm down and gain back our ability to make full use of the those structures of our brains that allow us to perform our most advanced thinking and to access our most advanced knowledge in order to reflect what happened as sophisticated as we can.
Extreme emotion, e.g. due to an immediate threat or a fierce conflict, may cause a reflex (critical range in Figure 2) and should be totally avoided in corporate life. They bear a very high risk of causing virtually irreparable damage for individuals as well as for an entire organization. Emotional incidents where people mutually shout out “what they always wanted to say” or hurt someone emotionally are clearly to be rejected. In a study on the effect of severe emotional incidents, it was found that such moments induce yearlong disturbances that actually almost never dissolve, but are rather “pushed out of mind” until they are “forgotten”. The authors describe impressively how a single misconduct of a superior that induces strong negative emotions, such as a publicly defamatory comment, clumsy utilization of power, or a convenient lie, drives people into inner termination for years. There are countless other destructive implications of negative emotions that shall not be further commented here.
Boosting Creativity and Innovation
Let’s assume for a moment that creativity is the ability to build unconventional combinations of information. Well, that’s exactly what happens when we get emotional. As we saw, it is this reduced ability to control our behavior and our thoughts, which gives rise to our creativity. The range of slightly positive emotion is particularly interesting because it promotes creativity without risking destructive consequences of unleashed emotions. And that’s why this state is not only recommended for brainstorming, but also as organizational credo in a more general sense.
The heart and soul of the company is creativity and innovation. ~Bob Iger
But how can we get there? Well, humor is a good option. Don’t worry; you don’t have to be a funster! But you also don’t have to take things or yourself too seriously. And even the least funny person can be very funny by making fun of one’s self. It’s also very helpful not to take every word all too literally. Does that sound quite self-evident to you? Unfortunately, it simply isn’t the widespread rule, but rather the exception. Anyway, there are many other proven ways to foster humor and positive emotions. Defining how exactly to go for it in a certain organization eventually depends on its culture. What’s funny in one culture, may cause confusion and harm in another. It is also important to find the right balance of humor. There are organizations out there that are in a good mood, having lots of fun, yet regularly failing to meet their objectives.
While creativity is important for the process of generating ideas, innovation is the result of their evaluation, prioritization and implementation. Innovations emerge where ideas face a constructive environment and that is a question of culture. Which ideas are condoned or tolerated, and which ones are refused immediately and without serious consideration? Maybe ideas are deemed inconceivable or offensive? Or, are ideas dismissed because they came from a person whom the provision of ideas isn’t attributed? Or, maybe because as introverts the way their idea was presented wasn’t outgoing enough? Biases and prejudices have an incredible unconscious impact on how we perceive ideas, but also statements in general. It’s a consequence of the prevailing culture.
The “fine-tuning” for performance and innovation, which I mentioned in the beginning of this blogpost, leads the most progressed and innovative organizations of our time to actively work against the destructive and often unconscious impacts of biases and similar phenomena. Google, Procter & Gamble and Apple are some examples.
The Role of Culture in Empowering Innovation
There are countless cultural dispositions that determine the innovation power of an organization. Ideas arise in all possible situations of daily business, particularly in discussions and in the course of being intensely engaged in something of intense concentration. How free do people feel about speaking out on an idea, even if it’s far from being thought through? It’s so easy to kill an idea but infinitely harder to defend it. Is there a culture of supporting colleagues in thinking the idea further to the next level? Freedom of uninterrupted speech is very crucial, as is the tactfulness of the speaker. Emotions have a strong impact on the aforementioned issues and the lower the level of emotional competence, the lower the probability to bring an idea through. Of course, ideas should be challenged. However, educated ways of handling emotions help ensure that good ideas don’t fall victim to senseless, interpersonal conflicts.
There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period. ~Brene Brown
Innovation power depends highly on how ideas are or should be collected, evaluated, and projected. What happens if someone fails to meet expectations? How is feedback given and received? How are mistakes and failure mentored for improvement? These and other questions, values and beliefs relate to an organization’s culture.
Increasing innovation power may sound spooky and there are fancy concepts and theories out there that are praised to bring it about. However, it is no mystery that boosting innovation power turns out to be mainly a cultural initiative. Cultural factors that create an environment in which creativity and innovation can flourish are on top of the innovation agenda. Understanding how the brain works, dramatically improves our ability to pursue that endeavor. For example, because neuroscience helps us understand and overcome the limitations imposed by culture, neuroscientific insights about learning help us better understand how we can change culture. And they help us to dramatically improve our behavioral expertise, which allows us to better cope with oncoming problems.
Having worked for 20 years to bring forth such transformations, it took me three years to deeply delve into the neuroscience of behavior and interaction and test some of the outcomes. The result is a book dedicated to help everyone who wants to actively manage culture—for example, to boost creativity and innovation.
All you have to do is to get started.
I welcome your thoughts and comments.
 In particular, the ability to use sophisticated forms of thinking, such as reflecting a situation against higher values.