The Neuroscience of Organizational Culture

The Neuroscience of Organizational Culture

These behaviors, as Doidge comments, become “deeply wired into our brains”. He continues to quote Canadian neuroscientist Merlin Donald who argued that “culture changes our functional cognitive architecture, meaning that, as with learning to read and write, mental functions are reorganized”. This observation suggests a much deeper and neurologically significant implication of deeply entrenched corporate cultures which are therefore much more difficult to change, particularly when these cultural behaviors need to change quickly in response to competitive pressures. Beliefs, and ways of thinking and behaving which made a company successful in previous years and decades can become barriers to a new competitive environment. Doidge quotes research by mid-twentieth century European psychologist Jean Piaget in which he experimentally demonstrated how children from different social cultures learned to perceive the world in different ways, but that scientists believed, until recently, that these differences where interpretation and perception differences, versus microscopic differences in their perceptual brain structures and physiology.

The Power of Cultural Indoctrination

Doidge describes how some totalitarian regimes like North Korea recognize the power of cultural indoctrination very early in life. North Korea, he describes, places children as young as two to four years old in schools for purposes of indoctrination in a cult of adoration for their leaders. The high level of plasticity of these young brains creates deep changes in their “perceptual emotional networks that do not merely lead to differences of opinion, but to plasticity-based anatomical differences which are harder to bridge or overcome with ordinary persuasion” or learning later in life. So, while it would be unfair to make comparisons between large corporations and totalitarian regimes, one proposed correlation is that cultural immersion, for example in “New Employee” type programs and the ritualistic programs and experiences that follow are not simply learned and unlearned easily, but can similarly form physiological changes in the very structure of the brains of employees over many years. The implication again is that these are therefore much more difficult to change.

Wexler (2006) in his text “Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology and Social Change” supports this viewpoint by stating: “Learning and action are in an inverse relationship throughout our lifespans: We learn the most when we are unable to act (i.e. as infants). By the time we are able to act on the world, our ability to learn has dramatically diminished”. This is because, as the author notes, the human brain shapes itself to its environment and the particular form of the environment (for example, different culture characteristics) is unimportant – differences in the environment are not a factor in the human brain’s adaptation. In other words, the brain, especially an immature brain, is remarkably responsive to responding physiologically to diverse cultural stimuli. Also, incongruences between the environment and the developed brain, for example changes to the environment (for example, having to learn a new language) produce significant distress, anxiety and dysfunction (aligned with Aronson’s discussion of cognitive dissonance). While Wexler is referring to societal culture, the same can be said for corporate culture.


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About the Author

Kevin Weitz

Kevin WeitzKevin is Principle Organizational Consultant with Intel Corporation working with their leadership team to optimize Intel’s culture to support its business strategy into new markets. For over 25 years Kevin has consulted with organizations like Chevron, Levi Strauss & Co, Wells Fargo Bank, Pacific Gas & Electric, British Columbia Hydro and Standard Bank of South Africa on large scale organizational transformational projects. These transformational initiatives are almost always extremely challenging for these organizations, especially for employees and other stakeholders. Kevin’s transformation work focuses on engaging leaders, employees and stakeholders on becoming more adaptable and resilient to constant and disruptive change. Kevin has a master’s degree in business administration and is currently pursuing his doctorate in organizational psychology at the Professional School of Psychology in Sacramento California.

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