The Neuroscience of Organizational Culture
* Doidge comments that this technique won’t give immediate relief because (like exercising a muscle in the gym) neuroplastic change takes time, but it does lay the groundwork for change by exercising the brain in a new way. For the OCD patient, at first they will continue to feel the urge to react to the compulsion, and the anxiety and effort needed to resist it, but with practice this become easier. Doidge describes this process as “neurons that fire together, wire together” (grow stronger) and “neurons that fire apart, wire apart” (atrophy).
Applying the “Neurons that Fire Together, Wire Together” Principle in the Workplace
In the Introduction to this essay, I provided an example of a company that I consulted with in which a large number of employees expressed the experience of fear in the workplace. In most cases, the source of this fear appears to be concerning some form of retribution from senior leaders resulting from speaking out or appearing challenging in some manner. While recognizing the potential for this possibility, when questioned, many of these individuals recognize that the potential for retribution is low, and the tangible evidence of retribution is scarce. Even in cases where there may have been some form of retribution by a leader, the fear response to the potential retribution is also unlikely to have benefited the situation, indeed is more likely to have worsened the individuals performance on the job.
As Robert Sapolski, the Stanford University neurobiologist, comments in his wonderfully informative and humorous book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”, most beasts on earth have adapted to short bursts of stress (being chased by a lion) and they either survive it and forget it (they don’t experience long lasting anxiety once the lion has given up the chase) or it’s all over (they get eaten). For most humans in the workplace, many or most of our anxieties are “in our heads” and our responses to these threats are ongoing – in other words, we don’t simply shrug off that the lion has given up chasing us and go back to a resting state (and therefore we don’t get ulcers), we maintain a high level of anxiety, ruminating on the experience, thus creating a “neural highway” that is difficult to get off. In Doidge’s words, the “neurons that fire together, wire together” are building a neural “highway”. The objective is to create an off-ramp off the neural highway and build another neural highway that is healthier and more productive.