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Could neuroscience help organizational change?

September 3, 2012

Flaming Lotus Girls Neuron (c) SanFranAnnie in Flickr

This summer during a lunch on a terrace with a friend, one of the guru 2.0 of a French multinational company, we speak about organizational change (yep, even on a terrace in summer…). The issue that concerns us here is how to tackle inhibitors and resistance to change, at a general level, and efficiently. At an individual level, it is possible and quite simple to target each person’s specific needs. If we look at, as an example, the transformation toward collaboration and collective intelligence, the needs may vary from one person to another, from succinct information- for someone already well involved in social networks – to a structured training on tools together with a constructive dialog about benefits expected for the corporation, for the teams and for the individuals, along with threats and best practices.

But during a major strategic change, no corporation can afford to approach individually each of employees, not to mention customers, partners and other stakeholders. A standard program will miss to cover the whole range of individual needs or will become a Rube Goldberg machine. To circle the problem, an idea could be to target people’s ability to address and digest change. Neuroscience brings some interesting ideas to consider here.

Since I’m going to be part of the Organizational change and neuroscience panel at the Neuroleadership Summit in NYC in October, I ask my friend why, according to her, around here many corporate executives seem perplex about neuroscience, while in the Americas there is a growing interest. Her answer comes straight: one can see neuroscience as a manipulative set of tools, and it is not clear how it really works.

I’d like to use this post to revisit some generally accepted ideas.

Neuroscience: spectacles rather than a magic wand

Neuroscience’s objective is to study the brain functioning with the help of the most up to date medical imaging technology. It is a scientific practice that supports other domains, such as cognitive sciences (psychology, AI, philosophy, linguistics, sociology, anthropology), and quite shyly but increasingly some more practical domains such as politics, economics or marketing. All domains use it to validate their models or explore new thinking. Speaking about neuroscience to the corporation thus means that traditional practices will be strengthened by brain study results. Using neuroscience findings independently, haphazardly, would just be like using a language without grammar: it is not workable, given the complexity of our environment. For example, knowing that stress generated hormones kill the short term memory, or that one of the location of automatism is the limbic territory has no practical direct use.

As a matter of fact, the goal of neuroscience is observation rather than intervention to change behaviors. Regular disciplines take care of this. As an example, neuromarketing does not aspire to spur buyers neurons on making them buy unwillingly, but rather to understand how they make their buying decisions, and then hand over to classical marketing. Among other emerging practical disciplines, neuroeconomics aim at understanding why, while we have access to a phenomenal amount of validated knowledge, bad decisions are made and lead to multiple crisis.

The four different brain layers vs. change

Neuroscience validated and completed theories about the brain structure, including for example those like evolutionary psychology from the neurobiologist Henri Laborit. We now know that reptilian complex, the eldest in human evolution, is the location of instinctive states related to survival, including calm action, escape, fight or inhibition (as when an animal plays dead to elude a predator, it is a totally instinctive reaction). The next area, called palleomammalian complex, probably dates from the origin of mammals, manages relations in a group. The neomammalian complex that big apes share with us is the main location of consciousness, moral values, temperament and personality. All these areas work in automated mode, more or less conscious. The last area in the human evolution is the prefrontal cortex, which evaluates the environment and action means around the clock, elaborates new strategies and is the location of creativity.

Cecile Demailly and Dr Riadh Lebib, Research Scientist at Institute of Environmental Medicine

For many of us, change is exceptional and the prefrontal cortex is rarely at the helm; it seems that our evolution is not complete from this point of view. Automatisms from other layers of the brain are rather efficient from known and simple situations. When a new situation or a peculiarly complex one arises, if we address it with automatisms, the response will not be adequate. It will generate stress, which is just the human version of instinctive survival states managed by the reptilian complex: anxiety, aggressively, discouragement, etc.

For people who are involved in a corporate change there are two ideas to draw from the above: first, it is worth to dampen impacts of change by building it in a way that will generate as little stress as possible. Second, it will help to develop people’s ability to face change, i.e. teach them to call upon their prefrontal cortex. This can be learned, just like a sport, through theory, practice and training.

Neurosciences and organizational change

Getting back into our terrace discussion and to the issue of facilitating change at an overall level, here are some typical assignments I deliver inspired from the IME’s[1] neurocognitive and behavioral model:

  1. Understand and anticipate resistance to change: when one knows that it is not possible to change a behavior without unlearning the old way, and that unlearning is far more difficult than learning from scratch[2], one has to acknowledge how difficult changing usages and practices can be. Here, the idea is to match the planned change to the corporate culture. For example, a transition toward more collaboration and collective intelligence should work more easily in a corporation that already values collective frames, such as team spirit, leadership, emulation, or care for the corporate impact on the society and the environment (corporate sustainable responsibility). It should work less well when these traits are lacking, and in rather individualizing cultures such as those based mainly on observation, research, innovation, sales or security.
  2. Evaluate the corporation readiness to change: being used to organizational change is an asset, of course, but it is not enough. Many studies about stress show that it inheres in a decline of adaptability (it is both a cause and an effect[3]). Knowing the level of stress in the organization can be very useful to prepare a change. Benchmarking the stress level against national data will give a first assessment[4]. We then can identify more precisely organizational stressors, such as an uneven distribution of power and responsibility, or opaque areas in the information flow that hinders problem identification and solving. Focusing specifically on these stressors will help planning preparatory actions and improving change facilitation.
  3. Facilitate change: here, the process consists in developing adaptive skills of people who will be impacted by the change. With both theory and practice, we can strengthen and sharpen specific aptitudes that constitute adaptability, such as curiosity, acceptance and hindsight, reflection, personal opinion.
    On of IME’s missions was to help educate student pilots from the French Air Force. Those have been trained to decrease their sensitivity to stress (stressability) with exercises increasing their ability to call upon the prefrontal cortex. As a result, trained pilots exhibited less anxiety, lower cardiac rhythm, and better decisions in the flight simulator, addressing complex situations with half errors and six times more innovative and adaptive strategies on average[5].
    This kind of exercise can complete a traditional change facilitation program which usually mainly consists in communication and operational learning. Whether through including it in the operational courses, or by setting a specific learning module. Participants will benefit of an increased capability to address complex and new situations, – and that will prove useful for the change to bear, but also for the daily work life.

This post was first published on the French IT news site 01net here. For other French posts published on 01Net, check here.

[1] Institute of Environmental Medicine and its partner the Institute of Neurocognitivism

[2] Reported in many scientific studies. One can read for example « The Brain Falters When Rules Change » on

[3] Fench: Le bon stress n’existe pas English translation by Google Good stress does not exist

[5] Fornette, M.-P., Bardel, M.-H., Lefrançois, C., Fradin, J., El Massioui, F. & Amalberti, R. (in press). Cognitive adaptation training for improving performance and stress management of airforce pilots. International Journal of Aviation Psychology.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 2, 2012 2:16 pm

    You might be interested in NeuroMonaco

  2. June 5, 2013 10:49 pm

    This aspect really reminds me of how political scientists observe and research political phenomena. The individual level of analysis (or in this case the very specific neurological constructs of an individual) is critical in understanding how polices and agendas are constructed in foreign policy. However, it is also important to observe the context of these decisions within their immediate organizational surrounding, that institutions culture and internal pressures, external market pressures and overarching systemic level forces. Assigning specific measurements of influence to each of these levels of analysis is probably near impossible, but it’s really interesting to start hearing how social science and social science research tools are becoming more involved in industrial problems!

    • June 10, 2013 11:11 am

      Thanks for your feedback Michael, I agree the field of social science applied to business has lots to deliver.


  1. Billets publiés dans 01Net Entreprises (liste mise à jour périodiquement) « Cecile Demailly's blog: ponderings on disruptive change

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