The Collective Brain: How Group Consciousness Shapes Organizational Identity

Perhaps what follows can best be summed up in the words of an unnamed Japanese industrialist shortly following World War II: "We are going to win and the industrial West is going to lose, and there is nothing they can do about it because the seeds of their failure lie in the way they think. They think that it is the nature of things that people at the top do all the important thinking and the rest wield the screwdrivers. Our concept is that leadership is the art of mobilizing and energizing the creative resources of all people at all levels of the organization."

Driving and Thinking at the Same Time

Imagine a time when you were driving a car under entirely unfamiliar circumstances. Maybe you were driving on the opposite side of the road in a foreign country. Maybe you were driving a manual when you usually drive an automatic. No doubt all drivers have experienced something like this. Now imagine yourself in one of these situations while simultaneously trying to be deeply engaged in a stimulating conversation with a passenger in your car. You will likely conclude that diving a car under unfamiliar circumstances while attempting to do something else that requires your attention to be very difficult indeed. And yet, if you're driving to work or home, for example, on a road you've traveled maybe hundreds of time, you probably would find it quite easy to have a conversation, listen to a good radio program, or take in a stimulating audiobook. The reason for this is both surprisingly simple and has to do with something mostly out of our control- the involuntary functioning of the brain. Three parts of the brain, in particular, play key roles in how we behave individually and as groups:

  1. The prefrontal cortex: the thinking self
  2.  The basal ganglia: the doing self
  3. The limbic system: the feeling self

These sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary parts of the brain provide great opportunity, and also great hazard. When the winds are harnessed in the sails of our minds, as individuals and organizations, we can navigate the seas at will. But, if the winds are blowing to and fro, or not blowing at all, we will find ourselves drifting or stranded.

So why is it then that behind the wheel of a car in unfamiliar circumstances it's hard to multitask, but it' s easy to do more than one thing when you're on a familiar road in your own car? When doing something new, the prefrontal cortex takes center stage. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for executive functions. When you find yourself driving in very familiar circumstances, the basal ganglia take over—the part of the brain where routine, memory, and habit—freeing up the prefrontal cortex to think about other things. This is both involuntary and good. The prefrontal cortex is energy-hungry and tires relatively quickly, and we need the basal ganglia to take over routine tasks so our prefrontal cortex is not unnecessarily burdened. Sometimes the basal ganglia even play tricks on you. Were you ever supposed to go somewhere besides home after work, only to find yourself at your house? The well-worn patterns of behavior and memory in the basal ganglia can easily take over if the prefrontal cortex is preoccupied.

The Organizational Brain

So, now that we've taken care of some basic neuroscience, how can we apply this understanding to organizations? An organization works much the same way the brain works. Think of the way an organization operates like a single brain that is the aggregate of organizational members' brains. Just like driving to a new work location the first few times will require a lot of attention in the form of prefrontal cortex processing, as an organization develops, most collective tasks will require focused attention. However, eventually these tasks become imbedded in the collective brain's basal ganglia. Here's where many new organizations make their first (and sometimes last) mistake. The first few times you drive to a new work location, you may take different routes, attempting to find the best route and establish alternate routes. However, what if you were forced to take a new route to work every day? The task would never become routine, and eventually you would become exhausted from using your prefrontal cortex every day just to get to work. Organizations work in the same way. At first, it's necessary to ask questions about what makes up the core of an organization's identity. There are three questions that make up the core of an organization's identity, and it's important that they be addressed in order, as the answer from one flows to the next:

  1. Why do we exist?
  2. What do we do?
  3. How do we do it? (Note: I shared my thoughts on the how in an article here. While the why and what require very clear and consistent answers, being too prescriptive about the how can actually be counterproductive.)

If an organization perpetually struggles with even one of these questions for a protracted period, the collective prefrontal cortex becomes exhausted. As the prefrontal cortex's executive functioning starts to flag, the limbic system begins to overheat. The exhaustion of the prefrontal cortex and amped up limbic system manifests itself in the telltale signs of an unhealthy organization: low morale, cynicism, frustration, ineffectiveness, and eventually, attrition. It cannot be overstated how important it is for an organization to establish early on the answers to its core questions. To allow uncertainly to surround these questions will eventually lead to an organization lapsing into an irreversible state of fatigue. My observation is that a great many organizations struggle to clearly and consistently answer their core questions in a way that manifests as a deeply imbedded sense of organizational identity. This state of organizational maturity is only reached when the answers to the core questions become imbedded in the organization's collective basal ganglia. This creates a necessary sense of certainty within the organization.

Crouching Tigers

Very often individuals in positions of authority feel like they've answered and re-answered questions regarding the core of an organization's identity. And yet, the same symptoms of an unhealthy organization persist. The reason behind this problem lies in the paradigm of a hierarchical organizational.

Most, but not all, organizations are layered, with the smallest layer on top being the organization's senior leaders, followed by a larger layer of mid-level leaders, and finally a base layer of frontline personnel. Due to an arrogance of optimism, senior and mid-level leaders can feel like questions of an organization's identity have been answered, but confusion about organizational identity persists within the base layer of the organization, sometimes invisible to senior and even mid-level leaders. The response from senior and mid-level leaders is often resistance to the notion that not all is well within the organization, or an effort re-answer the questions of core organizational identity...at the senior and mid-levels of leadership. To paraphrase a Russian saying "the well-fed cannot understand the hungry”. Unless senior and mid-level leaders make an effort understand the base layer's concerns, the troubles within the base layer will seem trivial to them.

There's nothing wrong with hierarchical organizations per se; however, they do tend to struggle when ideas are planted only at the top, as the roots of these ideas often don't make their way down to the base layer. Nevertheless, there is a solution to this problem, and it has to do with a deep and abiding need for status and safety within an organization.

Because of how it evolved, the emotional limbic system puts things into two basic categories: safe and dangerous. Our instincts are to run away from, or fight things, we see as dangerous, and to seek out things that are perceived as safe. Natural selection favored this trait in the very precarious world of our primitive ancestors. This elemental aspect of being human plays an important role in how we behave organizationally. By default, uncertainty, change, and lack of perceived control are viewed by the brain as states of danger. While this state of danger might not result in us running out of the office in terror, it will create a general resistance (fight state) against whatever is causing in the uncertainty, change, or lack of perceived control. The very best, and perhaps the only way, to circumvent this primeval instinct is to create a sense of safety within the organization that is shared by individuals at the top, middle, and base layers.

A sense of safety is established by creating opportunities for involvement in answering questions concerning the core of an organization's identity. In other words, leaders at the top and in the middle, if they want a healthy organization, will involve individuals in the base layer to have a say in why the organization exists, what the organization does, and especially, how the organization does it. This sets a tone of safety, and therefore acceptance, for the brain.

You may be wondering about what happens when new individuals enter an organization. Is it practical for every new person to have a say in why the organization exists, what the organization does, and how the organization does it? No. Although, sometimes new individuals do have great ideas! The reason why new additions to an organization don't necessarily have to go through the same process is because if they're entering a healthy organization (i.e. one in which the why, what, and how have been deeply imbedded into the organizational basal ganglia), they are by default entering a safe zone, and not one perceived as dangerous. But, until an organization is healthy, most every new person that enters the organization will feel at least a vague sense of threat and danger.

The Trellis and the Rosebush

While certainty in the form of answers to the why, what and how form the core of an organization's identity, the remainder of an organization's identity develops organically, and does not require the same level of attention as the core questions require. Think of this like a trellis and rosebush. The why, what and how of an organization's identity form the trellis; the remainder is the rosebush. Build a sturdy trellis, but beware fussing too much over the rosebush, or else its growth will be stifled and it will wither.

Roses, like people, are subject to natural and invisible forces. The rose can be encouraged to grow on the trellis. But a rose cannot be forced blossom by will or on command. Individuals crave both certainty and autonomy. Looking at this from Maslow's hierarchy of needs, individuals want to self-actualize, and this requires that they be given clear answers to the core questions of organizational identity, but then given space and actualize the answers to those questions. 

So how can leaders ensure that they provide the best chance for the rosebush and the trellis to marry? The best way to ensure the rosebush takes to the trellis is to give the rosebush a say in how the trellis is constructed. In other words, the more input frontline personnel have in answering the core questions of organizational identity, the greater the chances are that the answers to those questions will become imbedded in the organization's collective basal ganglia.

Conclusion

Many organizations are ill. Signs and symptoms abound. Fortunately, the field of organizational development has taken the leading of organizations from an art to more of a science; there are actions that result in predictable behaviors within organizations that have to do with how our brains function, and these actions can be learned and applied.

First, recognize that organizations are people, and as people we have certain brain needs that, when unmet, can cause havoc. We need some certainty about the why, what, and how that make up an organization's identity. The process of developing this deep sense of organizational identity depends upon senior and mid-level leaders creating an environment that feels safe to individuals throughout the organization, by removing the sense of danger around uncertainty, opaque change, and lack of perceived control. And, once the organization has worked together to build its trellis of identity, leaders must allow the rosebush to naturally grow and blossom. The rosebush will require some occasional pruning and pest control; but most of all, it needs rich soil, bright sun, and fresh water. And the rosebush needs the nourishing soil, sun, and water far more than it needs to be repotted, clipped at, or doused with pesticides.

Final Thought

Before taking the crucial step of establishing (or reestablishing) an organization's identity, its leaders must acknowledge that they might not fully grasp the complexities of establishing and running a healthy an effective organization. To be a good leader does not require a full mastery of the skills associated with organizational development. If leaders seek first to understand and approach with curiosity and humility difficult issues like building and sustaining healthy and effective organizations, their chances of success greatly increase.