When corporate leaders talk about change, they usually have a desired result in mind: gains in performance, a better approach to customers, the solution to a formidable challenge. They know that if they are to achieve this result, people throughout the company need to change their behavior and practices, and that can’t happen by simple decree. How, then, does it happen? In the last few years, insights from neuroscience have begun to answer that question. New behaviors can be put in place, but only by reframing attitudes that are so entrenched that they are almost literally embedded in the physical pathways of employees’ neurons. These beliefs have been reinforced over the years through everyday routines and hundreds of workplace conversations. They all have the same underlying theme: “That’s the way we do things around here.”
This phrase (and others like it) typically refers to the complex, subtle practices that become ingrained in an organization’s culture, to the point where they become part of its identity. Habitual thoughts and behaviors are not bad in themselves; indeed, they are often the basis for what a company does well. But when circumstances shift or the company becomes dysfunctional, those habits may need substantive change.
We teamed up to write this article, despite our disparate backgrounds — in neuroscience (Schwartz), learning and development in a major international corporation (Gaito), and ethics and leadership in the financial-services industry (Lennick) — because during the past six years, we each came to recognize the power of conceptual focus in organizational change. Altering habits is difficult enough for individuals. Studies suggest that the number of people who voluntarily shift away from addictive or obsessive-compulsive behavior, even when they know their lives are at stake, is staggeringly low, perhaps one in 10. At corporations, the complexity of collective behavior makes the challenge even greater. Furthermore, as with repairing a ship while it is at sea, these changes must be made at the same time that the company continues to operate.
But there is a particular type of highly charged conversational process that leads to changes in the neural patterns of people throughout an organization — a process that works with, not against, the predisposition and capability of the human brain.
Cargill’s Strategy Transformation
Consider, for example, the way that Cargill, a major agricultural and food products company, applied knowledge of the human brain to raise its game in collaboration and innovation across business units. Cargill had already undergone one major shift, starting in 1999, toward becoming a more agile, solutions-based organization. The company’s executives had defined the “heart of leadership” for their company as integrity, conviction, and courage. They had also set out to create a “culture of freedom,” empowering and encouraging employees at every level to act with decisiveness and accountability on behalf of customers.
But some elements of the company’s culture and practice still did not fully support the customer-focused culture that they were developing. One customer, a large packaged-foods manufacturer, told a Cargill executive, “You send 15 different people to our offices each week from different businesses, and they all ask us some of the same questions, but they never try to understand exactly what we do with all of your ingredients. If you brought all those people together, you could potentially offer much more to us.”
The situation clearly called for new behaviors. Better collaboration among Cargill employees, for example, would not just solve the problem of redundant sales calls. It could lead to new logistics, risk management, and quality assurance practices. But that type of collaboration, especially across Cargill’s 70-plus businesses operating in 66 countries, would be a stretch — particularly since in Cargill’s culture, it would require bottom-up commitment.