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 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62(originally published by Booz & Company)


“That’s the Way We (Used to) Do Things Around Here”

The basal ganglia’s processing, in particular, is so rapid compared to other brain activity that it can feel physically rewarding; people tend to revert to this type of processing whenever possible. Moreover, every time the neuronal patterns in the basal ganglia are invoked, they become further entrenched; they forge connections with one another and with other functionally related brain areas, and these neural links (sometimes called “action repertoires”) become stronger and more compelling. This helps explain why when people in a workplace talk about the way to do things, they often reinforce the link between their own neural patterns and the culture of the company. If an organizational practice triggers their basal ganglia, it can become collectively ingrained and extremely difficult to dislodge.

Similarly, if you want to create permanent new patterns of behavior in people (including yourself), you must embed them in the basal ganglia. Taking on new patterns (also known as learning) often feels unfamiliar and painful, because it means consciously overriding deeply comfortable neuronal circuitry. It also draws on parts of the brain that require more effort and energy, such as the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with deliberate executive functions such as planning and thinking ahead.

In financial services, for example, when the market goes down, selling equities feels reassuring, because the news about the market has triggered habitual attitudes about risk (stored in the basal ganglia) and fears (generated by the amygdala). Holding on to the stock may be more prudent, but that decision requires activity in the prefrontal cortex, which requires extra effort and energy. Similarly, if people at a company such as Cargill find it difficult to innovate in teams across business units, they may be collectively protecting their basal ganglia– and amygdala-driven instincts (the attractions of habit and the fear of change) at the expense of the new goals of the organization.

At work, being forced to try something new can trigger fear and anger (sometimes called the “amygdala hijack”), the urge to flee, or exhaustion disproportionate to the actual provocation. In the grip of such emotions, people resist change. Their capacity for rational and creative thinking is also diminished; they revert to their rote behaviors, such as arguing, passive-aggressive compliance, or covert resistance. To overcome this reversion, people need to prepare for organizational change in advance — they must train to recognize the source of a strong emotion even as it is triggered, and to find more effective ways of responding.

• Despite the seeming inflexibility of the brain, neural connections are highly plastic; even the most entrenched thought patterns can be changed. The kind of mindfulness that accomplishes this combines metacognition (thinking about what you are thinking) and meta-awareness (moment-by-moment awareness of where your attention is focused). Adam Smith, the 18th-century economic philosopher, understood this. He described self-directed reflection as an “impartial spectator” and commented on its importance.

A growing body of neuroscience research confirms the power of the impartial spectator. For example, a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) might ruminate on a single belief, such as “I have to wash my hands to make sure they’re clean.” Day after day, this thought reinforces neural connections in parts of the brain such as the basal ganglia, gaining influence over the individual’s behavior. But MRIs show that asking people to observe their own thinking process as they ruminate can cause activity to move to more deliberate, conscious brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex. Research at the University of Toronto shows that moment-by-moment self-observation activates executive planning areas in the prefrontal cortex and deactivates areas involved in attention-distracting rumination.

Working in any corporation may lead people to adopt repetitive patterns of behavior. But the neural connections remain plastic. Once people know how to bring the impartial spectator into play, they can recognize when their old habituated neural patterns no longer serve them (or their company) well, and reshape those patterns in new directions.

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  1. Douglas Lennick, Financial Intelligence: How to Make Smart, Values-Based Decisions with Your Money and Your Life (FPA Press, 2010): Similar reframing principles applied to personal finance.
  2. Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain:Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (Regan Books/HarperCollins, 2002): Explains how human thinking and behavior changes through processes like this one.
  3. Jeffrey Schwartz and David Rock, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” s+b, Summer 2006: How to develop far more effective leadership practices by taking the nature of the human brain into account.
  4. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759): Smith’s masterwork (as he considered it) explicates the development of morality through the “impartial spectator”; people building awareness of themselves in the context of a larger community.
  5. For more thought leadership on this subject, visit the s+b website at:
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