A New Frontier – Neuroscience & The Workplace

Pieter Rossouw

Connie Henson


Download PDF  Neuroscience & The Workplace

Research on a neuromolecular level, and the findings of neuroscience have significant implications for our day to day life. The science of Neuropsychotherapy is based on the principles of neuroscience, providing a wealth of information and direction towards effective neural change. These key principles are (to mention a few):

• The fact that neurons are plastic and have the ability to change their patterns of firing, their con- nectivity with other neurons, in order to facilitate new pathways of activation. This fact has changed the landscape of psychotherapy demonstrating the need for structured talking therapies to facilitate change (Kandel, Swartz & Jessel 2013).

• The pattern of neural activation—lessons from developmental neuroscience. We know now that the brain develops from the deep primitive neural structures (brain stem areas) to the limbic structures and eventually the neo-cortex—the cortical regions (MacLean 1990). This finding has significant implications for understanding the process of therapy, highlighting the need to address safety and attachment first before we engage in higher order (cognitive restructuring) interventions.

• The discovery of mirror neurons. The discovery of mirror neurons and ongoing research in this fasci- nating field has forever changed the concept of the brain as a closed system to the brain as social network that is strongly linked in social patterns and interaction with the environment which continues to shape the trajectory of neural activation (Rizolatti & Craighero 2004)

Knowledge and understanding of these patterns is vital if neuropsychotherapists are going to engage effectively with clients, and facilitate effective patterns of neural activation, in order to shift uncomfortable, or less helpful patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

During the last decade, Neuroscience has found an ever growing number of clinicians realising that the classical focus on Neuropsychology (the science that traditionally focuses on the link between the brain and cognition and, to some extent, re- search models to understand behaviour, emotion and brain injuries) needs to be broadened to a focus on APPLIED Neuropsychology – the process of intervention. This has given birth to the new focus on neuropsychotherapy – the applied science of psychotherapy from a brain based perspective (Grawe 2007; Rossouw 2011). This science is not at all a re- ductionistic enterprise – the mirror neuron effect has clearly demonstrated the social interactiveness of the brain and how the environment (enriched and traumatic) changes the patterns of neural firing and wiring (Kilner, Friston & Frith 2007, Rossouw 2012, Rossouw 2013b).

One of the frontiers that has not received a lot of attention is the exploration of the organisational environment in terms of the principles of neurosci- ence. How does the workplace impact the brain? How is the brain impacting the workplace? The an- swer seems logical—clearly the workplace will have significant effects on the wellness of the brain—it can stimulate the brain or cause trauma resulting on patterns of avoidance and protection.

Although this seems logical – the organizational environment has not been a focus of study from a neuroscience perspective. In 2012 the authors activated a comprehensive project to study organizational leadership patterns and consider the impact from a neuroscience perspective. We specifically targeted organizational leadership and considered the effect of leadership styles on neural wellness. We found that despite the growing body of evidence from neuroscience providing guidelines to maximise neural wellness, the organizational environment is significantly lacking. We are currently finalizing a manuscript on organizational leadership to address some of the current organizational practices and leadership styles from an applied organizational neuroscience perspective.

Grounded in not only in organizational science but also neuroscience, leadership includes practices to smooth the thinking pathways, enabling our thoughts to link with others to produce insights; find answers to complex problems; and create novel approaches/adaptations that will enhance productivity and wellbeing. Neuroscience also enables us to identify barriers or restrictions that can impact each of the elements of leadership, that if not removed can get in the way of clear, creative thinking. The Neuroscience Leadership framework offers a coherent scheme for the practical application of recent neuroscience research to the challenges leaders face when dealing the with complex, ambiguous, rapidly changing and multidimensional problems that are typical in current business environments.

How neuroscience has changed the rules

During the last two decades scientists have gained a far more accurate view of human nature and behaviour because of the integration of neuroscience, organizational psychology, social science and physics. Imaging technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) as well as enhanced brain wave studies, such as quantitative electroencephalography (QEEG), have greatly enhanced our understanding of neural processes and responses to our environment. Advanced computer analysis has contributed greatly to the development of a clearer theoretical working model not only to understand patterns of thoughts, feelings and social behaviours but also to effectively facilitate change.

Recent findings clearly indicate that traditional strategies to facilitate change are not consistent with basic principles of neuroanatomy, and while they may deliver short-term results they are lacking in terms of facilitating lasting change (Davidson & Begley 2012). Likewise these traditional strategies are particularly flawed when working in environments and market places that are complex, less predictable and changing rapidly. Further introduction of these strategies can also have significant detrimental effects on the facilitator of the change (the leader).

Let us consider a few classical organisational strategies to facilitate change and view them in the light of modern neuroscience:

1. The “carrot and stick” principle to facilitate organisational change.

In its essence this principle is based on the premises that change can be facilitated by addressing behaviour. The history of this principle can be directly traced to the early behaviourists – Ivan Pavlov and later the giant in this field B. F. Skinner. These studies are all based on animal studies that demonstrated how certain triggers (the ringing of a bell) activated anticipatory behaviours (salivating) resulting in associations and changes in behaviours. Simply put the principle is operationalized as follows—the fear of being sacked when an individual under-performs and promised incentive when the individual performs well, leads to good performance (the carrot and the stick). This seems like an excellent model of facilitating change/performance, and likely to produce interim results. The problem with this “principle” is that the fear based aspect overrides the performance and the performance is the result of “closed neural activation” (which is associated with narrow and rigid thinking). This approach may have short-term benefits but eventually leads to high levels of discomfort, distress, avoidance, passive resistance, disengagement or even workers quitting a as result of ever increasing fear based activation. The carrot and stick principle eventually falls victim to the carrot becoming less and less achievable and the reality of the stick more and more indicative of impending doom. Moreover, the complexity of today’s markets and organisations makes it necessary for managers and even frontline workers to make decisions and implement actions that cannot always be predicted ahead of time. When the focus is on doing the thing that gets the reward or even worse just avoiding doing the thing that gets the punishment, employees thinking and decision-making will be biased away from thinking deeply and taking innovative action.

2. The “listen, be nice, pay a compliment before criticism” principle.

The essence of this “humanistic” approach is the “niceness” approach or the so called “how to make friends and influence people” approach. The principle is clear – make someone at ease and then facilitate change. Although there are aspects of this principle that are aligned with some aspects of neuroscientific findings, the essential feature of this “principle” violates the basic guiding principles of neuroanatomy. Imagine an organisation that adopts this principle to facilitate change. The “listen, be nice and pay a compliment” – style will rapidly become a trigger for all employees to realise day to day work platform is about to be changed and it will immediately up-regulate (stimulate) the fear and resistance responses. The result is increased aversion to praise, and a “fly under the radar” style of work, which in its essence is a low performance style. Similarly ineffective is the very popular ‘sandwich’ model for feedback that was widely advocated for many years, which involves give positive feedback, followed by negative/corrective feedback, and finish up with positive feedback. Not only does this method render positive feedback less than useless, by making it a trigger for fear and subsequent resistance but it also contributes to distrust within the relationship.

3. The “things will be better when it changes” principle.

The essential feature of this “principle” is the message that change will bring positive outcomes and employees should embrace change. This approach is in direct violation of what we know about neural development, and the effect of change on the brain, as well as ignoring the obvious and inescapable inconvenience and/or loss associated with any change. The brain developed in a sequential pattern from the inside out and from the bottom to the top (MacLean 1990; Rossouw 2011b). This pattern of development, that starts before birth and continues through the first year post birth, is essentially part of the survival response. The young undeveloped brain is highly geared to scan the environment to detect potential danger. Any changes are met with signals to the fear system (the amygdala) to remember to ensure effective responses in future. Babies whose needs were not be fully met, developed patterns of ‘insecure attachment’ to their primary carers (usually the mother), and developed patterns of increased stress activation when change was facilitated. This happened on a neural communication level as a result of insufficient ‘down regulation’ (calming) of the fear system and ‘up-regulation’ (activation) of safety patterns (mother’s care, hugs, talking, feeding, touch etc.). Ongoing violations of basic needs like these can eventually lead to a person activating his/ her fear system in any situation of change (Rossouw 2013). Change becomes a symbol of threat and fear. These activations can clearly be seen on PET scans.

Blood flow reduces quickly from the frontal (smart) parts of the brain and increases in the impulsive (fear based) parts of the brain. The mere mentioning of “change” leads many people to a freeze response, due to the shift in cortical blood flow. It paralyses people and many cases have been recorded where people indicate that they “cannot think straight” in the wake of change (a very accurate description in light of the rapid deterioration of cognitive control).

Even for the majority of people who have actually had their basic needs fully met (secure attachments) in childhood, these same neurological processes come into play when significant change is detected. This can include any change that will im- pact personal security including changes in organisational structure, retrenchments, and even less substantial changes such as alterations in technical or management processes, performance measures/ expectations or even a manger with a new style. Moreover, even in circumstances where changes do eventually have positive outcomes, this simplistic approach minimises the complexity and inevitable losses associated with any change. Anyone who is old enough to be in the workforce will have experienced many changes in their lives and will have an intuitive sense that no change is completely rosy. If this is not acknowledged and addressed by leaders it will contribute to distrust, and/or a sense that the leaders do not have a clear idea of what they are getting the organisation into. Naturally either of these perceptions will reduce predictability and feelings of control, further exacerbating the neurological and behavioural consequences.

So, why do we have some people who “love” change and embrace the opportunity to be innovative and develop new things? The answer lies in a combination of genetic predispositions and early life experiences (the concept of genetic expression). We inherit a set of genes from each of our parents – these two strands of molecules (RNA) combine to form our genome (our DNA). These genes are not totally fixed as researchers used to believe – how they play out happens in relation to our interaction with our environment (this continues right through life but predominantly during the last trimester pre-birth and the first 10 months post birth – the study of genetic expression is the focus of epigenetics). For example – researchers found that our serotonin transporter gene (the very important neurotransmitter responsible for helping us think clearly, make good decisions, and fight anxiety and depression) has two variants – one with a short tip (allele) and one with a longer allele. If we inherit one shorter serotonin gene from one of our parents our risk to develop serotonin deficiency (depression/ anxiety and other disorders) will be much higher than the average population. If we inherit two short alleles (one from each parent) our risk increases tenfold. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have bred a group of macaque monkeys with two short serotonin transporter gene alleles. The expectation was that significant serotonin deficiencies would appear in a short space of time. They split the group and raised one half in a normal (enriched) monkey environment (family, play, interaction etc.). The other group was raised in a basic stale environment. The genetic risk only expressed in the group raised in a stale environment. The risk never expressed in the other group – the expression only occurs in relation to environmental factors (Shen & Battersby et al 2000). The implications of this study are significant – early life experiences make us more or less vulnerable to change; early life experiences make us em- brace change or do everything in our power to avoid it. The implications for organisational settings are significant. While early experience has a profound impact on how we respond to change, the current environment also plays an important role for all people regardless of which end of the ‘love change – avoid change’ continuum they are on. By being mindful of the large variations in how people experience change, leaders can tailor their approach to take into account the differences, including fully leveraging those few who love change and accommodating those who ‘do anything to avoid it’. Likewise keeping in mind that most people are closer to the ‘avoid’ end of the continuum, leaders can make use of change strategies that work with this fact rather than pretending it does not exist and subsequently dealing with the resistance it will cause.


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