Why workplace culture is so hard to change…but, so important to success

We have all tried to make changes in our lives.  Sometimes we have been highly successful such as losing 20 pounds and keeping it off or improving our knowledge by taking an on-line course.  Unfortunately, more often than not, our attempts to change have only been short-lived.  All too often, we revert back to our old behavior, especially when we are under stress.  Have you ever wondered why it is so hard to change?  The reason is because our brains are “hard-wired” to resist changing.  You might even say, our lives depend on us not changing.

The reason is really quite simple.  The human body is designed to survive long enough to reproduce.  During most of lives, our instincts for survival tend to outweigh all other instincts.  Once we learn something that is important for survival such as not to touch a hot stove, our brains remember those survival lessons above all else.  In reality, the pathways between the neurons in our brain that control our response to some stimuli become so well-traveled, that they become our autonomic response.

This autonomic response is especially strong when we are under stress.  This phenomenon occurs because of the “freeze, fight, or flight” response that takes over when we face danger.  This phenomenon is also known as the “amygdala hijack.”  Dr. Francis Collins recently posted a superb article http://directorsblog.nih.gov/2014/03/18/creative-minds-making-sense-of-stress-and-the-brain/ on “Making Sense of Stress and the Brain” that explains the biochemical reasons why the prefrontal cortex that is responsible for reasoning, abstract thinking, and planning is effectively disconnected from the rest of the brain by an increase in the chemicals which enable our synapses to fire.  When we are constantly under stress, the chemical levels become so high that other chemicals come into play to essentially prevent the brain from short-circuiting.  In essence, our prefrontal cortex disconnects itself so that we can act from our prehistoric brain, our amygdala with a freeze, fight, or flight response to deal with the threat.

In the corporate world, stress is a common occurrence.  Today, there are so many things that stress us out such as the traffic, world events, our financial situation, getting the kids to soccer practice, office politics, a struggling economy, and an extreme corporate focus on profits at all costs.  Is it any wonder that our brains are just a cross word or an angry glance away from disconnecting the part of our brain that would create a logical response to something that is said or something that we interpret?

The danger in these kinds of “freeze, fight, or flight” responses is that often it affects the workplace culture.  Even though we know better, the stresses of modern life continually hijacks our brains and we react to an event or stimulus with the amygdala of our brain instead of the thinking part of our brain.  That’s why, despite our best intentions, it is so difficult to change the workplace culture.  And, why is changing the workplace culture so important?  Because the old saying that “people don’t quit their job, they quit their boss” is so true.  A recent Gallup survey found that only 30% of the American workforce is engaged in their jobs.  The remaining 70% are disengaged…just putting in their time and collecting a paycheck, or actively disengaged which means they are essentially undermining the company or organization they work for with more accidents, lower morale, more sick days, and poorer service.

But, with effective coaching and a desire to change, these disengaged and actively disengaged employees can become important contributors to success.  Part of the secret to improving workplace culture is raising people’s awareness to be more forgiving of people’s behavior, to do more active listening, to learn to deal with stress better themselves, and to recognize that the brain is going to resist change.  The key thing to remember with the thinking part of your brain is that it so important to your happiness and success to change your workplace culture…even if it goes against your survival instincts.