Organizational restructuring and the brain a quick summary
In the context of organizational restructuring, especially if it lasts for several years, and involving the need
for some people have to leave the company, a threat environment is created. This environment provokes
uncertainty in people’s minds, as they may have a constant unconscious thought of whether they are going
to leave the company or not.
This situation causes a difficulty in using properly the capacities / features of the PFC – people are driven
mainly by the perceptions and fear of what can be happening to them over the course of the restructuring.
Planning, strategizing, having the ability to focus on what’s really needed and important to do to keep the
business going on, albeit what is going on around people, becomes immensely difficult.
People unconsciously start to use more the reflexive (automatic) system (driven by the amygdala and limbic
system – Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex and basal ganglia are also regions more active), than the reflective
system (driven by medial, lateral and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, and medial temporal lobe).
Generally corporations direct people and organizations / business units to start acting in the new way of
doing things, using mainly a top down imposed approach, deciding at a top level the new organizational
hierarchies, drawing “boxes” where they are going to put the directors, executives, managers, etc., most of
the times without consulting / hearing operational people that really know how to do the job, and what’s
important for it to be done properly.
Without a common purpose / the involvement of some of the implicated people, restructurings become
more an imposed exercise, than an engagement exercise.
Impositions coming from the top, combined with the stress usually attached with uncertainty / lack of
proper / timely communications are a powerful combination for restructurings not to provide the results
forecasted and desired at the top.
People are mainly functioning in autopilot (basal ganglia working), doing things in their known and habitual
way, being very sensitive and giving emotional responses very quickly, some that they might regret later.
People are “victims” of their limbic system – “survival” (finding a new job / finding ways to escape being
fired) becomes the underlying driver of people’s behavior.
Learning to do things in the new way, having the capacity to pay focused attention on what are their
assigned tasks is almost humanly impossible.
Yet, people at the top deciding reorganizations keep doing things the same way, in spite of all the signs of
their internal climate surveys and the results of more than 4 decades of research on such situations of
organizational change – consistently only around 30% of such change initiatives succeed.
If the C level people, deciding for reorganizations, were aware of how the brain works in such environment
they hopefully would start to conduct things in a different way.
Knowing that this threatening environment automatically makes people move “away” from the persons or
situations that cause a perceived or real threat, they would understand that with the PFC not working
properly, what reigns are the fight or flight responses – the brain prepares the motor sensors for survival
related action(s) – heart and lungs get an extra supply of blood and oxygen, reducing the amount of such
substances in the brain, especially in the PFC.
With fewer resources to work according to its natural functions, the PFC reduces its leading role in the
brain, causing people’s focused attention to become scarcer.
Attention can be defined as the ability to focus on a particular sensory input while inhibiting the urge to
focus on distractors on the environment. In an organizational restructuring environment, since threats are
“in the air”, they act as distractors all the time, making attention to be directed towards stimuli that can
signal that a threat is about to happen. The brain is always scanning the environment and neurons are
always active to decide if and how to respond.