What has neuroscience got to tell us about changing and adopting organisational values?

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Published by
Jan Hills
August 19, 2016

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As a preoccupation talk of values and their role in culture is a topic in most organisations. Either the values are changing or people don’t adhere to them. Virtually every business we talk to is doing something around values and culture. Organisations spend a lot of money articulating values and when there is a crisis going about changing them.

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The reason so much focus is placed on values is that people’s behaviours are deeply rooted in their values. If business wants people to execute a new strategy, one it believes will create success, changing behaviour is usually a key part of the plan. Many of those behaviours are driven by the values individuals hold and the values, both implicit and explicit in the company. And the belief is values are stable so companies need to find people who share their values or persuade people the new values are right for them.

There is some emerging science that may be able to direct how we think about values and importantly whether our assumptions about how they drive behaviour and decisions are actually correct. The science also points to how you help people align with a new set of values and is beginning to show how context impacts values and hence behaviour. This is really at the root of what organisations are trying to manage.

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This dopamine system is useful when we have to make decisions especially when off-setting the value of one choice over another.

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The neuroscience and psychology of values

How does neuroscience think about value? Most of the research starts with the neurochemical dopamine which determines how the brain processes reward and hence what it values. Dopamine is found all over the brain. Two brain regions are important and used by neuroscientists to study value. One is the nucleus accumbens and the other is the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. They form a coherent system of value within the brain. The system is an old and all-purpose one that probably developed to provide motivation to find food, and shelter and other survival needs. It developed to seek primary rewards but has been adapted to other things that people find rewarding such as an attractive face, chocolate and money. This dopamine system is useful when we have to make decisions especially when off-setting the value of one choice over another.

These types of decisions are more complex than a rational choice between alternatives where one is clearly valued more than the other. Like £100 rather than cleaning the oven or being part of a happy cohesive team rather than a fractured one. In situations where we have to choose between very different things, dopamine helps where rational analysis does not. In these situations the value we deprive feels different to us; chocolate feels different to being given a hug or a hug feels different to getting a bonus. But because these are all processed in the same reward system it allows us to measure the relative value we place on these choices and hence the reward received. Neuroscientists think of this as a common neuro-currency of value.

Context is key

This does not mean there is only one type of value. The reward system may be attuned to different things in a different context. What is of value to one person may not be valuable to another and what is important now may not be of value in another context. For example social context can change what people value; when in a group people generally value the norms of the group. They may not value these norms in a different context such as when on their own or with their family. Also think about how value changes over time and circumstances. Take fashion items, black checked shirts, very high heels, long hair. You may have valued these at one time in your life but give them no value at another. For example, I wore incredibly high heels in my younger days but just do not see the sense of wearing these over being comfortable now.

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Fashion is also a good example of how what is valued becomes contagious; we start to value the things others do.

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Value contagion

Fashion is also a good example of how what is valued becomes contagious; we start to value the things others do. Research by Jamil Zaki at Stanford looked at whether people shift their sense of value to conform externally; to fit in and create a social connection or whether the way people process what they perceive as of value also changes when they adopt the values of the group. In the research people were asked to rate pictures of faces as attractive, neutral or unattractive. They were then shown the ratings of their peer group for the same faces. Later they were again shown the faces and asked to rerate them. The research looked at whether the rerating was nudged by the peer rating. They found that indeed people were nudged by peer views. People were scanned during the research and the same pattern showed in brain activity. People were not just claiming to like the faces their peers liked more, their brain placed greater value on those higher rated faces. They took on the values of the group. This research suggests when a group, which is important to the individual, holds a value this will actually change the individual’s values. More on the implications of this for organisations below.

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Scientists have found being liked by others is also rewarding in and of itself.

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Values and context

Zaki has a three dimensional model that describes the contexts which influence or drive an individual’s values:

  1. The first dimension is the continuum between risk and safety. This continuum is not just important to humans. Animals will balance this too; think about the need to search for food or other primary drivers verses staying safe from predators. Humans make choices between a known value and an unknown possibility. We are generally quite risk averse and so will make the choice of a reward now rather than risk more in the future. In experiments scientists see the same dopamine value system active in these kinds of decisions as when we are measuring what is important to us. When humans make decisions about a known value, they choose a safe option rather than a risky one and we see activity in the dopamine system. Also when humans take a risk, an unknown value, it engages anterior cingular cortex which is known for controlling conflicts; suggesting we are clamping down risk alerts.
  2. The second dimension is social connection verses social disconnection. As mentioned above, liking what others like is rewarding. But scientists have found being liked by others is also rewarding in and of itself. (See also my article on Teams) In this experiment people were asked to rate how much they liked particular foods and then saw what ratings peers had given. Participants were then scanned as they learnt if peers agreed with them or not. When their rating was the same, either peers liked or did not like the same foods, there was activity in nucleus accumbens, the reward system, indicating that being the same as the group was rewarding in itself. In other words people like to value what their group values. In the same experiment disagreement with the group showed negative activity in the brain region for reward and later those people tried harder to engage with the group, to be more like them and to establish a social connection.
    Scientists found a similar result in an experiment where people had an opportunity to make money for themselves. In some cases making money was fair to others; in other cases it was unfair. Getting money usually shows a positive activity in the reward regions but in cases where obtaining the money put at risk their social connections, participants showed less activity in these regions. The value of money was over ridden by the risk to social connection.

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Social comparison is the third dimension that influences values. We derive value from being good but also from being better than others.

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3. Social comparison is the third dimension that influences values. We derive value from being good but also from being better than others. Studies of Olympic medal winners found that bronze winners are happier than silver as bronze compare themselves with the person who came in fourth and got no medal whereas silver medal winners compare themselves with the person who got gold. In a study on this area researchers gave people money and simultaneously showed them others getting more money than them. This completely eliminated and reward response. This suggests money is only of value if it gives you positive information about your social status. That is you receive more than others.

These dimensions interrelate. Values may be impacted by more than one at the same time, so although someone may want to be connected to team colleagues, they also want to receive promotion. This means they may be required to be better than others on the team, this will generate a values conflict between being better than others and being socially connected, and the resulting behaviour will be driven by which values win out.

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Our assumption about values is that they are formed from childhood, firmly help and hard to change. This means organisations assume they need to find people whose personal values align with the organisation rather than expect people to shift their values to match those of the company.

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How values change

Our assumption about values is that they are formed from childhood, firmly help and hard to change. This means organisations assume they need to find people whose personal values align with the organisation rather than expect people to shift their values to match those of the company. So what happens when the company values change? Does this imply whole teams of people need to leave and new ones be recruited? And how good are companies at hiring for values anyway?

These ideas rest on the assumption that values are stable. Some of the science is calling that into question, as is hinted at above. In another study these ideas were again challenged.

In a study people’s risk appetite on economic decisions was measured. It is well documented that most people are risk adverse and will hold on to resources today even if it means losses or less value later. This was the result researchers found; a preference for safety and physiological reactions like sweating, stress, and increase in blood pressure that drove people away from risk. The researchers than asked participants to ‘think like a trader’ prior to making economic decisions and they found diminished physiological responses and their decisions were less risk adverse. This suggests that what people think the purpose of the activity is, determines the values that dominate and hence the behaviour which the values drive.

To further test this idea researchers studied people in two scenarios; one group were asked to play the ‘Wall Street’ game and the other the ‘Community’ game. Actually both games were the same. The only difference was the name. Players were asked to maximise their own financial returns. Players could do this through co-operation or cheating but in the cheating condition they broke social connection with other players. The results were; in the community version 60% of people cooperate, half as many in Wall Street game.

In a second study with different researchers the participants were again put in to groups, either Community game or Wall Street game but this time they were scanned while playing. When people believed they were playing the Community game there was a strong response in their reward system to cooperation. This is consistent to valuing social connection. The reverse was found in the Wall Street game. These players had a stronger value response when maximising their own gain. This research suggests that the context people believe they are in determines the values which are important. Rather than some deeply help stable value. If you work in a bank or are a regulator just think about the implications of this research to how people behave. What ‘game’ do they think they are playing in your organisation and hence what behaviour will follow?

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In change situations companies often need to ‘play two games at once.’ To protect their old franchise whist changing the way they work for the future.

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How do these ideas impact organisations?

There are a number of ways this may help you with organisational values.

Conflicting values

Firstly do your stated values cover all or only some of the dimensions? Whilst it is not necessary to have all covered it is useful to know from an organisational point of view where your focus is. This would suggest something about what is valued in the organisation as a whole. Do banks mainly have values around safety verses risk? How does this impact relationships? As a retailer are your values focused sufficiently on social connection verses better than? Are there conflicts in your values, do they cover both risk and safety for example making it hard for people to follow both? Equally look for examples like how social connection is valued but also those about individuals striving to be the best. Again this may set up a conflict.

I’m not saying you must change these values but if you find such conflicts it makes sense to discuss with employees how they manage the resulting behaviour and why both values are important to the business.

Values and change

In change situations companies often need to ‘play two games at once.’ To protect their old franchise whist changing the way they work for the future. In these circumstances it is easy for people to be confused about what is really valued and which values are more important in any given situation; the old or the new? Having a language to talk about these conflicts based on the dimensions above can be helpful. And being transparent about the context the different values should be used in is essential.

One question is whether people actually respond most to safety. That is people will be driven to do what they feel is safe for them. Safety may be seen differently in different contexts. It is safer to cheat my colleagues or the customer when my bonus is on the line but safer to maintain a tight bond when there are redundancies and those who are seen as most loyal are likely to be retained. The context determines what is perceived as safe and what is therefore valued. For example what is safe may appear different based on the time scale you are considering; long term or short term, or your assumptions about the market. This implies it is essential to help people to understand the dynamics of values in context. Not just as an overarching description of what is important to the company. And when a company is ‘playing two games’ that is it must work in today’s context whilst changing to meet future challenges, being explicit about the different values and hence behaviour required in each context is essential. Companies may have the relative luxury of different teams clearly working on one game or the other but often it is more subtle than that and helping people to first be clear about which ‘game’ the decision or behaviour is related to is an important part of the role HR and leaders need to play for success. The other dynamic that must be managed in this context is between what is valued across teams working in different ‘games.’

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When organisations are attempting to change values and have employees adopt the new values it is typically assumed to be hard to do. But neuroscience is suggesting a different set of assumptions may apply.

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Values alignment

When organisations are attempting to change values and have employees adopt the new values it is typically assumed to be hard to do. But neuroscience is suggesting a different set of assumptions may apply. Lieberman says that our minds are less like hermetically sealed vaults that separate each of us from one another, and more like “Trojan horses”; letting in the beliefs of other people without our realising the extent to which we’re being influenced. We are driven to ensure that we have the same kind of beliefs and values as people around us, creating the social harmony we depend on.

In the workplace this suggests ensuring there are strong bonds with the company and peers in work groups, creating social connection and safety within the group will drive value alignment in the way described in the research above. The values held by peers or an important group will drive social consistency and conformity more than any communications campaign.

Intentional conformity

This research also suggests organisations need to do more than ‘announce’ their values and expect people to align. For example a leader can overwhelm the team, or organisation with their values, if they are very vocal. Whilst at first glance this may seem helpful it can set up a scenario where energy is directed to demonstrating alignment, not questioning or focusing on whether the leader’s assumptions and direction are the right way to go. Or it means people lack the details to determine how the values play out in different contexts. This is when integrity issues occur. In extreme cases a kind of pageantry can be set up around demonstrating adherence to the leader’s values even before people have really understood what they are. This sets people up to spend more energy on mimicking loosely understood values and reduces the amount of thinking power available to the team.

Research by Possner has also found that when people are clear about the company’s values and how they enact them, organisations gain benefits in increased productivity. One additional advantage of spending time really deepening understanding of values is that people, especially leaders who have done this work seem to have a presence and steadiness in a crises; they have already done the thinking about the right behaviour and can act with clarity, creating a greater sense of certainty for people who work with them. Cohen and Miyake found that when people engage in values affirmations by writing about why they are important, they become very good at protecting people when they might be at risk. For example, women did better on tests after getting clear about their values compared to when they hadn’t thought about them. Making values explicit creates a sense of purpose and more energy to achieve goals and act in a way that is true to themselves.

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People are very adept at understanding what is valued implicitly verses what is explicitly said.

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Implicit verse explicit values

People are very adept at understanding what is valued implicitly verses what is explicitly said. The research on the Community verses Wall Street game demonstrates this. This can be useful as it helps employees align with what is important as values shift or contexts change but when there is a wide spread between implicit values and the resulting behaviour it drives, that is what people see, confusion results. This is where HR can effectively help leaders by making the link back to business results. For example a team may be hitting their numbers, they are valued and rewarded for their success but is their success based on valuing safety over getting better than the external competition; they never create stretch targets and risk failing to achieve them.

Organisations would be wise to think deeply about values and what they mean in context. The research suggests values are highly contagious. The brain has a very flexible value system and this can be both useful in changing values and dangerous if left to chance.

References

Zaki, J., & Ochsner, K. (2011). Reintegrating accuracy into the study of social cognition (Target Article). Psychological Inquiry, 22(3), 159-182.

Neural Mechanisms of Foraging Nils Kolling1,*, Timothy E. J. Behrens1,2, Rogier B. Mars1,2, Matthew F. S. Rushworth1 Science 6 April 2012: Vol. 336 no. 6077 pp. 95-98 Nook & Zaki, in prep cited at the NeuroLeadership Summit 2014

Zaki, J., & Mitchell, J. (2011). Equitable decision making is associated with neural markers of subjective value. PNAS, 108(49), 19761-19766.

Social comparison affects reward-related brain activity in the human ventral striatum Falk et al. Science 318, 1305 (2007)

Emotion regulation reduces loss aversion and decreases amygdala responses to losses

Peter Sokol-Hessner, Colin F. Camerer, and Elizabeth A. Phelps. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access February 15, 2012

The Name of the Game: Predictive Power of Reputations versus Situational Labels in Determining Prisoner’s Dilemma Game Moves Varda Liberman. Pers Soc Psychol Bull September 2004 vol. 30 no. 9 1175-1185

Cooper, R., DeJong, D. V., Forsythe, R., & Ross, T. W. (1996). Cooperation without reputation: Experimental evidence from Prisoner’s dilemma games. Games and Economic Behavior, 12,187-218.

Matthew Lieberman (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. Oxford University Press.

Posner et al, 2010 The truth about leadership: the no fads heart of the matter facts you need to know Jossey Bass

Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A class room study Science 330, 1234 (2010); Akira Miyake, et al. Science 330, 1234

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