The Chemistry of Culture

the abplatform resource company culture

According to the Harvard Business Review, humans today are hardwired very much in the same manner as we were in the Stone Age. We still fight furiously when threatened and are driven to trade information and share secrets, for example.

However, what works in the wild when faced with a saber-toothed tiger may hinder our effectiveness in business. The biological chain reaction set off by our threat response moves our resources away from our higher-order mental reasoning processes and into our physical functions.

the abplatform resource company culture

The point of this academic lesson? That organizational culture – how we treat each other – needs to recognize this reality. This is the viewpoint articulated by Cathy Pagliaro, a Human Resources executive with training in brain-based leadership from both the NeuroLeadership Institute and MIT Sloan School For Business. Both programs have recognized that bringing a more concrete, science-based approach to growing soft skills would resonate with business leaders and make change initiative more effective.

So throw away Hawaiian Shirt Friday and similar ideas from your Culture Committee. Better yet, disband the Culture Committee entirely. Instead, spend time reflecting on the fact that the fundamental organizing principle of the human brain is to minimize threat and maximize reward, per Strategy +  Business, from PWC.

According to Pagliaro, when people are excluded, reprimanded, ignored, assigned a task they don’t agree with, or a multitude of other negative behaviors, their threat response is triggered. Of course, she says, they probably won’t attack you with a hand-sharpened stick. Usually they just suck it up and do the

work. But they also limit their commitment and engagement to the organization, becoming purely transactional employees, reluctant to give more than the bare minimum of their talent and energy.

On the other hand, Pagliaro says that the organization can accomplish the incredible when leaders clearly communicate their expectations, give employees latitude to make decisions, support people’s efforts to build good relationships, and treat the organization fairly.


the abplatform resource company culture

To turn theory into reality, Pagliaro is trained in the SCARF model, developed by Dr. David Rock in 2008. His research into the social nature of the brain suggests there are five qualities that drive human behavior:

  1. Status – our perceived relative importance to others
  2. Certainty – our perceived ability to predict the future
  3. Autonomy -- our perceived sense of control over events
  4. Relatedness – our perception of belonging with others
  5. Fairness – our perception of the equality of exchanges between people

Pagliaro stresses the “perception” in each of these factors, which underscores the individuality of our responses. What one person perceives as negative status may not be the same for another.

Here are some tangible examples of each quality in the workplace:

Status: A status threat might be when one is excluded from a meeting that others at their level are invited to. A status reward might be when one is told that they have 100% decision-making authority over a particular topic.

Certainty: A certainty threat might be when one receives an email from the head of HR asking to see them at 4:30 on a Friday, with no subject given for the meeting. A certainty reward might be when that same email says, “Sorry to schedule so late in the day, but I need your advice on how to do ”XYZ” and it’s the only time I have. Let me know if you need to reschedule.”

Autonomy: An autonomy threat might be when one is told that their ability to approve expenses has been cut in half. An autonomy reward might be when one is told that their point of view is respected and understood.

Relatedness: A relatedness threat might be when one is asked to sit outside the door of a meeting, to be summoned when needed. A relatedness reward might be when your work group celebrates your birthday.

Fairness: A fairness threat might be when one is told that the organization needs them to work overtime without extra pay. A fairness reward might be when one is asked to work overtime in exchange for an extra day off.

“It’s very easy to miss when a team member is perceiving something as a threat or reward in the rush of business,” Pagliaro says. Something as simple as looking away from a video camera in a meeting to check a second screen or take notes, can be perceived as a threat. The answer? “Always err on the side of over explaining your intent and actions,” she says. “Just tell the people that your second screen is on your right.”

For more insight on this topic and Pagliaro’s tips, click here to see the video.

At The ABplatform, it’s our mission to build high performing Advisory Boards that help CEO’s achieve their dreams.