Building a culture of intelligence: The social brain and the workplace

Culture change starts in the board room, says Amrit Sandhar.

Reading time: 5 minutes.

As human beings, we have a need to be part of a collective, a deep-rooted desire to belong to groups. From research into neuroscience and psychology, we know the impact of exclusion can be experienced as physical pain in the brain, therefore we will go to extreme lengths to belong. In the workplace, this has huge consequences.

We might question the impact one person could possibly have on others at work. As a team member, the impact is low, and the chances are that one individual would have little impact if any. Now consider the impact a director – a board member could have.

The environment of a board room is interesting; here are a group of people, who each are responsible for the performance of a particular aspect of the organisation. Coming together, they should have an aligned vision, and should be a high performing team that trusts the work of one another and can rely upon each other, to ensure the organisation achieves its objectives.

Hubris, a lack of trust, and a lack of confidence in the abilities of others then leads to power struggles, politics and division. Board members have no question of the critical role they play in the decision-making, therefore there is no fear of exclusion within the organisation – there is no pressure to conform or belong.

We need to provide employees with the voice to share how well they believe their directors demonstrate the organisational values.

The number of times they meet their fellow board members means even if they don’t have a good relationship and might feel alienated in meetings, they still get to go back to their teams, where they have power and control to make decisions.

This dynamic means we begin to see behaviours that can have a destructive impact upon organisations. Think of this as an auto-immune response; from within the organisation, a department will be aligned to a way of thinking, driven by one individual.

This is where the impact of group think becomes evident, and eventually how micro-cultures develop across different parts of an organisation, which are meant to be aligned to organisational values.

Power struggles ensure as one board member doesn’t have confidence in either the direction or capabilities of a department, overseen by another board member, that their team is reliant upon. Any trust in the board room is eroded as no longer are directors working together, and what becomes evident is that if you look good, it means I do not.

I have seen first hand seen the impact of this play out across organisations. People who when you meet them are engaging, focused, and genuine lovely people, until you see them in the work context. The impact of the pressure of power struggles, a lack of trust and questioning capabilities of their teams, means we end up seeing a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ aspect of leaders’ personalities.

This has a knock-on effect upon their teams, as the pressure increases, and rather than planning ahead and doing the right thing for the organisation, there is a focus demonstrating the value each team or function adds over another.

Trust erodes across the team and working pressures increase. Add to this whole mix, our expectation of both leaders and teams to be ambassadors for the organisational values and you can see how anyone new joining such an organisation might become bewildered very quickly.

The ingrained mentality of one department not cooperating well with another can become a legacy and remain in place long after directors or senior leaders have left an organisation.


Almost every organisation has agreed values or principles. These lay out ‘how’ we do business around here and many organisations use these to assess the behavioural aspects to individuals’ performances in appraisals.

Whilst organisational values may be plastered all over meeting room walls in many organisations, they are a way of holding people to account for the way they are behaving, but seldom used. I remember once sitting in a board room watching a CEO taking a fellow board member to task in the most unpolite way.

Ironically, the organisational values were on the wall behind him and I raised the question of which value was he demonstrating at this moment. We don’t use the values enough but if they are meant to mean anything, then they should be a compass to direct our behaviours, and to allow us to challenge others.

Our desire to belong and conform which can lead to wrong-doing, will not be resolved by telling people to live the values. We need to provide employees with the voice to share how well they believe their directors demonstrate the organisational values.

This can be done through the engagement survey, allowing anonymous feedback to be gained. This information should be used in the board room to hold directors to account for their behaviour. This feedback gives power to individuals to allow them to break free from the pressures of conforming to the mentality of one.

We mustn’t forget the fact that while conformity and group think means people comply with undesirable behaviours, they do so because they are compelled to. There is also a dimension of groupthink where people come together and talk about how much they hate working for that particular function/ department and can see the power struggles going on.

The ability to feed back will give power and a voice to those who are at work, trying to do the right thing and to do a good job.

When the organisational culture becomes the accountability of the board room, with directors being held to account for the environment being created, we have a way of breaking down these micro-cultures that go against the very values the organisation is meant to stand for.

Having culture champions, reinforcing the culture through appreciating those who genuinely uphold the values can go a long way to help everyone new and long-serving be in no doubt about the culture of the organisation and what people truly value in human behaviour.


About the author

Amrit Sandhar is the founder of The Engagement Coach


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