5 Reasons Why Business Can’t Afford to Ignore Psychology for Another 100 Years

“The problem with business is that it is afraid of dealing with the business of people.”

  W. Edwards Deming

Honestly, I  don’t get it.
Why is so much of business still in the dark about the basics of human dynamics?
Appyling awareness of human psychology to work is moving at a glacial pace while technology flies by it at the speed of light.
What’s taking so long?
Well, part of the story starts back in 1911 when Frederick Taylor – the “father” of professional management as we know it, propelled his ideas for advancing worker “efficiency.” The Taylor method prescribed a clockwork world of tasks timed to the hundredth of a minute, of standardized factories, machines and people. Naturally, ordinary workers resented having to work faster than they thought was healthy or fair.
Little was known or considered at the time about the “human dynamics” of workers and modern psychology was still in its infancy. In fact, it seems that the “human side” of worker’s needs was viewed as rather inconvenient by some of the industrial leaders of the time.  Surely, the inner workings of the human being were a nuisance at best to people like Henry Ford who complained, “Why is it when I need a pair of hands I have to get the whole man?”
Sorry Henry – that’s just how we work – we fussy messy human beings. We need things like meaning, security, purpose, pleasure, novelty and rest to “perform” at our best.
Sadly, the machine metaphors of Messrs Taylor and Ford still guide many of the underlying processes of the modern workplace. The command and control thinking and practices implemented during that time still drive many management behaviors today.
It’s still not uncommon for business leaders to ask questions like:
Are emotions an asset or a liability in the workplace?
Shouldn’t we be removing emotions from the decision-making process?
These questions defy basic Brain Science 101 knowledge.
You can’t separate one part of the human brain from another.  They work together in concert – for a purpose. The old shibboleth that personal life is separate from business life is simply wrong in light of what we now know about the human brain.
When you shut down a feeling, it comes at the cost of the prized function of another part of the brain, the neo-cortex (“working memory”).  Working with the new neural science, however, we can educate a person to use cognitive strategies to address their strong feelings and return to a more balanced brain state.

What Business Says It Needs

When you ask business leaders what is needed to survive and thrive in today’s complex economic and global marketplace, the list is long – leadership, creativity, collaboration, innovation, motivation, trust, teamwork, partnerships, learning organizations, rationality, quality decision-making and problem solving skills, accountability and resiliency.
But even though there is often consensus on what’s needed – there doesn’t appear to be any real understanding of how you get these things from people  – or where they come from.
The basic view of how the brain works is still a mystery to many business leaders (reflecting the lack of knowledge in the general populace). There is an over reliance on the so-called “rational” region of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) and a fundamental lack of understanding of how the “emotional” side of the brain works.
What’s even more baffling is that many business leaders don’t even recognize the need to understand how people function – what makes them tick.  These “management mindsets” are completely out of step with the growing body of science of the past two decades that illuminates the how and why of what we think, feel and act!
The amazing information coming from research on neuroscience, physiological responses and emotional processes form the basis of a new blueprint that should be driving every organizational model.
Unfortunately – most business leaders are still operating out of the old, ineffective, unproductive models that have shaped how we “manage” people.

Why This Thinking Has to Change

The neuroscience  research of the past fifteen years has significant implications for the way that we work now and can work in the future.  Based on the work of many leading thinkers in this area, like David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work and Quiet Leadership, brain science knowledge can and should influence how we work.  Ignoring the realities of how humans function at their best – and their worst – is an expensive and foolish decision that no organization or business should risk.

5 Reasons Business Can’t Afford to Ignore Psychology

  1. Stress levels are at an all time high. Exacerbated by the  “new normal” of a “post” recession economy and realignment of work, employee performance  will continue to decline. The myth of productivity is based on the effort of workers who  continue to override their physiological needs by using an already exhausted part of their brains to “push through.” This is not sustainable.
  2. The “legacy” of command and control models is ending.   Technological speed, globalization, economic imperatives, cultural diversity and generational change all signal  the end of management as we have known it.
  3. Fear is not sustainable.  If neuroscience  illuminates anything, it is the knowledge that fear brings out the worst in the brain. While the “threat response” is a part of our neural make-up, it saps brain power and taxes the body heavily. Bottom line – using fear as a motivator or management tool is a recipe for long-term failure.
  4. Creativity, sorely needed if business is to succeed, needs a different environment to incubate new ideas. The on-demand, 24/7 culture that most workplaces have created often does not support the generation of new thinking.  New neural research demonstrates that the intuitive brain needs “quiet” and rest to allow for new insights. In fact, the creative process is supported when the thinker employs learned strategies to disengage from old thought patterns.
  5. The New Workplace is in dire need of emotional intelligence It’s not that we have to separate emotions from business; it’s that we need to develop a far greater capacity for emotional self-management.  New brain knowledge reinforces that the concepts of emotional intelligence are on the right track for helping us to address challenging emotions – and learning how to reframe our thinking to get access to more of the feelings that energize and enliven our work.

The challenges and complexities of re-inventing the world of work as we know it may seem daunting.  As a culture we are in the in-between of the old ways of knowing and doing things and a future that is unfolding with the lenses still out of focus.
One thing most of us can agree with is that the old models are not working. Human beings aren’t widgets, feelings aren’t expendable and workers can’t do the work of a new century with the old, tired routines of the last.
The era of Henry and Frederick are over – neuroscience is showing us a path to understanding our psychology – the dynamics of how to bring out the best of how we think – and how we work.
Maybe it’s time, we listened.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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Related Articles: What Have We Learned from 20 Years of Emotional Intelligence Pt. 2. How Emotions Shape Decision-Making, Why Do So Many People in the Workplace Still Believe Self-Development is Therapy? 


  1. I’ve published various posts on psychology/work on FJWilsontalent — for example, http://fjwilsontalent.com/2013/03/07/talent-stories-saving-the-world-through-occupational-psychology/; http://fjwilsontalent.com/2013/12/12/open-plan-offices-good-or-bad-the-evidence-from-psychological-research/; http://fjwilsontalent.com/2013/03/14/one-story-that-research-tells-us-about-working-in-an-office/. I would like, if I may, to reblog your post (sing WordPress’s reblog function, which automatically embodies the link to the original story).

  2. Wonderful, Louise. You had me at “Honestly, I don’t get it.” I don’t get it either.
    Perhaps it is that the notion of bringing forward ANY new paradigm that will be met by some kind of SCARF reaction of its own, even if and maybe especially if that new paradigm is about overcoming embedded SCARF reactions. That is, even though neuroscience is and can be a really wonderful resource, it will first and rather automatically be perceived as a threat, one that can be dismissed, ignored, misunderstood and argued with until — ultimately — there’s a general process of giving up and acknowledgment that this new way actually helps us. I also assume that the blocking perceptions will not necessarily be very conscious. They will just be, as intractable as they are inarticulate. I’m of Argyris’s camp: people can absolutely know that they ought to behave differently and even want to do it differently — in this case applying the principles of neuroscience to management and culture change — and still not be able to do it. We will probably all need to bring the new ways down to the specific dilemmas with specific people with which we are most involved, to our conflicts and vulnerable delinquencies, to the dilemmas in our personal and professional lives that we believe are most insoluble in order to see how to actual use these new ways and see how they can make a difference.
    I don’t want to make that sound like a cynical approach — it’s just that well-reasoned arguments on their own do not, in my experience anyway, automatically translate to emotional learning. This is why, I guess, I see the real learning as in the soul of those individuals who are most attempting to foster their own development. I also see tremendous opportunities in the discovery of informal networks and shared connections that aim to liberate systems from themselves, a constructive, collective, compassionate mutiny. In this sense it is what is most informal and under the radar that most facilitates the shift. The formal systems and cultural norms are iron-plated. I’m looking for a few people who want to sneak out under the fences into the moonlight, and I bet in saying so I’m confirming neuroscience in some way! That is for me where the real energy is anyway, at least in the ways that I know it, as a garden still bathed in darkness.
    Thank you so much!

    • Dear Dan,
      What a thoughtful and thorough response, raising very important questions – and the ultimate and most thorny – how do people change? What provides (if anything does for some) the spark, the momentum – the imperative)?
      All valid points about SCARF. Like any tool it is as good and useful as its implementation. What I have seen is how this tool – and actually the application of many neuroscience principles be used to help people to see two important things: 1) change is possible and 2) oh this is how my “operating system” works. Approaching any intervention, conversation with the recognition that we as humans tend towards avoiding threat and moving towards reward (and this from a pyschology student who resisted Skinner every step of the way) we can tailor our approaches pro-actively in very different ways.
      I have also seen people, especially those resistant to anything that sniffed of psycho-dynamics – receive the newer science findings as useful, even welcome information. I’ve experienced many people even feeling “vindicated” that expressing their feelings is not “abnormal” in business settings. Neuroscience confirms for them that they are on the right track in their desire to lead and collaborate with more sharing and less competition. But you are right, even the most well reasoned or received information is no recipe for emotional learning – and behavioral change. I agree (wholeheartedly) that open systems of learning, collective sharing and compassionate conversation are real door openers. And I think that resistance to creating (or allowing) those systems can also be softened and encouraged by research findings that support the “health” and efficacy of social-emotional experience enhanced by these systems. Since we’re just getting the human dynamic recognized as valid in many organizations, I see the two as inseperable.
      I tweeted a piece the other day that spoke somewhat to your wonderful garden metaphor – MIT confirms conversation is good for business or the workplace (something like that). The more of us that sneak out under the fences into the moonlight – the better. And its already confirmed.
      Once again,
      Thanks ~ Louise

  3. Thank you for such a lovely response, Louise. I’ll join you in the garden anytime!

  4. randyshirts says:

    Reblogged this on Work Smarter and Enjoy Life and commented:
    This is a great article going into detail about how modern business, and in particular management ignores psychology to their own detriment.

  5. ChrisK says:

    A compelling, well written and very thoughtful post. Certainly you wonder how many workplaces still treat people like machines and then can’t understand what happened when things go wrong.

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