Do companies have lizard brains?

The human brain has something called the amygdala (also named the lizard or reptilian brain) that pretty much keeps us on our toes and deals with emotions connected to our survival, namely with fear. It’s the thing that makes us afraid of public speaking, that makes us judge someone by their appearance, that will always remind us of that awkward situation in high school.

As Wikipedia puts it:

“In complex vertebrates, including humans, the amygdalae perform primary roles in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events. Research indicates that, during fear conditioning, sensory stimuli reach the basolateral complexes of the amygdalae, particularly the lateral nuclei, where they form associations with memories of the stimuli. The association between stimuli and the aversive events they predict may be mediated by long-term potentiation, a lingering potential for affected synapses to react more readily.”

I’ve been wondering lately that companies must have a collective lizard brain. It’s that feeling that keeps the status quo going, that resists change, that resists new ways of doing things, that never thinks outside the box. It’s that collective voice that says “that will never work”, “we did that before and it didn’t work”, “we will fail”. It’s that feeling that prevents individuals from contradicting the boss, from speaking at that meeting, from presenting that innovative idea that might change everything for the better. It’s that little devil’s voice that says “do nothing, say nothing, you might fail, you might look ridiculous, they will laugh at you”.

What I can’t yet figure out is if the collective lizard brain is the sum of the lizard brain of each individual inside the company, or if it takes on a different magnitude due to the power of the “constraint” that a job imposes on individuals (“they pay me, I might lose my job, so I better just keep on doing what I’m doing and minimize my chances of failing”).

I believe that even the people that dominate their lizard brain outside of the work environment might still succumb to the “pressure” of not standing out from an apparently orderly group of coworkers. Call it peer pressure corporate-style if you like.

And this matter would be a mere trivia if it wasn’t for the fact that this collective lizard brain is in fact preventing companies from being agile and risk-prone enough to make it in this new (and pretty fast changing) era. It’s preventing companies from doing as Lane Becker suggested at Shift: “failing your way to the top”.


3 thoughts on “Do companies have lizard brains?

  1. do nothing, say nothing, you might fail, you might look ridiculous, they will laugh at you and what’s the use?

  2. interesting… i would argue that it’s exactly the opposite… companies fail to have that lizard brain… that’s why they fail to do those gut movements or leaps forward when they are under pressure… instead they concentrate on following procedures, going by the book… rationalize everything.

    the voice that says “that will never work” it’s not your gut feeling or your lizard brain but the rational part of your brain that remembers being asked “why did this failed?”

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