What North Korea can Teach Organizations about Building Culture


Companies can learn a lot about how to create a strong culture by studying North Korea and Kim Jung Un. Yes, you heard me correctly. North Korea is an amazing example of how to create a nearly unbreakable culture. People in North Korea are seen showing undying and fanatical devotion to Kim Jung Un that seems to go contrary to what the rest of the world believes. How can 25 million people seemingly be fooled?

North Korea and other totalitarian dictatorships understand the importance of culture building and the plasticity of the brain or neuroplasticity. What is brain neuroplasticity? The brain can develop new neural connections as we learn, experience, and train our minds over time.

Neuroscientist Robert Doidge explains it this way… North Korea places children as young as two to four years old in school for indoctrination in a cult of adoration for their leaders. Neuroscience has already shown that at this age the brain has a high level of plasticity. Young brains are influenced profoundly and result in “perceptual, emotional networks that do not merely lead to differences of opinion, but to plasticity-based anatomical differences which are harder to bridge or overcome with ordinary persuasion” or learning later in life.” The North Koreans build connections in the brains of their citizens that support the ideological goals of the regime and are so strong that it is difficult to impossible to change.

But how does this relate to organizations and their culture? Organizations don’t get the “luxury” of employees joining at pre-school age, isn’t it impossible to then create the same impact? Actually, no. What the latest neuroscience has revealed is that the belief that our brains stop making new neural connections as we grow to adults is just not true.

The human brain can continue to build new connections, and the brain can be made to grow and develop based on those new connections. Scans of London taxi drivers, published in the Journal of Current Biology, show that qualified taxi drivers have a profound ability to remember locations in London. They have a higher volume of grey matter in the area of the brain responsible for processing this information suggesting that they developed this increased ability while training to be a taxi driver.
Another interesting study comes from Professor Elaine Fox who directs the Oxford Centre for Emotions and Affective Neuroscience (OCEAN) based in the Department of Experimental Psychology. Dr. Fox has been researching the idea that we are all born with a predisposition for either being optimistic or pessimistic but through cognitive behavioral modification we can train our brains and create connections that help to transform our outlook to be optimistic (if you want to try some of the exercises take a look here http://www.rainybrainsunnybrain.com/bbc-horizon/.

What does this all mean for organizations trying to develop culture? Dr. Doidge explains that it is vital that leaders undertake the mission to create positive values, rituals, and ways of thinking and behaving to create plastic changes in the employee’s brains over time. The danger is culture will go unchecked and develop in a “dark way” and impact the brain plasticity negatively and become deeply wired into our brains. The result is people that are entrenched in negative ways and unable to change.

Doidge in his book “The Brain that Changes Itself” (2007) states:
“Culture is not just produced by the brain; it is also by definition a series of activities (experiences) that shape the mind … we become “cultured” through training in activities, such as customs, arts, ways of interacting with people and the use of technologies and the learning of beliefs and shared philosophies and religion.”

As leaders, it is our job to support the habits and drive the experiences that shape the mind of those we work with. Next time you think about your organization and your culture, remember to think of the plasticity of the brain and what you can do to create new connections that support positive outlooks.

Happy culture building. Don’t forget to “Get the Research