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The Secrets of True Collaboration - Part 6

What the neurobiological perspective of living systems has to offer: An interview.

In the following interview, Dr. Klaus-Dieter Dohne, organizational psychologist and one of our cooperation partners, gives a completely different view of the topic of collaboration. He examines it from the neurobiological perspective of living systems. Too exotic? Not at all! Because interesting insights emerge in this way.

? Dr. Andreas Romberg: The introduction of a collaboration platform and methodologies is an intensive and challenging change process. Isn't it?

! Dr. Klaus-Dieter Dohne: That' s right. For this reason, it is also important to consider topics that lie outside the technical domain. Towards the end of your last blog article, you formulate the conclusion "The future is digital, but the basis remains culture". This differentiation makes sense, because around digitality we are dealing with complicated cause-and-effect causalities - which are, however, predictable. In the words of Heinz von Förster, the Austrian psychologist, cyberneticist and philosopher, we are dealing here with a trivial machine that can be controlled after programming a certain algorithm.

? In contrast to a complex culture? Culture involves the complex non-trivial machine of an autonomously operating living system, where the algorithm between input and output cannot be calculated unambiguously. The relationships are not linear-causal, but ambiguous and circular. We are thus dealing with a different phenomenal domain in culture as opposed to the digital.

? We are now in the midst of an enormous digital transformation. Those who consider digitization as a non-living system raise expectations and hopes among managers and consultants. Especially among those who still have a purpose-driven understanding of organizations in their mindset. It serves the deep need for reliable planning and that somehow everything would be feasible if only one had all transparency in the organization, the markets and all possible data at one's disposal. Then everything could be "calculated" and "decided" with certainty. Then one could indulge in the illusion that the complex reality of an organization is controllable with measurable linear cause-effect causalities, completely in the sense of a non-living system or a trivial machine, which only knows one state and operates independently of experience and history.

? So digitization increases the illusion that everything is predictable? The idea that everything is somehow and sometime predictable and that one can safely decide and act for the benefit of all stakeholders in the organization is attractive to decision-makers. However, danger quickly arises when this mindset of "predictability" is used to control the communication and interaction processes of collaboration, i.e., the social-emotional exchange processes in the living organization, in a machine-like way.

? I understood from an earlier conversation that the brain is a relational organ, right? Neurobiologically, the brain is in fact understood as a relational organ. Because it structures itself in relationships and can only deploy itself in these. Since people have usually had favorable or unfavorable relationship experiences in their systems of origin, their brains also evaluate the form of cooperation differently later in their working lives.

? When the brain makes evaluations, it might be helpful to know which ones exactly it makes or forms that are later favorable for cooperation and collaboration in working life? Let's go way back: The fetus has two central first experiences as an unborn. Namely, that life comes into being in relationship with someone else, in this case the mother. And that it grows beyond itself every day without conscious effort and control, from the fertilized egg to the infant. This pre-imprinting results in the most important basic human needs that determine life after birth. What the brain knows, it wants to have again and so in life it looks for connectedness and belonging in a community as well as at the same time for autonomous development possibilities and the security that it is allowed to be the way one has become. The brain always stores experiences in a relationship context, which are later activated in the work context when similar relationship patterns occur.

? If I understand it correctly, experiences influence patterns of evaluation, or not? Exactly. Thus, earlier favorable experiences with authoritarian people can also work well together with current dominant relationship offers from managers. If, on the other hand, unfavorable experiences were made with authoritarian persons in the past, so that the loss of autonomy was threatened or subordination and selfsurrender were required, this will not lead to good cooperation at present, but to protection against it.

? That means, the culture in the organization has a promoting or inhibiting effect on the evaluations here. Culture provides a framework of ideas for these evaluations of things that happen to oneself in everyday life. If you have previously experienced the culture of interaction and relationships as forgiving, supportive, unifying and benevolent, for example on the part of your manager and your team, the evaluation in the brain is determined by this current culture rather than by the old unfavorable experiences. Here, leadership tries to avoid feeding the old negative evaluation patterns, so that they do not deploy their destructive potential. Then the old protection and safeguarding strategies cannot sabotage the desired cooperation among each other today.

? Therefore I wrote about the escalating email culture in companies in my first blog post. In fact, this could be seen as a method of hedging and protection strategies: Everything is communicated to everyone so that nothing unpleasant threatens you later. After all, you have 'communicated' and even have proof of it in your email folder, just in case. The costs in 2014 of unnecessary communication in the USA alone are said to have grown to about 400 billion US dollars by Forbes magazine, as quoted in your blog post.

? Let's come back to the subject of the brain. I would be interesting to know how it works. In a nutshell: Resource-efficient. Like any organization, our brain tries to use available resources sparingly but effectively to achieve its goals. What customer value is for the waste-free value stream, the brain is a state in which everything fits together well and works. The top criterion is not to waste too much energy on things that are not needed at the moment.

? In the context of energy consumption, two terms exist: coherence and incoherence. When the energy consumption in the brain is at its highest, we speak of incoherence. In this state, the cooperation is not coordinated and there are high energy losses because all nerve cells fire wildly and no superordinate coordination is possible. All brain areas and network connections work side by side, mostly unconnected, and no longer find synchronous coordination. They are "disconnected".

? The desired ideal state of the human brain would therefore have to be coherence... low energy consumption, exactly. When this state sets in, everything feels coherent, all brain areas cooperate with each other and provide only the information needed for the current challenge of the task in order to be able to act with confidence. In this way, the least amount of energy is expended and the person experiences self-efficacy and self-control. At the same time, it feels good because even with the highest level of consciousness, one experiences control over immediate events. Measurements of top athletes and exceptional musicians show that only the nerve cells and muscles that are needed at the moment are activated and the others remain relaxed and quiet until they are needed. Thus, there are no energy leaks because no unnecessary signals interfere with the flow of processing.

? Accordingly, the aforementioned culture of interaction and relationships has a major influence. Right. And that cannot be overstated. In other words, culture diminishes and worsens collaboration and cooperation to the extent that people are confronted again with their old unfavorable experiences. These are well known from a neurobiological perspective. Whereas in the past people were made the object of observation, of others' ideas, interests and actions, and were shamed and devalued in the process, today they will watch their environment quite sensitively for where such unfavorable and painful experiences might threaten again. The energy for sensitive observation that is now spent stands in the way of open and supportive cooperation.

? But what does real collaboration look like then? Genuine cooperation from a neurobiological point of view means helping others in such a way that they can quickly transform their current unfavorable inner experience - keyword incoherence - into a coherent and energy-saving information processing. These so-called executive meta-competencies of the frontal brain become visible and also measurable when acting, solving problems and interacting with others. Conversely, the culture of a corporate organization can be read in the many individual action and decision-making situations. The social-emotional evaluation levels in the human brain cannot help but react to the experienced culture of interaction and relationships. Managers in particular very often underestimate how strong their effect is on an unconscious level. In the meantime, it is possible to make the culture in a company transparent exactly by adding up the patterns of individuals

Dr. Andreas Romberg: Your perspective fits perfectly with our own way of thinking, which I outlined in parts 1 through 5 of our blog. That's why we're already working on developing a holistic customer solution from our approach and yours. And then offer it in the appropriate time.

Klaus-Dieter, thank you for this discussion.

Dr. Klaus-Dieter Dohne is board member of the Academy for Potential Development. As a neurosystemic expert, he focuses in his work on the concrete communication and interaction patterns that show up in people in change processes, as well as the emotional experience behind them. (

If you have any further questions for Dr. Dohne or Dr. Romberg, feel free to ask with the form below.

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