As I learned more about creating the conditions where gelled teams form naturally, I also became aware of a strange reaction from others in the same organization, but not the same team. Simplistic explanations like other groups becoming jealous didn’t make sense, because the worst responses were often from administrative or other support staff. The more I saw it, the odder it became. It can certainly grow to the point where the team’s efforts become frustrated, and later I’ll give an example where I saw it become physically dangerous. I tagged it the Dreaded Jungian Backlash because it seemed like there was some sort of back-reaction in the collective consciousness of the organization. Understanding this in non-spooky terms was half the problem, but neuroscience and what we know already can make complete sense of it, and illuminate a lot of problems regarding resistance to change in general.

If we have to take steps to control stress so that people can think juxtapositionally and even then stimulate them into doing it, we know that people sampled at random are too usually too stressed to think juxtapositionally. There is a background level of stress which we must locally reduce to enable gelled teams to form. Where does this stress come from, and is there any other evidence for it?

There is a strong relationship between stress and addiction, as the size of the study group at Yale indicates. An episode of increased stress can trigger relapse in recovering addicts, and some people explicitly recognize that stress is addictive, as described in the New York Times article, Stress Addiction: Life in the Fast Lane May Have its Benefits. It’s not hard to see how this might be so, because addictive drugs work by releasing dopamine, and so does stress!

We can explain the lack of juxtapositional thinking in J. Random Programmer by assuming that most people are addicted to a level of stress that impairs it, and this also has some justification in recent neuroscience. Dr. Peter Whybrow, Director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, argues in American Mania that modern society is suffers from such a widespread, dopamine chasing addictive loop. There are some differences in Whybrow’s picture, but the “big idea” is there.

People can raise stress in groups just by winding it up amongst themselves. They can develop customs and norms that rationalize and even celebrate stress, even as they produce it. If every niggle produces a hit, there’s going to be some serious operant conditioning going on.

At Brooklands racetrack it’s very important to be at the right place on the banking for the car’s speed. If unchecked groups of people tend to fix stress together, then it will be very important for a person to be stressing to the locally conventional degree, or they will not fit in and their colleagues will be unconsciously motivated to resent their over- or non-participation in the resulting dopamine economy. Because the resentment will be widely felt but unexpressed, a demonization process can easily occur. From there an atmosphere of hostility can easily grow. Notice that this provides a solid basis for the social idea of “morale”, which can be so elusive and different from one organization to another. At any time, each group can be at any point on the banking. Inside each group, everything looks normal. It’s just the world that’s wonky.

We’ve now got a context to explain the minority who retain creative, juxtapositional thinking. They lose it when stress goes up just like everyone else - that’s what “state evaporation” is. But for some reason they aren’t hooked on it, so they don’t take opportunities to perform little niggle dances, such as the social policing of arbitrary conventions. The DRD4 dopamine receptor referred to in the Arnsten paper above seems to be involved in this. The R7 allele (which fails to bind dopamine) is associated with the fruits of juxtapositional thinking, although many who write on ADHD do not consider the tests of cognitive flexibility and look only at tests of focussed attention.

There is therefore a question about how much focussed attention is really healthy. Based on this I predicted in 1998 that if most people are releasing far too much dopamine most of the time, then we might see a greater incidence of Early Onset Parkinson’s Disease in people with very stereotypical lifestyles. It’s loss of the ability to produce dopamine that causes Parkinson’s, and I reasoned that a lifetime of over-release could cause exhaustion as with insulin in Type II diabetes. In late 2000, Dr. Walter Rocca of the Mayo Institute reported just such a correlation, which he had found by analyzing a large database of Parkinson’s patients. I can’t find any freely available links, but Scientific American summarizes in the article Coffee’s Ties to Parkinson’s:

… individuals who later develop PD are sometimes described as moralistic, conscientious, cautious and orderly, the team reports. “These personality traits can be combined into the concept of ‘reduced novelty seeking’”

I promised some horror stories, so here they are. The first doesn’t even involve a gelled team, just a bunch of software engineers who weren’t actually doing very well. The firm’s core business supplied minimum wage workers like cleaners and catering staff to government, and their business unit was an attempt to go upmarket. They’d chosen the upstairs floor of a building, bricked up the windows replacing them with air conditioning, installed lots of keycode locks and leveraged their position in the baroque bidding systems to win some secure contracts. Admin staff who oversaw things that were very regimented and perhaps exploitative were located downstairs, and this part of the business provided all the infrastructure stuff. There was a lot of friction, as my argument would predict. The engineers started to get a nasty bug, or so they thought. It went from people getting flu like symptoms to vomiting. One of them commented that he felt particularly rotten in the sandwich queue, and the guy in front of him said, “Well I expect you’ve got carbon monoxide poisoning, just like everyone else“.

It turned out a loading bay at the back of the building had been redesignated as a vehicle maintenance area. The air conditioning intakes for upstairs were in the bay where mechanics were now revving engines. The air conditioning was stripping out the aromatic stuff, but the little CO molecules were coming straight through. This was well known downstairs, but no-one felt it was appropriate to say anything, for reasons to do with putting people in their place.

The second was less serious, more bizarre. I came in one morning to find a gelled team that had been getting a lot of stupid administrative grief in their government organization, all standing in the corridor outside their office. I asked why, and they pointed through the window. The entire volume was filled with furniture. Their own furniture, monitors, whiteboards and so on were still visible, in their approximately correct positions, through the tangle. It was piled so high that the polystyrene false ceiling tiles were just lifted out of their frame. Did I mention that this was a government stress shooting gallery organization? There was a Department of Furniture Moving. People couldn’t move their own furniture because of insurance. You sent a requisition to get furniture moved, and if would often happen in less than two months. They’d accomplished this Tate quality installation between 19:00 the previous evening, and 8:00 that morning! I called them on someone else’s internal phone:

Oh yes. That was an error.
Are you going to fix it?
Er… Why not?
Are you telling me how to do my job?
No, but they’re dealing with an Urgent Operational Requirement for Brigadier B—–, it’s very visible…
I’ll send someone down then.

Beware. These things really happen, and the more deeply an organization has become stuck in its own baroque introspective complexities, the more bizarre its reactions can be.

Next: What To Do Per Organization