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Organizational Neuroscience: Growing Smarter in Work Design by Getting Brainy Through Organizational Neuroscience

MK Ward and Sharon Parker

In this issue, Sharon Parker and I have teamed up to begin to answer two common questions about organizational neuroscience (ON). Why should I bother with ON? How would I use ON? To this end, we discuss an example to illustrate the value added of an ON approach to a classic topic in I-O psychology, namely work design. We focus on research in our example. For an excellent list of ON examples with practical utility see The Bridge column in this issue of TIP.


Sharon Parker is one of the world’s leading experts in work design and she’s currently working on several streams of research to update the field via the Centre for Transformative Work Design. She has published in Annual Review of Psychology and Academy of Management Journal to name a few. She is a Fellow of SIOP and has recently been awarded an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship. To say she’s qualified to coauthor this issue is a massive understatement!


Areas of Work Design Ripe for ON

Work design’s relevance to all organizations is apparent in its definition: “the content and organization of one’s work tasks, activities, relationships, and responsibilities” (Parker, 2014, p. 662). As Parker has argued in her work design growth model (WDGM), work design can result in cognitive, moral, and identity change and development. To illustrate the powerful role of ON, we focus on the specific question: How might work design foster cognitive change and development of workers throughout their lifespans? In addressing this broad question, we recognize that cognitive change occurs across different time scales, underpinned by different neural mechanisms. On the one hand, there is some evidence from longitudinal population studies that work design might affect longer term cognitive functioning via affecting neural structures and processes. For example, Kröger et al. (2009) found that over the long term, high complexity of work with people and things was protective of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.


On the other hand, such change would need to be underpinned by shorter-term and more episodic cognitive change and neural processes. Complexity implies novelty (Park & Reuter-Lorenz 2009), which means the brain needs to develop new pathways to adapt to new, and discrepant cognitive challenges. Work design can shape employees’ engagement in perspective-taking (Parker & Axtell 2001), which may relate to changes in mirror neuron activation. For example, work designs with “people complexity” of self-managing teams, fosters perspective taking which, over the long term, accumulates to enhance individuals’ epistemic cognition and increase cognitive complexity. Additionally, the default mode network (DMN) is related to global processing, creativity, empathy and perspective taking as well as openness to stimuli (Friedman, Jack, Rochford, & Boyatzis, 2015).


It’s likely that different mechanisms, with distinct neurological underpinnings, link work design to cognitive outcomes. However, there has been little or no attempt to link systematically work design to neural changes, either in the short-term or the longer term. Such research will benefit from several features of ON.


How Would You Use ON?

Although conducting ON research has similarities to conventional research approaches, we illustrate the differences here. After reviewing the literatures in work design and neuroscience, the type of hypothesis you can test depends on the type of neuroscience tool you use to measure neural activity. Three types of hypotheses (hemodynamic, neuronal, psychological) can be tested with fMRI. Hemodynamic hypotheses focus on the hemodynamic response itself, (e.g., “The hemodynamic response, i.e. BOLD signal, associated with presentation of video stimuli designed to elicit empathy will differ from the hemodynamic response to visual, written stimuli designed to elicit empathy.”) Neuronal focus on neural activation in response to particular stimuli, (e.g., “"Viewing videos of others experiencing unpleasant emotion is associated with activation in the insula, and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction"). Psychological hypotheses focus on psychological processes, (e.g. “Work design that requires workers to engage in complex, novel, perspective-taking over the long-term will increase epistemic cognition by leveraging neuroplasticity that is associated with repeated activation in mirror neurons and the DMN.”) We continue with this psychological hypothesis as our example of how ON can be used in work design.


In order to fully test this hypothesis, we need to investigate both shorter-term neural processes and longer-term neural changes. Focusing first on the longer-term link between work design and cognitive development, we propose tracking changes in the brain (structure and function) alongside measuring work design and cognitive functioning every few years for several years. A benefit of ON is that good design means power can be high, and where recruitment can be difficult for longitudinal studies, sample sizes can be smaller than is typical in I-O psychology. A second benefit of the ON approach is that we would be able to measure within-person changes that participants cannot self-report. This access to structural and functional changes over time can help us determine with more precision, another benefit of ON, what neural mechanisms connect complexity and novelty, (e.g., self-managed teams)  in work design with favorable cognitive development (and avoid mental conditions such as Alzheimer’s. Neuroplasticity explains how neural connectivity change over time and likely can begin to answer how neural mechanisms connect short-term processes with long-term, more stable changes in cognitive development in workers.  


Second, a shorter term study could assess neural responses to different work design simulations. For example, the study may simulate three conditions with experimental tasks that require teamwork and perspective taking, teamwork without perspective taking, and solo work that has the same level of technical difficulty to match cognitive complexity. ON widens the construct domain to include neural variables, which can be used to establish convergent and discriminant validity. In this example, results can be compared with data from Bagozzi's et al. (2013) salesperson theory of mind scale as well as their fMRI results to validate regions of interest (active brain areas).


In addition to the benefits we described, using the ON approach also brings new and different: logical assumptions (e.g., reverse inference), research designs (e.g., event-related), tools for data collection (see Balthazard, 2015), data (e.g., blood flow), research team members (e.g., technicians), and ethical considerations. Neuroimaging may reveal medical issues such as brain tumors, though rare, this is possible and needs to be handled appropriately. It’s good practice to evaluate the quality of the research for several things in addition to good design as practiced in I-O psychology. Here’s an example of a checklist if we used fMRI (Huettel, Song, & McCarthy, 2008) for our study of shorter-term neural processes:

  1. Evoke the specific cognitive processes of interest. What specific cognitive processes will be elicited by each stimulus in the experiment?
    1. The stimuli would be the experimental tasks that require teamwork and perspective taking, teamwork without perspective taking, and solo work that has the same level of technical difficulty to match cognitive complexity. Each can include images, videos, auditory sounds, and button pressing for participants’ responses. Importantly, our challenge is to isolate perspective taking as the only difference between teamwork and perspective taking compared with the other conditions.
  2. Choose stimulus conditions and timing in order to maximize changes and minimize correlations among cognitive processes of interest.
    1. This may include clumping together experimental tasks that involve perspective taking, then giving those neural functions a rest by presenting experimental tasks that require solo work without teamwork or perspective taking.
  3. Measure behaviors that could be connected to neural activity.
    1. Behavioral outcomes that may result from epistemic cognition development: sales, customer retention, strength and size of professional network, and speed of decision making.
  4. Maximize efficiency by choosing one of three design options: blocked (to research what neural activation arises), event-related (to research timing and nature of neural activations), mixed (to research both).
    1. If we want to confirm what neural activation is associated with teamwork and perspective taking during work, then we could use a blocked design, where we repeatedly present that type of work task. Then focusing on neural differences across types of work design, we could minimize correlations among cognitive processes of interest through counterbalancing presentation of the conditions.


Our example merely scraped the surface of considerations to make when using fMRI for ON research. See Ward, Becker, and Reeck (forthcoming) for a more in-depth example of ON research using fMRI. Beyond fMRI there are many options for ON research. EEG, fMRI, MEG, and TMS are several neuroscience tools that vary by temporal resolution (ability to measure fast changes over short durations, e.g., miliseconds) and spatial resolution (ability to measure precise, tiny segments of neural tissue, e.g., millimeters).



Work design has several areas ripe for integration with ON that if successfully researched, we believe, will propel work design into a new era in which people will be smarter about work design because we’ve begun to leverage our tools to better understand people’s brains at work. This depth of understanding can expand the breadth of impact that smarter work design can have on our neural development and on our collective consciousness.



Bagozzi, R. P., Verbeke, W. J. M. I., Dietvorst, R. C., Belschak, F. D., Berg, W. E. van den, & Rietdijk, W. J. R. (2013). Theory of mind and empathic explanations of Machiavellianism: A neuroscience perspective. Journal of Management, 39(7), 1760–1798. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206312471393

Pierre A. Balthazard, & Robert W. Thatcher. (2015). Neuroimaging modalities and brain technologies in the context of organizational neuroscience. In Organizational neuroscience (Vol. 7, pp. 83–113). Bingley, UK: Emerald. Retrieved from http://0-www-emeraldinsight-com.library.alliant.edu/doi/abs/10.1108/S1479-357120150000007003

Friedman, J., Jack, A. I., Rochford, K., & Boyatzis, R. (2015). Antagonistic neural networks underlying organizational behavior. In D. A. Waldman, and P. A. Balthazard, (Eds.) Organizational neuroscience (Vol. 7, pp. 115–141). Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing. Retrieved from http://0-www-emeraldinsight-com.library.alliant.edu/doi/abs/10.1108/S1479-357120150000007004

Huettel, S. A., Song, A. W., & McCarthy, G. (2008). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (2nd ed.). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates. Retrieved from http://www.sinauer.com/media/wysiwyg/tocs/FMRI.pdf

Kröger, E., Andel, R., Lindsay, J., Benounissa, Z., Verreault, R., & Laurin, D. (2008). Is complexity of work associated with risk of dementia? The Canadian Study of Health and Aging. American Journal of Epidemiology167(7), 820-830.

Park, D. C., & Reuter-Lorenz, P. (2009). The adaptive brain: aging and neurocognitive scaffolding. Annual

Review of Psychology60, 173-196.

Parker, S. K. (2014). Beyond motivation: Job and work design for development, health, ambidexterity, and more. Annual Review of Psychology65, 661-691.

Parker, S. K., & Axtell, C. M. (2001). Seeing another viewpoint: Antecedents and outcomes of employee perspective taking. Academy of Management Journal44(6), 1085-1100.

Ward, M.K., Becker, W. & Reeck, C. (forthcoming). A brief primer in using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in entrepreneurship research.  In M. Day, M. Boardman, and N. Krueger. (Eds.), Handbook of research methodologies and design in neuro-entrepreneurship. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

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