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Where Have We
Been With Organizational
Neuroscience? A Review
of Past Themes
and Visions of the Future

 Organizational Neuroscience

Xiaoyuan (Susan) Zhu
University of Connecticut

M.K. Ward
North Carolina State University

Bill Becker
Texas Christian University

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 3 years since our column began; time flies when you’re talking about organizational neuroscience (ON)! To us, that’s akin to having fun. Recent changes to this column and to TIP have inspired us to reflect on past issues of this column and chart a way forward. In terms of this column, as the newest member of the editorial team I am eager to contribute to the innovative content that M.K. Ward and Bill Becker have curated thus far. Looking beyond our column to TIP, we want to thank Morrie Mullins for his support and welcome Tara Behrend as the new TIP editor; we look forward to continually growing this column! Now for our review and reflections. Over the past few years, our interviews have covered a wide range of topics in efforts to present a comprehensive introduction to all that ON can offer I-O psychology. In this issue, we wanted to take the opportunity to look back at the past ON TIP interviews. Specifically, we wish to draw attention to themes and main concepts that have emerged and present our thoughts about the future of ON. The overarching aim of this review issue is therefore, to provide a helpful resource for (a) conceptualizing past and future work in ON, and for (b) incorporating ON into research, practice, and teaching.

Chronological Recap of TIP ON Interviews

Since the inception of this TIP column, we have interviewed 11 notable and prolific researchers on the topic of ON. They have shared their multi-disciplinary and cutting-edge research projects, commented on research and applied practices, provided tips on conducting better research, and inspired readers to think outside of the box. What follows is a brief, chronological summary of highlights from each researcher.

Dr. Daniel Simons’ research on inattentional blindness and cognitive biases reminded us that our belief about how our minds work don’t always match the reality and warned people in organizations to be mindful of their own cognitive biases. Dr. Nick Lee, a pioneer in the field, emphasized the importance of theoretical grounding of ON research and encouraged researchers to blend theories and methodologies from various fields to establish more comprehensive frameworks to understand organizational phenomena. Dr. Sigal Barsade reminded us that implicit processes such as emotions can greatly influence organizational outcomes and questioned what happens when employees become consciously aware of those implicit processes. Dr. Wendong Li noted that organizational behavior is comprised of both individual and environmental factors, which drives his research of examining individual differences, organizational attitudes, behaviors, and interactions at the genetic level. Dr. Marian Ruderman and Dr. Cathleen Clerkin described their research objective to translate existing neuroscience and organizational research into improvements for leadership development.Dr. Michael Christian described his approach of adopting a within-person perspective to study self-regulation and counterproductive workplace behavior. Dr. Sebastian Massaro, a neuroscientist by training, advocated for sound methodological, ethical, and professional guidelines for conducting ON research. Dr. Neal Ashkanasy suggested taking a systems approach to understanding organizational behavior, an approach that recognizes the intertwined interactions between context, environment, individual characteristics, and neurological activity. He acknowledged the common criticism against the reductionist view of ON such that neuroscience findings cannot explain all behavior but noted that we also cannot fully understand behavior without understanding its biological foundations. Dr. Vivienne Ming described ways she is translating theoretical research questions from various fields to examine potentially life-changing, tangible outcomes and products. Her exciting research and practice that intersects neuroscience, technology, and entrepreneurship is truly innovative and she encouraged readers to explore tough and meaningful questions. Finally, Stephanie Korszen detailed helpful tips for navigating neurotechnology and for purchasing electroencephalograph (EEG) to conduct ON research.

Emergent Themes

Top-tier organizational journals have taken note of the growing field of ON and have called for special issues of ON eliciting interdisciplinary papers that make theoretical and empirical contribution to the field (e.g., Organizational Research Methods, ORM; Journal of Organizational Behavior, JOB). To say that the researchers profiled on this column are pushing the boundaries of research in a multidisciplinary fashion may be an understatement. They take on many different roles, from neuroscientists, engineers, theoretical neuroscientists, and organizational psychologists, social psychologists to entrepreneurs, executive coaches, and geneticists. Although the interviews highlighted the variety and distinctness of each researcher’s main area of research, some consistent themes emerged. In the next section, we present those major themes and describe them in more detail with contents from the interviews.

  •  Methods are a means to an end. Neurological or physiological measures and technology are not silver bullets. A common advice that emerged from the interviews was that researchers should not let the methodology drive their research projects; there are a wide variety of neuroscientific technologies and researchers should not get bogged down with the latest, flashiest technology in neuroscientific research. In Simons’ interview, he emphatically noted that methods are a means to an end. Lee and Barsade echoed the sentiment and mentioned that methods should not define the research project. They both claimed that researchers do not need expensive or fancy technology to do good projects. More importantly, researchers should use converging methods to capture a phenomenon systematically and holistically. Additionally, Massaro noted that neuroscience is not just neuroimaging; there are various neurotechnology options for researchers and researchers should choose the technology based on their own specific research needs. With respect to EEG systems, Korszen underscored the importance for researchers to consider many decision points such as number of channels, types of electrodes, software, degree of mobility, and so on. She noted that if researchers plan ahead and have a good understanding of the research agenda, navigating the tradeoffs with neurotechnology will be more straightforward. As with any type of methodology, neurological or biological measurement cannot by itself, explain a complex phenomenon in the workplace. Ashkanasy remarked that although neuroscience is not a silver bullet to explain organizational behaviors, it makes up the fundamentals of what we do, and organizational researchers should take neuroscience findings into account in order to better understand workplace behaviors.  
  • Neurological mechanisms can inform various organizational behavior and practices.  The researchers we interviewed took an interdisciplinary approach, and either used traditional neuroscience methodologies or borrowed neuroscientific theories and frameworks. All of the ON projects showed the potential of neuroscience to directly or indirectly inform our collective understanding of organizational behavior and practice. For instance, people in organizations also do not work in isolation; they interact with other employees and may even work collaboratively. Barsade’s research on emotion contagion in teams can directly inform managers on where to put people in team settings. For example, how positive a leader generally tends to be can influence group outcomes such as team conflict and cooperation. Barsade expressed that understanding how affect and other implicit cognitive processes influence employee’s experience at work require physiological or neurological research. Utilizing a neuroscientific approach to study dynamic organizational phenomenon is not a new idea. Christian noted that neuroscientific methodologies can give us more direct measures to get at the fundamentals of behavior, to reduce measurement error, and to better understand momentary behaviors and experiences. The industry norm of using self-report measures can be a relatively crude measurement approach to tackle some of the more complex and dynamic relationships. Taking a neuroscientific approach can allow researchers to explain more variance in organizational behavior.

    Self-selection into organizations can often serve as alternative explanations for effects found in organizational samples. Individuals who are more extraverted may self-select into sales positions or certain organizations. Li, who explores the gene-environment interaction in the workplace context, suggested that by controlling effects of genetic factors, researchers can rule out certain alternatives explanations.  Li expressed that using genetic factors to index personality traits and individual differences can allow researchers to better understand how the individual interacts with the work environment that results in different organizational outcomes. He emphasized that rather than using genetic factors in selection, genetic factors can be used to understand how the environment influences individual characteristics in order to improve job and workplace design.

    In addition to answering theoretical questions, organizational neuroscience is useful in answering important applied questions on leadership development. Ruderman and Clerkin utilized ON research and methodology to try out different techniques to improve leader self-awareness and enhance leader self-modification. One project used biofeedback and breathing techniques to improve leader self-regulation and the researchers evaluated the intervention based on user reactions and beneficial outcomes.
  •  Fancy technology is not necessarily required to take an ON approach to research and practice. Have a sound design, be open-minded, and strike up collaborations. Many researchers we interviewed gave great advice to other researchers who are looking to break into the ON research space. Lee suggested designing projects with good theoretical framework that also takes into consideration the practical aspects of the types of empirical data you will get. Li recommended minimizing cost by collaborating with other researchers in other fields. Massaro advised researchers who want to form collaborations to talk to people who are trained experts in fields close to their own. For organizational researchers, a social scientist may be more interested in workplace issues than a neuropharmacologist. Ashkanasy reiterated the importance of interacting with researchers from other fields and to dig deeper into research topics. Ming encouraged researchers to be adaptable and keep an open mind on the exciting opportunities ON research can offer. Korszen recommended that researchers fully understand their research agenda before they purchase various neurotechnologies.
  • Conducting organizational neuroscience research is not without its challenges. Being pioneers in a new field is certainly not without its challenges. Many researchers shared some difficult moments they have faced in conducting ON research. Lee said that getting empirical data is difficult. A major challenge is finding good collaborators who are neuroscientists and interested in organizational issues as well as organizational psychologists who are interested in neuroscience. You need to get buy-in from a lot of different people. Because the blending between neuroscientific and organizational is fairly new, Li noted the difficulty of communicating conclusions and practical implications from research results. Using neuroscientific measurement in selection may not be feasible. Ruderman and Clerkin have faced the challenge of considering practical application in addition to theoretical importance of their ON research. They recounted the challenge of finding tools and technology that work in an applied setting, for example, having leaders in organizations hooked to an EEG system was not an option. Additionally, they are in the business of conducting translational research. They found that finding common language to translate neuroscience concepts was a big challenge. An additional challenge of communicating neuroscientific research lies in the details. Massaro said that finding the right balance between giving too much detail and over-simplifying the methods necessary for replication was tough when communicating ON research findings.
  • There are many different technologies that can be used to tackle organizational neuroscience research.  Neuroscience is not just neuroimaging and putting someone in an fMRI machine. Researchers use a variety of technology in their studies to answer important ON questions. Ruderman and Clerkin use a sensor with a phone app to allow the user to self-monitor state of internal synchronization between the heart, breathing, and brain activity. The app provides instant feedback on the degree of synchronization and the user can use the biofeedback information for self-regulation. Li mentioned that there are websites such as 23 and me that can provide personalized DNA reports for researchers and consumers. Barsarde used electrodermal measures to assess synchronization of energy, and implicit process, and examine how it influenced performance. Ashkanasy and his student were able to index stress with cortisol levels and were planning to measure hormonal indicators to index emotional activity. Ming recalled her experience of designing machine-learning algorithms to study the brain as well as studying the brain to improve her machine-learning algorithms. She also discussed the possibility of developing cognitive neuroprosthetics that can radically improve working memory. Indeed, there are many ways to measure and study a phenomenon and ON technologies can improve upon the current methodologies in organizational science.

Looking to the Future of ON

The neuroscience paradigm has been embraced by various behavioral and social sciences such as psychology, economics, marketing, and finance (Murray & Antonakis, 2015). Organizational researchers have increasingly adopted neuroscientific frameworks, methods, and tools to better understand organizational behaviors and phenomenon. Although neuro-alarmists have raised issues around incorporating neuroscience into organizational research (e.g.,Lindbaum & Jordan, 2014; Lindebaum & Zundel, 2013), the interviews we have conducted with the frontrunners of ON research show that the field of ON is aware of the limitations of adopting neuroscientific approaches and is heavily advocating for sound theoretical and methodological contributions.  We believe that the field of ON can push the boundaries of what we know about organizational behavior and can contribute meaningful insights into organizational research. While we keep in mind the aforementioned themes, we look forward to seeing what emerges in future issues. It is so ON!


 Lindebaum, D. & Jordan, P. J. (2014). A critique on neuroscientific methodologies in organizational behavior and management studies. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35, 898-908.
Lindebaum, D. & Zundel, M. (2013). Not quite a revolution: Scrutinizing organizational neuroscience in leadership studies. Human Relations, 66, 857-877.
Murray, M. & Antonakis, J. (2015). Feature Topic : Neuroscience in Organizational Research. Organizational Research Methods, 18, 570-572.