Meredith Turner
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Organizational Neuroscience: Does Your Brain Love Advice? Understanding the Neuroscience Behind Advice Exchange in the Workplace

Xiaoyuan (Susan) Zhu, Society for Human Resource Management

Imagine this scenario: You are faced with a conflicting work decision with an impending deadline. Normally you would gather more information about each choice and think through each strategy, but you don’t have a lot of time. You go to one of your trusted colleagues to ask for advice or recommendation on which choice you should take. The advice is reasonable, and you made an informed decision in a short period of time. You really appreciate your colleague and your colleague was flattered that you asked her.

The advice exchange described above demonstrates the effectiveness of high-quality advice and its ability to promote organizational learning, improve decision quality, and even enhance professional relationships. In modern day organizations, many require their employees to complete challenging tasks and make numerous difficult decisions in novel environments. In these settings, employees can benefit significantly from seeking and taking advice as a way of learning and acquiring accurate information in an efficient manner (Larrick & Soll, 2006).

Acting on high-quality advice can save time and improve work decisions, but advice exchange has not been widely examined in the workplace. Given that organizations often operate in complex and dynamic environments that emphasize ongoing learning and acquisition of new competencies, understanding how the advice exchange processes unfold in organizations can be critical in facilitating this behavior in the workplace. Organizational neuroscience research can offer new insights into workplace issues (Waldman, Ward, & Becker, 2017). In this article, I will explore some basic questions about the neuroscience behind people’s motivation and the social benefits of seeking and taking advice, as well as implications for workplace culture and learning.

Taking Advice

Rather than making decisions in isolation, people often make decisions by combining recommendations from others (i.e., advice) with their own opinions or experiences, particularly for difficult decisions (Bonaccio & Dalal, 2006). This is an example of social learning, which relies heavily on advice taking, which transmits information more reliably than just observational learning alone, especially when mistakes are costly. Furthermore, advice has typically been found to be more accurate and timelier (Harvey & Fischer, 1997; Henrich & McElreath, 2003).

Advice Exchange From a Neuroscience Perspective

From a broad perspective, research suggests that following advice has adaptive values for human cultural evolution and that social learning is an important aspect of how we acquire new information and make decisions (Biele, Rieskamp, Krugel, & Heekeren, 2011). Seeking and taking advice is part of that social learning process. Research suggest that humans want to follow advice, particularly if it comes from a trustworthy source (Biele et al., 2011). This social connection creates a reward response in the brain (i.e., septal area). At the neurobiological level, individuals wish to follow trustworthy advice because of its association with a reward response which reinforces the behavior by stimulating the release of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter known to facilitate trust (Kosfeld, Heinrichs, Zak, Fischbacher, & Fehr, 2005). This consequently creates a cycle of advice taking that is rewarding and socially reinforcing, and people are more likely to continue advice exchange once they engage in the behavior. In other words, exchanging advice is a social process and on a neurobiological level, it feels “good” to take advice from others.

So people like taking advice from others, what about giving advice? Research has also shown that people like getting asked for advice (Brooks, Gino, & Schweitzer, 2015). The study found that individuals perceived advice seekers as more competent when they personally sought their advice compared to when they sought advice from others. It seems that the advice exchange process can reinforce social relationships.

What Are the Implications for Work?

Employees are often making difficult decisions, and taking appropriate advice can potentially offset the time and resources needed to gather the necessary information. Advice is directive and action oriented and can quickly guide an employee to take action or select certain options (see Brooks et al., 2015 for difference in conceptualization). In the workplace, asking and taking advice can potentially help transmit information, facilitate efficient organizational learning, as well as establish better interpersonal relationships among the employees.

What Are Some Potential Downsides?

There are some potential drawbacks to taking advice in the workplace. There is a general tendency for people to follow advice from “experts,” and this can be problematic if the advice is flawed. Research (Suen, Brown, Morck, & Silverstone, 2014) shows that the brain region of anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which has been shown to be implicated in ambiguity and conflict (Hsu, Bhatt, Adolphs, Tranel, & Camerer, 2005;  Krawczyk, 2002), prompts people to reconcile the conflict. This suggests that there may be an obedience reflex to expert advice, which may explain why individuals sometimes choose to blindly follow advice of “experts” on a variety of decisions (e.g., financial, medical, organizational).

How Would This Impact Organizations? What Can Organizations Do?

Perhaps organizations with more collaborative environments can foster more opportunities for people to partake in social learning via advice exchange. This can be particularly beneficial because it strengthens people’s connections and allows for higher quality decision making (Harvey & Fischer, 1997). Additionally, organizations can attempt to promote advice exchange among employees by helping break down silos of knowledge to make it easier for employees to identify expertise and seek out the appropriate advisors. Specifically, managers often may not have front-line employee knowledge, which means they may have to seek and take advice from their subordinates. If organizations can encourage managers to take advice more often to improve their decisions, it can help set an example for other employees to seek and take advice when it’s appropriate and necessary. Just watch out for bad advice!

References

Biele, G., Rieskamp, J., Krugel, L. K., & Heekeren, H. R. (2011). The neural basis of following advice. PLoS Biology, 9, 1-11.

Bonaccio, S., & Dalal, R. S. (2006). Advice taking and decision-making: An integrative literature review, and implications for the organizational sciences. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 101, 127-151.

Brooks, A. W., Gino, F., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2015). Smart people ask for (my) advice: Seeking advice boosts perceptions of competence. Management Science, 61, 1421-1435.

Harvey, N., & Fischer, I. (1997). Taking advice: Accepting help, improving judgment, and sharing responsibility. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 70, 117-133.

Henrich, J., & McElreath, R. (2003). The evolution of cultural evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews: Issues, News, and Reviews, 12, 123-135.

Hsu, M., Bhatt, M., Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., & Camerer, C. F. (2005). Neural systems responding to degrees of uncertainty in human decision-making. Science, 310, 1680-1683.

Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P. J., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. (2005). Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 435, 673-676.

Krawczyk, D. C. (2002). Contributions of the prefrontal cortex to the neural basis of human decision making. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 26, 631-664.

Larrick, R. P., & Soll, J. B. (2006). Intuitions about combining opinions: Misappreciation of the averaging principle. Management Science, 52, 111-127.

Suen, V. Y., Brown, M. R., Morck, R. K., & Silverstone, P. H. (2014). Regional brain changes occurring during disobedience to “experts” in financial decision-making. PloS one, e87321.

Waldman, D.,  Ward, M.K., & Becker, W.  (2017). Neuroscience in organizational behavior. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4(1), 425-444, 2017. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032516-113316

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