3 Ways Social Neuroscience is Changing Leadership

Leadership and neuroscienceNew advances in the field of social neuroscience are fundamentally reshaping perspectives on the best way to lead and manage the performance of others. That’s the main message Scott Blanchard will be sharing next week in his presentation at the annual conference of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) in Orlando, Florida. Blanchard’s concurrent session is entitled Things About Leadership We Never Would Have Said Three Years Ago.

As Blanchard shares, “The advent of the functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is giving us a peek into the workings of the brain, and the new science of motivation is helping us better understand what engages people. These developments, combined with ongoing research into well-being, are all beginning to converge on a new holistic model for leading others effectively.

“For the past fifty years we have used a left brain/right brain model to explain the way our brains work. While that’s been helpful, functional MRIs have vastly improved our ability to see which parts of the brain light up in different situations. The new focus is on the prefrontal cortex. It is the seat of judgment, emotional regulation, and executive functioning.”

According to Blanchard, the prefrontal cortex is also a “resource hog.” It uses a large share of the body’s glucose and oxygen and is very sensitive to external factors like sleep, diet, and stress.

“Stress causes the release of cortisol and adrenaline, which shuts down the brain’s higher level thinking abilities,” says Blanchard. “People revert to a more basic fight, flight, or freeze mode. That’s not the kind of thinking that leads to innovation, creativity, and collaboration. Instead, leaders want to look at creating safe environments that increase the production of the neurotransmitters that promote feelings of wellbeing, like dopamine and oxytocin. This makes it easier for people to consider new ideas, take risks, relate to others, and perform at their best.” 


Blanchard will also be sharing new approaches to the problem of stubbornly low employee engagement scores in many organizations—including research his company has done that has garnered academic awards for research excellence and cutting-edge thinking.

“Organizations have become good at measuring levels of engagement, but not at improving those levels. Our research has found that there is a significant correlation between twelve work environment factors and five important employee intentions: the intention to perform at a high level, to apply discretionary effort when needed, to stay with an organization, to endorse it to others, and to work collaboratively as a good organizational citizen. Leaders need to intimately understand these environmental factors, the connection to intentions, and the individual appraisal process if they want to make lasting improvement to employee engagement scores.”


Why Motivating People Doesn't Work.. and What Does Book CoverThe third area Blanchard will cover in his presentation is the latest research on motivation and the continued shift on discovering intrinsic motivators that tap into the motivation people already have. Blanchard will be highlighting the work of Susan Fowler, a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies, who is the author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … and What Does.

“Susan Fowler has literally written the book on how motivation from external rewards and sanctions impacts six different motivational outlooks,” says Blanchard. “Including how extrinsic motivators lead to one of three suboptimal motivational outlooks, while intrinsic motivators lead to optimal motivation.” 


Blanchard believes the leadership learning and development space is at an important inflection point.

“We are at a critical point in our industry where there are tens of millions of people who are either in, or soon to enter, their first management job. This huge thundering herd of people is moving into leadership at a time when direct reports will be expecting a lot from them. It’s never been more important to take a second look at methods that have worked in the past and combine them with the latest thinking about how to enhance leadership practices for a new generation in the workforce.”

If you are attending this year’s ATD Conference learn more about The Blanchard Companies’ complete schedule of activities. If you are not travelling to this year’s conference, be sure to check out a free online event on May 27 where Blanchard will be sharing key points from his presentation.

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