The Changing Science of Leadership

New 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 in his presentation at the annual conference of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) in Orlando, Florida later this month. The 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.

Blanchard is especially interested in the way this area of the brain is affected by different types of leadership.

“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.”

Engagement and Appraisal

Blanchard is also excited about new approaches to the problem of stubbornly low employee engagement scores in many organizations. To understand how employees determine if a workplace adds to or detracts from their well-being, researchers at The Ken Blanchard Companies carefully examined the individual appraisal process. Their extensive research in this area has garnered academic awards for research excellence and cutting-edge thinking.

“The term engagement has been around for a long time,” says Blanchard. “It was one of the first employee performance measures that really got attention—from the HR suite all the way up to the C suite. But things have stalled. Organizations have become good at measuring levels of engagement, but not at improving those levels.

“In response to clients asking us for help with improving engagement in their organizations, we began to dig into the research to find out what could make it more useful in the context of our work on leadership. We 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.”

Optimal Motivation

The third area Blanchard will be discussing in his presentation is the advances in research on motivation. While human resource and organizational development professionals have long known about the limitations of extrinsic rewards in motivating people, the adoption of alternative approaches to motivation has been slow.

The popularity of books such as Daniel Pink’s Drive, together with renewed interest in the work of researchers like Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester, have provided a roadmap for building more engaging work environments.

“For years, leaders tried to manage motivation primarily by providing incentives for desired behavior and applying sanctions for negative behavior,” explains Blanchard. “Today, the discussion is focused more on discovering intrinsic motivators that tap into the motivation people already have.

“At our company, Susan Fowler has literally written the book on how motivation from external rewards and sanctions impacts six different motivational outlooks. In her book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … and What Does, Fowler shares that extrinsic motivators lead to one of three suboptimal motivational outlooks, while intrinsic motivators lead to what Fowler identifies as optimal motivation.”

A Critical Juncture

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.”


Would you like to learn more about trends in leadership? Join us for a free webinar!

How Science is Reshaping Everything We Thought We Knew About Leadership
Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Join Scott Blanchard for a look at how recent research into neuroscience, motivation theory, engagement, and well-being are beginning to converge on a new holistic model for leading others effectively.

Are your leaders ready for this new environment?

Learn how advances in each of these separate disciplines are pointing toward a new model of leadership for a new generation of leaders. By examining intersecting trends participants will learn

  • How to encourage higher level thinking
  • How leaders unintentionally shut down the most valuable portions of employees' brains
  • What really motivates people and how it impacts five key performance measures
The markers are there. Join Scott Blanchard for a peek into the future of leadership development. Learn how to take a whole person approach to motivation and performance management that includes key steps for senior leaders, immediate managers, and employees themselves.

View On-demand