Posted on Leave a comment

Qstream Leverages Science to Train Situational Awareness in the Sales Brain

Consider a sales managers all-too-common nightmare…

“I wake up in the middle of the night in a pool of sweat worried about my sales teams’ ability to “think on their feet” and to “read” the ever-changing sales landscape. They know the product in and out. I know I quiz them frequently. During role play they also perform well. However, to a person, when faced with an objection, time pressure, or a resistant client, they choke. It is as if they have forgotten everything that they know. I am at a loss for what to do.”

This is a problem in “situational awareness” and it is common in sales, and many other domains (e.g., healthcare). A sales professional with strong situational awareness has an almost intuitive feel for the current situation and has a very good idea of what is coming next. This individual always remains calm and can retrieve critical product information whether in a routine or non-routine situation (e.g., under time pressure). This individual knows how to act in any situation. They always put their best foot forward, and maximize the chances of a sale, regardless of the situation. Continue reading Qstream Leverages Science to Train Situational Awareness in the Sales Brain

Posted on Leave a comment

Why Percipio Excels as a Learning Experience Platform: A Market Milestone

In a recently published Market Milestone, Todd Maddox, Ph.D., Learning Scientist and Research Fellow for Amalgam Insights, evaluated Percipio, Skillsoft’s Learning Experience Platform from a learning science perspective—the marriage of psychology and brain science. This involves evaluating the training content and delivery to determine whether it engages psychological processes and learning systems in the brain effectively.

Amalgam’s overall evaluation is that Percipio is highly effective.
Pecipio’s ELSA (Embedded Learning Synchronized Assistant) addresses the need for organized and easily accessible content as well or better than most competitor’s platforms. ELSA provides just-in-time, searchable and suggested content, all seamlessly integrated into the employee’s flow of work.

Percipio also engages the task appropriate system in the brain. The “watch”, “read”, “listen” framework allows learners to utilize the medium that is most effective in the current context and facilitates microlearning for a targeted and concise understanding of some concept or macrolearning for a deeper dive and understanding. The emphasis on storytelling and scenario-based content, when appropriate, engages emotional systems that upregulate processing in both the cognitive and behavioral skills systems in the brain. The addition of “practice” (to be released in 2019) will facilitate the development of behavioral skills directly in the workplace.

For more information, read the full Market Milestone at

Posted on Leave a comment

Todd Maddox Ph.D.’s Top Four Scientific Observations on HR Tech 2018

HR Tech gets bigger and bigger every year. HR Tech 2018 was no exception. It broke all of the previous records. More importantly, the quality of the offerings, presentations and savvy of the clients continues to grow. I had a great time at HR Tech 2018, and I am already looking forward to 2019.

It took some time to dig out from three days away from my desk, and more time to let my thoughts coalesce, but I am now ready to provide my insights on the event.

As a psychological and brain scientist with 25 years of basic science research under my belt, and a particular interest in personality, motivation, learning, and all things data, I resonate with events like HR Tech because my passion is all things “people’. I find topics such as recruitment, interviewing, learning and development, leadership, succession planning, and talent management in general fascinating. Although I am sure others who attended HR Tech will highlight different topics, and acknowledging that I was only able to speak in detail with a dozen or so vendors, here are my Top Four Scientific Observations.

The Impact of Science Continues to Grow

Relevant Vendors That I Spoke With: Cornerstone, IBM, Infor, LTG, PeopleFluent, Phenom People, Saba, Skillsoft/Sumtotal, TalentQuest, Workday

I am happy to say that I see a growing interest in the importance of science, not only in vendors but also in their potential customers. Whether talent science, learning science, or data science, the methodology called “science” is growing in HR. Importantly, this is not just being used as a buzzword. In hiring and recruitment, the science of assessment is central. Combine assessment with “big data” and amazing recruitment offerings follow. In Learning and Development, tools and technologies are being built that battle against the brain’s natural tendency to forget and focus on presenting information within the attention span of the learner. These include microlearning, spaced training and testing. In talent management, the science of personality is growing in importance. Personality is directly related to motivation and incentivization and all three are being leveraged. The science of data and the use of analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence to garner actionable insights continues to grow in its use and sophistication.

From a psychological and brain science perspective, we still have a long way to go, and we need to do a better job of mapping tools onto tasks but progress is being made and vendors are listening to their clients.

The Growing Importance of People Skills and Leadership Training

Relevant Vendors That I Spoke With: LeadX, LTG, PeopleFluent, Saba, Skillsoft/Sumtotal, TalentQuest

I have written extensively on the difference between hard skills and people (aka soft) skills, the psychological processes and brain systems relevant to each, and the fact that very different tools are needed. At times, I have felt like people hear, but are not listening. The tide is turning. More and more HR professionals (vendors and customers) are embracing the importance of people skills. Whether it is growing concerns with automation, the extensive data suggesting that diversity increased revenue and workplace harmony, the #metoo movement, or more likely the combination of all three, HR is embracing the need for effective people skills training in organizations large and small. This is not just about compliance and box checking, but a recognition that people skills are critical in the workplace.

The growing emphasis on leadership training is also exciting, and people skills are central to this mission. I visited numerous vendors from small, innovative startups to much larger companies who are working to tackle the leadership development problem head-on. Although more work is needed, some of these offerings are truly remarkable.

I should also note that some vendors are developing leadership training programs focused on developing Leadership in Women. For those of you who have read the likes of “Lean In”, you know the challenges facing women in the corporate world, especially leadership. Offerings targeted to these specific problems are welcome.

The Growing Recognition of the Value of Personality

Relevant Vendors That I Spoke With: IBM, Infor, PeopleFluent, Phenom People, LeadX, TalentQuest

As I alluded to earlier, the science of personality is growing in its relevance and sophistication in HR. I have conducted a number of studies of my own and show convincingly that personality is critical and affects many aspects of HR including team dynamics, learning and development, effective management, and succession planning to name a few. The number of vendors embracing the importance of personality is growing and the quality of some of the offerings are truly amazing. Personality assessment blends psychology and data science and can offer insights that are immediately actionable and can make the difference between workplaces that are high in engagement, satisfaction, and retention, and those that are weak on these same metrics. With the constant battle to find, develop, nurture and retain the right employees, factors such as personality will continue to grow in value.

There is still room for improvement and some intersections that the majority of HR vendors are not seeing, such as the intersection between personality, motivation, learning and incentivization, but I expect that those will come with time.

Virtual Reality Has Arrived

Relevant Vendors That I Spoke With: STRIVR, SumTotal, TalentQuest

For the past several years, I have been following the emergence of the immersive technology of virtual reality. My interest in this technology comes from my interest in Learning and Development. From a brain science perspective, it is clear that this technology is highly effective at engaging learning centers in the brain. Until recently, technological issues and equipment costs constrained virtual realities commercial use. For example, a year or so ago, a good virtual reality system cost several $1000 and required a laptop, and a tethered cable connected to the head mounted display. Recently, Oculus release the Go which is a stand-alone head-mounted display that costs under $300. A game changer!

Although the number of virtual reality offerings at HR Tech is still relatively small, the buzz around this technology is growing exponentially, and some key players are driving engagement. In addition, the quality of the offerings that are out there is impressive. These tools will be invaluable for collaboration and training. I am very excited to see this sector grow in 2019, and I fully expect the number of offerings at HR Tech 2019 to be significantly higher.


It is an exciting time for HR. That was clearly reflected in the enthusiasm, innovation and quality of the offerings at HR Tech 2018. Skills that have often been given lip service (e.g., people skills) are getting the attention that they deserve. Constructs that derive directly from people, such as personality, are being leveraged for good. New, and exciting technologies such as virtual reality are being introduced for more than gaming. And all of these are being built on a solid foundation of data and science. The future is bright for HR and HR Tech.

Posted on Leave a comment

The “Unlearning” Dilemma in Learning and Development

Key Stakeholders: IT Managers, IT Directors, Chief Information Officers, Chief Technology Officers, Chief Digital Officers, IT Governance Managers, and IT Project and Portfolio Managers.

Top Takeaways: One critical barrier to full adoption is the poorly addressed problem of unlearning. Anytime a new piece of software achieves some goal with a set of motor behaviors that is at odds with some well-established, habitized motor program, the learner struggles, evidences frustration, and is less likely to effectively onboard. Learning scientists can remedy this problem and can help IT professionals build effective training tools.


In my lifetime I have seen amazing advances in technology. I remember the days of overhead projectors, typewriters and white out. Now our handheld “phone” can project a high-resolution image, can convert spoken word into text, and can autocorrect errors.

The corporate world is dominated by new technologies that are making our lives easier and our workplaces more effective. Old technologies are being updated regularly, and new innovative, disruptive technologies are replacing them. It is an exciting time. Even so, this fast-paced technological change requires continuous learning and unlearning and this is where we often fall short.

Despite the fact that we all have experience with new technologies that have made our lives easier, and we applaud those advances, a large proportion of us (myself included) fear the introduction of a new technology or next release of our favorite piece of software. We know that new and improved technologies generally make us more productive and make our lives easier, at least in the long-run, but at the same time, we dread that new software because the training usually “sucks”.

This is a serious problem. New and improved technology development is time-consuming and expensive. The expectation is that all users will onboard effectively and reap the benefits of the new technology together. When many users actively avoid the onboarding process (yours truly included) this leads to poor adoption, underutilization of these powerful tools, and reduced profits. I refer to this as the “adoption gap”.

Why does this “adoption gap” exist and what can we do about it?

There are two reasons for the “adoption gap” and both can be addressed if training procedures are developed that embrace learning science—the marriage of psychology and brain science.

First, all too often a software developer or someone on their or another team is tasked with developing a training manual or training tool. Although these individuals are amazing at their jobs, they are not experts in training content development and delivery and often build ineffective tools. The relevant stories that I can tell from my 25-year career as a University Professor are many. I can’t count the number of times I received an email explaining (in a paradoxically excruciating and incomprehensible detail) how a new version of an existing software has changed, or how some new technology was going to be unveiled that would replace a tool that I currently used. I was provided with a schedule of “training workshops” to attend, or a link to some unintelligible “training manual”.

Because the training materials were not easy to use and not immediately actionable, I and my colleagues did everything that we could to stick with the legacy (and currently workable solution) or to get small group training from someone who knew how to use the technology. Although this worked for us, it was highly sub-optimal from the perspective of the University and it adversely affected productivity.

When the training tool is ineffective, employees will fail to use the new technology effectively and will quickly revert back to the legacy software that works and feels comfortable. I discuss this problem in a recent blog post and I offered some specific suggestions for improving technology training and development that include surveying users, embracing microlearning, using multiple media, and incorporating knowledge checks. Even so, that blog ignores the second major cause of the “adoption gap” and obstacles to IT onboarding, unlearning.

The Importance of Unlearning

In this report I take a deeper dive and explore a problem that is poorly understood in Learning and Development. This is the central problem of unlearning. Simply put, all too often a novel technology or software release will introduce new ways of achieving a goal that are very different from, or at odds with, the old way of achieving that goal.

Consider a typical office setting in which an employee spends several hours each day using some technology (e.g., Photoshop, a word processor, some statistics package). The employee has been using this technology on a daily basis for months, possibly years and using the technology has become second nature. The employee has become so proficient with this tool that their behaviors and motor interactions with the technology have become habitized. The employee does not even have to “think” about how to cut and paste, or conduct a simple regression, or add a layer to their project. They have performed these actions so many times that they have developed “muscle memory”. The brain develops “muscle memory” and habits that reduce the working memory and attention load and leave those valuable resources for more complex problems like interpreting the outcome of a regression or visualizing the finalized Photoshop project that we have in mind.

Now suppose that the new release changes the motor program associated with cutting and pasting, the drop-down menu selections needed to complete a regression, or the button clicks to add, delete or move project layers. In this case, your habits and muscle memory are telling you one thing, but you have to do something else with the new software. This is very challenging, frustrating, and working memory and attention demanding. One has to use inhibitory control so as not to initiate the habit, and instead think really hard to initiate the new set of behaviors, and do this over and over again so that they become habitized. This takes time and effort and is working memory and attention demanding. Many (yours truly included) will abandon this process and fall back on what “works”. Unlearning habits is much more challenging than learning new behaviors.

Key Recommendations to Support Unlearning

This is an area where learning science can be leveraged. An extensive body of psychological and brain science research (much of my own) has been conducted over the past several decades that provides specific guidelines on how to solve the problem of unlearning. Here are a few suggestions for addressing this problem.

Recommendation 1: Identify Technology Changes That Impact High Frequency “Habits”. When onboarding a new software solution or when an existing software solution is upgraded, the IT team should audit IT behavior to identify high-frequency functionality and monitor users’ behavior. Users should also be encouraged to provide feedback on their interactions with the software and to identify functions that they believe have changed. Of course, IT personnel could be proactive and audit high-frequency behaviors before purchasing new software. This information could guide the purchasing process. IT professionals must understand that although the technology as a whole may be improved with each new release, there is often at least one high-frequency task that changes and requires extensive working memory and attentional resource to overcome. Every such instance is a chance for an onboarding failure.

Recommendation 2: Apply Spaced Training and Periodic Testing to Unlearn High-Frequency Habits. Once high-frequency habits that have changed are identified, unlearning procedures should be incorporated to speed the unlearning, and new learning process. Spaced training and periodic testing can be implemented to speed this process. Details can be found here, but briefly, learning (and unlearning) procedures should be developed that target these habits for change. These training modules should be introduced across training sessions spaced over time (usually hours or days apart). Each training session should be preceded by a testing protocol that identifies areas of weakness that require additional testing. This provides critical information for the learner and allows them to see objective evidence of progress. In short, habits cannot be overcome in a single training session. However, the speed of learning and unlearning can be increased when spaced training and testing procedures are introduced.

Recommendation 3: Automate High-Frequency Tasks to Avoid the Need for Unlearning. The obvious solution to the learning and unlearning problem is to minimize the number of motor procedural changes across software releases or with new technology. A straightforward method is to ask employees which tasks that they locked into “muscle memory”. Once identified, software developers and experts in UI/UX could work to automate or optimize these processes. Tools such as optimized macros, machine learning-based optimization or new functionality would be the goal. The time saved onboarding users should be significant and the number of users abandoning the process should be minimized. Although aspirational, with the amount of “big data” available to developers, and the rich psychological literature on motor behavior, this is a solvable problem. We simply need to recognize the problem that employees have been aware of for decades, and acknowledge that the problem must be solved.

By taking these recommendations into account, technology onboarding will become more efficient, technology users will become more efficient, and companies will be better positioned to extract maximum value from their investment in new and transformative technologies.

Posted on Leave a comment

Area9: Leveraging Brain and Computer Science to Build an Effective Adaptive Learning Platform

I recently received an analyst briefing from Nick Howe, the Chief Learning Officer at Area9 Learning who offer an adaptive learning solution. Although Area9 Learning was founded in 2006, I have known about area 9 since the 1980s and it was first “discovered” in 1909. How is that possible?

In 1909, the German anatomist Korbinian Brodmann developed a numbering system for mapping the cerebral cortex based on the organization of cells (called cytoarchitecture). Brodmann area 9, or BA9, includes the prefrontal cortex (a region of brain right behind the forehead) which is a critical structure in the cognitive skills learning system in the brain and functionally serves working memory and attention.

The cognitive skills learning system, prefrontal cortex (BA9), working memory and attention are critical for many aspects of learning, especially hard skills learning.
Continue reading Area9: Leveraging Brain and Computer Science to Build an Effective Adaptive Learning Platform

Posted on Leave a comment

The Learning Science of Situational Awareness and Patient Safety

An Interactive Webinar with Qstream CEO, Rich Lanchantin

On Wednesday, July 17, 2018, Amalgam’s Learning Scientist and Research Fellow, Todd Maddox, Ph.D. and Qstream’s CEO, Rich Lanchantin conducted a live, interactive webinar focused on the critically important topic of situational awareness and patient safety. Achieving the highest quality in patient care requires a careful balance between efficiency and situational awareness in order to prevent medical errors. Healthcare professionals must be able to observe the current environment while also keeping the various potential outcomes top of mind in order to avoid unnecessary complications.

In the webinar, we discussed the learning science—the marriage of psychology and brain science—of situational awareness and patient safety and showed how to most effectively help clinicians learn and retain information, which results in long-term behavior change. We focused specifically on the challenges faced in optimally training the “what”, “feel” and “how” learning systems in the brain that mediate situational awareness, and how the Qstream platform effectively recruits each of these learning systems.

A replay of the webinar is available for all interested parties at the following link. Simply click the “Webcasts & Slideshare” button and the webcast is there. You will also see a second webcast that I recorded with Rich Lanchantin focused on “The Psychology of Hard vs. Soft Skills Training”. Enjoy!

If you would be interested in retaining Todd Maddox, the most-cited researcher in corporate learning, for a webinar, speaking engagement, or workshop, please contact us at

Posted on 1 Comment

The Brain Science View on Why Microlearning Is Misused & Misapplied in Enterprise Learning Environments

Microlearning is taking the Learning and Development world by storm. Although many incorrectly identify microlearning as simply short duration training sessions, leaders in the field define microlearning as an approach to training that focuses on conveying information about a single, specific idea. The goal is to isolate the idea that is to be trained and then to focus all of the training effort on explaining that single idea with engaging and informative content. For example, with respect to sexual harassment, one might watch a brief piece of video content focused on the qualities of an inclusive leader, or ways to identify the symptoms of hostility in the workplace. The information would be presented in an engaging format that stimulates knowledge acquisition in the learner. The microlearning training goal is clear: train one idea succinctly with engaging content, and with as few “extras” as possible.

The Psychological and Brain Science of Microlearning: Training the Hard Skills of People Skills

Learning science—the marriage of psychology and brain science–suggests that microlearning is advantageous for at least two reasons. First, the emphasis on training a single idea as concisely and succinctly as possible, increases the likelihood that the learner will remain engaged and attentive during the whole microlearning session. Put another way, the likelihood that the learner’s attention span will be exceeded is low.

Second, the aim of microlearning to eliminate any ancillary information that is not directly relevant to the target idea, means that the cognitive machinery (i.e., working memory and executive attention) available to process the information can focus on the idea to be learned, with minimal effort being expended on filtering out irrelevant information that can lead the learner astray. The learner’s cognitive load will all be focused on the idea to be trained.

Because microlearning techniques are targeted at working memory, executive attention, and attention span in general, microlearning strongly affects processing in the cognitive skills learning system. The cognitive skills learning system in the brain recruits the prefrontal cortex, a region of cortex directly behind the forehead that mediates the learning of hard skills. These include learning rules and regulations, new software, and critical skills such as math and coding. Hard skill learning requires focused attention and the ability to process and rehearse the information. One learns by reading, watching, and listening, and information is ultimately retained through mental repetitions.

Thus, microlearning is optimal for hard skill training. Microlearning can, and appears to be, revolutionizing online eLearning of hard skills.

The Psychological and Brain Science of Microlearning and People Skills Training

I showed in a recent article that online eLearning approaches to corporate training use the same, one-size-fits-all, delivery platform and procedures when training hard skills and people (aka soft) skills. Although generally effective for hard skills training, especially when tools like microlearning are incorporated, this one-size-fits-all approach is only marginally effective at training people skills because people skills are ultimately behavioral skills. People skills are about behavior. They are what we do, how we do it, and our intent. These are the skills that one needs for effective interpersonal communication and interaction, for showing genuine empathy, embracing diversity, and avoiding situations in which unconscious biases drive behavior.

Behavioral skill learning is not mediated by the cognitive skills learning system in the brain, but rather is mediated by the behavioral skills learning system in the brain. Whereas the cognitive skills learning system in the brain recruits the prefrontal cortex, and relies critically on working memory and executive attention, the behavioral skills learning system in the brain recruits the basal ganglia, a subcortical brain structure, that does not rely on working memory and executive attention for learning. Rather the basal ganglia learn behaviors gradually and incrementally via dopamine-mediated error-correction learning. When the learner generates a behavior that is followed in real-time, literally with 100s of milliseconds, by feedback that rewards the behavior, dopamine is released, and that behavior will be incrementally more likely to occur next time the learner is in the same context. On the other hand, when the learner generates a behavior that is followed in real-time by feedback that punishes the behavior, dopamine is not released, and that behavior will be incrementally less likely to occur next time the learner is in the same context.

People skills are learned by doing and involve physical repetitions.

Microlearning: The Hard Skills of People Skills

So how effective is microlearning for people skills training? The answer is that microlearning is very effective for early epochs of people skills training when the focus is on learning the hard skills of people skills. It is also effective when learning to identify good and bad people skills. For example, if you are learning about the definition of empathy, are being shown a demonstration of unconscious bias, or are learning some of the advantages of a diverse workplace. In these cases, microlearning is very useful because you are gaining a cognitive understanding of various aspects of people skills.

When microlearning content is grounded in rich scenario-based training its effectiveness is enhanced. This follows because scenario-based training engages emotional learning centers in the brain that affect hard but also people skills learning. Rich scenario allow learners to “see themselves” in the training which primes the system for behavior change.

Microlearning: The Behavioral Skills of People Skills

Despite the effectiveness of microlearning approaches for training hard skills, and when supplemented with rich scenarios, for engaging emotion centers, people skills are ultimately behavioral skills. The ultimate goal is behavior change. All of the cognitive skills training is in the service of preparing the learner for effective behavior change.

How effective is microlearning for behavioral skills learning and for effective behavior change?

The behavioral science is clear. Behavior skills training is optimized when you train the learner on multiple different behaviors, across multiple different settings. Ideally, the learner has no idea what is coming next. They could be placed in a routine situation such as a weekly team meeting, or a non-routine situation in which an angry client is on the phone and the learner has only a few minutes to de-escalate the situation. In other words, if I have multiple leadership situations that I want to train, such as leading an effective meeting, giving an effective performance review, or evidencing active listening skills, then generalization, transfer and long-run behavior change is most effective if you randomly present the learner with these leadership settings. This teaches the leader to “think on their feet” and to be confident that they can handle any situation at any time. Put another way, it is optimal to train simultaneously, and in a random order, several people skill “ideas”. You don’t want to focus on one idea and just train it, then switch to another and just train it.

You also want to incorporate a broad set of environmental contexts. Although the context is not central to the skill to be trained, including a broad range of contexts leads to more robust behavior change. For example, during leadership training in which I am training effective performance reviews, it would be ideal for the office setting to change across scenarios from modern to retro, to minimalist. Similarly, it is best to practice with a range of employees who differ in age, gender, ethnicity, etc. The broader based the training the better.


Microlearning is one of the most important advances in corporate training in decades. Microlearning directly addresses the need for continuous on-the-job learning. Microlearning’s focus on a single idea with as little ancillary information as possible, is advantageous for hard and cognitive skill learning. It effectively recruits the cognitive machinery of working memory and attention and focuses these resources on the idea to be trained. It is time and performance effective.

On the other hand, microlearning is less effective for behavioral skill learning. Behavioral skills are learned by recruiting the basal ganglia and its dopamine-mediated incremental learning system. Behaviors are learned most effectively, and with greater generalization and transfer, when ancillary information is present and varies from training epoch to training epoch. This leads to a robust behavioral skill development that is less context sensitive, and more broad-based. It facilitates an ability to “think on one’s feet” and to obtain the confidence necessary to feel prepared in any situation.

As I have outlined in recent research reports, microlearning represents one of the many exciting new tools and technologies available to L&D clients. That said, one-size-does-not-fit-all and different tools and technologies are optimal for different learning problems. Learning scientists are needed to map the appropriate tool onto the appropriate learning problem.


Posted on Leave a comment

The Learning Science Perspective: Why Degreed Acquired Pathgather to Rapidly Grow the Learning Experience Platform Market

On June 20, 2018 Degreed acquired Pathgather. The terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. All Pathgather employees are joining Degreed, creating a team of nearly 250 employees. This represents the merger of two companies present at the birth of the now-booming Learning Experience Platform (LEP) industry. Degreed and Pathgather have been direct competitors since the start. As a single entity, they are formidable with a client base of more than 200 organizations, with over 4 million licensed users and nearly $100 million in funding. From a learning science perspective, the marriage of psychology and brain science—Degreed is now stronger as well. Continue reading The Learning Science Perspective: Why Degreed Acquired Pathgather to Rapidly Grow the Learning Experience Platform Market

Posted on 1 Comment

Optimizing Leadership Training and Development by Leveraging Learning Science: A Brief Primer

Key Stakeholders: Chief Learning Officers, Chief Human Resource Officers, Learning and Development Directors and Managers, Corporate Trainers, Content and Learning Product Managers, Chief Executive Officer, C-suite, Managers

Top Takeaways:

  • If you want high-quality leadership at all levels of your organization then you need to provide employees with effective broad-based leadership training and development solutions.
  • Optimized leadership training and development are multi-faceted and involve multiple distinct learning systems in the brain that each have different processing characteristics. Thus, a tool that is effective for one aspect of leadership training, may be sub-optimal for another aspect. One-size-does-NOT-fit-all.
  • Many vendors offer a broad suite of tools, with little guidance on what to use when.
  • Learning science serves as a guide for optimally mapping tools onto training problems.
  • Tools optimized for leadership training and development must be grounded in learning science – the marriage of psychology and brain science. In this report, I briefly outline the learning science behind leadership profile, people skills and situational awareness training and development.

Do you want leaders with a deep understanding of the “Leadership Profile” that I define with the following traits?

  • Knowing the definitions and implications of unconscious bias, harassment and diversity
  • Having a strong grasp of their organization’s vision and structure
  • Leading with strong communication and people skills that show empathy and respect for others in every interaction, including those that are challenging (e.g., performance evaluations or conflict resolution)
  • Leading with situational awareness an ability to “read” any situation, “think on one’s feet” and adjust, as well as instill confidence in others
  • Leading individuals as well as their team through adversity, all in a calm and collected manner

If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then your organization wants leadership training and development tools that are grounded in learning science – the marriage of psychology and brain science. You want to find the vendors who have leveraged the $100’s of millions of dollars in psychological and brain science research (over $10 million of which was awarded to the author) by building a scientifically-grounded, optimized platform for leadership training and development. But how can you identify these vendors?

In this era of digital transformation, where organizations rely increasingly on cross-functional and deeply collaborative teams, leadership is becoming more distributed and employees are taking on leadership roles much earlier in their careers. Combine this with some of the recent corporate crises (#metoo, unconscious bias, discrimination) and effective leadership training becomes even more important. The work of thought leaders such as Jim Collins who identify world-class leaders who are humble, clear, and fair show the business value of leaders who understand people.

In this report, I briefly review the psychology and brain science of learning, then map this learning science onto three critical aspects of optimized leadership training and development:

  • Hard Skills of Leadership – The hard skills of leadership training and development provide the leader with all of the knowledge and facts associated with strong leadership. This includes learning the rules, regulations, and compliance requirements, but also includes learning the “hard” skills” of people skills such as the ability to identify unconscious biases, sexual harassment, and discriminatory behavior. Knowledge of verbal and non-verbal communication skills and team dynamics are also critical.
  • “People” Skills Training – The goal is to provide the leader with the people skills necessary to communicate effectively with verbal and non-verbal cues. This includes eliminating any action from the leader’s behavioral repertoire that expresses bias, harassment or discrimination. These people skills must be trained effectively, and across a broad range of typical and atypical situations (e.g., during conflict resolution, performance evaluation, or under time or social pressure).
  • “Situational Awareness” – The best leader can “read” any individual, group or situation, can “think on their feet” and can adjust their strategy and behavior effectively. This involves a rich suite of cognitive, behavioral, but most importantly emotional skills. One must develop the ability to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” to understand and “read” another’s state of mind, as well as to understand how one’s own behavior is interpreted by others. This requires training across a broad range of situations. High situational awareness is key to knowing “what to do when”.

Distinct Learning Systems in the Brain (the “What”, the “How”, the “Feel”)

As I have elaborated in detail in other research reports, there are distinct learning systems in the brain. Each system is “optimally” tuned to specific types of learning, and critically, the training tools that most effectively recruit each learning system are different.

The figure below provides an overview of the three main learning systems in the brain, along with the relevant psychological processes, and a schematic of the relevant brain regions.


Cognitive Skills Learning (The “What”): The cognitive skills learning system has evolved to store information and learn facts. This system mediates hard skills learning and I refer to this as the “what” system. Cognitive skill learning relies heavily on working memory and attention and is mediated by the prefrontal cortex in the brain. Processing in this system is optimized when information comes in brief, coherent chunks (often referred to as microlearning), is delivered spaced over time, and is tested periodically to ensure storage of the information in long-term memory that resides in the hippocampus and medial temporal lobe structures. Mental repetitions are key to long-term memory storage. I refer to these procedures as those that “Train for Retention”.

Behavioral Skills Learning (The “How”): The behavioral skills learning system has evolved to learn behaviors. This system mediates people (aka soft) skills learning, and I refer to this as the “how” system. Behavioral skill learning does not rely on working memory and attention, in fact, I have shown that “overthinking it” hinders behavioral skills learning. Behaviors are learned through gradual, incremental, dopamine-mediated reward/punishment learning in the basal ganglia of the brain. Processing in this system is optimized when behavior is interactive and is followed in real-time (literally within milliseconds) by corrective feedback. If a behavior is elicited that is rewarded, dopamine will be released into the basal ganglia, the neural connections that drove that behavior will be strengthened, and the likelihood that behavior will be elicited again will increase. If a behavior is elicited that is punished, dopamine will not be released, the neural connections that drive that behavior will be weakened, and the likelihood that behavior will be elicited again will decrease. Physical repetitions are key to long-term behavior change.

Emotional Learning (The “Feel”): The emotional learning system has evolved to facilitate the development of empathy and understanding of our and others’ behaviors, and to “read” nuance in each situation. This system is critical to situational awareness, affects processing in both the cognitive and behavioral skills learning systems in the brain, and is referred to as the “feel” system. Emotional learning affects how one processes and links hard skills information and facts to specific situations, and what people skills are engaged in specific situations. Emotional learning can be instilled by “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” and learning to “read” individual and group personality. Emotional learning recruits the amygdala and other limbic structures.

Optimized Leadership Training and Development

Hard Skills of Leadership: The goal of executive training is to provide the leader-in-training with as much leadership-relevant information as possible. This includes information about the rules and regulations that govern the organization to ensure compliance. It also includes fact-based training on important psychological factors such as the definition of unconscious bias, harassment and discrimination. Information on how to identify and avoid inappropriate behaviors is also important. The amount of information is substantial, and the learning science is clear on how to impart this information effectively. Because this type of learning is mediated by the cognitive skills learning system in the brain (the “what”), which has substantive working memory and attentional constraints, brief bursts of compelling content should be utilized. Training should be spaced over time, and retention testing should be incorporated. Training content should be available 24/7 on any device. A number of vendors provide excellent tools for training the leadership profile and hard skills in general.

“People” Skills: The best leader is one who leads by example, says and does the right things in an ever-changing setting, and meets all of these requirements simultaneously. At its core, people skills are about behavior. They are about what we “do”, “how” we do it, and our “intent”. People skills are challenging, nuanced and difficult to master. In leadership, their importance is amplified because the goal of a leader is to maximize productivity and the ROI obtained from employees while simultaneously keeping employees positively engaged, satisfied with their workplace environment, and disinterested in leaving for another organization. Behavior change involves gradual, incremental, dopamine-mediated reward/punishment learning in the basal ganglia of the brain (the “how”) and extensive physical repetitions. People skills training requires in person or virtual role play with real-time interaction and corrective feedback. Ideally, and especially for leadership training and development, the role play should occur under a broad range of environmental settings with different ethnic and gender mixes, typical and atypical settings, and under extreme conditions. Unfortunately, many of the tools that optimize hard skills learning (e.g., the Leadership profile) are suboptimal for people skills training. These include spaced training, microlearning and knowledge testing.

For example, short, focused training on a single situation (microlearning) is ineffective for people skills training because behavioral skills are best learned with longer training sessions and broad variability in scenarios. From a learning science perspective, this is the area most in need of additional corporate offerings. No currently available corporate training platforms include a broad-based, real-time interactive offering that directly engages the behavioral skills learning system in the brain. That said, I fully expect immersive technologies, such as virtual reality, combined with high-end computer graphics and AI to drive the interactions will solve this problem in the near future.

“Situational Awareness”: The best leader is the one who adapts quickly and effectively to any situation—commonly referred to as situational awareness. This involves a deep cognitive (the “what”), behavioral (the “how”) and emotional (the “feel”) understanding. One who is strong in the trait of situational awareness can accurately read any situation, knows what to do in each situation, and has the behavioral repertoire to engage each situation with the appropriate set of behaviors. This involves a keen understanding of individual and group motivation and personality dynamics, empathy, and an ability to “walk a mile in one’s own or another’s shoes” to see all views of a situation. The optimal method for training situational awareness is to combine the cognitive skills associated with Leadership Profile training with the behavioral skills associated with broad-based people skills training through the lens of emotion, motivation and personality. As suggested above this may ultimately be solved by virtual reality technology and high-end AI to drive interactions. Some vendors address specific critical aspects of situational awareness directly (e.g., measuring and leveraging personality) whereas others rely on efforts such as the use of diverse scenario-based training and testing.

Conclusion and Call to Action

As this very brief primer suggests, leadership training and development optimized for brain functioning is critical to an organization’s success. Employees are taking leadership roles earlier in their careers than ever before, and the need for effective corporate leadership is on the rise. When leaders are effective, profits rise, employees are engaged and satisfied, and turnover is low. When leaders are ineffective, profits diminish, the workplace sours, employees leave and organizations can lose billions of dollars overnight (e.g., Facebook, Uber, etc). The best leadership training and development solutions are aligned with the learning science – the marriage of psychology and brain science – and optimally engage the “what”, “how”, and “feel” systems in the brain. Organizations can obtain a competitive advantage by leveraging broad-based leadership training and development solutions that empower employees with the leadership knowledge that they need, the people skills necessary to lead by example, and the awareness to read any situation and adjust effectively when needed. Learning and Training professions should work with the C-suite and management at all levels to evaluate specific leadership needs and gaps, then develop solutions and policies that address these challenges. This approach takes full advantage of learning science to build better leaders.

If you would like to speak with the author of this piece, W. Todd Maddox, Ph.D. to learn more about his 25+ years research in brain science supported by over $10 million in external funding and cited over 10,000 times by his peers, please contact us at to set up a time to chat with Todd.

Posted on Leave a comment

Optimizing Sales Enablement and Sales Training by Leveraging Learning Science: A Brief Primer

Key Stakeholders: Chief Sales Officer, Sales Directors and Managers, Sales Operations Directors and Managers, Training Officers, Learning and Development Professionals

Top Takeaways: If you want an efficient sales team you need to provide them with the right tools and train them effectively. If you want sales enablement and training tools that are highly effective they need to be grounded in learning science – the marriage of psychology and brain science. Many sales teams and sales focused vendors have access to these tools. What is needed is an effective way to leverage these tools to maximum advantage. This is where learning science comes in. In this report, I briefly outline the learning science behind sales enablement, people skills training and situational awareness.

(Note: This report represents the first step in an ongoing research initiative focused on critically evaluating the effectiveness of sales enablement and sales training solutions on the market. My goal in this research is to critically evaluate and accurately reflect the current state of the sales enablement and sales training sector from the perspective of learning science.)
Continue reading Optimizing Sales Enablement and Sales Training by Leveraging Learning Science: A Brief Primer