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Lee Waller

Ashridge Centre for Research in Executive Development


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Neuroscience and leadership development – what can we learn?


Pilots, surgeons, F1 drivers and astronauts regularly use simulation exercises to prepare them for challenging situations. But new research from Ashridge suggests that simulations can also help business leaders think more clearly under stress and make effective decisions in volatile and uncertain situations.

Ashridge has been working alongside the University of Reading on a pioneering research project which involved monitoring changes in manager’s heart rates to analyse how they responded to stress and performed under pressure.

The research centred around participants on the Ashridge programme, ‘The Leadership Experience: Leading on the Edge’  – an experiential programme designed to accelerate the development of high potential managers.

The participants, who were aged 26-55, took part in simulated, challenging Board-level experiences, such as dealing with conflict, handling difficult conversations and managing unexpected crises.

They were continually monitored over two days, including during these critical incidents and while they were sleeping. The heart rate monitors were subsequently analysed and combined with other data collected through psychometric tests to give an insight into people’s physiological reactions to a variety of scenarios. Learning uptake was also measured immediately after the programme and then at one and six month intervals.

How we respond under pressure

The results showed a strong correlation between increased heart rate during high impact, life-like simulations and the degree of learning reported by participants.

Neurobiologically, when a stressful situation is perceived as a challenge, the brain and body become moderately aroused, optimising brain functions such as decision-making, learning and memory formation. But if a situation is perceived as a threat, we become over-aroused and prepare for retreat, reducing cognitive functioning. A situation is perceived as a challenge or a threat depending on whether we believe we have the personal resources and skills to deal with it.

At times of high stress, leaders need to make the best decisions possible, but this is when they are most likely to be cognitively impaired through panic and where judgements, decision-making and thinking can be hampered. Emotions like fear, anxiety, stress and anger narrow our focus and inhibit our concentration. When we are stressed or scared, for instance, we struggle to think clearly, co-ordinate well with others and take in new information.

Implications for L&D

The findings have significant implications for the way development programmes for leaders of the future are designed and delivered. They show that experiential learning, or simulated experiences which effectively mimic the stress of leadership, can help better prepare managers for similar situations at work.

If managers are given the chance to deal with emotive situations and try something different in a safe environment, they will think and react more appropriately when they re-enter the workplace. It is a powerful way to increase resourcefulness in the future and to provide high impact, life-changing learning.

One Response

  1. No Neuro News

    Simply adding the word Neuro to a subject does not mean there's anything new in it.  We already know that anything which most closely relates to the experience of work is the best L&D experience for work and we also know that we make crap decisions when our emotions rule our heads.

    I'm a scientist and think Neuroscience is an exciting development.  But can we use it properly instead of using it to sex up existing knowledge.

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Lee Waller


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