Neuroscience research reveals new insights into developing future business leaders


New insights from neuroscience are shedding light on the type of development activities that will best prepare managers to think more clearly under stress and make effective decisions in volatile and uncertain situations.

Added on 14 April 2014 by Lee Waller

A pioneering research project carried out by Ashridge and the University of Reading monitored changes in managers’ heart rates to analyse the body’s response to stress and their performance under pressure.

During the study, participants on Ashridge’s The Leadership Experience: Leading on the Edge (TLE) programme took part in simulated challenging Board-level experiences, such as dealing with conflict, handling difficult conversations, and managing strategic change issues. During these experiences, which were set up to mimic the working life of leaders, the participants wore heart rate variance monitors which were subsequently analysed to give an insight into their physiological reactions to these ‘critical incidents’.

The participants, who were aged 26-55, were continually monitored over two days, including when they were sleeping. Data from the heart rate monitors was supplemented with information collected through psychometric tests and surveys. Learning uptake was measured immediately after the programme and then at one and six month intervals.

How we respond under pressure

The results revealed a strong correlation between increased heart rate during the 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.

The research showed that increases in heart rate and learning retention were unaffected by personality type or variables such as anxiety or depression, indicating that the majority of managers can benefit from experiential learning, as long as it is emotionally engaging.

The implications for learning and development

The findings have significant implications for the way development programmes for leaders of the future are designed and delivered. They show that it’s not just pilots, surgeons, F1 drivers or astronauts who benefit from simulation exercises to prepare for highly stressful and challenging incidents, business leaders do too.

Experiential learning, or simulated experiences, effectively mimic the stress of leadership and better prepare managers for similar situations at work. If participants 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.

Megan Reitz, TLE Programme Director and co-researcher at Ashridge Business School said: “Simulated experiences result in physiological changes and brain muscle development. Future leaders need to experience the critical incidents that they are likely to face in their working life. If you practise these now away from work, when you encounter them later in work – when your response to them really matters – you are more likely to have the ‘muscle memory’ needed to be able to react effectively to stressful situations.

“In these uncertain times, we need people who are effective at leading in ambiguity; who are prepared for the unexpected and can manage their emotions and anxieties. The real challenges of leadership are practical, not theoretical. You won’t learn the most important elements of being a leader by reading a book or sitting static in a classroom. Traditional lectures and seminars just don’t cut it any more. Students need true to life business challenges and the opportunity to act out different behaviours.”

Lee Waller, Director of Ashridge Centre for Research in Executive Development and co-researcher, Ashridge Business School added: “This study provides strong support for the power of experiential and emotional learning processes. By revealing the science behind making learning memorable, the research helps learning and development professionals to design development interventions that advance transfer of learning into the workplace.”

Following the initial research project, the heart rate variance of all participants on Ashridge’s The Leadership Experience (TLE) programme is now monitored, to give participants a better understanding of how their brain and body respond to stress. Over 350 managers have now taken part in the Open programme held at Ashridge, and, in addition to this it has also been customised for organisations in the private, public and voluntary sectors.

The research was conducted by Ashridge business school leadership experts Dr Eve Poole, Ashridge Associate, Megan Reitz, TLE Programme Director, Lee Waller, Director of Ashridge Centre for Research in Executive Development, Angela Muir, Client Director and Programme Director, John Neal, Director of Ashridge’s Sport Business Initiative and Professor Patricia Riddell, Head of the Department of Psychology, University of Reading.