Why experiential learning lasts


There was a great response to Ashridge associate Eve Poole’s presentation on the neuroscience of leadership at this week’s CIPD Learning and Development show. In this blog we highlight how some of the latest insights from neuroscience are being used to inform the design of development programmes for senior leaders.

Added on 01 May 2014 by Erika Lucas

How do leaders really learn their craft? A pioneering research project from Ashridge suggests that learning under pressure is one of the most effective and efficient ways to help leaders prepare for the challenges of a volatile and uncertain workplace. The research which was conducted jointly with the University of Reading centred around participants on the Ashridge programme ‘The Leadership Experience: Leading on the Edge’. It involved monitoring changes in manager’s heart rates to analyse how they responded to stress and performed under pressure. 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 Learning and Development Pilots surgeons F1 drivers and astronauts regularly use simulation exercises to prepare them for challenging situations. But the research suggests that simulations can also help business leaders think more clearly under stress and make effective decisions in volatile and uncertain situations. It shows that experiential learning which effectively mimics 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. “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 practice these away from work when you encounter them again at 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. Students need true to life business challenges and the opportunity to act out different behaviours.” Megan Reitz, Director of The Leadership Experience programme The Leadership Experience: Leading on the Edge (TLE) open programme is an innovative experiential 3.5 day programme based on Ashridge research into the critical events that have shaped leader’s careers.