Feeling the pressure: The neuroscience of learning to lead

Ashridge Business School - Big

By Lee Waller, Megan Reitz, Eve Poole and Angela Muir


Lee Waller, Megan Reitz, Eve Poole and Angela Muir present the findings which reveal that experiential learning, or simulated experiences, effectively mimic the stress of leadership and better prepare managers for similar situations at work. The study also shows that well-designed experiential learning can result in learning that lasts.

The growing complexity of organisational life

In the past decade the nature of work has become increasingly complex. Technological advances, widespread globalisation, and increased diversity have resulted in a highly competitive climate that is fast-moving and ever-changing. Working across geographies, functions and cultures presents today’s leaders with greater challenges than ever before. They are now required to operate in a substantially more volatile, uncertain and complex world, and the onus is on business schools and practitioners to create new and innovative ways of developing their capabilities to “engage with the complex, dynamic, chaotic and highly subjective, interactional environments of contemporary organisational life”. There is a call therefore for seasoned leaders with 20/20 foresight, but they are wanted now; there is limited patience for the lengthy programmes and processes traditionally deployed to develop professionals.

How can business schools respond to this call?

In the emerging field of Organisational Cognitive Neuroscience (OCN), researchers contend that to understand behaviour within organisations it is necessary to understand the social psychology, cognitive processes, and ultimately the neurological systems which underlie them. Applying this argument to leadership development, others call for collaboration between neuroscience, behavioural and management expertise in order to advance methods of developing leaders.

What are the underlying processes involved in learning?

Such collaboration is fruitful for exploring and pooling what we know about the learning process. First, we know that leaders are best prepared for leadership through experience, from the real work and real life situations they encounter.

But we also know that for such experiences to have long-lasting impact, they need to be emotionally charged.

Whether negative or positive emotions have the strongest impact is less clear. There appear to be benefits to memory for both negative emotions and positive emotions.

However, in terms of the impact on learning, rather than just recall, negative emotions may be particularly important, with failures resulting in greater learning through the need to revisit and revise our existing mental models.

Negatively-charged emotional experiences may also facilitate learning via the body’s stress response. During such experiences our body’s stress hormones produce a state of arousal, our sympathetic nervous response, which prepares us for fight or flight. When we are moderately aroused we respond in ‘challenge’ mode, which optimises cognitive processes such as decision-making and learning. Whereas, if we don’t believe we have the resources available to meet the challenge, we become over-aroused, and the body, perceiving ‘threat’, prepares to fight or retreat, sending blood away from the brain towards our limbs and impeding our cognitive performance.

Objective of the current research

If these kinds of experiences have such a positive impact on cognitive performance and on learning, could leadership development be advanced and improved by incorporating methods that induce this stress response, while providing the necessary support to ensure participants can practise remaining in challenge and not threat mode?

Our research explored this proposition using Ashridge Business School’s highly experiential programme The Leadership Experience: Leading on the Edge (TLE), an intensive leadership simulation that takes participants through a series of challenging experiences, or critical incidents, and allows them to experience the emotional roller- coaster associated with them in a safe and supportive environment.

When the programme was first developed, organisation neuroscience was just emerging into the mainstream. The programme design was based on elementary insights from the field of emotional intelligence. After several iterations there was enough anecdotal evidence to show that the process worked. Past participants were reporting improved confidence and ability to handle critical incidents when back in their workplace. However, we wanted to understand why this was so, and to learn more about individual’s physiological responses to the programme. We were also interested to determine whether personality would have any impact on this physiological response to these stressful situations, and whether this, in turn, might impact perceived learning.


The research involved 28 participants on two experimental versions of Ashridge Business School’s The Leadership Experience (TLE) programme, comprising a mix of MBA students and employees of Ashridge client organisations, from both public and private sector companies

The programmes involved a series of critical incidents as well as a group activity not related to learning

Participants were fitted with heart variance monitors throughout, including while asleep. The difference between participants’ resting heart rate overnight and maximum heart rate during the critical incidents provided a measure of ‘difference’ in heart rate (DHR)

A pre-programme survey assessed state/trait anxiety, life orientation and behavioural approach/inhibition. State anxiety was also measured after each critical incident

A learning questionnaire was then completed immediately after the programme and again after one month.

Research findings

The research found a significant correlation between DHR during the critical incidents and participants’ perceived learning, which was unrelated to personality type. We also found however, a significant correlation between DHR and learning during the group activity that was not expected to be related to learning, but only for individuals with ‘approach’ personalities. It could be therefore, that whilst simulations that cause arousal are associated with perceived learning for all personality types, for those with approach type personalities, who are driven to achieve a goal and focus on reward, just being engaged and aroused by situations leads them to perceive they are learning.

Discussion and implications for practice

Simulations as preparation for leadership

As the critical incidents involved in the programme did indeed raise participants’ heart rates, it would seem that these types of simulations do mimic the stress of leadership experiences, as articulated by one of our participants: “Very effective. I really didn't think that I would be able to be so effectively immersed in the scenario”.

Being able to practise these experiences may have important implications for a leader’s ability to deal with these situations when they encounter them in real life. This is due to a process which has been dubbed building ‘muscle memory’, a stored response which helps leaders to feel better resourced in future stressful situations.

This in turn means they are more likely to perceive a situation as a challenge rather than a threat, and as such will respond at their cognitive peak.

Raising heart rate to promote learning

Importantly, we also found that the increase in heart rate during the critical incidents was related to increases in perceived learning, which supports the proposition that moderate stress enhances cognitive performance and learning. Moreover, this was irrespective of personality type, and so it appears that whoever you are, if you engage in learning to the point that it raises your heart rate, you are likely to perceive that you have learned.

We did, however, find that those with ‘approach’ personalities reported learning from the group activity which wasn’t expected to be related to learning. These individuals are driven to achieve a goal and focus on reward, and therefore it could be that they were more engaged in the group activity than others, were more sensitive to the possibility of learning from the experience, and so reported greater perceived learning.

Lessons for leaders

Organisational life is chaotic and complex. The demands being placed on leaders across modern organisations are great, numerous, and challenging. Even the most experienced leaders will face novel and unfamiliar situations which will test them in new ways, and less experienced leaders might find themselves outside their comfort zone even more frequently. Being able to rise to the challenge, to perform during those critical incidents, is an important facet of effective leadership and for establishing credibility as a leader. It is vital therefore, that leaders create opportunities to practise these situations, to help them feel better resourced and to ultimately perform in the future at their cognitive peak. Feeling more resourced to cope in stressful situations will help them to sustain their performance in challenging times and be better and more consistent role models for others to follow.

Leaders can practise this on the job and in everyday situations, but they may want the learning process to be faster than this. In this case they need to identify what they need to practise, design opportunities to practise under pressure, and to take time for feedback and reflection in order to create leadership muscle memory for the future.

An appreciation of these processes may also help leaders to understand how their physiological responses may impact their performance under pressure. Knowing why your face is flushing and your heart and mind are racing, and understanding that this is a normal response to a stressful situation, in and of itself, may help leaders to regulate their physiological response, and improve their performance in the moment.

It is also vital that leaders are aware of what might be a critical incident for members of their team, help them to prepare for it through practice, and ensure that they are able to reflect on and learn through that experience.

Lessons for business schools and L&D professionals

What would seem critical for those responsible for leadership development is that in order to prepare leaders for the challenges of leadership, development needs to be hard-hitting, challenging, and present the potential for failure. Carefully taking leaders out of their comfort zone into the ‘stretch’ zone raises heart rate, and improves both cognitive performance during the experience and perceived learning from it. There is however, a fine tightrope to walk between the challenge or threat response, and so it is critical that these experiences occur in a safe and supportive environment.

There are also lessons to be learnt in terms of how L&D departments evaluate the success of development interventions. Relying on the standard evaluation ‘happy sheet’ which typically only assesses participants’ reactions to a learning experience immediately after it has happened, may well provide L&D departments with misleading information. Challenging experiences might not be well received in the moment, and true learning can take time to embed. This slow-burn effect was demonstrated on a 2009 TLE, where evaluation forms received up to four weeks after the programme was delivered were 50% more positive than those received immediately after the event. These statistics were further evidenced by the positive shift in qualitative feedback received after one and six months. Teckman warns: “By fetishising the instant, semi-formed opinions delivered through the immediate post-programme evaluation forms, business schools risk promoting the safe and easy over the risky but transformative”.

In conclusion

The business world is growing ever more complex, and the demands placed on executives to deal with this complexity are growing in equal measure. New and innovative methods are required to develop leaders who can prosper in this multi-faceted, complex environment. Insights from the burgeoning field of neuroscience offer opportunities for more accelerated, pragmatic, memorable, long-lasting learning. Such development interventions however are non-traditional. They require business schools and HR departments to take supported risks, to step up and to experiment. And this is exactly what we are asking our leaders to do in the 21st century.

For the past century leadership development has focused largely on changing observable behaviour, paying little attention to the underlying processes which so strongly influence that behaviour. Our leaders may operate in a highly sophisticated, modern world, but what drives individuals to action is the same innate need that drove them thousands of years ago – survival. What our bodies are responding to, what it is that we are trying to ‘survive’, has changed beyond recognition, but our physiological responses have remained precisely the same.

If we are to develop a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of how leaders learn to lead, we need to look beneath the surface behaviour, to the underlying cognitive and neurological processes through which it manifests. Then we may be better placed to develop innovative methods which can accelerate leaders’ development and prepare them for today’s challenging environment.

 The references and original article are posted here