Insights from neuroscience on the effect of physiological responses to stressful situations on managers are now being used to prime the next generation of business leaders to be able to lead in any circumstance.
Advances in neurobiology are enabling Ashridge Business School to prepare managers to think clearly under stress and develop '20/20 foresight' in order to make the best decisions in these uncertain times.
The pioneering research conducted by Ashridge and the University of Reading monitored changes in managers' heart rates to analyse their response to stress and performance under pressure.
Participants on the Ashridge The Leadership Experience: Leading on the Edge (TLE) programme took part in simulated real-life high-pressure Board-level experiences – such as dealing with conflict, high-level decision-making and handling difficult conversations – to mimic the working life of leaders, and were continually monitored over two days (including sleep patterns).
During the study, programme participants, aged 26-55, wore heart rate variance monitors to analyse their physiological responses to critical events. This physiological analysis was supplemented by psychological data collected through psychometrics tests and surveys.
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 pressure. Emotions like fear, anxiety, stress and anger narrow our focus, inhibit our concentration, hamper decision-making processes and decrease our cognitive abilities. In turn, the ability to regulate emotions is essential for business success.
The principle behind the experiential learning used in the TLE programme is that participants are given the chance to deal with emotive situations in a safe environment, so that they think and react in the optimum manner when they re-enter the workplace.
The research, published in a new report entitled The Neuroscience of Leadership Development: Preparing through experience,reveals that learning in a stimulating environment that mimics the stress of leadership is a powerful way to increase resourcefulness in the future. When the body and brain are moderately stimulated by a challenging situation, we perform at our peak. This optimises decision-making, learning and the formation of memories, which is why we learn best from experiences that have an emotional impact.
To gauge learning, perceived learning was measured post-programme and then at regular intervals. The results reveal a strong correlation between increased heart rate during the high impact life-like simulations, or 'critical incidents', and the perceived learning reported by participants.
Dr Megan Reitz, TLE Programme Director and co- researcher, 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 practised now, away from the office, then when they are encountered later in work – when the response to them really matters – managers 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 can effectively lead in ambiguity; who are prepared for the unexpected and can manage their emotions and anxieties. 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."
Lee Waller, Director of Ashridge Centre for Research in Executive Development (CRED) and co-researcher, Ashridge Business School, added:
"As neuroscience develops, we are developing a better understanding of how neurological processes affect management and leadership. When heart rate goes up, performance improves. But often when faced with stressful situations, people become distressed, which decreases performance. The more that people can practise responses to stressful situations the less they'll perceive them as a threat, and the better their performance will be in response to real-life situations.
"Experiential learning takes the textbook out of the classroom and participants out of their comfort zone for memorable and life-changing impact. The real challenges of leadership are practical, not theoretical. Traditional lectures and seminars just don't cut it, students need true-to-life business challenges and to act out different behaviours if we are to effectively prepare them for leadership."
Organisations need to know that leadership development programmes are memorable and make a tangible difference in the workplace. Evidence suggests that emotional responses to incidents also provide significant and long-lasting learning impact – providing sound neurobiological data to support the development of high-impact executive development programmes.
Following the initial research project, the heart rate variance of all TLE participants is now routinely monitored to support students to understand 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.
Ashridge Business School are leaders in executive education. For more information on business leadership and available courses, visit www.ashridge.org.uk.