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Will Hutton

Will Hutton

Principal, Hertford College, Oxford University and chair of the Big Innovation Centre

Monday 28 Jul 2014
The Role of Stress in Developing Leaders

The Role of Stress in Developing Leaders

Today's leaders are required to operate in a substantially more volatile, uncertain and complex world. Seasoned leaders are sought with 20/20 foresight, but they are wanted now; there is limited patience for the traditionally lengthy programmes and processes needed to develop them.

A pioneering research project which monitored changes in leaders’ heart rates in order to analyse their response to stress and their perceived learning under pressure may offer some direction in this search.

The Ashridge Business School/University of Reading study found that experiential learning, or simulated experiences, can effectively mimic the stress of leadership and, through building leaders' 'muscle memory' help participants to feel better resourced to deal with the critical incidents they face. The study also shows that well-designed experiential learning can result in learning that lasts.

What are the underlying processes involved in learning?

The best preparation for leadership is experience. But for such experiences to have long-lasting impact, they need to be emotionally charged, and when it comes to learning rather than just recall, negative emotions appear to 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 impact learning through the body’s response to stress. When we are moderately aroused by a stressful situation we respond in ‘challenge’ mode, which optimises cognitive processes such as decision making and learning. If however, 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 impeding our cognitive performance. To maximise learning therefore, leaders need to be stretched, but supported.

Research methods

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 and high-level decision-making – to mimic the working life of leaders.

Over two days, the  programme participants wore heart rate variance monitors to analyse their physiological responses to these critical events, including while they were asleep. This physiological analysis was supplemented by psychological data collected through psychometrics tests and surveys.    

Simulations as preparation for leadership

The study shows that the critical incidents involved in the programme did indeed raise participants’ heart rates, demonstrating that these types of simulations do mimic the stress of leadership experiences.   We also found that this increase in heart rate was related to increases in reported learning, which supports the proposition that moderate stress enhances cognitive performance and learning.

Being able to practise these experiences is likely to 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 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.  

An appreciation of these processes also helps 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, may help leaders to regulate their physiological response and improve their performance in the moment.

Lessons for L&D professionals

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 can improve 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, is not the best way of monitoring the success of development programmes. Challenging experiences might not be well received in the moment, and true learning can take time to embed. This 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.

Our research shows that collaborations between neuroscience, behavioural and management knowledge are effectively advancing innovative methods of developing leaders. Such development interventions however are non-traditional. They require HR and Learning and Development (L&D) professionals to take supported risks, to step up and to experiment.

Until recently, 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 research is published in a new report entitled The Neuroscience of Leadership Development: Preparing through experience

The research was conducted by Ashridge Business School leadership experts Dr Eve Poole, Dr. Megan Reitz, Lee Waller, Angela Muir and John Neal, together with Professor Patricia Riddell, Head of the Department of Psychology, University of Reading.

This article is by  Dr. Megan Reitz and Lee Waller, Ashridge Business School