Business leadership lessons from neuroscience

April 17, 2014 2:31 pm

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.


The report, entitled The Neuroscience of Leadership Development: Preparing through experiencereveals 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 this, perceived learning was measured post-programme and then at regular intervals, and 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.


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 between 26 to 55 years, 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.

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 at an optimal level when they re-enter the workplace.


“Simulated experiences result in physiological changes and brain muscle development.  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,” says Megan Reitz, TLE programme director and co-researcher at Ashridge Business School.


Lee Waller, director of Ashridge Centre for Research in Executive Development (CRED) and co-researcher at Ashridge Business School, says: “As neuroscience develops, we are developing a better understanding of how neurological processes affect management and leadership. When heart rate goes up, performance improves. However, 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.”