It’s Alive! Creating Brain Friendly Learning Experiences Leads to More Effective Leadership Development Training Programs

By Marshall Bergmann and Grace Chang, Ph.D. - August 10, 2017

According to PwC’s 2017 CEO survey, the following skills were identified as both critical to the success of the business yet difficult to find:  Problem-solving, leadership, creativity and innovation, and adaptability. In our roles at The Regis Company, we work with leading organizations to help develop these critical skills in their employees, and we’ve learned that creating leadership development training programs that develop these skills requires a different approach than those used when creating more traditional learning and development training programs focused on job-related skills.

At the Regis Company, we refer to training that helps employees to learn job-related skills like facts, processes, or procedures as what to think training, and teaching people higher cognitive skills such as problem-solving, leadership, creativity, and adaptability as how to think training.

What to think training typically involves introducing new tools and processes, providing opportunities to practice, and then assessing the learner’s ability to apply those new skills.  How to think training requires something different.  It requires a process that challenges the learner’s current way of thinking in order to lead to self-generated insights and begins the process of establishing new neural pathways for a different and sustainable way of problem-solving.

Creating experiences that consistently lead to self-generated insights is not easy, but with an understanding of a few basic concepts about how the brain works and some best practices from our work, you will be able to transform your leadership development training programs so that they actually change how people think.

Create an environment which optimizes System 2 thinking

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes our two thinking systems.  System 1 is our fast or automatic thinking.  This is the kind of thinking we use when we make a snap decision based on habits, like driving to work along the same route we take each day.  How many times have you arrived at the office and realized you were on ‘auto pilot’ during the drive?

System 2 is our slow or deep thinking.  This is the kind of thinking we use when asked to solve more complex problems like navigating around a road closure or traffic accident along that same commute.  

System 2 is critical when it comes to getting people to think beyond what comes to mind automatically. If our goal is to build simulation training and other experiential learning models that generate insights and change the way people think, there are two key things that we need to consider – the environment and the activities within the learning and development plan.

The Environment

System 2 thinking requires a great deal of effort. It can even be tiring. A well-designed professional development training program will include activities that engage System 2 thinking and provide opportunities to rest the brain so that exhaustion does not hinder progress.

The brain is a lot like Goldilocks in the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  If we can create an environment where “just right” - not too hot, and not too cold - we will increase the opportunities for insight.

Here are some ways to help ensure that the environment is optimized for System 2 thinking:

1) Make sure participants aren’t focused on too many topics or concepts at once.

Areas of the prefrontal cortex, the brain regions responsible for System 2 thinking, can only handle so much information at a time, so be careful not to overwhelm learners.

2) Provide breaks after intense activities to allow the prefrontal cortex to rest.

A well-placed, unstructured break is valuable because the prefrontal cortex is a structure that requires rest in order to function optimally.

3) Let them sleep by avoiding late evening activities.  

Giving your learners the opportunity to get adequate sleep will increase the likelihood that their brains are in a good place for System 2 thinking the next morning.

The Activities

In addition to the right environment, it is important to include activities in your leadership development training program that actually trigger System 2 thinking.  These triggers are the catalysts that lead to the insights we are striving for.  Here are a few simple techniques that we use to trigger System 2 thinking:

1) Use activities that encourage experimentation

It is imperative to create a safe learning environment which encourages people to experiment and to think and behave differently from what is typical. Although we can learn through real world experiences, it can be difficult for people to want to think differently and engage in new behaviors that reflect that thinking when they are concerned about the real-life stakes involved.

By putting participants in situations that encourage them to experiment and process information differently than they do in their daily lives, we can encourage more System 2 thinking. Business simulations, scenario planning, and role-playing activities, if designed thoughtfully, are all great examples of how we can create a safe environment that can be effective at engaging System 2.

2) Disrupt automatic thinking

In order to get people to shift how they think, leadership development consultants must disrupt the automatic thinking of System 1. Because it’s always easier for our brain to rely on our automatic thinking system, you must create a compelling reason to disrupt it.  

One very effective way System 1 can be disrupted is when a learner realizes a mismatch between their expectations and what occurs.  For a real-world example of this, think back to when you woke up on November 9, 2016, to find out the results of the U.S. presidential election. No matter what outcome you were hoping for, I’m sure you questioned at least some of the beliefs you had when you went to sleep that night.  

This same sort of disruption can be created during a learning intervention by surprising learners with unexpected results in a business simulation, a role-play, or a case study. This moment of realization is one of the most powerful ways to engage System 2 thinking because it highlights to the individual that the automatic thinking of System 1 cannot always be trusted.

3) Inspire Reflection

Asking tough questions can also effectively engage System 2.  These are the questions that force learners to pause before they answer.  Some examples are:

      • What was the rationale behind your decision?
      • What kind of feelings did you experience during that activity?
      • How did your experience in the simulation compare with your real-world experiences?
      • How would you apply this experience to a different project, scenario, or client?      

We have found that most leadership development consultants who design experiential learning activities to shift how people think intuitively know and understand many of the concepts we have outlined.  In fact, most of us have had success at generating insights or ah-ha moments in our learners.

We hope this article has inspired you to be more mindful of these concepts and to consider how you might integrate them into your leadership development training programs.  This will enable you to purposefully design more “brain friendly” learning experiences that engage System 2 thinking, generate insights, change the way people think, and ultimately drive better business outcomes.

Instigating this type of change within organizations is truly our passion. We geek out on this stuff, and would love to start a conversation with anyone interested in geeking out with us! Please contact us anytime via email, LinkedIn, or Twitter.

Marshall Bergmann—email|LinkedIn|Twitter

Grace Chang,|LinkedIn|Twitter

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