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Learning and Development Consulting Firms Create Tension

By Mike Vaughan - March 10, 2018

In my last post, I introduced the concept of four cognitive conditions in leadership development training that lead to self-generated insights. The first two conditions (create optimal tension and engage mental models) prime an individual for the best leadership development program results.

Priming is an implicit memory effect in which exposure to a stimulus prepares an individual for a later stimulus. The next two conditions (activate core abilities and surface limiting beliefs) focus on encoding. Neural encoding refers to the connections that are created between stimulus and response; when the brain processes and synthesizes stimuli, neurons spike and connections are made. Underlying the conditions are periods of reflection, to allow the brain to process and re-energize.

Together, the four conditions elicit the mental, biological, and electrical states that create deep learning. It is this integrated strategy integrated into simulation training by the best leadership development firms, that improves a learner’s value by strengthening the neural connections so skills are more readily retrievable in novel situations. Let’s take a look at the purpose of the first condition, create optimal tension, and a few of the design principles that are used to create the condition.

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create “a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths,” leadership development programs should cause an internal tension that evokes a desire to learn. Emotion affects everything we learn. Adults learn most and best when they feel a passion for learning and the learning process. Without that emotional engagement, new lessons fade from memory quickly. When associated with strong emotions, however, new lessons become ingrained and eventually lead to business transformation.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that one’s passion for a subject needs to be positive for the true benefits of learning and development to take place. Let’s say that a student became familiar with the work of author William Faulkner 20 years ago and that, to this day, he despises Faulkner’s writing. If you ask him why, you’re apt to get an earful about exactly why he doesn’t like Faulkner, complete with references to specific works and examples of the author’s style. He’s learned a lot, despite the fact that he hates the subject. This is a great example of how emotion—be it positive, negative, or somewhere in between—helps to anchor knowledge in people’s minds.

Researchers have long documented the connection between emotional engagement, memory, and learning. When individuals are engaged in a safe but mentally challenging situation, the intensity activates synaptic firing in their brains. There is a physical change in the way their minds process information, which is what helps them retain knowledge and change behavior. Emotional engagement related to learning is so powerful that it possesses the potential to alter the structure of the brain.

When people experience an appropriate level of emotional tension during experiential learning activities, their brains release hormones. During this heightened emotional state, it is more likely that an experience will strengthen synaptic connections for improved retrieval. Advances in neurology over the past 25 years have documented how this emotional anchoring of experience in people’s memories occurs on chemical, electrical, and cellular levels in the brain. The results are deepened neural connections and evolved mental models.

In a business simulation, learning and doing happen simultaneously. For instance, we sometimes ask participants to tackle this issue: How do managers resolve conflicts between the best interests of their employees and customers and the bottom line? Should they choose the short-term benefit to the company or long-term health and viability? What weight should the company’s role as neighbor in the community or citizen of the country play in the decision?

Such ethical dilemmas are not merely hypothetical in simulation training. Instead, participants wrestle with conflicting rights and wrongs. In the process, they almost inevitably develop a strong emotional reaction to the struggle, just as they would in the real world.

This range of emotions changes throughout most business simulations. In the beginning, for example, employees often tend to feel a certain degree of hesitancy and nervousness simply because they aren’t sure what to expect. After this initial trepidation passes and they begin to immerse themselves in the obstacles and challenges of the simulated environment wholeheartedly, participants begin to feel a variety of other emotions, from frustration and anger to elation and excitement.

In Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he observed that leadership development program participants in a good mood doubled their accuracy on provided tasks while participants in a bad mood struggled even to complete a task. When you are in a good mood, Kahneman explains, you tend to be more intuitive and creative, but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors. This is why finding the optimal tension is so important.

As noted earlier, in our business simulations, we do this by adjusting what we call the emotional throttle. As we build custom learning designs, we adjust the throttle to create an appropriate amount of excitement and unrest.

The following two design principles give some guidance on setting the emotional throttle:

Make it noisy, but not too noisy.

When the amygdala becomes involved, we remember a situation more clearly. Creating some challenge will engage the learners’ amygdala, thereby increasing the potential of the benefits of learning and development. However, when an overabundance of challenge makes learners feel threatened rather than invigorated by the situation, they tend to shut down. Although world noise and the organizational noise should be added throughout the business simulation to assist in creating a realistic storyline, internal noise (e.g., the generation of fear) should be avoided. If the noise becomes excessive, then participants will expend emotional energy by questioning surface-level issues instead of working collaboratively to understand the underlying dynamics of the problem at hand.

Choices are good, but too many choices are bad.

The number of decisions and choices that people need to make are increasing. All of these decisions and choices consume mental and emotional energy. The best way to get learners to miss the big picture in professional development training programs is to flood them with too many choices.

The goal, then, is to include just enough noise to trigger participants’ reflexive bad habits and just enough choices to make the simulated situation feel real. Too much of either element can defeat the goals of learning and keep training simulation software participants from seeing the big picture of the system at work.

Other design principles—from gamification and collaboration to acceleration and exploration—also contribute to the emotional richness of a simulated experience. As participants contend with their simulation team members, for example, emotions run high and conflict inevitably occurs. As leadership development program participants anxiously await feedback about their success in a particular round, self-doubt, anxiety, fear, apprehension, and finally the agony of failure or the joy of success percolate within each of them. Adjusting the throttle is essential to optimize the learning.

These emotional experiences can have lasting effects on decision makers for years to come because the emotions experienced within training simulation software help to ingrain the experiences in participants’ minds. Days, weeks, months, and even years after the leadership development program has concluded, when those employees encounter real-world situations, the simulated experiences will be more easy for them to recall, providing them with the insights that make a difference.

Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of custom business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.


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