Effective Leadership Under Stress

Many leadership models and training sessions tend to focus on the ‘ideal’ situation for leadership – when there is ample time to consider and make decisions and when the stress levels are relatively low.

In the real business world we all know that this is often not the case; leaders often have to think on their feet in high pressure situations. Much of what they learned in the training room gets throw out of the window.

Neuroscience is throwing valuable light on leadership development by increasing understanding of how the brain works and how that translates to behaviour in practical, real-world, high pressure environments.

The effects of stress

We essentially have two ‘thinking systems’ in our brains: a primitive, emotional system that acts quickly and automatically in response to our environment; and a ‘higher’ thinking system that is more deliberate and measured.

Most leadership addresses the latter situation, usually in a relaxed environment that is supposedly conducive to learning. The problem is that, in stressful situations, when our leadership powers are most tested and most needed, the former system tends to dominate, as we react to an environment of fear, anxiety and even anger. We are, in effect, cognitively ‘impaired’ by the pressure of the situation and this narrows our focus, disturbs concentration and hampers our ability to make good decisions.

So unless we ‘train’ our brains to be able to switch between the two types of thinking, and to retain the deliberate and measured approach that usually produces better decision-making during these times of high stress, we are unlikely to be successful.

This is not about removing emotions from the decision-making process (in fact they are essential); it is about recognising that there is a time and a place for everything… and managing one’s emotions so that they are used at the right time and in the right place is essential for effective leadership.

Leadership lessons from neuroscience

A recent UK study was conducted between Ashbridge Business School and the University of Reading where participants took part in exercises that simulated real-life high-pressure situations. These were designed to be ‘board-level experiences’ such as dealing with conflict and high-level decision-making.

During the study, participants aged between 26 and 55 had heart rates monitored over a two-day period to analyse their physiological responses to critical events. Psychological data was also collected through psychometrics tests and questioning.

The research suggests that such simulations are effective in stimulating both the body and the brain to perform better under stress. This type of ‘experiential learning’ can help improve decision-making and other key facets of effective leadership.

Perceived learning was measured at regular intervals, with results revealing a strong correlation between increased heart rate during the life-like simulations, and perceived learning by participants.

Simulations only work if they carry participants out of their comfort zones, but they all carry an implicit ‘safety net’ as people know it’s a simulation. However, re-creating as close as possible the stressful situations we must deal with in the workplace is a good way of ‘training’ the brain.

The brain is essentially a complex web of interconnected neurons; neuroscience has shown that the neural pathways between different parts of the brain are shaped throughout our lives and are ‘plastic’. Therefore at any point in our lives, new skills, behaviours and habits can be learnt. Recreating workplace stress and training how to cope when exposed to it therefore helps leaders develop new neural pathways, effectively ‘rewiring’ their brains for better performance in the real world.

This then makes it less likely that leaders will feel threatened and fall back into automatic, primitive thinking, stress-response behaviours that can make stressful situations worse.

Effective leadership programs are therefore practical and memorable, rather than purely theoretical. They challenge and remove the ‘safety net’ as far as possible, often invoking an emotional response from participants, and thereby emulating real-life situations.

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