Andrus Ansip, Prime Minister of Estonia, witnesses a nitrocellulose explosion 2012 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #297

Can Stress Improve Experiential Learning for Leaders?

This is one of our free-to-access content pieces. To gain access to all Ideas for Leaders content please Log In Here or if you are not already a Subscriber then Subscribe Here.

Key Concept

In this Idea, the behavioural neuroscience (or ‘psychobiology’) of learning is explored, suggesting that the key to better learning may be to ensure raised heart-rates — something that take place when participants feel challenged and taken out of their comfort zones. 

Idea Summary

Research suggests that executives tend to learn more from negative work and life experiences than positive ones, as failures and the threat of failure may force an individual to revisit the way they do things; positive experiences and successes, on the other hand, may lead to complacency.

So what happens in your brain during such stressful experiences that results in enhanced learning? This was a key theme explored by Ashridge Business School’s Lee Waller in her research on the impact of stress on leadership behaviour. As hormones released in the body during stress produce a state of arousal, individuals feeling this way are able to perform at their peak in terms of decision-making, learning, formation of memory, etc. This is important in the context of learning as it suggests that for learning to be truly long-lasting, it needs to challenge the individual and remove them from their comfort zone.

As such, based on the ‘fight or flight’ theory, Waller and her fellow researchers proposed that learning and understanding are most effective when our cognitive processes are actively engaged — something which takes place in fight mode. This is when we believe we have the personal resources to succeed when faced with a challenge; in flight mode, however, the demands of a situation are viewed as outweighing resources, and the situation is perceived as a threat rather than a challenge, impeding our cognitive processes. These states of challenge or threat can be measured by monitoring changes in cardiovascular efficiency.

Using such measurements, they found that when individuals engage in learning to the point where it increases their heart rate, they will learn from the experience, and perceive they have learnt from it. Additionally, such learning will be long-lasting.

Methodology: To test their theory, 28 participants wore heart-rate monitors whilst they attended Ashridge Business School’s The Leadership Experience program. The monitors were used for the duration of the program, and their readings helped to analyze specific sympathetic (i.e. flight or fight) and parasympathetic (i.e. rest or recovery) response levels to various situations.

Whilst they found a significant correlation between raised heart rate during these situations and perceived learning for all personality types, they also found a significant correlation between raised heart rates and learning during a control event, but only for those with ‘approach’ type personalities. These are individuals who are driven to achieve goals and are motivated by reward. 

As such, though events which cause arousal are associated with learning for all personality types, those with approach personalities may have higher perceived learning, either because they perceive the learning in arousal events to be greater, or because they are more engaged by virtue of their personality type. 

Business Application

For those designing leadership development programs, the advice from Waller and her colleagues is to ensure participants feel challenged and taken out of their comfort zones in order for their learning to be long-lasting and effective.

Executives should also try to find opportunities to challenge themselves through, for example, seeking out new situations; this helps to develop new neuro-connections in an individual’s brain which may improve cognitive performance. They should also look for opportunities to practice with stressful situations to make sure that when they encounter them, they respond at their cognitive peak.

Contact Us




Idea conceived

  • January 2014

Idea posted

  • January 2014

DOI number




Experiential learning in preparation for leadership: Understanding the physiology. Lee Waller, Megan Reitz, Patricia Riddell, Eve Poole & Angela Muir. An Ashridge Research Report (2014) (in press).

Real Time Analytics