The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light many issues we experience as a society, including the persistent inequalities people face and our very own mental health ‘pandemic’. The pandemic highlighted the importance of protecting mental health and well-being within the workplace for businesses. Additionally, the uncertainty and chaos faced during the pandemic exposed the significant impact stress can have on leadership. Our scenario-based leadership training aims to transform leadership by helping leaders tackle issues such as poor decision making and unconscious biases that arise due to the stress and uncertainty faced during crisis.

Episodic Memory

Our scenario-based leadership training is an innovative way of engaging the brain’s episodic memory system, by bringing to life actual world-changing events. The episodic memory allows us to engage in “mental time travel”. It is the only memory system that enables people to consciously recollect specific events that happened to them, at particular times and places in the past1. It allows information learnt during personally experienced events to be encoded, stored, and retrieved. When an ‘episode’ is recalled, it brings to mind all the data associated with the event, including sensory information, emotional and physical sensations, behaviours, and knowledge learnt. Interestingly, the amount of detail remembered and the length of time the event is retained depends on the significance and uniqueness of the event1. Therefore, we have created a unique training experience that brings to life world-changing events that evoke high levels of emotion to enhance the participants’ memory retrieval and skill retention.

Decision Making and Cognitive Bias

For effective leadership to occur, an individual has to be able to dedicate a significant amount of their cognitive resources to making important decisions and tackling problems2. Experiencing high levels of stress can negatively impact leaders’ cognitive functioning and reduce the likelihood of finding alternative solutions to problems. As a result, leaders tend to become more self-aware and less likely to assume the team’s perspective2. Additionally, they are more likely to shift from goal-directed actions to binary and habitual decision making3. Leaders must be aware of both factors and circumstances that may change their decision-making parameters, meaning leaders need to be able to adapt and ‘think outside the box’. Stress inhibits this process and causes bias in decision-making strategies. The pressure experienced means people become more reactionary and start thinking with the brain’s limbic system, known as the emotional brain, instead of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for critical thinking. This emotionally fuelled thinking pattern can lead to an increase in cognitive biases. It is essential to acknowledge that we all have cognitive biases, which help us filter information, decide what to remember, make judgements when information is lacking, and act fast when immediate action is needed. When faced with ambiguity, cognitive biases allow us to produce decisions on what to do. However, they can also lead us to ignore other explanations or jump to the wrong conclusions. Our training is designed to embrace the confusion, ambiguity, and uncertainty of crisis by helping improve decision-making pace and ability. Additionally, we bring awareness to the various cognitive biases leaders may have and help them be mindful of their thinking patterns.

HRV, Stress and Debriefing

We use heart rate variability technology to monitor how stress impacts leaders’ decision-making ability as they enter red stress zones as part of our innovative training. Here we observe the participants’ behaviour and notice when their decision making starts to become impaired due to pressure. We give the delegates feedback on this information during their debrief. Doing this allows them to see where anxiety and stress may have negatively impacted their decision-making ability and highlight any unconscious biases they may have. Research shows debriefing is an essential aspect of learning and skill retention when engaging the episodic memory system1. We encourage the participants to reflect on their performance during the scenarios, which helps to consolidate their memories.

Acknowledgements

  1. Tulving, E. (2002). Episodic Memory: From Mind to Brain. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 1-25.
  2. Harms, P. D., Crede, M., Tynan, M., Leon, M., & Jeung, W. (2017). Leadership and stress: A meta-analytic review. The Leadership Quarterly, 28, 178-194.
  3. Soares et al (2012). “Stress-induced changes in human decision-making are reversible”. Translational Psychiatry, 2(7).

Author:  Rebecca Symonds