December 2012
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TD Magazine

Brain-Based Learning for Leaders

Monday, December 10, 2012

High-impact learning organizations excel at culture, measurement, and content.


"I foresee that what we know about how people acquire information, how they treat information, and what goes on inside of us that interferes with our ability to retain and perform will be influenced more and more by the neurosciences," says workplace learning and performance industry thought leader Harold Stolovitch in the November 2012 issue of T+D.

UK management consultancy Orion Partners agrees. Applying the principles of neuroscience—the study of the brain—to leadership development programs enables leaders to behave in harmony with how the brain works, improving the way they motivate and communicate with their employees.

"Neuroscience gives people an 'aha' moment about why some things may be happening—for example, resisting change," says Jan Hills, partner at Orion Partners, responsible for talent and leadership practices.

For several years the company's talent and leadership research has pointed to the potential of applied neurosciences. Orion began incorporating neuroscience principles within its change management curriculum about three years ago, Hills says. As leaders began to understand why—on a biological level—they react in a certain manner to a new situation, they could better understand their team members' reactions, and then modify their management approaches accordingly.

Orion recently took its findings a step further, applying them to the design and delivery of a new approach to leadership development called BrainBox. This customized program includes specific tools and learning methods—such as workshops, action-based projects, coaching, and an online social learning community—intended to maximize participants' personal insight.

Launched in September, BrainBox is the culmination of Orion's recent research on the neuroscience of learning, personal change, and memory, and its subsequent curriculum development. "This is one of the interesting assets of neuroscience—it gives you a rationale as to why a program should be designed a certain way," Hills explains.

Orion identifies six characteristics of effective leadership development programs based on neuroscience principles.

Work the way the brain works. The brain likes information to be delivered in small chunks, via several different channels, and it likes time for reflection and discussion.


Create insights rather than give instruction. People learn when they make new connections, so learning works best when people are given the opportunity to deepen their own understanding.

Create new habits. To create change we must form new habits. Habits form when goals and plans are reinforced (such as using learning in work projects, coaching others, or supporting colleagues).

Make learning a shared experience. Research shows that people are more motivated by social interactions at work than by money, and learn best in a community where they can help one another, gain access to new thinking, and share their own ideas and experiences.

Explain "What's in it for me?" Understanding what's at stake for the individual and making the change relevant to him is the first step toward realizing change.

Measure results and feedback. Organizations must see benefits through data collected and improvements tracked over time.

About the Author

Community of Practice Manager, ATD  Ann Parker is senior manager of the Human Capital Community of Practice and the Senior Leaders & Executives Community of Practice at ATD. Prior to this position, she worked at ATD for five years in an editorial capacity, primarily for TD magazine, and most recently as a senior writer and editor. In this role, Ann had the privilege to talk to many training and development practitioners, hear from a variety of prominent industry thought leaders, and develop a rich understanding of the profession's content.

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