A great set of guidelines for effective leadership training is The Neural Coding System – a design framework consisting of four cognitive conditions that create an optimal environment for experiential learning. It is not a step-by-step methodology or series of discrete events. Rather, it is an interconnected system of mental conditions that are created through the artful implementation of various design principles.  Here are the four mental conditions:

  • Activate Core Abilities – When information is nicely packaged and presented in a structured executive leadership training program, learners may not challenge it. As Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize recipient, explained, we spend most of our life in System 1 thinking. System 1 simply desires to believe, so it prefers when information is nicely packaged. On the other hand, System 2 is skeptical and unbelieving, but unfortunately it is also a bit resistant. So, to kick System 2 into gear, trainers must set up a situation that gives learners a reason to question.
  • Surface Limiting Beliefs – An individual’s ability to make quality decisions and solve problems is directly proportional to her ability to suspend her judgment. If we look for the root cause of failed efforts or unproductive meetings, it is often tied to the biases or fears of those involved. So, when creating leadership development programs, trainers must design activities that allow the individual to surface beliefs that could be rendering them less effective.
  • Optimal Tension – 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,” learning should cause an internal tension that evokes a desire to learn. Emotion affects all aspects of learning and talent development. Experiential learning models work best when participants feel a passion for the learning process. Without that emotional engagement, new lessons fade from memory quickly. So, to ensure that outcomes become ingrained and eventually transferred to the job, trainers must create strong emotions to contextual relevant situations.
  • Engage Mental Models – Mental models are the lenses through which people see the world and everything in it. They bring meaning to an event, fill in gaps when information is missing, and influence how individuals feel and react to others. Mental models represent how individuals see themselves, other people, and the organization. A flawed mental model leads to misunderstandings, incorrect assumptions, and, often, poor decisions. Most of the time these mental models exist at the sub-conscious level so we’re not aware of the effects they have on behavior and thinking. Therefore, changing behavior via leadership and management training requires awareness of the flaw or gap. Trainers must create situations that evoke slight levels of cognitive dissonance.

These cognitive conditions are critical to engaging employees through experiential learning activities as they evaluate their mental models and seek to resolve gaps. Through trial and error and reflective dialogue, this approach allows them to work toward that sudden moment of convergence. It is only through self-generated insights that behavior changes. The quality of the professional development program design can be assessed by how well it exposes flawed models and provides individuals with the opportunity to improve them. In other words, real learning = changed mental models.

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Mike Vaughan

Author Mike Vaughan

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