Applying Neuroscience to Leadership Development: Designing Learning with the Brain in Mind

By Williams, Christine R. | People & Strategy, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Applying Neuroscience to Leadership Development: Designing Learning with the Brain in Mind


Williams, Christine R., People & Strategy


As a science and technology organization, NASA has always had strong commitment to employee training and development. Technical learning involving the hard sciences aligned well with our culture and mission, and as a result was well-received by our employees and managers. This was not always true of the leadership-development activities that focused more on self-awareness and learning to improve employee and organizational performance. This learning was normally referred to as soft science or the more commonly used, and less complementary name "touchy feely."

In 2008, as part of NASA's efforts to enhance the critical skills of systems engineering, NASA leadership took a deeper look at the factors that contributed to mission success. By studying successful systems engineers, (1) it became clear that technical expertise was only a part of the equation. The defining factor between good and great systems engineers was indeed the effective implementation of the softer sciences, such as the ability to engage and motivate employees, build effective teams, communicate well at all levels and think systemically. Mission success depended on what was then defined as the "Art and Science" of systems engineering. (2) To build on this understanding, NASA initiated a new developmental program to accelerate the development of the Art and Science of systems engineering.

While an understanding of neuroscience already had been introduced into a few NASA leadership programs, with the creation of a new Systems Engineering Leadership Development Program we now had an opportunity to integrate what we learned about neuroscience into every part of our program design. From the start of the program, we taught participants about the brain and discussed how we intended the design of the program to work with human needs and our evolutionary preferences rather than against them.

We designed every aspect of the program with the brain in mind, from the length and flow of learning activities to how we introduced and built the learning community. Logistics was a major factor in creating the right environment for learning. We changed factors such as lighting and even the food we served for breaks. …

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