Imagine how heavy it is to carry 30kg military backpacks. They wear these backpacks around the office. They also eat military ready meals in the office that many people would not even touch. Reading actual letters from overseas soldiers to their families is another practice. These are just some of the customer empathy activities of employees who attend the world-class customer service training program of their company. This company is USAA, an insurance and finance company based in Austin, Texas and is included in Fortune World’s Most Admired Companies 2018 list. Their customers are active or retired members of the US military and their families. USAA has such a strong emotional connection to their customers that the customers are seen as a family to the company’s 32,000 employees.
The exceptional customer service training program of USAA is a great example of training that engages not only intellect but also emotions. This allows employees to be immersed in a learning experience. Research in brain science, especially in how our brains process information, allows us to design learning experiences to boost learning. Here are six ways you can use brain-based learning to improve effectiveness of your learning and development (L&D) programmes:
- Appeal to emotions in addition to rationality: Cerebral cortex, which represents rational thought and logic, and limbic system, which is responsible for emotional responses, work in tandem during learning process. Emotions felt in a learning event make it easier for us to remember the learning experience. “The brain also links different ideas and concepts based on how we feel about them, so without an emotional ‘tag’, we will not be able to retrieve the information or apply it to new situations. In fact, Dr. Antonio Damasio has demonstrated that without emotions, no learning can take place.” says Margie Meacham, author of Brain Matters.
Application: Great storytelling during learning experiences is just one of the ways to appeal to emotions of learners.
- Attract mainly positive emotions: In the example above, USAA employees are put in a challenging situation when they carry military backpacks and eat military ready meals. However, this is just one part of an overall positive and empowering training programme. When we mainly have negative emotions such as fear in a learning experience, we tend to escape from that emotion. Therefore, it has a negative influence on retaining information in a learning session. On the other hand, when we empower learners, make them feel inspired, optimistic and cared, learners’ brains release the neurochemical oxytocin and they become more engaged. This is based on the work of Paul Zak, a leading researcher on oxytocin and author of Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies. In fact, engaged learners benefit more from trainings.
Application: To attract positive emotions in a learning experience for instance on leadership development, ask learners questions such as: “In groups of 2. Please tell a person in front of you about the best leader you have ever had at work. What are the three most important characteristics of that leader?” instead of “What is the biggest challenge you face as a leader?”
- Include handwriting too: Research by Dan Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer shows that good old handwriting allows us to understand concepts better than by taking notes on a computer, even when the computer does not have any internet or social media distraction. “In short, when you want to improve how well you remember, understand, and make sense of crucial information about your organization, sometimes it’s best to put down the tablet and pick up a pencil.” writes Zachary First, Executive Director of the Drucker Institute.
Application: Create activities in learning sessions where learners use pens or markers and write for instance ideas or action items on post-it notes, paper or a flipchart.
- Have advanced technologies: According to Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behavior at London Business School, a part of our brain called the seeking system creates the natural impulses to learn new skills, take on challenging but meaningful tasks. He adds: “When we follow these urges, we receive dopamine — a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasure — which make us want to engage in these activities even more. And, when our seeking systems are activated, we feel more motivated, purposeful, and zestful.” Especially successful language learning apps use artificial intelligence and based on replies of learners, apps adjust questions to keep learners motivated. For instance, an app can start with an easy question. Depending on the answer of a learner, a more difficult question might be presented.
Application: Choose online or mobile learning solutions which have smart technologies like artificial intelligence to keep learners motivated and at the same time challenged with the learning content.
- Transfer knowledge to long-term memory: After attending a learning session, it is crucial to retain the knowledge acquired. Spaced repetition is about exposing ourselves to learning material over and over again, in increasing intervals. This allows us to transfer our knowledge from short-term to long-term memory. Tony Buzan, a prolific author on subjects relating to the brain, recommends periodically reviewing learning content.
Application: Review learning content one day after a learning session. Then, repeat this one week, one month and six months later.
- Use experiential learning: One of the reasons of the failure of leadership development programs is its focus on rational thinking only. In her article published on Harvard Business Review, Deborah Rowland states: “Neuroscience shows us that we learn most (and retain that learning as changed behavior) when the emotional circuits within our brain are activated. Visceral, lived experiences best activate these circuits.” Applied knowledge through a lived experience is more important than theoretical knowledge.
Application: Include exercises and activities where learners can participate and construct their own knowledge based on an experience. Learning sessions on teamwork where learners collaborate with each other to perform certain tasks is an example of this.
In my work as a trainer and consultant, I have been applying many of the above concepts in the learning sessions I provide on the topic of collaboration and collaborative leadership. Music is just one of the tools I use in workshops which creates an auditory, visual and kinesthetic experience for learners. Using a brain-based approach has dramatically improved learner ratings of my sessions that focus both on rationality and emotions. Brain-based learning can add value to your learning and development programmes too. As emphasized by Dr. Srini Pillay, CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, the brain is still a mystery and we only know little about its intricacies. Despite this, it gives us insights to improve our work.