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How Experiential Learning Creates Great Leaders in the Workplace

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November 9, 2022

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15 minutes to read

It cannot be denied that the past couple of years has been extremely turbulent for businesses. And while this has undoubtedly come with problems and challenges in virtually every industry, it is also true that organizations have adapted and altered the way they work to deal with new challenges such as the shift to remote working. 

One of the most important ways that businesses have had to change is their approach to leadership and how they provide information and training to potential leadership candidates and those in management positions. 

Providing learners with the most relevant training is important - but how is this managed when our understanding of what is needed is in flux? The answer might lie in experiential learning. Much more than an industry buzzword, experiential learning can play a vital role in approaches to leadership development.

In this article, we will take a look at the specifics of experiential learning to establish how it is being used to create better leaders in the workplace. 

What is experiential learning?

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It is a phrase that is thrown around a lot, but what do we really mean when we talk about experiential learning? To understand it, we have to establish what it is not. Experiential learning is different from cognitive and behavioral learning theories in that it focuses on the role of the experiences that we have in our learning. 

It is the idea that we learn through interactions, engagement and experiences with the world rather than simply by being taught things. Learning, it reasons, is the inevitable product of experience, and while we can achieve surface-level learning through study, deep learning requires going deeper and having actual experiences relating to the things that have been learned. 

How does this relate to leadership?

In terms of experiential learning playing an important role in creating leaders, it is important because leadership is about reacting to situations and analyzing scenarios that are happening in practice, rather than being related to something that you can learn a specific answer to. A great leader is someone who can handle tough conversations and make difficult decisions - but these kinds of things can’t be learned from a book. 

Yes, of course, there is theory around leadership, and leaders can learn techniques and strategies that can be used to make their leadership more effective. However, leadership is more about having great emotional intelligence and connecting what you think about a situation with the appropriate action. 

Given that today’s workforce faces much more complicated and dynamic challenges than ever before, leaders need to not only understand how to most effectively make decisions for the good of the business but also how to manage individuals and their expectations. 

How experiential leadership training works

Experiential learning focuses on exposing individuals to scenarios and situations that they need to react to. This allows them to practice what they have learned about leadership and decision-making in a low-risk, but practical environment. Putting potential leaders directly into real-life situations can lead to poor outcomes and lead to a loss of confidence for potential leaders, so this can be a better way to work.

In general, this type of learning involves creating a simulated scenario in which an issue is raised or a situation needs to be resolved that could happen in the learner’s day-to-day role. The scenario is then explored in real-time to see how individuals are able to apply what they have learned to a real-life scenario. 

It is also important to have a debriefing afterwards so that the learners can analyze how they reacted and whether this was in keeping with what they have learned. 

The benefits of experiential learning

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There is a surprisingly broad range of benefits to experiential leadership training that go beyond simply the obvious benefits of creating better leaders for your team. A good example here is how development can be accelerated in a way that isn’t possible with direct study. Learning something directly is always useful, but experiential learning allows the possibility for scenarios with multiple issues to be dealt with at once. 

Another key benefit is the support that a learner feels when they are able to not only practice what they have been taught, but also immediately breakdown and analyse the situation. 

Combining coaching and experiential learning

It should be noted that while we have talked about the huge benefits of experiential learning for leaders, this is not the only way to learn. Nor is it a one-size-fits-all solution for anyone who you think might be suited to leadership. We have talked about how learning via study can be an important way to gain information, while it can’t be relied upon for deep learning.

It is also worth looking at how coaching can be effective for leadership. In a study by the University of Sydney, coaching was associated with a 72% increase in goal achievement. That shows that you need to take a truly holistic approach to providing your leaders with knowledge and understanding. 

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