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Leadership – it’s all fun and games

Thales Learning and Development

Bulls eyey target games

Not quite. But the tongue-in-cheek title has a point, says Thales Learning and Development

Once thought of only in relation to teambuilding exercises, and not always in the most flattering way (you only need to watch a certain episode of The Office for an illustration of that old stereotype), the use of games and experiential learning is fast becoming seen as one of the most effective ways to identify and develop leadership qualities in people.

From building a bridge out of nothing but a few sticks, to a simulated evacuation of London, or some of the more ‘active’ interventions such as equine-guided learning or putting out fires on a burning ship, this type of learning takes people out of the comfort zone of their everyday office environment and throws them into unfamiliar territory. The idea is to pinpoint certain behaviours that can be developed and applied back in the ‘real’ world, and to allow people to learn in a safe and creative environment while still linking it back to their role and relating it to the genuine business challenges they face every day.

Different styles of learning

It is certainly a far cry from the ‘chalk and talk’ techniques of old, but what is it that makes the experiential approach so effective? Mike Davies, Management & Leadership Consultant at Thales Learning & Development, who has managed L&D functions within a wide range of organisations, from engineering and hospitality businesses to FTSE 100 companies, suggests it reflects the evolving way in which people like to learn. “People have moved on from just wanting to sit in a classroom environment,” he says. “They tend to take on much more if they can relate the learning to real life experience, i.e. ‘I did this’ rather than ‘I would do this.’”

As fellow Management and Leadership L&D Consultant Matt Driscoll, whose L&D career spans across 13 years and multiple industries, it also encourages an environment of fun, which not only makes the experience more enjoyable for the learner, but also has a genuine business purpose. “It has been proven that people route emotion to experience,” he says. “When people have fun, they are much more likely to remember the experience. Their inhibitions are lowered, and they are able to more easily build rapport with one another. Fun is therefore conducive to effective learning.”
It isn’t simply about playing a game or taking part in a simulation, either. A significant part of the process is the learning that happens after the experience, as Mark Eagle, Management and Leadership L&D Consultant at TLD, who has developed individuals and teams for big businesses such as Virgin Atlantic and Bupa, explains: “Much of the learning is derived from the conversation that follows the exercise. It’s as much about reflecting on the behaviours, skills and attitudes displayed during the activity as it is about the activity itself.”

A tailored approach

When you think about the skills often required when playing a game – problem solving, communication or teamwork, to name a few – it is easy to see the link between those competencies and the qualities of a successful leader. But the real power in this type of learning lies in the ability to build the activities around the specific leadership traits on which you wish to focus. With increasingly complex and varied demands being placed upon today’s leaders, and businesses, that flexibility is essential.

“Rather than forcing a learning activity to fit the output, you can define the output first and then tailor the game around that, which is a far more useful and effective approach,” says Driscoll.

“As a leader, it’s no longer a case of simply telling people what to do,” adds Eagle. “Experiential learning allows for a variety of competencies to be displayed, discussed and developed, in a relatively short space of time, and in a safe environment.”

In terms of which specific competencies they might be, Davies explains that it is completely dependant on the type of activity. “With equine guided learning, for example, we’re looking for individual characteristics like trust or resilience,” he says. “But with something like fire fighting, for instance, it’s more about leadership, teamwork, assertiveness, communication and dealing with pressure in a group environment.”

Varied reactions

The beauty in experiential learning and leadership games is that everyone reacts differently, and not always in the way that they would have expected, either. “Sometimes people are surprised by what they get out of it,” says Driscoll. “They discover a level of confidence or assertiveness they didn’t realise they had, for example.”

Eagle believes experiential learning should actively encourage people to do things differently. “A well-designed game should give people the opportunity to try out new ways of thinking and working, and new styles or approaches,” he says. “In that environment, people often surprise themselves by overcoming challenges with a completely different style or approach than they are used to.”

But people aren’t always competently receptive to this type of learning straight away, as Davies explains: “You often see resistance initially, but that’s normal” he says. “A few minutes into an activity, however, the learners’ natural behaviours come through and you start to see how they might act in workplace situations.”

“Some people wonder what relevance the activities have to a work situation,” adds Doug Chapman, Management and Leadership L&D Consultant at TLD, who, in addition to training people on cruise ships and in the pub/restaurant industry, has designed and delivered L&D programmes for over 2500 staff at Southern Railway. “I’ve witnessed some cynicism in the past, but it is always turned around by the end of the session once they start to recognise the benefits of learning in a different way.”

It’s the taking part that counts

While some leaders may naturally excel in a simulated environment, others may not. If a participant doesn’t perform particularly well in a leadership game activity, for example, does that make them a bad leader? The answer is ‘no,’ according to our experts.

“It isn’t really about the results of the activity,” says Davies. “The game itself is an unfamiliar situation and they may not be good at it. The feedback and the learning are all about their behaviours and actions. Do they show good leadership traits? How do they communicate? Do they plan effectively? Do they empower and encourage others, and so on?”

“The focus is not on the ‘winners’ or ‘losers’ – it’s about how the game was played,” says Eagle. “The outcomes from a leadership game should focus on the constructive, not the critical. They should prompt people to consider how well they have worked together to achieve an outcome or – if things have not gone so well – to consider what they might do differently in the future to ensure success.”

“You might see certain traits that could be highlighted for development, though,” says Driscoll. “Aggression, for example. But that doesn’t mean they can’t excel in other areas.”

“Some leaders simply may not appreciate the complexities of an activity,” says Chapman. “Although,” he adds, “there have definitely been cases in which the behaviours exhibited by an individual during an activity were clearly the same as those displayed back at work.”

Classroom still relevant

Given the increasingly demonstrable success of experiential learning in developing leaders, will traditional classroom learning become a thing of the past when it comes to learning interventions at senior level? Davies doesn’t think so: “There is still a place for the classroom when it comes to developing essential theory,” he says. “But the experiential arena works best in terms of testing current abilities, and also as a chance to practice and develop new leadership skills.”

With the growing demand for innovative L&D solutions, the increasing adoption of the 70:20:10 learning model – where 70% of learning is gained from experience – and the stabilising health of L&D budgets across the majority of industries, it is inevitable that experiential learning as a means to develop leaders will continue to evolve. The delivery of L&D is becoming an increasingly creative arena, and it will be interesting to see how far that creativity will be pushed in the coming years.

This piece was written by the Management & Leadership Capabilities Team at Thales Learning & Development


  • Melanie Read

    Thanks I've shared this with my team. 

  • Mitch Maynard

    This is a great article. It provides some much needed information into the benefits of this type of learning. I find this type of learning is a fantastic way to gain insight into the types of behaviours and actions people show. 

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