Can businesses train people to perform better in the clutch?
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Can businesses train people to perform better in the clutch?

Bob, a sales rep, recently completed a training program on negotiation techniques. But today, when his customer pushed back on price, Bob felt the deal slipping away, he panicked and quickly agreed to the buyer’s demands.

When Bob’s boss learned what happened, he asked himself: What good was all that training if Bob didn’t use it when it counted most?

Too much to think about
Bob knew what to do. But when hewas confronted with a stressful situation, he wasn’t able to apply what he’d learned.

The reason people freeze up under stress, neuroscientists say, is because their working memory gets overwhelmed by emotional thoughts.

Working memory is rapid-access memory. It holds what you need to remember as you process information or perform a task in the moment.

In a price negotiation, for example, you might need to keep in mind your areas of leverage, your ideal price point, and specific tradeoffs you’ll need to ask for in exchange for a lower price.

But in high-stress situations, working memory also gets crowded with emotional thoughts – for example: “I really need to get this commission to pay off my credit card.” Or, “I’d love to show my boss that I can close this deal at a high profit margin.”

Learning to be a clutch player
The good news is that you can train people to handle their emotions better under stress, research suggests. That means they’ll perform better in the clutch, and be more likely to put their learning into action.

The research
Neuroscientists conducted a series of working-memory training sessions on two groups.

The first group was trained on emotionally neutral material (matching geometric shapes). The second was trained on emotionally charged tasks (for example, matching spoken words such as “evil” or “dissent” to pictures of facial expressions).

The researchers wanted to see whether adding this emotional content to the training could help people manage their emotions later on.

To find out, they next had both of these groups view highly emotional videos, such as coverage of disasters.

The subjects were asked to emotionally down-regulate (detach and make themselves calmer) while watching the footage.

Result: The subjects who’d completed the training with the emotional content were better able to regulate their emotions while viewing the videos, as shown by self-reports and brain scans.

Implications for trainers
The research suggests that you can improve clutch performance by having people learn under emotional conditions, which will help them manage their emotions in the real world.

Here are some ideas that can help you increase the emotional content of your training:

Don’t make it too easy. Emotional working memory improves most when it’s operating at or near capacity. When training isn’t challenging, learners are likely to be emotionally disengaged. Tougher tasks put more stress on the memory.

Add a ticking clock. For example, use timed quizzes and exercises. Or ask learners to brainstorm as many ideas as they can in, say, one minute. Deadlines create anxiety. But don’t overdo it, or learners will check out.

Don’t be afraid to talk about feelings. Trainers are often accused of being too “touchy feely,” but learners will perform better if you get them in touch with their emotions during training.

For example, you might ask salespeople to describe how they feel when they’re trying to close that do-ordie deal.

Use anecdotes and examples. Facts and figures tend to be emotionally neutral. Stories create the opportunity to connect concepts with emotions.

For example, if you’re teaching a production crew what to do in the event of a fire, don’t just go through the “how to” steps. Tell a story about how people actually reacted to a fire and what happened as a result.

Add emotional details to role plays and scenarios. Or have the team members identify the emotions of each person as they occur in a role play.

For example: “The prospect seemed pleased at first, then seemed worried when questioned about the budget.”

Don’t forget “good” emotions. Positive emotions stretch working memory as well, so use them too.

Example: “It’s Friday afternoon. As soon as everyone passes the final test, we can get a jump on the weekend.”

Schweizer et al. (2013). Training the emotional brain: Improving affective control through emotional working memory training. J Neurosci 33:5301.

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