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Leadership and State-dependent Learning

State-dependent memory, or state-dependent learning asserts that memory retrieved is best when a person is in the same “state” as she or he was initially when the concept was learned.

State refers to an internal state versus contextual dependent learning. Contextual reflects environment, location and situation.

Reading several articles on this inspired me to consider how state and contextual-dependent learning might affect leadership development.

Here is one simple example. Let's say my team is being encouraged to take the lead on a new project and has some positive experiences in the initial stages. They happen to be made up of people who were feeling very excited at that moment – and about the potential of their impact on the project. Individuals were called out by me and the other leaders for their clever ideas and this they felt a specific internal reflection of respect, drive, hope and potential.

During the first two meetings all were amped up on caffeine and sugar (staples at many leadership conferences and meetings) sat in a room with bright, yet calming lighting that, while is an external force – may have internally affected them. Now two weeks have passed – they are separated by offices and cubicles and meet with only portions of the initial group.

They are now in a probable state of exhaustion – constant pressure – not getting a lot of praise with feedback, and are not getting free food, coffee or other personal, internal positive motivators. Will they recall easily what they learned in the initial setting? Chances are that they may not – or at the very least they will put forth more effort to recall their innovations. Will I notice this inconsistency with how they initially strategized and learned new techniques for the project, or instead become frustrated by what is seemingly a step backwards?

As leaders we must think about more than strategy and motivation. Understanding how minds work and how most people learn is important for a strong leader to conquer the challenges ahead. More on this to come in the next article.

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