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August 31, 2009 Vol. 2, Issue 8


Challenging work assignments are often touted as the best way to develop better leaders. However, researchers at the University of Michigan have found that too much challenge can undermine leadership development.

Armed with the knowledge that most learning and professional development takes place on the job, many organizations tend to believe the greater the challenge an individual faces, the greater the learning opportunity. Dr. Scott DeRue and Ned Wellman of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business questioned this assumption and developed a research study to test it.

“I thought people were over-simplifying the value of developmental experiences,” said DeRue. “How much challenge is development?” he wondered, “and at what point do people become so challenged that they become overwhelmed and cannot learn from the experience?” DeRue and Wellman’s research offers answers to these questions and identifies ways organizations can address the challenge with too much developmental challenge.

In their study, DeRue and Wellman hypothesized that as a task becomes more challenging, leadership development will increase up to a certain point. Beyond this point, the task becomes too challenging, and feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and stress take over, become distracting, and decrease an individual’s developmental experience. The researchers also hypothesized that this relationship may be tempered by an individual’s propensity to learn and face obstacles — their learning orientation — and their availability to feedback. When both of these factors are high, the pattern of diminishing returns should weaken, thought the researchers, whereas when these factors decrease, the pattern should strengthen.

The researchers surveyed and interviewed 99 middle and senior level managers from over 80 different profit and non-profit organizations about prior work experiences they found to be especially helpful or harmful in terms of leadership development. Each experience was rated in terms of its challenge and developmental value. Leadership orientation and availability to feedback was quantified for each individual to gauge their “tipping point” for leadership development.

The overall pattern of results was consistent with the researchers’ hypothesis. After a certain amount of challenge was reached, most individuals experienced decreased learning and development. However, individuals with high learning orientations and access to feedback were not as susceptible to this effect. Overall, the findings suggest that “there is such a thing as too much ‘stretch’ in an assignment,” explained DeRue, and that “some experiences are too challenging for individuals and can undermine leadership development.”

During the study DeRue paid attention to the degree to which individuals experienced “emotion toil” in response to over-challenging experiences. “Research on emotions and learning suggests that these negative emotions can distract individuals from the task at hand and reduce learning,” said DeRue. “If we can help people better manage their emotions in the context of these experiences, we should see greater learning and development.”

NASA regularly exposes its employees to the challenging environments and job assignments that DeRue and Wellman studied. Locating this “tipping-point” for leadership development could provide as a useful tool for NASA, said DeRue. Evaluating the difficulty of projects, creating an effective support system to aid in the development of leadership talent, and encouraging employees to develop a learning orientation when faced with extremely challenging assignments are all ways in which NASA could enhance leadership development when exposed to challenging tasks. “If NASA was willing to assess their projects and assignments on these dimensions,” he said, “this would go a long way toward better matching the right person with the right experience.”

DeRue and Wellmans study was published in the July issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Article by HS

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