SHRM Foundation Research
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SHRM Foundation Research


Leadership development through experience: Understanding the role of critical reflection and impact on human resource management practices

Funded: June 2007     Completed: April 2010 

D. Scott DeRue, Ph.D., University of Michigan
John R. Hollenbeck, Ph.D., Michigan State University
Jennifer D. Nahrgang, doctoral student, Michigan State University

Using After-Event Reviews (AERs) to Improve Leadership Development

Executive Summary
In 2009, U.S.-based organizations spent an estimated $12 billion (24% of their overall training budgets) on formal leadership development programs and services. Yet, most leadership development occurs on the job, not in formal training or classroom contexts. But learning leadership from experience is difficult. People are often uncertain about what leadership lessons they should learn, or worse yet, they learn the wrong lessons from their experiences. Organizations need tools and technologies that help individuals learn the right lessons and develop their leadership skills from on-the-job experiences. Research conducted by D. Scott DeRue, John R. Hollenbeck, and Jennifer D. Nahrgang demonstrates that "after-event reviews" (AER) are one such tool that effectively promotes experience-based leadership development.


An AER is a reflection-based, organizational learning procedure that guides individuals through a systematic analysis of their behavior and its contribution to performance outcomes. AERs serve three functions in experience-based leadership development. First, AERs force people to analyze their own behavior and develop specific explanations for how their behavior contributed to performance outcomes. Second, AERs require individuals to consider alternative interpretations of their experience and consider a broad range of explanations for how their behavior contributed to performance outcomes. In doing so, AERs help overcome many of the psychological biases that limit individuals' abilities to learn from experience. The third function of AERs is in the development of specific feedback. As part of the AER process, individuals develop feedback for how they can perform more effectively in the future based on lessons from the current experience.

In this study, individuals who went through the AER process following 4 key developmental experiences achieved an 8% improvement in their leadership effectiveness ratings over 8 months. Individuals who did not go through the AER process saw no improvement in their leadership effectiveness ratings.

The AER practice was most effective for people who had the following attributes:
• A rich base of prior experience. To maximize the utility of AERs, people need a base of experience from which to draw and make connections. People who had encountered a lot of novelty and change in their careers, been in jobs with extensive scale and scope, and worked in highly diverse settings benefited more from the AER process than did people without these prior career experiences.
• Conscientious. The AER process can be challenging and often requires people to be deliberate and methodical in analyzing their own experiences and behavior. People who are conscientious remained motivated throughout the development process, and were much more deliberate in their self-evaluations.
• Open to new experiences. AERs require that people come open and ready to learn. People who were open to new experiences and ideas, receptive to change, and curious about how they can improve benefitted more from the AER process than people who were less open to learning and change.
• Emotionally stable. Developmental experiences and AERs can evoke strong emotions, and those emotions can interfere with learning. People who were able to remain calm and regulate their emotions experienced greater development from the AER process than did people who were more prone to emotional impulses and anxiety.

Findings from the present study have important implications for talent management and leadership development systems in organizations. In particular:
• AERs should accompany every recognized developmental assignment or job, and be conducted by people who are knowledgeable about the AER process.
• The deployment of AERs must be done with precision. Organizations need to assess individuals' prior career histories and personality profiles to understand who within the organization is likely to realize the developmental value of AERs.
• For people who do not possess the requisite experience and personality profiles, alternative strategies and approaches are required. For these people, a climate within the organization that establishes a psychologically-safe space in which to learn and fosters a learning orientation will be important. Also, these people need training in counter-factual thinking and cognitive simulations that will improve their ability to conduct effective AERs.
• It is essential that AERs be institutionalized into the business process. For example, at key points in a project's lifecycle, regardless of whether the project is a success or failure, managers should dedicate the necessary time, tools and resources to conduct effective AERs.

Study Methods
This study used a cohort-based, experimental design to examine the effect of AERs on leadership development. The researchers followed 173 first-year MBA students over eight months and across four key developmental experiences. Approximately half of the study participants went through a systematic, guided AER process after each developmental experience. The other half of participants did not receive any form of AER. Leadership effectiveness ratings were collected at multiple points in time, and analyzed to determine how much change in leadership effectiveness could be attributed to the AER process.

View the full list of SHRM Foundation funded research.