Beyond the finish line: Building leadership through the after-event review

October 23, 2012

The after-event review has emerged in recent years as a promising leadership development tool for businesses. First used by the military, the after-event review is a structured examination and analysis of an action by its participants after it has concluded.

But after-event reviews do not affect everyone the same way, as Assistant Professor of Management Jennifer Nahrgang has found in her research. In an elaborate experiment conducted with three other researchers over a two-year span, Nahrgang found that after-event reviews are most effective for individuals with certain personality traits or who come to the exercise with certain experiences.

"We found that after-event reviews did help to develop leadership skills, but among people who go through the process, some benefited much more than others," Nahrgang said.

The researchers found that after-event reviews were most likely to help individuals who are conscientious, open to new ideas and experiences, and able to control their emotions, the researchers found. And individuals who had experienced challenges in previous work situations tended to benefit from after-event reviews, according to the study.

The experiment, conducted with 173 first-year, full-time MBA students at a large university in the Midwest, is described in the recently published Journal of Applied Psychology article "A Quasi-Experimental Study of After-Event Reviews and Leadership Development," by Nahrgang, John R. Hollenbeck of Michigan State University, and D. Scott DeRue and Kristina Workman of the University of Michigan

Developing leaders on the job

Nahrgang and her co-authors adopt a definition of after-event reviews as "a learning procedure that gives learners an opportunity to systematically analyze their behavior and to be able to evaluate the contribution of its components to performance outcomes."

Sometimes referred to as after-action reviews, after-event reviews were pioneered by the US Army in the mid-1970s, and were first used extensively by groups of soldiers in the first Gulf War. Since then, the service has institutionalized the use of after-event reviews in its operations.

In recent years, after-event reviews have been adopted in corporate settings. When an important project or initiative concludes, participants gather in a non-judgmental exercise to review the initial goals and planning, whether the objectives were met, and what lessons can be drawn from the experience.

After-action reviews are an example of what has been termed "learning in the thick of it"—leadership development embedded in the work environment, instead of a separate formal training process.

After-event reviews put to the test

To discover how after-event reviews affect individuals, the researchers developed a series of hypotheses, and then set out to test them on two groups of first-year MBA students. Four major events in the students' program were examined: a team building exercise conducted the week before the start of the academic year, a five-week leadership and teamwork simulation, the search for summer internships, and a school-wide case competition.

Both groups of students met with trained facilitators for 30 to 45 minutes after each event. For one group, the sessions followed the structured after-event review protocol developed by the US Army. For the other group, which was designated as the control, the sessions consisted of unstructured discussions of the event.

"Both groups went through the same experience," Nahrgang said. "One group had to stop and think through with a coach about what happened, but they didn't follow the structured process. With the second group, we gave their coaches a script that followed different steps of the after action review: What happened? What did you learn from the experience? How do you connect your behaviors in the experience to the outcome?"

The researchers held the experimental and control group sessions two years apart, to minimize the possibility that any of the subjects in one group would discuss their experiences with subjects in the other.

Using MBA students as subjects for the experiment had both advantages and disadvantages, according to Nahrgang.

"The strength of using them is that most of them have had work experience, and they are going to be hired into the management world later," she said. "I think they are a good sample from that standpoint. But some of the experiences they went through may not be the same experiences you would go through in an organization."

The challenges the students faced and the challenges people in business face do share important characteristics, according to Nahrgang. "In both cases, there are leadership experiences that are ambiguous or hard to process. That's the same whether it involves MBAs or individuals in organizations," she said.

Discovering who benefits the most

The researchers had access to extensive background information on the students: Graduate Management Admission Test scores, employment history, and scores on tests measuring personality traits and history of developmental challenges. The researchers measured the subjects' leadership development by asking trained observers to rate their leadership behaviors over time to see whether or not their leadership behaviors were changing.

The results of the experiment showed that subjects who went through the after-action reviews exhibited more leadership behaviors than those in the control group, who had not participated in the formal reviews. This was an important finding, according to Nahrgang.

"The structured process helps," she said. "Taking some time to think about something after it happens isn't enough. You have to follow a process that involves learning how behaviors connect to performance."

The researchers discovered significant differences in how individuals responded to the after-event reviews.

In the Journal of Applied Psychology article, the authors write that the effects of after-event reviews were "amplified for people who had a rich base of challenging career experiences, as well as those who are conscientious, open to experience, and emotionally stable."

Simply having more work experience did not correlate with greater leadership development.

"The important thing about their previous work was the quality of work experience," Nahrgang said. "If in their previous jobs they really faced a lot of challenges, they benefited more from the structured reviews. It wasn't simply that they had more years of experience."

Certain personality traits also were key factors, she said. "People who pay attention to details and are very deliberate benefited from it. People who are innovative and imaginative and willing to engage in new experiences also tended to benefit from it."

How to use after-event reviews

The study holds lessons for managers, according to Nahrgang. An important one is that after-event reviews do help to develop leadership, she said.

"I think we demonstrated that they are worth setting aside the time to complete," she said. "Managers spend a lot of time putting out fires in their organizations. Taking a deliberate and structured approach to learning through after-event reviews needs to be a focus."

But after-event reviews may not be for everyone, Nahrgang and her co-authors point out in the article. They write that "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 benefit."

Nahrgang said that organizations also could try to change the work environment to make it more likely that individuals will benefit from after-event reviews.

"I think you can create an open environment, where people feel comfortable going through an after-event review. You can give people challenging work experiences to learn from. You have to think through what it is the person needs."

Bottom line

• After-event reviews are an important tool organizations can use to promote leadership skills. The after-event review is a structured analysis of an action by participants in the action after it concludes.

• To determine the effectiveness of after-event reviews and who is most likely to benefit from them, researchers studied two groups of first-year MBA students. Both groups went through a series of challenging experiences, including finding summer internships and participating in a school-wide case competition. After the experiences, one group participated in after-event reviews, while the other group had unstructured discussions.

• The researchers compiled data from the participants' work histories and test scores. The researchers also administered personality and leadership tests. Participants in the after-event reviews exhibited stronger leadership behaviors than students who had participated in unstructured discussions.

• Individuals respond differently to after-event reviews depending on their personalities and prior work experiences, the researchers found. People who are conscientious, open to new experiences, and able to control their emotions tend to benefit from the reviews. Individuals who have faced challenges in prior work experiences also were found to benefit from after-event reviews.