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Enhancing leadership learning through the subconscious

Updated: Jul 12

female in cream jumper standing half in shade

How can we increase the effectiveness of our leadership learning programs? It’s the never-ending challenge for L&D. Action learning, social learning, experiential learning, e-learning, learning in the metaverse. All are effective.

One relatively simple method that often gets overlooked however, is to consider the brains of learners. A better understanding of the role of the conscious and subconscious, especially with regards to change, is one key way to help our leaders to learn.

Why focus on the subconscious for leadership learning?

We know that in general the brain dislikes change and prefers to stick with the familiar, however uncomfortable that might be. We also know, mostly from personal experience, that willpower isn’t enough to create long-term change. When your conscious and subconscious are in conflict, your subconscious invariably wins. You can’t easily overcome imposter syndrome for example, with conscious thought. That quiet inner voice coming from the subconscious, ends up shouting the loudest.

Whether we like it or not, the subconscious runs the shows. It holds the beliefs that turn into thoughts and reactions, that leads to behavior and actions, that ultimately creates the outcomes. To change outcomes, we need therefore, to change beliefs.

99% of the brain’s activity is below the level of consciousness

We also know that 99% of the brain’s activity is below the level of consciousness. Your subconscious mind can be compared to a vast data centre, operating 24-7, taking in 11million bits of data every moment, whilst your conscious mind takes in a meagre 40 bits.

A typical leadership program predominantly focuses on conscious thought, through planning, deciding, assessing, applying. Yet the conscious mind exhausts itself quickly and simply doesn’t hold the power in the mind. It’s like trying to access a vast amount of information from that data centre via a smart speaker. Yes, of course you can do it, but it's limited to one stream of information at a time. Far better to connect with that data centre direct and access so much more of the information. Tapping into the energy efficient, effortless and automatic operation of the subconscious instead.

How do we work with the subconscious in leadership learning?

Hypnotherapists know that they can encourage long-term change by speaking directly to the subconscious, at a time when the conscious mind is a quiet observer. What can we learn from them to help in our program design?

We can learn that the language of the subconscious is imagination and the driving force behind it is emotion. The subconscious is connected to through metaphors, stories, play and our mind's eye. Through feelings and sensations. Through awe and wonder. Through experience and association. Through direct suggestion, when the conscious mind is a quiet observer and feels safe enough to dial down.

The language of the subconscious is imagination and the driving force behind it is emotion

To include the subconscious in typical program activities, we might for example:

  • Visualize with eyes closed our customers and their day-to-day needs, as if we were that customer, prior to brainstorming new ways to solve for their needs

  • Pause, reflect and feel with eyes closed, the threats or triggers that might impact the psychological safety of our team, before practicing coaching or feedback

  • Take time at the end of each session, to more deeply visualize, feel and thus embed the change, outcomes, benefits and personal meaning of the session’s learnings

Compare some different ways we might deliver Agile leadership topics, for example ..

1. Prioritization

A typical program might ask leaders to assess their competing priorities and then decide who they need to have difficult conversations with and how. Nothing wrong with that. Except we may be pushing against subconscious beliefs around rejection or belonging, which might result in people pleasing behaviors and not being able to say no. Unless we change those deep beliefs, prioritization can’t improve.

A program that incorporates the subconscious however, might ask participants to rehearse in their imagination first, what it feels like to push back, to say no and to release the sense of urgency against all of the noise. And to repeat that in a state of relaxation until the discomfort has disappeared and prioritisation feels rewarding. Similar perhaps to how we desensitise people to a fear of spiders for example, gradually, in the imagination, step by step and in a state of quiet relaxation.

2. Disruption

A typical program might ask participants to brainstorm new ideas for customers. Perfectly fine. A program that includes the subconscious might also, within a state of relaxation, embed the feelings of being ok with not having all the answers and appreciating the opportunities within the unknown. It might also ease the fear of uncertainty, potential rejection or urgency, all of which can trigger a threat response in the brain, severely limiting cognitive abilities. And only then do we tap into the subconscious again for an expansive divergent thinking activity.

3. Collaboration

A typical program might ask for practical ideas of ways to work better across silos, to improve collaboration and ideation. Perfectly fine. A program that incorporates the subconscious might also pre-empt that activity by asking participants to vividly imagine what in-group belonging, connection and coherence really feels like. To vividly imagine the feeling of empathy, compassion and deeply connected communication. To release the natural sense of mistrust of others through imagining commonalities. And only then coming up with practical ways to network more.

Virtually every aspect of a leadership program has the potential to be subtly enhanced by considering the subconscious.

What are the benefits of including the subconscious in leadership learning?

Too much conscious thought, whilst stimulating, can be quickly exhausting, limiting what day-long workshops can achieve. Relying on leaders remembering to do the right behaviors at the right times can limit the likelihood of application in practice during times of stress, tiredness or when emotions are triggered. Behaviors (or beliefs) that are embedded in the subconscious in contrast, can drive the preferred behaviors automatically, with little thought, effort or conscious thought. When the conscious and subconscious are aligned, the resulting coherent state creates a sense of flow and ease. Everything feels energizing, enlivening and deeply motivating. It all feels right and right feels really good. And that creates change that is more likely to last.

When your conscious and subconscious are in conflict, your subconscious invariably wins

Working with the subconscious is relatively safe. Hypnotherapists know that you can’t typically get someone to do or believe in something that they don’t agree with. What you can do however, is increase general receptivity to suggestions that they DO agree with, so that they can more easily and wholeheartedly get behind them.

Incorporating the subconscious mind into leadership learning programs isn’t a precise science and hasn’t yet been fully embraced. But if we want to prepare leaders to take on the challenges of our dramatically evolving world, then maybe it’s worth exploring.

If we want to help our leaders to learn, then perhaps it’s time for us to be thinking more about the ways in which we and they think.


What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences

I’m Debbie Jeremiah, a leadership learning professional with an interest in the mind at work and accessing the subconscious through regression and hypnotherapy. These are my own thoughts and opinions and as such, may contain inaccuracies and biases. This article is an extract of a blog originally posted on

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