Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Put Some Emotion into Your Decision-Making and Analysis

I’m a firm believer that emotion plays a cornerstone role in any decision-making. What’s more, I also believe that strong emotion should be used to stimulate much better analysis about how to improve performance or solve a problem.

While my wife picks herself up from the chair she’s fallen off, making unflattering comparisons between problem solvers, analysts, consultants, coaches, philosophers, scientists and Mr Spock, I’ll give you some context and take some time to explain what I mean by the heresy above.

I was listening last week to a podcast featuring a German philosopher called Sabine Doring. Her area of interest is the philosophy of emotion, and its role in decision-making. In her interview, she provided three insights that got me thinking:

1. Emotions are by definition directed at something, which makes them different from moods. For example: feeling sad is a mood; feeling aggressive towards your cheating former lover is an emotion. So I can’t be an emotional or unemotional person, but I can be emotional or unemotional about a particular concept, person or decision.

2. It is ultimately your emotions that determine what matters to you when making a decision. In the most mechanical and number-driven decision-making, we still choose and give weight to different factors based on such aspects as risk-aversion (worry), time-horizon (impatience) and reward (greed). And the vast bulk of decisions, being much less mechanical, require some major value judgments. In fact, if you don’t care about your decision-making criterion, then the whole thing doesn’t matter, is irrelevant and doesn’t require a decision.

3. Recent studies by her colleagues showed that people are generally more creative when happy (counter to the art-house dogma), and more rational and analytic when depressed.

So, contrary to the truism that emotions cloud reason and need to be shoved to the backs of our minds when trying to be rational, Ms Doring’s musings lead me to a list of insights that I hope can help us become better decision-makers:

1. The better we understand ourselves, the better decisions we can make. I’m not advocating self-indulgent soul-searching here, but I am proposing being alert to and honest about the emotion that motivates each decision (and, yes, greed counts if maximising reward is number one).

2. The more we care about something, the harder we will look to find a solution or make it work. There’s a downside to this of course, that we’re tempted to overlook things that run counter to our desired result. This why one of my few personal rules is to be as emotional about finding the truth as I am about anything else.

3. Playing good cop/ bad cop, or happy cop/ depressed cop, about a decision will help you get first into the creative to search for possibility in making something work, and then into the rational in testing it. Some of the best management teams I know have permanent happy and depressed cops to create this productive balance.

So there you are: a rationale for more emotion. Hopefully, my photo above shows how emotion fits into my performance.

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  1. Emotions certain enhance performance. However, it is no substitute for knowledge. I had a guest on my radio show discussing Dr. Edwards Deming's concept of Profound Knowledge that may be a more powerful concept in leadership and decision-making. You can hear Jim McKinley talking about Excellence in Leadership on August 15 at:


    At least it looks at the world from a unique perspective.

  2. Thanks Calvin. I agree entirely with you that emotions are no substitute for knowledge. But I don't think it's strictly either/or, and I wouldn't advocate saying one is more powerful than the other - they're two different things that play two different roles, like the two sides of the brain. My experience of business performance is that passion without a thirst for knowledge and facts is a recipe for disaster; and that knowledge without a passion for the business is a recipe for mediocrity. I'm not sure which is worse!

    My previous posts have focused heavily on the importance of continuing to challenge and ask questions to uncover real and complete knowledge - exactly your point about Deming. My point with this post is that passion about a subject can help managers look harder for ways to make it successful, as long as they are also passionate about finding the truth.

    Thanks again, and I'll tune into the show.