Emotions can poison decision making and lead to short-sightedness, but passion can also inspire commitment and creativity. The key is to harness emotions so they help achieve objectives.
When I discuss decision making with my students, we always start with the fact that 50 years of business education has taught that managers should be detached – that emotions are unprofessional and poison our decisions. But while this is not wrong, it’s also incomplete.
It’s true that rushing into decisions based on a whim or current excitement is dangerous: “unarmed” by systematic devices or “habits” that force us to reflect, we are biased and short-sighted, misestimate success probabilities and respond to emotional cues. Formal and “rational” decision criteria – such as financial ratios, risk assessments or expert input – help us to stop, cool down, and then be better able to think the decision through in depth.
Another emotional trap lies in so-called “social emotions”. They include cronyism, such as decisions to fulfil social obligations at organisational cost, and pride in the form of competition for higher status. (As one commentator quipped: “What does the billionaire need the second billion for? Not to live better, only to out-do the other billionaire!”). These social emotions are even worse traps than the individual biases mentioned earlier.
Cronyism can lead to projects undertaken to please friends rather than help the organisation, to suppliers chosen for relationships rather than track record, and positions awarded for social debts rather than competence – in short, they can destroy an organisation’s (and a country’s) competitiveness.
But egos are equally dangerous. A few years ago, I advised a company seeking to improve its strategic innovation project selection to reject a proposed “points-based” system that chose projects based solely on standardised scores for factors like strategic fit, risk and return. I argued that such a system may deteriorate to mechanical outcomes that exclude management discussion and input, yet management chose such a “black box” approach because it avoided the risk of team members losing an argument and harming their egos.
In other words, the company (with some irony) chose a supposedly “unemotional” and rigid approach only to prevent having to confront emotional issues – not because it would lead to better results. I’m afraid that such an approach, dysfunctional though it is, is hardly an isolated exception.
Haven’t we just confirmed the conventional managerial wisdom that emotions are dangerous witchcraft? Yes, but that’s not good enough! Unemotional, rational and fact-based decisions and cold “objectively evaluative” treatment of employees get you, maybe, compliance. But they do not incite commitment, going the extra mile to overcome obstacles, people going out of their way to help, caring, or visionary envelope-expanding creativity. Passion, not cold analysis, incites these behaviours – and passion is related to pride and (relationship-related) commitment to the community.
Can the same social emotions that cause traps also enable energy? They can push us in the direction of collaborating, or in the direction of selfishness. We need emotions for high performance, but we need to channel them in the direction of the collective, not the individual (or a small group of mates). This is the deep tension built into human psychology. As a manager, it is useful to be aware of the varying effect of emotions: pay respect to people and make them feel proud, but don’t let it go to arrogance (including yourself). Value relationships and acknowledge them for their value to the organisation, but don’t let them take on a life of their own leading to cronyism (all the way to corruption).
Robin Hogarth, a world-class psychologist, has said that “you should be cool, deliberative and sceptical when you think about a big decision, but passionate when you implement it.” Wise insight. Passion can even help to make a big decision, because it highlights the upside – but just don’t let it blindside you. And acknowledge emotion as a legitimate, and actually unavoidable, aspect of leading and motivating people. If you remain aware of emotions so they don’t “ride you”, then they can power what you are trying to achieve.