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Why Emotions Help Business Decisions

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Leaders have been coached and trained about how to look, think and lead. It isn't hard to understand the rules of engagement and to learn to do the right thing in the right way. What is more difficult, however, is to lead in an authentic and positive manner and have a sustaining influence on those around you. How do you incorporate what you believe and who you really are with your role as a leader?

Researchers, psychologists and experts know that for leaders to project credibility and instill trust, they need to demonstrate that they have a direct connection between their attitudes and behaviours.

Scientific research around brain function and emotion is continually emerging. We know thought and emotion are uniquely intertwined, with emotion playing a bigger role in shaping our thoughts and actions than we believed.

Antonio Damasio, (2003, Looking for Spinoza) the renowned neuroscientist, has demonstrated the important role of emotions in decision-making. What Damasio found was that without emotion, decision-making becomes impossible. Emotions are always present, often at a sub-conscious level, even in those decisions we view as logical.

Think back to the last time you had to make an important decision. Did you draw on past experience? Or on past feelings? Likely you incorporated both. If you were in a similar situation before and experienced a good outcome, you likely enter into the next decision with an optimistic and positive feeling.

However, if your last experience was stressful, difficult or resulted in a negative outcome, you will approach many decisions with trepidation and caution. You don't want to repeat the same mistake because it didn't feel very good. It likely had uncomfortable consequences, kept you up late at night and caused you some worry. Your instinct is to try to avoid that situation. Is that a rational decision? Possibly. Was the optimistic approach less rational? Maybe.

What is clear, though, is that both approaches stem from our emotional or feeling centres. So when we insist on removing emotions from our decisions, we are ignoring the emotional part of our decision-making process. Think about those people we call risk-takers and innovators. We may think of them as optimists. They see positive outcomes to their endeavours. Conversely, those whom we call cautious, conservative and rule-bound we may view as pessimists -- they worry about negative outcomes. We value one over the other, depending on the situation. Behind all those terms is an emotional and value-laden statement.

Why do we choose to avoid emotion, especially in a business or professional setting? Historically, the ideal leader was one who was cool, calm and professional. Emotion was considered to be inappropriate for the business environment. Of course, we now understand that emotion is always present. In the past, we equated a "real" leader with the strong, silent type.

This male archetype internalized his feelings and didn't make them known, sometimes not even to himself. He expressed these unacknowledged feelings in a variety of ways but rarely through the direct display of them. Often, the feelings would be expressed as aggression, depression, workaholism, alcoholism and a variety of other behaviours.

Fast forward to the 90s and the rise of the visionary or charismatic leader. The leader is still a self-contained person but now emerges as a hero. The visionary leader is more sensitive to those around him but he still does not acknowledge the importance of emotion in decision-making.

He is the one who will save the organization through a purpose-driven philosophy. The only problem is that this strategy focuses on the strength of one individual who must behave in a self-sacrificing way. However, the end of the 90s and the difficulties of the new millennium illustrated that one person cannot save, motivate or turn-around an organization. In fact, the latter part of the decade saw the fall of many corporate leaders and a recognition that authentic leadership included humility at its core and a recognition of the importance of others. Daniel Goleman's work on emotional intelligence has proven that the most effective leaders lead not only with technical competence, but with soft skills.

Business has changed in response to these shifts which have taken place on a societal and business level. As knowledge has grown, we seek understanding and connection. Trust and integrity are more important now than they have ever been. There has been a shift to a culture of transparency and accountability, which demands a new leadership style.

In fact, we wouldn't call it a style as much as a way of being. It is one in which leading strictly from the rational brain disconnected from its emotional centre is not an option. It is a way of leading that demands the involvement of affected stakeholders and an acknowledgement of their needs; a way of leading and being that gives voice to what is within people and accepts emotion as a legitimate part of the decision-making process.