Understanding the emotional basis for your actions is one of the most important aspects of evolving as an effective leader and decision maker. Being fully grounded in your feelings allows for objective, fact-based decisiveness, an attribute possessed by all successful leaders.
This relationship between our emotions and decision making was the subject of scientific study by well-known American-Portuguese neuroscientist Dr. Antonio Damasio. In his study, Dr. Damasio was able to show that our emotions and decision making ability are organically linked. More specifically, he found that damage to the amygdala, the center of our emotions in the brain, can affect our capacity for decision making.
Dr. Damasio’s main case study was a man he pseudonymously referred to as Elliot. Elliot was highly intelligent and had previously been a successful businessman. He needed extensive surgery to remove a brain tumor situated next to his amygdala. After the otherwise successful operation, and despite Elliot’s high IQ and previous stellar achievements, his life started falling apart. He lost all motivation to do much of anything.
According to Dr. Damasio, Elliot became an “uninvolved spectator” of his own life, watching it pass before him. “He was always controlled,” the study states. “Nowhere was there a sense of his own suffering, even though he was the protagonist. I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration.”
However, the surprising thing about the side effects of Elliot’s surgery was not that his emotions were affected. That, of course, was anticipated. The surprising thing was that he also became incapable of making decisions.
“Elliot emerged as a man with a normal intellect, who was unable to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social matters.” For example, it took Elliot several minutes to decide which color pen to use in order to fill out his medical forms. It took him more than 30 minutes to make his next appointment with Dr. Damasio. And it took him several hours to decide where to have lunch that day.
With Dr. Damasio’s results in mind, and knowing what you already know about your own decision making process, how can you make better decisions? I suggest starting by remembering to be vigilant about including your emotions in your decision making as much as possible. This is supported by a process I call Total Decision Making.
Here’s how it works:
Identify the specific problem.
Before you know exactly what a problem is, you can hardly go on to devise the best solution.
As you confront and isolate exactly what problem needs to be solved, remember Elliot, and recognize that your emotions are inextricably intertwined in all aspects of problem solving. None of us — even the most objective and analytical — can make decisions based solely on fact without emotional involvement.
However, with this in mind, we can learn to involve our emotions effectively.
Basic to understanding the matter is acknowledging that there is a difference between needs and wants. The two are often confused, but once properly identified, the decision making process becomes simpler.
You think you need a new car, for example. Do you really? If your old one is dying or has otherwise become inadequate for your needs, of course you need one. However, if you identify this perceived problem as satisfying a want (perhaps your neighbors just bought a new car), then you’re probably reacting solely on an emotional basis.
A need is something you can’t live without (well, almost) while a want is something that might make your life easier or more pleasant.
Once you identify something as a need, you know where to focus your energy — what to fight for. If it’s only a want, maybe your attempted resolution can wait for another day. Effective leaders know the difference.
Generate alternative solutions, and choose the best one.
Rather than just exploring the first possible solution that pops into mind, generate alternatives to help you see the bigger picture. Usually, problems have more than one solution. Really think about other possible solutions, even if you eventually come back to the more obvious one.
Take it a step further and use your emotional intelligence to envision how you’ll feel once you solve the problem, using each of your possible solutions. Will you be elated and feel long-term satisfaction, or will you just feel that another obstacle has been removed from your otherwise pleasant day? By identifying the emotion, you can significantly narrow your range of choices.
Also, remember that emotional impulses are not always irrational. Sometimes your initial emotional response is correct. The trick is to be able to combine the voice of logic and reason with the voice of emotion in order to reach an effective solution.
Control your impulse.
Know when you’re acting on an emotional basis. Act less impulsively by ascribing the greatest importance to objective facts. Sometimes the want/need analysis works for this, or sometimes simply avoiding hasty action altogether can be effective impulse control. Or maybe a more creative approach is needed altogether. Whatever works for you, be aware that your emotions affect your every decision and that you need to engage them in favor of facts when necessary.
Conduct a reality test.
A reality test involves accurately and realistically assessing a problem at hand along with its possible solutions in order to foresee consequences, especially unintended ones.
Consider all the factors and individuals that play a part both when analyzing a problem and when attempting to solve it. You must be able to include, as best you can, your own subjective thoughts and feelings.
Assuming that you have initially elected to solve the problem rather than ignore or avoid it (whether these are appropriate choices is a discussion for another day), start by clearly envisioning where you want to go — in other words, the outcome you want to achieve. You can ask yourself: What does success look like in practice?
Once you are aware of exactly what it is you want to achieve, you have created a powerful positive intention and very likely suggested worthwhile solutions.
When it comes to more accurately understanding the relationship between your emotions, feelings and decision making, you must first learn to be aware of your emotions, observe them, then manage the feelings those emotions evoke. Introduce new decision making tactics that will positively impact your emotions. The challenge is to learn to be aware of your emotional response (which you cannot change), and instead work with your feelings, (which you can change), then assess how those feelings relate to the positive outcomes you desire.
This article was originally published in Forbes.
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