When people get emotional and take sides, poor decisions are made

When people get emotional and take sides, poor decisions are made

Does it all go back to childhood? My daughter and my five-year-old grandson had a massive disagreement last week. My daughter, like me when she was little, decided not to play along with the Santa game, and from day one said that Santa is a ‘character’ just like on TV: fun, but not real.

My grandson vehemently pointed out to my daughter how and why she was wrong and accused her of lying. “The teacher told me he’s real!”

How often do we have workplace disagreements on a whole range of topics where we are convinced we are right, emotional and angry? What is it that really causes us to take a position? How is that people move from believing something compared to knowing it?

The Santa belief mechanisms I’ve seen in my grandson also exist out there in the workplace, and these beliefs impact decision-making.

The voice of authority

Interestingly, my grandson decided that his teacher was a higher authority on the matter of Santa’s existence than his own mother. Why is that? It seems that his peer group (20 children in his class) all treat the teacher as the font of knowledge. For topics of literacy and arithmetic that’s perfect – for subjective matters it’s not so great.

Workplaces operate in the same fashion. If the manager, CEO or leader commands authority then as a group we tend to comply with opinions as fact. We want to believe in people, we respond well to confidence, but we must maintain a healthy level of scepticism in everything we are told.

Excitement and other emotions

The excitement around a big man in a red suit dropping off a room full of presents has more allure for my grandson than my daughter’s pragmatic truth. The five-year-old is challenging his mother’s claims, in part, because they aren’t as fun as what everyone else is telling him. In fact, going against the tide is tough for a kid.

Again we see this in the workplace. A lot of excitement will build around a new technique for leadership programs, workplace appraisals or marketing tactics. En masse we launch towards it with enthusiasm, reading up on it, each testimonial giving us a little bit more validation to keep on going with the new idea. New is more exciting than old. We love shiny new things and often put a lot of our energy towards them.

Emotions are the counterbalance to rationale. You need both for successful endeavours, but when it comes to decision-making we are hopelessly misled by excitement. Like the boy who believes in Santa because it’s more fun, we might continue to put money into advertising campaigns that become steadily less effective over time. We might abandon our boring and effective practices in favour of exciting, unproven ones.

Gut feel

Merging the two worlds of cognition and emotion is our ‘gut feel’. It’s a physical representation of what we think on an issue. Gut feel is such an interesting concept because it becomes a summary of all our previous experiences, boiling up to a feeling in our stomach without us being able to access the specific memories that makes us feel that way. It’s a bottom-up (involuntary) psychological effect that we need to try and listen to. What is it about a specific situation or person that makes us feel secure or concerned?

A lot of larger corporations have worked really hard at becoming less emotional with decisions, particularly around hiring. Safe options that are based on a set of criteria take the overt risk away, but we are still seeing really high rates of staff turnover. We need to critically assess our criteria as often as we assess our decisions.

How are decisions made in your team?

Decision-making is such a complex task. We make hundreds of effortless decisions every day, but when we break new ground or have to make decisions about more important issues with bigger outcomes we are forced to pause and think. It is this point where things can go terribly wrong. If you mix in some time pressure to the equation you can find decisions being made on the most trivial of facts. Look for objectivity in decision-making and reach out to the team when decisions are made. Team members will bring new considerations to the table – invite diverse opinions!

Stories sell better than data

You’ve heard the quote about one person dying being a tragedy, but millions dying is a statistic. This cuts right to the core of how we as humans respond to storytelling. We are hardwired to enjoy a story, to share stories and to change our behaviours and decisions based on stories. It was an evolutionary advantage before humans could read and write – advice on where to gather food and which places to avoid was shared through stories and song. But we’ve still got the hardware to respond more to stories than to large amounts of data. It’s something we need to be very wary of.

As ridiculous as it sounds for adults to believe in Santa, it is incredible to see how many people, particularly those in senior positions, will busily charge down a course of action based on entirely untested and unquestioned beliefs.

Eve Ash has a wide range of resources and books that can help people change their thinking and habits in a constructive way.


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