Strategic Leaders Manage Emotions in Decision Making

I wonder if this hypothetical situation rings true to you. You were involved in an important decision along with a group of people. It was not an easy decision, particularly in a time when budgets were limited. One of the group was late for the meeting to make the decision. The rest of the team was filling the time discussing the fact that it was raining again and what people had done during the weekend. Eventually the missing person arrived, running into the meeting and putting her papers down with a thump. The proposal for the decision was presented and the presenter was well prepared with over 70 PowerPoint slides of data. A typing error was spotted a few slides into the presentation and was spotted and highlighted. This made an already nervous presenter even more tense. Eventually, a decision was made after a couple hours. This may seem familiar to you and may be an all too common set of events. So what are the dynamics going on here around decision making?

In this situation, there is an important and complex decision to be made and on the surface appears to be a data-driven decision. The individual presenting the recommendation for the decision appears to have plenty of data to support the options that are available to make an informed decision. On one level, although a complex decision, it should be simply a case of analysing the options and the data to make the decision through analytical thinking. But there are other things at play in this meeting- emotions. Some of the people at the meeting are frustrated by the fact that someone is late. This person may be feeling some emotions because of the last meeting. Some of these emotions are not easy to switch off and she may have “residual” feelings from previous meetings that are setting their mood for the decision making meeting. The tension and stress induced by these early interactions could have evoked emotions in the presenter. The impact of these emotions could mean that she was presenting her data with less confidence. This may be misinterpreted, by the others in the meeting, that she was not confident in her data or her recommendation. The tension in the room may also have impacted the emotions of the other participants causing some of them to become more reserved and reticent to express their honest opinions on the decision. Clearly, this is quite an extreme example to illustrate a point and the emotions were there for all to see. The important point here for strategic leaders to consider is that decisions are made with a mixture of analytical thinking and data that is influenced by the emotions and mood of the decision makers. Not everyone is coldly analytical all of the time, the interpretation of data can be biased or clouded by the emotions that people are feeling. In fact, I would go as far to say that decisions are always influenced by emotions to some extent.

So how do you monitor your emotions in decision making?

I would suggest that strategic leaders should ask themselves the following questions when they are making decisions:

  • What is your (or the group’s) current mood and emotional state (anger, fear, pride, surprise, happiness, sadness, anxiety or disgust) and how is it changing through the decision making process?

  • What are the characteristics of the decision makers, e.g., do they tend to be overly skeptical, cynical, negative, distrustful, fault finding, prone to stress, inattentive to details, inconsistent, optimistic, agreeable, etc?

  • What are the characteristics of the options available for a decision that can impact emotions, e.g., high level of uncertainty or risk?

  • How self-aware are you - do you know your strengths and weaknesses but also are you aware of your emotions and feelings?

  • What are the characteristics of options you are considering?

  • How do you feel about the risks associated with the options?

  • What is your level of certainty about the success of each option?

  • Do you feel there is a high level of ambiguity?

  • What would be the impact of delaying this decision?

  • What are the emotional impacts of the expected outcomes of the decision?

  • What are your characteristics as a leader that may impact the way you are making a decision?

  • What is the impact of your emotions on the decision?

By asking these questions, a strategic leader can monitor the potential impact of emotions on decisions. It may not change the outcome but they raise the level of awareness of emotional biases that may be at play. Being aware of your own emotions and being empathetic to the emotions of others is a critical set of skills that successful strategic leaders need to develop and maintain.

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