Humans – Logical beings or emotional?

Have you ever been in a situation where you had all the facts and logically your suggestion was the right way forward? Yet the other person(s) just didn’t want to listen? It might have left you baffled, confused or frustrated – I know that is what happened to me in a similar situation many years ago. These days I am very aware that neuroscience has caught up: Decision making isn’t logical, it’s emotional.

This conclusion comes from studies of people with brain damage in the area of the brain where emotions reside. These individuals may function very well without any particular emotions except for one thing: They struggle with decision making. Logically, they can describe what they should be doing, but when given a choice that has a less clear logical conclusion, they seem incapable of reaching a decision.

This type of research has led to a shift in how we think about decision making.  These days it is recognised that emotions and decisions go hand in hand and that emotions are powerful, pervasive and predictable drivers of decisions. What we feel influences the choices we make. And we are often unaware of this particular process, instead coming up with seemingly logical reasons for why we make one decision over another.

How do emotions impact decisions?

What this means is that in order to improve our decision making within an organisation or indeed in any situation, we can benefit from a more conscious awareness of how our emotions are steering us. Generally speaking, we will prioritise decisions that are more likely to create positive emotions in us such as pride, happiness or satisfaction. Similarly, we may avoid decisions that are at risk of exposing us to negative emotions, such as shame, guilt, anger or fear.

The challenge is that there will inevitably be times where the more uncomfortable decision probably is the better one. This may stretch from strategic decisions on a high level all the way to the individual way a team member is treated.

An example

One of the things I hear most often from people is that they do not want to provide any feedback that might upset another person – because they don’t like confrontations. There are several things wrong with that scenario:

  • First of all, giving feedback should not be seen as a confrontation. With the right skills and the right framework in place, most feedback should end in a constructive and relatively positive discussion on what to improve (yes, there are exceptions, but that is a whole different kettle of fish)
  • Second, without appropriate feedback the individual is being cheated of their opportunity to improve. Basically, the leader in question has made the decision that this individual is not worth developing. This may happen in response to a belief that people cannot change – something that we now know is not true
  • Last, by not giving feedback, the organisation as a whole suffers. It is a crucial job role of a leader to set the example by constantly encouraging growth and development and by setting appropriate boundaries. Allowing a behaviour that is detrimental to others or to the organisational goals and objectives will long term drive a culture of low performance.

What’s next?

There is a real journey involved in becoming more focused on making decisions even when they incur negative emotions. Understanding the basis of where those negative emotions come from can help the leaders in the organisation position questions and challenges in such a way that the teams are more likely to stretch themselves and pursue decisions that have a higher risk of failure or of uncomfortable emotions. The key is that if we are not aware of what is going on, we cannot challenge perceptions and automatic responses. I like to use a veterinary term for these things: Diagnose first – THEN you can treat correctly.

Think of the organisation or the team as a mirror: There is a constant reflection that provides information about what the current culture is, what thinking patterns people are using, what filters are in play and what behaviour patterns are the most prevalent. When you analyse these reflections, you have the opportunity to clearly diagnose what the core problem is – and once you know that, you can start to change it into an opportunity for growth.


Picture by Yogendra Joshi: Through the crystal ball