How Emotions Shape Decision-Making

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Many people I work with ask the question, “Don’t emotions interfere with good decision-making?”  

There is little disagreement that effective decision-making is one of the most important tasks we must master to achieve success in every part of life.

If we were to take a survey in the average workplace to poll what people believed was most needed for effective decision-making, which of these do you think would top the list?

  • Factual information?
  • Risk assessment?
  • Clear thinking?
  • Limited emotional interference?

If you chose the last item, I’d like you to reconsider.

In his book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (first published in 1994)  one of the world’s top neuroscientists, Antonio Damasio, profiled his patient, Elliott, one of his most well-known cases.  Formerly a successful businessman, model father and husband, Elliott suffered from ventromedial frontal lobe damage as a result of a tumor and subsequent surgery for removal.

Following his operation, Elliot dispassionately reported to Damasio that his life was falling apart.  While still in the 97th percentile for IQ, Elliot lacked all motivation. His marriage collapsed as did each new business he started.  Damasio found Elliott an “uninvolved spectator” in his own life, “He was always controlled. 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.”

It was clear to Damasio that as a result of his surgery, Elliot was incapable of making decisions“Elliott emerged as a man with a normal intellect who was unable to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social matters.” Even small decisions were fraught with endless deliberation: making an appointment took 30 minutes, choosing where to eat lunch took all afternoon, even deciding which color pen to use to fill out office forms was a chore.  Turns out Elliott’s lack of emotion paralyzed his decision-making.

In the preface to the 2005 edition of Descartes Error, Damasio wrote, Today this idea [that emotion assists the reasoning process] does not cause any raised eyebrows. However, while this idea may not raise any eyebrows today among neuroscientists, I believe it’s still a surprise to the general public.  We’re trained to regard emotions as irrational impulses that are likely to lead us astray.  When we describe someone as “emotional,” it’s usually a criticism that suggests that they lack good judgment.  And the most logical and intelligent figures in popular culture are those who exert the greatest control over their emotions–or who seem to feel no emotions at all.”

Although neuroscience has built a strong body of evidence over twenty-five years to demonstrate the inextricable link between reason, emotion and decision-making most of mainstream culture still doesn’t get it.  Continue reading

To Change Behavior, Change Your Focus

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Recently, one of our clients, the president and CEO of a mid-size company, sent me an email after participating in a development group with his senior leadership team that was focused  on collaboration and emotional intelligence.

His message went something like this, “ A situation came up at work where I had the opportunity to put into practice some of the information we discussed and realized how hard it is to change and break old habits.  He also asked a question that many clients ask –  how do I remember to remember these things that we’re talking about?”   Essentially the question becomes –  how do I become more  conscious of my intentions and my behavior?

It got me thinking about how easy it is to become captive to our internal narratives and reflexive in our behavior.  The question compelled  me to go deeper into what it is I do as a  coach to support  people to break through habituated, unproductive behavior

Two  important influences on behavior are the areas of language and attention – how we describe our experience is indicative of the focus of our attention.  As a coach one of my goals is to share my thoughts in a language that help clients focus their attention and makes connections with new ways of thinking that align with their desired outcomes.

Being able to hold on to new information and learning requires attention and consistency. Having a “container” for new information is essential. One of the most promising “tools” for increasing our capacity to strengthen habits of attention and consistency is mindfulness.  Insights from neuroscience also have the potential to expand the container, while at the same time, bridging psychological explanations for human behavior with a scientific basis. According to Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, “Strengthening attention helps you let go of stressful circumstances because the brain economizes our circuits. Being compelled to pay attention to your emotions is the opposite of being able to choose where you put your attention.”  Continue reading

5 Things Leaders Are Not Taught Pt 1

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Recently, a participant in one of my seminars excitedly exclaimed to one of his colleagues, This stuff is great…we should have learned this ten years ago!”

He was referring to our discussion on some fundamental communication processes that underlie all human transactions occurring in the workplace, or for that matter, in all aspects of our lives.

In Part 1, I’ll focus on the first three as steps to enlightened leadership.

  • Reflective Consciousness
  • Thinking
  • Responsive Listening
  • Mindfulness Practice
  • Assertiveness

If you’ve been to leadership seminars in the past, some of these topics may look familiar, but they’re rarely explored in the depth needed to engage the complexity of human behavior in today’s workplace.

  • Reflective Consciousness

Being conscious is more than just being awake and aware of yourself and your surroundings. It  involves a deeper level of knowing and is one of the foundations of emotional intelligence.  It’s the ability, or if you prefer, competency – to bear witness to your experience in the moment.

In my work with senior level leaders, the one skill that is often missing in their leadership “tool” box is reflective consciousness. – the ability to be tuned into their own thoughts, feelings and behaviors in the moment.

For many of these leaders their successes often comes at a high cost, usually in the form of chronic stress.  While they are typically highly proficient in their area of expertise, they often are less comfortable and familiar with their own internal processes.   Without a commitment to deepen self-knowledge, these leaders tend to rely on fixed behavioral strategies and often feel frustrated when confronted with resistance from others.

Because self-knowledge can never be “mastered,” enlightened leaders understand that the commitment to inner learning is continuous. They also realize that a crucial pathway in the learning process comes through engaged commitment to relationships.

Increasingly, self-awareness is being recognized as the key element necessary for effective leadership.  A survey from the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council rated self-awareness as the most important capability for leaders to develop. The authors of this study concluded that self-awareness is the inevitable starting point for managing one’s psychological preferences. Without it, executives will struggle to evolve or find coping strategies.  Continue reading

Habits: Motivation Gets You Moving: Habit Gets You Where You Want to Go

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Habit formation is like acting on automatic pilot. It is so woven into the fabric of our behavior we don’t even stop to think that we’re on automatic pilot. We just keep on doing. Continue reading

Mindful Awareness: An Opportunity For Choice And Change

Jim, a recently promoted millennial, has just finished his first one-on-one meeting with Anita – an older, long-time employee and team leader on an important project.

Walking back to his office, Jim’s thoughts flash back to the meeting with Anita and how badly he responded to some of her questions. Although aware of the way he handled himself, the more attention he gives to his behavior –  which he feels could be seen as defensive and condescending  – the deeper his feelings of regret and guilt.  He knows that he has a past history of defensive behavior when he gets emotionally triggered and he feels bad about leaving such a harsh impression with a new colleague.

How can Jim use mindfulness practice to overcome these traits and eliminate the unproductive consequences? Just being aware of his behavior is not mindfulness. Mindful awareness is more than just being aware. Continue reading