The Role of Emotions in Leadership Decisions

“Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to become angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy.” Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 330 BC

Aristotle was a student of Plato, and his primary disagreement with him was his respect for emotions. Unlike Plato, he realized that rationality wasn’t always in conflict with emotion. Instead, Aristotle argued that one of the critical functions of the rational soul was to make sure that emotions were intelligently applied to the real world.

Yet, we continually discount emotions when we weigh data, correlate statistics and use results from customer surveys and focus groups. Many companies rely on surveys and focus groups to make product and marketing decisions. Without careful consideration of context, they may miss making the best decisions.

The problems of focus groups are well documented. Jonah Lehrer writes about them in his book How We Decide. It’s why some televisions shows don’t make it to the networks. Seinfeld tested poorly, as did The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Hill Street Blues.

Focus groups are a crude instrument to measure audience responses because people express their feelings, but they don’t explain them. Data is recorded based on impulsive feelings with all the usual flaws of the emotional brain.

Executives have to sort through the data and make qualitative decisions using contextual information. You can’t rely on emotional data and obey it blindly.

Sorting data and making sense of it is what the prefrontal cortex does well. The audience in a focus group is like our emotional brain, constantly sending out visceral signals about it’s likes and dislikes. The prefrontal cortex, also called the executive brain, is like a smart TV network executive, patiently monitoring emotional reactions and deciding which to take seriously.

Rationality can work to save us from impulse decisions based on negative feelings that aren’t justified. But relying exclusively on rational thought can easily backfire. When the rational brain takes over, people tend to make all sorts of decision-making mistakes.

They ignore the wisdom of their emotions, and start basing their arguments on things they can explain rationally, like survey data (without considering that customers respond to them emotionally.)

One of the problems is that even when our feelings are accurate, they can be hard to articulate. So instead of going with an argument that feels best, we go with one that sounds reasonable.

What’s been your experience with making decisions based on data from surveys and focus groups?

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