The Emotional Ignorance Trap
A manager lacking emotional intelligence is sure to make bad decisions. Here's how to regulate your feelings, no costly psychotherapy required
From Detroit to Wall Street to Silicon Valley, it seems that bad executive decisions have become the rule instead of the exception in today's corner offices. Shareholders, employees, politicians, and even managers themselves are asking why. What is the cause of all these bad decisions, and how can we start making good decisions again?
Bad managerial decisions do not stem from low intelligence. Bad decisions are not rooted in flawed logic, deficient math skills, a poor understanding of business trends, or any of the other usual suspects. Bad decisions result from emotional ignorance.
Over the last decade, TalentSmart industrial psychologists surveyed 6,000 board members, colleagues, and employees from a cross section of industries that included hospitals, tobacco companies, churches, and casinos. The key stakeholders of these organizations rated managers on 22 separate leadership skills, including such stalwarts as strategic thinking, focus on results, character, and the ability to communicate and articulate vision. Those managers considered good decision makers consistently score high on one skill in particular: emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence ratings tell us how well managers understand and regulate their own feelings as well as how skilled they are at reading and responding to the emotions of others. As it turns out, the nearly 70% of the leaders who were ranked highly in emotional intelligence were also among the most highly skilled decision makers. Overwhelmingly, it's the managers most adept at understanding how others influence their own emotional state—and who can take responsibility for their part in difficult situations and make the most of bad situations—who are capable of making sound decisions in a timely manner.
In contrast, can you guess how many of those with a poor grasp of their own emotions ranked among the most skilled decision makers? Zero. In fact, 69% of emotionally ignorant leaders ranked among the bottom 15% in decision-making skill. Those who fail to handle conflict effectively, refuse to shoulder responsibility for their actions, and remain unaware of their own fear, anger, or excitement are dreadfully inept at making decisions.
If emotional intelligence is so critical to a manager's ability to make good decisions, the next logical question is, how emotionally intelligent are most managers?
This is where the story takes a strange turn. In another study a few years ago, we measured the emotional intelligence of hundreds of thousands of workers from janitors to CEOs. We found that emotional intelligence rises steadily as people get promoted up the ranks into middle management. From there, however, emotional intelligence declines precipitously with every rung up the corporate ladder, finally bottoming out with CEOs.
So it seems the people least equipped to make good decisions are those we trust to make the most profound decisions. Perhaps this sheds some light on how so many of our businesses have ended up where they are today.
Fixing the problem requires that we first understand it. For so long, we have been taught to believe that decisions should be coldly logical. So we assume that emotions have no place in the decision-making process. We find evidence of this widespread, albeit erroneous, belief in the recent outpouring and popular acceptance of books and research detailing the many ways in which people make irrational decisions. The assumption is that if bad decisions result from illogical biases, then correcting those decisions is simply a matter of infusing more logic into the process.
But quirks in logic are merely symptoms of the real problem. The enduring misunderstanding of the deeper issue—emotions—is leading us down a dangerous rabbit hole in search of the wrong solutions. As long as managers continue to view decisions only in terms of logic (or lack of it), they will continue to look exclusively for left-brain solutions, all the while getting blindsided by unrecognized and unmanaged emotions.
The good news is that emotional ignorance is curable. It doesn't happen overnight, but it can be learned in three months with just a little focused effort. Here's how to get started.
1. Understand your emotions as they happen.
Take note of what you are feeling and doing as a situation unfolds so you can learn to harness your emotions in difficult situations. Remember that ignoring emotions doesn't make them magically disappear. Only now after the Wall Street crash are we finally hearing people talk about fear and panic. A year ago, nobody wanted to discuss anything except Fed policies and interest rates.
2. Step away from the emotional situation.
Keep your finger on the pulse of your emotions and know when to allow yourself the opportunity to step back from the situation. Once you get good at sniffing out your emotions as you feel them, evaluate them objectively. Try picturing the current situation in your head as if it were happening to someone else. What would you recommend that someone else do to create the best results?
3. Prepare yourself for feelings of uncertainty.
By definition, every choice you make depends on your estimation of uncertain outcomes. For nearly everyone, that uncertainty feels uncomfortable, so expect some anxiety to accompany decisions. Anticipate it and prepare yourself for it by talking through your thoughts and feelings with a third party who may not be as closely involved with the situation. Then, accept the fact that you may not have complete control over the outcome, but you can control your reaction to it.
Remind yourself to practice Step 1 every day for one month. Set a reminder on your calendar or jot down "Understand your emotions as they happen" on a sticky note and post it on your bathroom mirror. At the end of the first 30 days, switch the reminder to say "Step away from the emotional situation," and add Step 2 to your routine. And at the beginning of the third month, change the reminder to "Prepare yourself for feelings of uncertainty," and incorporate Step 3 into your practice.
Once you've mastered the three steps, you're on the path to making decisions you can celebrate, not regret.
Nick Tasler is the director of research and development for TalentSmart, a global think tank and consultancy that serves more than 75% of Fortune 500 corporations. He's the author of The Impulse Factor: An Innovative Approach to Better Decision Making. Lac D. Su is TalentSmart's director of strategic alliances and contributor to the Emotional Intelligence Appraisal 2.0 (May, 2009).