Thought Leadership

Taking Control: Mastering Emotions When Making Decisions

By Karen Cates, PhD

We make very different choices depending on what takes the dominant role in decision-making: the head or the heart. Behavioral economists have long relished exposing our illogic when it comes to expressing preferences among hiring candidates, making selections among product options, or estimating the likelihood of succeeding in a given task.

These researchers often reveal emotional biases or traps: we have a tendency to hire people like us, choose products that are red and overestimate our ability to achieve. They seem to be saying, look how wrong you can be when your feelings disconnect you from the pure logic of decision-making! And then there are the folks who know how to influence your decisions by subtly manipulating your feelings.

It’s time to learn some methods for taking control and improving our track records when it comes to thinking vs. feeling in decision-making:

  1. Visualization: At your next meeting, try to imagine yourself seated in the rafters, watching the interaction play out below you. By literally rising above the conversation, you can take a more objective view of the discussion and the decisions that need to be made. Who is there, and what are their interests? Are they leaning into the conversation or away from it? What are they saying? Are you getting the information you need to make a decision? Visualizing the entire meeting from a third-party perspective helps you suspend the temptation to make emotional decisions. You can process what is being said more objectively and make adjustments to your own input during the discussion to create opportunities for a favorable outcome.
  2. Delay: Decisions made in the heat of the moment often are dominated by the heart, not the head. When you are tempted to make an immediate decision in a charged situation, find a way to delay. In their classic Getting to Yes, Fisher and Ury suggest “going to the balcony.” By taking a break, you give your head time to catch up with your heart. Delay can also help thwart first-impression influencers. Some folks talk a good game during an interview, for example, but may not have the depth of experience needed to do the job. For those who feel pressured to say “yes” and need to learn to say “no,” delay can buy time to consult a calendar and find the words to let others down gently.
  3. Deflate Strong Emotions: Sometimes visualization and delay won’t help you get over your eagerness to please, your anxiety over making the right choice or your desire to even the score with a rival. These strong emotions can lead to sub-par decisions. This last suggestion is for those who are willing to try something a little bit outside the norm. Seasoned meditators engage strong emotions by sitting with them and feeling them manifest in every part of their body. By objectifying the feeling, the meditator experiences it more as a physical sensation and less as an emotion, and gradually the emotion loses its power. Deflating emotions takes practice. But, with practice comes awareness and perspective.
Emotions play an important role in many situations, not the least of which include creating important bonds with people we trust at work or with family and friends. For executives, leading with head or heart can become a decision in itself. The important thing is to do so with purpose. When strong feelings arise, notice them and decide what type of role they should play. Developing tools to achieve perspective can elevate your decision-making and shift control from automatic feelings to more purposeful processes that lead to more reasoned outcomes.

Karen Cates has been teaching at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University since 1994. For nine years, she taught Negotiations, Human Resource Management, and Organization Behavior courses to MBA and Executive MBA students. As a lecturer in executive programs over the past 15 years, she has developed programming and consulted with client companies (domestic and global) around issues of organization alignment, leadership development, communication, strategic planning, and employee relations. She is currently an Academic Director in Kellogg Executive Education's Energizing People for Performance program.

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