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  • Writer's pictureFred Petito

5 Strategies to Manage the Influence of Emotions on Leadership Decision-Making

Emotions are so complicated that scientists struggle to define them. The role emotions play in decision-making is even more difficult to understand. While decision-making is often thought of as a rational process, the fact is that emotions play a significant role in shaping our decisions.

The influence of emotions on our decisions is not limited to our personal lives; emotions play a big part in shaping executive decision-making. While the thought of emotions swaying one’s business judgment may alarm some, the good news is that our understanding of how emotion impacts decision-making has evolved considerably in recent years. While the science is not definitive, evidenced-based principles explaining the relationship between emotions and judgment as well as guidelines on how to reduce the harmful (or harness the beneficial) effects emotions have on our decision-making exist.

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Five Ways Emotions Shape Executive Decision-Making

  1. Emotions Related to the Topic at Hand Shape Decision-Making: While this seems obvious, what’s not so obvious is that the influence of emotions on our decisions oftentimes operates on a subconscious level. For example, an executive who is feeling anxious about the risks associated with a pending deal may be swayed by one or more cognitive biases that only cause to elevate their anxiety. For instance, they may be overemphasizing one data point about the deal (anchoring bias) because that data is easy to recognize and understand (saliency effect). What’s so stealthy about these biases, and the emotions they activate, is that they largely occur subconsciously and are very difficult to discern, hence the biased decisions they frequently cause.

  2. Incidental Emotions Influence Decision-Making: One of my doctoral professors used to joke that before making a big decision you should do something that makes you angry. Seems like an odd suggestion, but there’s science behind this method. Researchers have found that emotions from one setting (for example, arguing with your spouse or partner) carry forward and influence your disposition, thoughts, and behaviors in unrelated situations. Specifically, people in good moods approaching a big decision are more likely to make optimistic assumptions, whereas people in bad moods are more likely to make pessimistic assumptions increasing the likelihood they will assess the decision with more scrutiny and take a harder negotiating position. Similar to cognitive biases, the carryover of incidental emotions typically occurs without awareness.

  3. Emotions Shape Decisions via the Depth of Thought: Emotions also influence how deeply people think about the decisions they make. Negative emotions (anger, anxiety, frustration) will likely trigger increased vigilance and a higher level of risk aversion. Whereas positive emotions (happiness, interest, excitement) will likely trigger a more superficial and simplified decision-making process and a greater likelihood of taking on more risks.

  4. Emotions Related to Expected Outcomes Shape Decisions: Emotions experienced in anticipation of an expected outcome of a decision can have a strong influence on the direction a decision-maker will take when forming judgments. Often these anticipatory emotions are based on prior experiences or experiences with situations that are similar to the decision at hand.

  5. Emotions Determine What We Pay Attention to When Deciding: People tend to pay attention to some things while ignoring others. This attention bias is often influenced by our emotions. For instance, a decision-maker who is anxious will be motivated to reduce uncertainty and eliminate the things that cause them discomfort. Similarly, a decision-maker who is angry will narrow their attention such that current feelings, thoughts, and impulses will be given extra weight, whereas future goals, ambitions, or plans will seem less consequential. In both instances, these decision-makers will be guided by a more targeted consideration of alternatives to address their dominant emotional state.

How Emotions Show Up in Executive Decision-Making

Bias and Subjectivity: Emotions can introduce biases and subjectivity into decision-making. Certain emotions, such as fear or anger, can lead to hasty or impulsive decisions, while positive emotions may cloud judgment and lead to overly optimistic assessments. Recognizing and managing these biases is crucial for executives to make objective and rational decisions.

Risk Assessment and Risk Tolerance: Emotions can impact executives’ perception of and evaluation of risks. Emotional states can influence the perception of probabilities and potential outcomes, leading to variations in risk assessments.

Group Dynamics: Emotions affect individual decision-making as well as interactions within teams. Executives must consider the emotions and motivations of team members when making decisions that involve collaboration and consensus-building. Emotionally intelligent leaders can navigate and manage these dynamics effectively.

Ethical Considerations: Emotions can also impact ethical decision-making. Emotions like guilt, empathy, or moral outrage can influence executives’ choices when faced with ethical dilemmas. These emotional responses can guide decisions that align with personal values or a sense of social responsibility.


Five Strategies to Reduce the Effects of Emotions on Decision-Making

Consider how emotions show up in your everyday life and how they affect your decision-making. With greater self-awareness and a more intentional mindset, you may be able to harness and transform your emotions to improve your performance and the quality of your decisions. Here are five practices that can help.

  1. Slow Down: This is one of the simplest and most effective strategies for minimizing the impact emotions have on your decisions. This is easier said than done, however, since the purpose of emotions is to stimulate a behavioral response. That said, most emotions are short-lived so waiting them out will serve decision-makers well.

  2. Check Your Instincts: While our intuition can be a great asset, especially when assessing and avoiding danger, following them slavishly is a game of chance. Over time our minds have learned to simplify the world around us to process the overwhelming volume of stimuli we experience at any given moment. This serves us well most of the time but can steer us wrong in situations that are unfamiliar to us. So while it may be safe to rely on your intuition in situations where you have skill and experience, avoid them in situations where you have limited experience or where there are too many unknowns to account for when making a decision (e.g., investing or gambling).

  3. Reframe the Emotions About the Decision: This strategy involves reappraising the emotions that are influencing your thoughts and feelings about a decision. Examples of this include reminding oneself about the broader context of the decision. For example, the gravity of the decision may not be as serious as your emotions are leading you to believe. Similarly, reevaluating the worst-case scenario if the decision doesn’t go well is an effective reframing strategy. Often the worst case is not nearly as bad as our emotions would lead us to believe. Both approaches increase one’s objectivity about the decision and minimize the effects of emotions on one’s judgment.

  4. Narrow Your Options: This approach minimizes the impact of the well-known paradox of choice where the more options people are presented with make their decision-making more difficult due to the overwhelm they experience. Narrowing your options will not only save a lot of stress, but the research also says you’ll be happier with the choice you’ve made.

  5. Be Your Own Choice Architect: Choice architecture is the practice of designing the way choices are presented to simplify and improve the quality of decisions. An example of choice architecture is where a decision-maker lists the pros and cons of multiple options, identifies the key variables that need to be considered regarding the decision, and then ranks each option on those variables. In this way, the decision-maker minimizes the influence of emotions and improves the quality of their decision.


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