Leadership’s Achilles Heel: Managing Emotion in Decision-Making

One only has to look at the news to see the challenge leaders face in unifying their organizations while dealing with the emotional reaction of stakeholders who feel they are ignored or left out in the decision making process. Prime Minister Theresa May’s struggle to unify her country in light of the pending vote on Brexit is a telling example. While 51.9 percent of those who voted supported withdrawal in 2016, an agreement of the terms of the split is causing pandemonium, causing May to delay the vote on the agreement. This raises all kinds of issues including whether Brexit should or will happen. Most of us wouldn’t want to trade places with her right now!

Are Our Companies Any Different?

In the past three weeks I have worked with clients in various stages of strategic development and implementation. No matter how much effort and discussion goes into helping people understand the implication of making a strategic choice, when it is time for the rubber to meet the road, there is push back. The first decision is usually more data driven. The push back is emotional.

It happens because decisions feel abstract at the time they are made

Implementation, when the change driven by the decision is identified, becomes personal. While people may buy-in to the decision for all of the right reasons, they don’t want to change those things they have historically valued or relied on as “the way to do something”.  It is human nature.  A recent Harvard Business Review article, titled Unite Your Senior Team, had this to say:

“In confronting disruptive change, the heart of the challenge is a human one.  Leaders understand that they must allocate human and financial resources to new growth efforts or face a future in which start-ups and other rivals overtake them. Yet they are often paralyzed by the status quo and disagreement about the future.

Leaders know that that the world doesn’t stand still and that what used to work isn’t what will work now. Unfortunately, their constituencies who have grown accustomed to it, have come to believe it is “right” and in some cases “the best or only way” to do something.  

I have been donating my time to anon-profit this year to help them turn around their downward trajectory. We have deployed a data-driven and inclusive process that yielded recommendations that required the organization to let go of some of their past traditions while embracing new growth opportunities. So much has changed since they were founded 40+ years ago—new technology, new science, new value systems, and generational differences. However, as the clarity of the specific recommendations have come to light there is a very outspoken, even if small, group that believes these recommendations are wrong because they require them to change philosophies they have long valued. They want to save the organization without changing it. This organization is breaking over the weight and depth of emotion tied to maintaining the status quo.  

So what can you do as leaders to head this off?

1.      Do your homework. Find out the hot buttons most likely to erupt and the people most likely to push back. By doing this ahead of time, you can develop a process that tries to address concerns while building in group commitments along the way, making it more difficult for one person or a small group to undermine the process at the end. Work to build consensus—until you can’t. If there is someone in the crowd that is unreasonable and divisive, take action.  At some point the greater good needs to be considered.

2.      Recognize that emotions are a necessary part of decision-making. As leaders we have to appeal to them as much as to the rationale thought behind our business strategy and strategic initiatives. The case has to be clear. Data needs to be persuasive. Benefits need to be defined.

 3.      Think ahead to implementation.  Often times, push back happens when people don’t understand the implications of their strategic decisions. They think it all makes sense until they understand the specific change that is required to implement it. I strongly encourage leaders to think ahead to the implementation scenarios and discuss what will be different if the decision is made.

Literally, have a two-column chart of “before” and “after”. How will this decision change our culture, our investments, our technology priorities, our hiring policy, our interaction with customers, etc. Document what the new world will look like at the time of the decision to try to minimize the surprise felt later when stakeholders realize the implications of what they agreed to.

I have another client who is doing just that—taking time to process their future world under two possible strategic scenarios. They are moving slowly in part because the group couldn’t agree initially and they realize there is a lot at stake. Because they want everyone on board at the end, they are charting two scenarios, which are quite different and figuring out how living under each would guide their future. It is not about WHAT the company does but HOW the company approaches each activity—like product development or customer service or even pricing. As a result of clarifying it up front, there will be less opportunity for wiggle room when the implementation phase comes around.

Does your organization experience this problem? How have you solved it in the past? What do you see as a viable way to unite factions that disagree over significant decisions? Let’s start a discussion.

Start Scaling Your Business Now

Contact Breakthrough Masters For a Consultation