Thrive Space Blog

Emotions and Decision-Making


In the words of Herbert Simon, “In order to have anything like a complete theory of rationality, we have to understand what role emotion plays in it.” Emotion and cognition are very closely intertwined: they are like the two sides of the same coin.

Dennis likes to remind us that our emotions are like the dashboard lights on our car. For example, when the “check engine” light comes on, we have several possible reactions. We can ignore the light, yell at the light, blame the light on our partner next to us, cover the light with black tape, or smash the light with a hammer.

The most appropriate response is to pull over, open the hood, and examine the engine for a possible cause for the light. That is also a good way to lower the noise emotions cause us – physically, mentally, and relationally – so we can hear and understand their origin and respond to them in healthy ways. That examination also helps us see how our emotions affect our decisions, moving us toward beneficial or harmful outcomes.

As we raise the hood of our hearts to see what’s happening, we know that our emotions rise from three realities: our expectations, our needs, and our perceptions. When our expectations and needs are met, we have satisfying emotions; when they are not, we have difficult emotions. The closer to the truth, our perceptions move, the wiser our response can be.

Last month we discussed why decision-making could be complex and challenging by addressing several hidden traps and biases we often encounter. These are often intertwined with our emotions surrounding the context and expected outcomes of our decisions. 

In our podcast this month, we highlight the work of Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, who helps us understand how our emotions work in parallel with our thinking to guide us to balanced decisions. 

In her Harvard Business Review article, Emotions Aren’t the Enemy of Good Decision-Making, Einhorn writes a “process is as simple as taking the time to identify 1) the emotions you feel as you face your decision, and 2) the emotions you want to feel as you’re looking at your decision in the rearview mirror. What do you see? How is your life better for a satisfying decision outcome?”

Einhorn offers a four-step exercise:

  1. Identify the decision you need to make. This often involves sorting conflicting information as well as our feelings. 
  2. Identify how you feel about the decision you have to make. What are the feelings based on? What expectations, needs, or perceptions are driving them? How much are they influencing you?
  3. Visualize yourself after the decision and how it feels. Where will the decision take you? Where will you be emotionally as you live with the consequences of your choices?
  4. Apply the emotional bookends: How do you feel about making the decision, and how do you imagine you will feel after the decision is made? Did you identify the right decision? Are you aware of the influence of your emotions?

“Emotional bookending helps you name and tolerate your emotions, instead of burying them or running away from them, so that you can better identify — and make — the real decision, the right decision to help you move into your future with clarity and confidence.”

Aaron Hurst, an expert on the science of purpose and fulfillment at work, provides an additional perspective on how we handle our information and ideas: 

“The new best-selling book Think Again, from organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant, calls on all of us to apply the scientific method when we take positions and make decisions. ‘Treat your emerging view as a hunch or a hypothesis and test it with data,’ Grant instructs. 

But what does this mean for business? 

As Grant notes, entrepreneurs and leaders are typically celebrated ‘for being strong-minded and clear-sighted. They’re supposed to be paragons of conviction: decisive and certain.’ But research shows that those who are willing to test out their assumptions, change their minds, and pivot from their original plans are far more successful. In one study, startups that engaged in scientific thinking pulled in more than 40 times as much revenue as their counterparts.”

Dennis and I use these ideas to help you navigate your decision-making process. We envision ourselves as the Harbor Pilots for your leadership team. We can help you steer you around the traps, avoid the issues that will damage you or others, and move your company to thrive. 

If you haven’t had a chance to listen to our latest podcast, you can check it out here:

For the Heart of Your Business!


Q&A for this topic:

  1. How do you respond to the dashboard lights of your emotions?
  2. Are you aware of how your emotions affect your decision-making process?
  3. How can you leverage what you care about and avoid biases?
  4. How would a mentor and a leadership coach support your decisions?