“Come on Liane…executives don’t talk about emotions around the boardroom table!” asserted an incredulous member of a team I was working with recently. We were in the midst of a very uncomfortable and intense conversation about an issue that had been surfacing and resurfacing without being resolved.

I was encouraging the team to stop glossing over the emotional aspect of the issue, to lean into it, and to resolve it once and for all. The conversation was difficult and exceptionally valuable.

The Need to Bring Emotions into the Equation

If you question the role of emotion in the boardroom, consider three reasons why making emotions transparent is the responsible, grown up, leaderly thing to do.

First; emotions ARE in the equation. If your team is comprised of humans, emotions are affecting the decisions you make.  Even after someone asserts in a booming voice “Let’s take the emotions out of it,” the emotions are still in it. (Actually, that line tends to make people defensive and only amplifies the emotional component of the issue.) At no point on the corporate hierarchy do you turn in your membership in the human race or eject the emotional centers of your brain.

Second; attempts to stifle or suppress the emotional aspects of an issue don’t work very well.  Facts get skewed to support undisclosed emotional biases. Passive-aggression builds and contributes to mistrust among team members. Eventually emotions boil over and someone starts yelling or crying and damages (sometimes irreparably) their brand within the team.

Third: emotions are the clues to a deeper and even more important layer that affects decision making: motives, values, and beliefs.  You are likely unaware of how your values and motives are affecting your thinking and your behavior, but rest assured that they are. Emotions are triggered when values are violated. By exploring the emotional issues, you get access to the critical information about the values and motives driving decision making.

Three Benefits of Validating the Emotional Data in Your Decision Making

Great individuals and great teams treat the emotional aspects of a decision as data, distinct, but equally as valid as the intellectual facts. The benefits of validating and working with emotional data alongside intellectual data are numerous. Here are my top three:

  1. Dealing with emotions improves decision making. You are subject to profound biases in how you make decisions. From the most basic attentional biases to the most subtle prejudices, your decisions are impacted by how you feel. By making the emotional aspects of a decision explicit, you can choose how to weigh those factors and actively balance them with the logical facts in the case. Exposing the emotions increases your ability to control their impact.
  2. Dealing with emotions explicitly makes things faster. You might think that dragging emotions into an argument will slow you down. On the contrary, if you think of the issues that your team has been revisiting over and over without resolution (sometimes for years), you will find that they are the ones with emotional subtext that has never been addressed. Exploring the issue fully (both intellectually and emotionally) will get you to a much faster resolution.
  3. Getting emotional issues on the table strengthens trust. When emotions skew decision making, it creates confusion and suspicion on your team. It’s clear to everyone that something doesn’t compute (your behavior or your position doesn’t jive with the facts) but there isn’t sufficient information about the source of the disconnect. In the absence of the emotional data, teammates ascribe all sorts of unsavory motives for your behavior. The result is that trust erodes and the team starts to come apart.

If you’re ready for the era of high performing teams, you better be ready for the uncomfortable, messy, complex world of emotions. What you’ll find is that validating emotional data reduces the discomfort and complexity and puts your team in a position to work with a complete set of information required to make a good decision. In my next post, I’ll share some step by step instructions on how to bring emotional data into your team decision making.

Am I promoting leadership heresy? Emotions in the boardroom!!! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Further Reading

Dealing with Negative Emotions

Crying at Work

When Conflict Gets Emotional

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