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Why leaders need to recognise the power of emotion

Updated: May 4, 2020

Way back in 1974 at the University of Essex, I studied a first-year programme: The Enlightenment – the Age of Reason. I did the bare minimum for a pass mark, and now regret my youthful indolence. Why? I’d have realised sooner the massive influence the Age had on our philosophy, thinking, business life, and how we try to influence and persuade others.

We assume if we present a logical argument, people will rationally think through their reaction and respond accordingly. But they don’t. As Drew Westen The Political Brain points out:

When reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins...Emotions not only provide much of the fuel that fires up our engines. They also provide most of the brake fluid.

He’s talking about political decision making, but he could just as easily be talking about how people respond to leaders at work.

Westen presents evidence that it’s not just unsophisticated thinkers who rely on emotions to guide their decisions and reactions – far from it. Sophisticated political thinkers develop complex rationalisations for dismissing data they don’t want to believe.

An experiment to test this showed that people who supported capital punishment and those who didn’t, when presented with evidence contrary to their views, only increased their dogmatic support for their original view.

Well, our thinking doesn't magically become rational when we go to work.

Yet many leaders persist with logical arguments for business initiatives. Why? Maybe it’s just too risky to rely on emotion and abandon the data, forecasts, and logic. And yet the rational evidence (can you see the irony here?) about how our brains work is compelling. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex part of our brain is turned on when we consciously think and weigh up evidence. But this brain part isn’t typically open for business when we’re thinking about things that matter to us—such as, are we likely to have a job as result of a restructure? What will our new team be like?

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex plays a crucial role linking thought and emotions. And it has dense neural networks. It’s active when we’re weighing up emotional issues: things that really matter to us. So if you want votes, play to people’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex. And if you want to get people to follow your lead, do the same.

Let’s go a step further. Political leaders paint a portrait of themselves and then hopefully act in line with the portrait. Well, business leaders can learn a lesson from successful political leaders.

Westen points to John Kerry’s 2004 presidential election campaign. (Yes, I know he lost.) But his early, and successful, election adverts were about him and his life. Kerry's advisors interviewed him, his family, his associates, and former military comrades in depth. The best stories, the crucial moments and the memories of specific incidents were all in the detail. They painted the picture of a person who appealed to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

One former soldier who served under Kerry said, “The decisions that he made saved our lives. He had unfailing instinct and unchallengeable leadership. This is a good American.” Pretty stirring stuff. His campaign changed tack after a while and this approach was dropped.

So why don’t business leaders learn from this? Why not tell their story and connect emotionally? Why not reach the ventromedial prefrontal cortex? Maybe it’s seen as too risky – a bit flaky even.

But don’t forget Goffee and Jones Why should anyone be led by you?

Leadership begins with you – and you will not be a leader unless you have some sense of who you are. Your colleagues – potential followers – have a simple but basic need: they want to be led by a person...First, to be a leader, you must be yourself.


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