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How to Get Past Emotional Bias to Make Better Decisions

Erik Larson Aug 21, 2015 3:18:38 PM

Emotions are the two-edged sword of decision making. They help us get what we want, and they hold us back. Sometimes following our gut is a source of genius, but most often it’s a terrible strategy. To make high quality decisions, we have to use emotions when they are useful, and set them aside when they’re not the right tool for the job.

When we make a decision, our emotions give us shortcuts by summing up a huge amount of information into simple feelings. That is why our gut instincts, when correct, are so powerful. This is extremely useful when we have to decide quickly, and especially if we have a lot of experience with a decision. But in business, we usually have days, weeks or even months to make decisions, and our decisions are complex enough that even roughly similar decisions are actually quite different from each other. In business, emotional shortcuts often lead us astray.

Emotions, like blinders on a racehorse, also focus our attention. When we’re excited, we ignore risks and fixate on opportunity. When we’re stressed, we fixate on risks and ignore opportunity. This is useful when making challenging decisions that involve extremely large risks, or long-term decisions that require extreme persistence. But in business, we work in teams of people with diverse views, and we get paid to take calculated risks. In business, emotional blinders often keep us in dark.

These biases cause obvious problems for personal decisions – shortcuts lead us off the track and blinders hide the best choices from us. But businesses usually make decisions in team settings, and that is where things can really go off the rails.

That is because these emotional biases are easy to see in other people, but unfortunately almost impossible to see in ourselves. Think about how it feels when you talk to a person who is afraid of a decision. They sound...afraid. A little fear, and they seem hesitant and uncertain. A lot of fear, and they seem rash and impulsive.

Now think how it feels when we are afraid of a decision. It’s a different story. A little fear, and we think we are just being prudent. A lot of fear, and we are tackling an important crisis.

emperorSo with a team decision, everyone around the table sees the biases in their teammates, but ignores their own biases. Getting past disagreements and building buy-in is tough when people stop listening because they think they are the only ones seeing things clearly. Increase the level of stress in the group, and this gets even worse. In the extreme, everyone thinks they’re the only genius in a room full of idiots, and nothing gets done. Just look at Congress for a painful example.

The truth is that we are all biased. We are all like the emperor who wore no clothes, only our own brains are the ones ignoring our bare bums, which are exposed for everyone to see. So when you find yourself feeling like the only one in the room with a clear view of the decision, make an extra effort to step into the shoes of those around you. Besides building trust and understanding, it’s guaranteed to reveal new opportunities that your shortcuts missed, and important risks that your blinders blocked.

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