Episteme

Mike's random thoughts and ramblings

Emotions in Business (or why I'm annoyed today)

Update: Some thought that I was a little harsh in this one - it wasn't intentional. Some language has been cleaned up to make my meaning more clear.

Mea culpa - I don't blog enough. Both McKeay and JJ have given me a hard time about it. But here's the problem - much like Tom Peters says in one of his books, I often can't write unless I'm pissed off. I wrote Parachute because I was frustrated about the way the people around me were allowing the world and circumstances to direct their career rather than taking control. I'm writing a book on social engineering because I'm sick of the lack of seriousness that our industry gives the threat of our people - we pay lip service to it, but we really haven't figured out how bad it is.

Lately, though, I just haven't had time to be pissed off about anything outside of my narrowly focused task list, which has lead to no blog posts.

Until I read Jennifer Leggio's new blog post about the TV show Dexter (Disclaimer: I've never seen the show). Actually, it wasn't the whole post that got me so worked up (I really did like the the post itself). There was one paragraph that set me off on a bit of a rant:

"Dexter Morgan refers to himself as a “monster without feelings” at times. While he might be a little too hard on himself (as well all tend to be) he has mastered the practice of keeping emotions out of his decision making most of the time. As a matter of fact, I believe his ability to stave off feelings in his “business”-oriented thought processes directly support his ability to be precise. Dexter does not allow himself to be swayed by insecurity or guilt. He does not act out rashly toward people because he is having a bad day. He does not project his own self-assessed inadequacies onto other people. He is a beacon of assuredness who lives by a rule that his darkest emotions and actions stay hidden in the presence of others (unless you’re a murderer who has escaped the clutches of the police)."

Most people would read that and ask: "Why, Mike, would that get you so riled up?"

Because I took it to its extreme - and it set me off about all of the times I have heard in my life about the importance of separating our emotions from our work. We can't separate out our emotions. It doesn't work like that. WE don't work like that. It might work like that on television, but one who is able to portray truly cold detachment would be, at the very least, severely handicapped in their decision-making.

Neuroscience shows that our brain CAN'T separate out emotion. We may think we're being "detached" from our emotions, but without our emotions, we are physically unable to make a decision. When the emotional center of the brain (the amygdala) is disrupted, people are unable to make intelligent decisions. To quote Dr. Antoine Bechara (from this article: "[People with amygdala damage] are oblivious to any consequence that the action may have in the future".

I always find it frustrating that we (in Western society) often glorify the idea of making decisions from a "detached" place, as though Mr. Spock (of Star Trek fame) would be somehow the ideal decision-maker. I notice that these appeals often look to fictional characters as the example - the reason for this is that we don't often find that sociopaths actually make particularly interesting case studies of success.

Because, in real life, we're unable to separate emotion from decision - it's hard-wired as part of our minds. Rather than spending so much time preaching "detachment" and "rationality", we need to focus on looking at the benefit that the intelligent use of emotions brings: we are unable to make good decisions without that emotional content. Decision-making from cold rationality leads to the type of choices that we see in "Dexter" - the brutal slaying of people because of some "cost-benefit analysis".

The focus needs to be on how to best use our emotions to assist in the decision-making process, not to "detach" from them. Goleman's books are brilliant introductions to methods for using our emotions in positive ways. More and more researchers are looking for ways that the mind and the emotions work together to make smart decisions.

Back to the original point: where would we be without the inspirational effect that the emotions bring? It is rare that we think of the creative process as one that is "detached" from emotions. Rarely do we rationally create new work.

What it comes down to is that sometimes it takes getting pissed off. Or happy. Or joyful and silly. And those are the things that bring us to make good decisions. Emotional detachment isn't the ideal - it's the enemy.

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Michael Murray

Michael Murray