Emotional Bias: Your Brain Is Not In Control (And What To Do About It)

A (Short) Story

A long time ago, I had a meeting with my boss and the chief architect of the project we were working on.  I was the project manager, and the subject of the meeting was how to finalize some decisions that had been up in the air for a while (too long, in my opinion, of course).

The meeting did not go well.  I was furious with my colleague and showed it (and said it).  Decisions weren’t made.  The architect stormed out.

As I got up to leave, my boss said: “I knew you were going to do that.  I could tell, the moment you sat down”.

At the time, I was shocked.  What had he seen?   Was I that obvious?   I thought I had gone into the meeting with the simple notion that we should make some decisions quickly.   Apparently, things were a bit more complicated.

Emotional Bias

The emotions we are feeling at any given time (our “affect”), have a strong impact on what we do: what we say, what we decide. 

If we’re happy while we’re making a decision, we’ll tend to take some time over the process, look at the information and be more informed.  If we’re angry, we’ll move quickly, skip over information and look for closure.

“…pleased subjects tended to employ a more elaborate and time consuming decision strategy because they framed the decision task as “cognitive play”. Less leased subjects, on the other hand, framed the same decision situation as a necessity that they had to get rid of.” Reference.

(This does get complicated: some kinds of “happiness” – excitement, anticipation as opposed to feeling “pleasurable”  – cause us to make decisions quickly but sloppily.  Humans are subtle beings)

If we’re angry when we’re considering whether or not to continue a failing project, we’re more likely to support it.  If we’re fearful, we’re more likely to cancel it because we just want to get away from it.

“It isn’t unusual to see a manager keep plugging away at a project that isn’t producing positive results, but few would guess that anger may be at the heart of that behavior” Reference.

Needlesstosay, if we’re already angry at somebody we’re about to have a meeting with, and we remain unaware of that anger, it’s pretty likely that the agenda for the meeting with move from whatever the business considerations are, to expressing that anger.

And bear in mind that our emotional state is visible.  As soon as the subject of our emotional state (whether positive or negative) starts to figure it out – and they will, from the way we’re sitting, from the tone of our voice, from the timing of our responses – their agenda for the meeting will change, too: to defending against anger, or being pleased with our apparent happiness, or attempting to alleviate our disinterest.

Yes, This Happens In Technical Discussions

One of the places where an emotional bias is often trickiest to work with is in technical discussions.   Technical people, particularly brilliant technical people, are usually under the impression that they deal strictly in the rational – in argument and evidence.

But even the best technical people are people first.  When they’re relaxed, they’ll be open to discussion and alternatives.  When they’re fearful or upset, particularly if they feel that an approach they are attached to is likely to be changed, the conversation will be much more closed, and even confrontative.

What To Do: Awareness of Your “Going In Position” Is Critical

As always with work in Emotional Intelligence (which is what this is), awareness is a critical first step.

Before you go into a meeting, pick up the phone, or even start an email, try the following.

  1. Take a pause.  Just stop.  For a minute.  Sit still with your spine straight and take five slow, deep breaths.
  2. Check your body: your chest, your shoulders and back particularly.  Your emotions show in your body first.  If you’re tense, there is certainly some fear and possibly some irritation and anger there.
  3. Check your mood:  very simply, is it positive, or negative?
  4. Check your thoughts: “I love this team and everything they do?”  “I wish I didn’t have to talk to Sam?”  “My boss doesn’t pay attention to me?”.  What comes up?

Your body, mood and thoughts make up your “going in position”.  Not the list of rational arguments you want to make, but the frame with which you will deal with the interaction.

Checking of the above takes two minutes, and you can practice it daily. Simply by being aware, you are open some space to have a different approach, and you may find that your “going in” affect will change.

If you want to look at changing your “going in position”, you can try:

  1. Thinking of somewhere you are calm and peaceful.  Just imagine yourself sitting there for a short time.
  2. Challenging your thoughts: “My boss doesn’t pay attention to me” can become “I would like to discover what my boss thinks about when I am giving presentations – I’ll find a way to ask him”.
  3. Stretch.  Get out of your chair and stretch yourself upwards.  Simple, easy.  Do it a couple of times.

There are plenty of others.  But try these, and you’ll be ahead of the game.

Yeah, Yeah.  Soft Stuff.  Not Going to Do That

Here’s the reason to do it: we think we’re objective.  But we’re not.

By learning to pay attention to our moods, our thought streams and our bodies, we can loosen the hold that emotion has in swaying our judgement and our compassion.

Good, compassionate judgement.  Seems like a good goal for any leader.  Certainly, many years ago, had I stopped to check myself before stepping into that meeting, our project would have moved forward, I wouldn’t have felt stupid, and our chief architect might have felt I had a little less to learn about being a mature manager.


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