Leadership and Power

Brain Facts

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Emotions and commitment




Emotional tags are not only relevant for accessing memory. We also need emotions to commit to a decision. We need commitment to act. We need confidence that we are doing the right thing and the energy to see us through setbacks and difficulties. Hence we generate additional emotions in the act of deciding. Consider:

Question: Five birds are sitting on a log. Two decide to fly away. How many are left? The answer three probably comes to mind.

The correct answer, however, is five. Two birds decided to fly away. That doesnt mean they actually did.

This riddle was a favorite of managers in the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), a large UK bank, after its takeover of National Westminster Bank (Nat West) in 2000. The RBS managers felt that an important reason for their company's success was its bias for action. They analyze a problem, quickly push to make a decision, and then move swiftly to execution. To RBS, analysis paralysis is a worse sin than acting quickly on a decision, even if the action needs to be adjusted later or has to be abandoned altogether. RBS managers used the riddle to encourage the Nat West people to make decisions and take actions. They wanted Nat West managers to understand that agreement on a choice is not enough to guarantee implementation. Action is required and action requires emotional commitment.xii

Emotions that trigger action do not come only from the emotional tags we already have. The process of deciding can generate its own emotions. As we get excited about a decision, we tag it with additional positive emotions. As we get reinforcement that we have made the right decision, stronger emotional tags are generated. This is probably what was behind General Browning's seemingly incomprehensible rejection of important intelligence. His commitment to the Arnhem plan had become so great that any threat to the plan generated a negative emotion. To avoid the negative emotion that would come from accepting the intelligence, his brain would have volunteered the idea that the intelligence might be wrong. This interpretation would have been tagged with a positive emotion because it supported the plan. In looking for reasons why the intelligence might be flawed, he would have looked for confirmatory evidence. Perhaps he noticed the intelligence officer's tired looking eyes, and built further positive emotions around his interpretation. Researchers have a label for this kind of mental process - cognitive dissonance. Once we have made a judgment, we embrace confirming information and discount disconfirming information. We do this by giving confirming information a positive emotional tag and disconfirming information a negative tag. The result is that our mental processes give more weight to the confirming information.

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