How Leaders Can Balance Logic And Emotion To Make Better Decisions

The distinction between thought and feeling may be murkier than we imagine, limiting our decision making.

How Leaders Can Balance Logic And Emotion To Make Better Decisions
[Photo: life_in_a_pixel via Shutterstock]

You’ve already heard how emotional intelligence leads to success. And you may have figured out how to channel your emotions into productive uses at work and in high-stakes decision making.


But where does that leave logic? Perhaps a bigger challenge than making room for emotions in the workplace is knowing how to keep them in balance with rational thinking. If we can get that formula right, we may be able to make better decisions.

A Work Ethic That Doesn’t Work That Well

Implicitly or otherwise, the cultural legacy in the West of the “Protestant work ethic” continues to hold sway over corporate cultures into the 21st century. As sociologists have long noted, one of its key features is the exclusion of emotion as a frivolous distraction from the serious business of achievement.

We see this today in the popular drive to become more productive, rigorously track our performance, and adopt self-improvement plans. It’s all about optimizing outcomes through rational action. When they do play a role, emotions are usually made to operate within this system, rarely outside or even against it.

It’s hardly breaking news that this type of approach can be psychologically unhealthy and socially unproductive; more than a hundred years of psychology have taught us that. The fact remains that trying to subordinate our feelings to logic is a futile effort and a waste of a valuable resource–one that we’ve evolved over millions of years. Emotions exist for a reason, and to close them down is to close off our own potential.

“Mere” Feelings

People never entirely set aside their emotions, however hard they try. In fact, ignoring them means ignoring important problems that our supposedly rational strategies around productivity and engagement are designed to correct. We need to pay attention to what employees are feeling and how that affects their work. Boredom and anger in the workplace, for instance, aren’t just behavioral issues, and they can’t always be addressed through “reasonable” programs and policies.

What’s more, some of the things we take to be “mere” feelings and instincts–like empathy or intuition–are actually more complex mental processes. As Seth Godin points out, “Intuition isn’t guessing. It’s sophisticated pattern matching, honed over time.” In other words, there may be more (and better) reasons for leaders to trust their emotions than many of us might imagine. Those responses have a logic of their own and can tell a lot about the world. Following them can lead to great success.


By the same token, people admire great leaders for emotional reasons, even if they can also give rational reasons for supporting them. There simply isn’t the time (cognitively or temporally) to analyze everything a leader stands for and weigh up whether they’re worth following. Leaders model the emotions they want to inspire–showing their anger, kindness, or humor in order to bring those feelings out in others and form a bond.

Trust itself is hardly based on rational analysis alone. It’s largely about that emotional connection. Put simply, if you want people to follow your lead, you need to get them to feel like it.

Combining Logic And Emotion

This isn’t to say that you should give up on rationality and manage by whim–far from it. Anyone who’s ever gotten frustrated or fallen head over heels for somebody knows how swiftly emotions can lead us astray if we don’t stop to consider what they mean.

Say someone pitches you a project, and the pitch meeting makes you uncomfortable. That feeling means something, but you need to sort out where it comes from: Is it a sign of something amiss with the project, the presenter, or even you? Does it mean that you shouldn’t go ahead with this project? That the employee is in the wrong role? Or that deep down you know your own time would be better spent elsewhere?

It’s through this combination of logic and feelings that we can apply one of the most important factors in leadership–empathy for others. Empathy is all about recognizing feelings. Those feelings won’t always be productive, but when we understand them, we’re able to create a bond and think–rationally–about how to move ahead.

The mind is a powerful tool. Don’t let such a large part of it go to waste.

About the author

Mark Lukens is a founding partner of Method3, a global management consulting firm. He has 20-plus years of C-Level experience across multiple sectors including health care, education, government, and talent/human resources. In addition, Mark currently serves as Chairman of the Board for Behavioral Health Service North, a large behavioral health services provider in New York