How Emotions are a Competitive Advantage

Shhhhh.  There’s a secret that many highly intelligent people have in common, but rarely talk about: analysis paralysis.  

…Like the talented job seeker who has 5 great job offers in front of them, but doesn’t know how to choose.  The entrepreneur who has a dozen great business ideas, but doesn’t know where to start.  Or the CEO who isn’t sure which of 3 directions to take the company.  

In situations like this, we’re trained to believe that “If only I could be more rational, then I’d make better decisions.”  Mainstream thinking says that true professionals can’t bring their emotions into the workplace.  And women in particular often feel that they need to tamp down their emotions to succeed in the workplace.  But this couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Effective decision making can’t happen without the context that the emotional brain provides. 

Enter neuroscience.  Neuroscientists have been holding onto a little known secret for at least the past two decades: that emotions are the key to successful planning and decision making.*  

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s patient “Elliott” is a case in point.  Elliott was a successful business person and model family man who went in for surgery to remove a tumor.  As a result of the surgery, Eliott lost his orbitofrontal cortex — the part of the brain the connects the ‘higher' brain with emotions (in the ‘lower’ reptilian and mammal brains).  Elliott became a real life Mr. Spock.  His IQ remained in the superior range.  But instead of making him the perfect decision making machine, he became paralyzed by indecision.  Without the input of emotions, he was unable to make even the simplest decisions.  His life fell apart — he could no longer recognize priorities, he lost all of his savings in a series of remarkably poor business decisions, and his wife and children left him.  

If neuroscientists have been wise to the impact that emotions have on our decision making, why is this still surprising to the general public?  Namely because this outdated idea is based on the faulty assumption that emotions can be successfully suppressed.  But neuroscientists have long disproven this.  Dr. Daniel Wegner, for example, has found that when people push away thoughts and feelings, this often backfires and leads to these thoughts and emotions coming back with even greater intensity.  And some researchers believe that emotional suppression is why many people with PTSD struggle with so many painful thoughts and emotions. 

There's a world of difference between seeing what our emotions have to tell us versus being a slave to them.  When we are a slave to our emotions, we lose our moorings and get washed out to sea with them.  But when we give ourselves permission to sit with our emotions long enough to feel them, it’s not only relaxing because we no longer have to spend energy fending off emotions, more importantly we can see what wisdom they have to tell us.  This is when emotions become a competitive advantage. 

Next time you find yourself in analysis paralysis, use your emotions to your advantage in decision making by checking in with your emotions to narrow down your options.  In the “7 plus or minus 2 rule” which says that the human mind can only hold 5 to 9 pieces of information at once, use your emotions to help you filter out options that don’t resonate with you, and to ultimately get out of analysis paralysis. The best professionals are able to embody their decision making with the best of their emotions and reason.  


* Ironically, artificial Intelligence researchers have also found that emotions enhance decision making.  In highly complex decision making scenarios where it's hard to “compute” a rational optimal long-run answer (e.g., where there’s no obvious wrong answer, and there’s a lot of uncertainty), they’ve found that when emotions are followed, decision makers are guided to the optimal solution.  For more, see the scholarly research from Harvard: