We think we are making rational decisions. We think we are – but are we?

I had a fascinating day to day brushing up my skills (thank you Emma Lloyd) and this resulted in some long conversations about the importance of values and limiting decisions.

This made me think about how much organisations neglect these issues in regard to their own employees. If you think about it, a business is only as good as the quality of the decisions that it makes. So although decision algorithms can be helpful, they are not responsible for the quality of the decision – and in any event, if an algorithm can answer the issue, why not just write a computer programme and dispense with human beings altogether – and obviously, I do not approve of that idea!

As far as our brains are concerned, decision-making is a behaviour that is governed by the limbic system, the reptilian brain; our behaviours are effected from this part of the brain.

And this part of our brain is very old indeed – and shared with animals too. Animals have very intense emotions, and these are part of their, and our, survival mechanisms. By having emotions, and by displaying emotions, we equip ourselves and others for dealing with events that present themselves. Often these were more useful back in “days of yore” when our lives were at risk on a day-to-day basis.

Now, it’s our jobs that are at risk, or maybe our homes, or our reputation, or our status and so on. So the emotions that we feel – that were there for our survival – are now being applied to events that are not exactly life threatening. And often we would like to have a different way of reacting, but sometimes they just seem so embedded.

As homo sapiens, we have developed a higher functioning part of our brains, the neo-cortex (the new brain) and here we are able to construct language. The neo- cortex is where we are able to think rationally – and, therefore, we are able to rationalise . These two – rational thinking and rationalising – are different. When we are rational we are applying logic; when we are rationalising we are fitting reality into our model, we find ways of making what we are thinking appear rational.

I’ll give you an example – have you  ever really wanted to buy something that was not necessary and maybe expensive, and really there was no rational reason for buying it – but you remembered that you have saved money on your other shopping bill, and so, you tell yourself, really you have that (saved) money to spend on something else. Or perhaps you have not wanted to go to work, and so you reminded yourself that you are feeling a bit off colour, and it would be unfair to infect everyone else in the office, so it would probably be best if you stayed at home.

Yep! Rationalising.

So how does any of this relate to decision-making?

Well, when we make a decision we do so by tuning into our emotions. Of course, it is possible to make decisions based entirely on logic – but almost every time we will override logic because “it feels wrong” “it doesn’t feel right”. Feelings- huh?

This is not, in itself, a bad thing. Our emotions do guide our behaviours and therefore our decision-making. However, we need to be aware of this, and how we maybe rationalising rather than applying pure logic. When you begin to review the decisions you are making you may notice this.

The thing is, if we are using our feelings in our decision-making at work, then do you think we should, maybe, learn more about the way negative emotions – our own “stuff” – can get in the way of making a good one? I think organisations may benefit from taking more time to consider the emotions behind decisions, and less time rationalising them.

And maybe, if we can lose the limiting decisions that we make because of emotional baggage we all carry around, we could find ourselves opening up our worlds to a whole heap of new possibilities and successes.

Just a thought.

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