Feelings are a fact

March 30, 2009 · Print this post

Rita McGrath has a spot-on take on why we should not separate feelings from business — because, well, we can’t. Our brains are hardwired for emotion as well as thought, and although we can hide our feelings if we must, we can’t keep ourselves from having them. Feelings exist: they are as much a fact of any situation as any other data.

You’ll never succeed arguing substance when the real problem is a problem of emotional meaning.
— Rita McGrath, “AIG: Why the Facts Don’t Matter

At least one commenter takes McGrath to task for advocating “spin doctoring.” I understand that concern, but I don’t see her post that way. Reframing a situation to examine a different perspective is an essential leadership skill, in my opinion. Leaders have to be able to do it to make good decisions, and to make their thinking transparent to others. Just make sure you’re offering a different perspective rather than telling someone why their perspective is wrong. That may seem like a subtle difference, but we all know it when we hear it. And if we’re being told our feelings are wrong, we stop listening.

Your job as a manager and leader is to keep people engaged. If you don’t listen, you’re automatically disenfranchising people who may be offering you valuable information, albeit wrapped up in angry words. I’m willing to bet that someone at AIG heard about this bonus plan and questioned the decision. Probably in emotional terms: that will really upset people, or that feels unfair. And now AIG executives are learning the hard way that an emotional response to a decision is sometimes a more powerful force than all the “spin” in the world.

Does that mean that if someone’s upset by a decision, you as a manager should reverse course? Does everyone always have to feel good about everything? No, of course not. But don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that feelings don’t matter; and when you must make an unpopular decision, get as much input from as many stakeholders as possible ahead of time. Listen to the feelings. If you can demonstrate that you’ve heard people, and taken their reaction into account, then they are generally more willing to accept that they aren’t necessarily going to get the response they were asking for. That’s what she’s suggesting President Obama could have done, and I think she’s right.

It can be scary to be confronted by other people’s feelings. Take a breath. Model the behavior that you want to see. And remember that it’s fine to set guidelines around expression — yelling, throwing things, and sabotaging work aren’t okay ways for grownups to behave in the workplace — but do not try to legislate the feelings themselves. Remember the last time someone told you that you were overreacting? Did it help you calm down? Well, there you go. Angry, frightened or offended people want to be heard. So listen to them.

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