Integrating emotion and cognition to make better decisions

Whilst emotions are frequently inadvertently shown in body language, facial expression, or behaviour in a work context they are rarely called out and brought into the discussion. Their role remains the elephant in the room. This means that they are often left out of decision-making. This article explores whether emotions might be the missing link to enhance decision-making and elevate performance.

This article explores whether emotions might be the missing link to enhance decision-making and elevate performance.

Emotions determine the destination

Though much of the practical steps that take place to achieve a goal or complete a big project are in the thinking and logical space, emotions are the book ends.

It is our emotions that provide the motivation for setting a goal. They provide the fuel to get us going. It may be short-term fuel, like excitement, curiosity or even fear. Or be driven by the desire to feel a certain way in the future, on completion of the goal, like pride, contentment, or liberation.

Therefore, emotions play a pivotal role in the decision-making around goal setting. Once the goal is set, the project is in action, more often than not the focus switches and our emotions take a back seat. What is their role in the implementation phase?

Emotions taking a backseat

Inevitably a key component of the implementation of any goal or project is decision-making. Performance is contingent on the quality of the aggregation of decisions made from the start to finish of the project.

Balancing the pros and cons is a common approach to solve decisions. Different opinions are sought often through group practices like brainstorming and review processes. This is mainly kept at a ‘thinking’ and logical level.

Many of us, though, have a feeling about a decision. How many times have you heard someone say, ‘I had a feeling it would turn out that way?’ Even when emotions are discussed, often it is at a surface level and if it goes against the grain of the logical thinking it is disregarded. The disregard is somewhat supported by the somatic marker hypothesis which proposed that our bodies influence decision-making by sending signals of feelings to the brain. These signals are often regarded as biasing our decision-making, hence supporting the sticking to the logic. The speed of disregard though means that information that could aid decision-making may be being lost without establishing whether it provided insight or bias.

But emotions will remain at play; it is just that their role is covert in the process. For example, on occasions, when an influential individual has a strong feeling, this often drives the decisions with the collective view and logic given less weight. The problem is that the stage of talking about the feeling, establishing what is driving it and considering it relative to other evidence is often missed. This is akin to emotions being a backseat driver, they are influencing the decision in a directive manner without discussion and due consideration.

Emotions as the navigator

One of the practical challenges is in integrating the information obtained from thoughts and feelings. Psychologists are challenged by this too with some seeing emotion and cognition as part of an integrated process and others viewing them as two distinct processes.

Essentially though in a decision-making context, both cognition and emotions are different types of information processing with distinct functions. Emotions provide motivation, inform how we communicate and help us to regulate through sending signals. Cognition provides knowledge, how we learn, memorise, apply logic, and hold attention. Though distinct functions, the integration of the information from the two processes enables more effective decision-making. They are a partnership in driving decisions, like a navigator is to a driver. 

The challenge in practice with emotions is our personal attachment to them. When someone shares a thought, it comes readily with rationale that enables others to consider its place in the decision-making process. Sharing a feeling though is inherently less rationale, the source of the feeling is within the subconscious and therefore, a clear rationale is not easily accessible. It feels more personal, and we feel more self-conscious in sharing the information.

Talking it through, like we do in coaching, in a safe space with curious questioning would enable the source of the feeling to be brought to the surface, uncovering an experience or insight from the subconscious. Once uncovered it provides new information which can be added to the decision-making process.

Putting it into practice

There are a number of components needed to put this into action in practice.

Firstly, it is about redefining our relationship with our emotions and essentially becoming less “emotional” about our emotions. Just like our thoughts, they provide information and insight, which is useful in a work and leadership context to inform day to day decisions. Emotions tell us how we feel, they are not part of who we are. If we hold them more lightly it enables us to talk about them openly and more objectively.

Secondly, having the language to express how we feel. There are differing levels of emotional literacy and sometimes we just can’t find the word to explain how we feel. Emotion wheels are great tools to generate ideas and discussion around emotions.

Finally, practice. Learning to use emotions in this way requires practice and on an individual level coaching provides an ideal safe space for this. Leaders can role-model this practice with their teams and encourage exploration of thoughts and feelings in relation to decisions. Simply opening up the dialogue by asking colleagues how they are feeling about the decision provides the opportunity to bring missing pieces of the jigsaw into the discussion for objective consideration in the decision-making process.

Richer information + Deeper insight = Better Decisions = Elevated Performance

Emotion sitting in the front seat navigating alongside cognition will provide richer and deeper information to enhance decision-making.

Interested in learning more?

At Elevate BC, we offer emotions coaching to support individuals in enhancing their performance through deepening emotional awareness, connection and enhancing decision-making. We also offer tailored training for groups and teams. Contact [email protected]

References: Elizabeth A. Lemerise & William F. Arsenio (2000) An integrated model of emotion process and cognition in social information processing

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