A place for our emotions

Successful bosses must feel as well as think, for strategy stands a much better chance of success when managers' hearts are invested in the job. Feelings are not only a fact of life, but a factor in business; managers need to accommodate them.

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Mr Brown, I'm sorry. (No, not the chancellor but Richard Brown, managing partner of Cognosis Consulting.) When you called, as arranged, my response lacked a degree of courtesy, a certain, shall we say, finesse. Oh, all right. I was downright bloody rude. The thing is, I was tired and emotional - not, I hasten to add, 'tired and emotional' (it was in the morning). I mean, my feelings outran my rational self.

But stuff like this does happen. Our emotional and professional lives cannot always sit in separate boxes. Feelings are not only a fact of life, but a factor in business. The irony of my terse exchange with Brown is that he knows this better than almost anyone. Cognosis has just completed some research demonstrating that the success or failure of a business strategy depends significantly on the emotional engagement of employees - and, above all, of front-line managers. A strategy that delivers has to win hearts as well as heads. And the trouble is that only one in 20 managers strongly agree that their company's strategy is 'exciting' or 'inspiring'.

The under-performance of business strategies is well researched: one study found that on average a strategy delivers only about two-thirds of its potential value. The Cognosis work suggests most of the gap is emotional. Of course managers need to understand and agree with a strategy, but unless they feel it too, their behaviour is less likely to change.

Brown says - now via a trusted third party, a Switzerland sort of person - that strategies not only need to be intellectually sharp but to have an 'emotional edge' too and go 'beyond reason'. The point is not that feelings should supplant reason but support it. The Cognosis research also finds a strong link between emotional and rational buy-in to a strategy. This means that the process of strategy-creation within a firm is as important as the resulting strategy.

A proper evaluation of the role of emotion in business life is long overdue. At the moment, there is too little between hard-ass, focus-on-the-numbers, bottom-line, stiff-upper-lip strat egy and hug-a-tree, woe-is-me, executive coach-guided therapy sessions. This reflects a broader social challenge, which is puzzling thoughtful politicians too. Feelings - fear, confidence, hope, love or shame - are increasingly important factors in policy areas such as crime, enterprise, pensions, family formation and obesity. But the experts in Whitehall don't do emotion. Their intellectually rigorous policies are about 'rational' incentives, not emotional climate. We are overrun with think-tanks, although what we really need are feel-tanks, if that doen't sound a bit pervy.

The primacy of reason is, of course, the greatest blessing of the Enlightenment and the modern age. Blind faith and superstition have been driven out (of most of Europe at least). But it is a mixed blessing. It is not just that emotional life is as important as the life of the mind; it is that our brains don't operate in a strict binary fashion. Thoughts and feelings are intertwined. Cognitive therapy works, in part, by getting us to think differently about how we feel. But feeling differently about how we think - Brown calls it a 'whole mind' approach - is just as important.

Marcel Proust described emotions as 'upheavals of thought' and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum borrows the phrase for her 2001 book on the place of the emotions. Emotions, she says, have to be incorporated into any system of moral philosophy; they are 'not just the fuel that powers the mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts ... of this creature's reasoning itself.'

In business, there's good evidence that happier workers are more productive. Yet the real gain comes not just from people feeling good at work but feeling good about their work; and the way it fits into a broader institutional mission that they believe in. 'I want them to think: maybe it's time we thought again (and differently) about our process,' says Brown. 'How can we make it more up-close and personal, more enriching, more energising and engaging? How can we get some fun into it, for Chrissake! Who says strategy's got to be boring, formulaic, ritualistic?'

Brown wants CEOs to take the dryness out of strategy. As always, there's a grave danger of a good idea being drowned in 'manage-babble', the ghastly lexicon that seems to be pre-loaded onto PowerPoint software. Even Cognosis enthuses about the '14 Super-Engaging process drivers'. Still, the claim that 'emotion has an important role to play in strategic decision-making' is bold and true. The deeper challenge is what businesses can do differently. If they buy the analysis that good strategy needs 'emotional edge', how do they sharpen up their act?

There are some sober findings in the research; sober at least for anyone in HR. Employees are deeply sceptical about the value of HR departments, and less likely to engage with strategies emerging from under their banner. In many companies, the board creates the brilliant strategy and HR sells it to the organisation. This is quite wrong: managers have to be the internal salesforce for strategy. There is a good article in the Harvard Business Review - a rare occurrence these days - showing that unless a strategy is collectively owned, it will be shoddily delivered. After all, to err is human. Then again, to forgive is divine. So, Mr Brown, I think lunch is on me. Richard Reeves is director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail: richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk.

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