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The million-dollar blunder:

Why leaders need to tame impulses and embrace reality when making decisions

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June 3, 2024

A headline reads: “Leader makes rash decision, jury judgment in the millions.”

It’s not a fictional story – it’s a facsimile of a real-life example of how a single, impulsive choice by a leader can have devastating consequences.

This isn’t just a cautionary tale for the C-suite – it’s a reminder that good decision-making is a critical skill for anyone in a leadership position.

Making decisions isn’t just about saying “yes” or “no.”

It’s about navigating a complex landscape of information, emotions and potential outcomes. Think about it: We make an estimated 33,000 to 35,000 decisions every day.

These range from the mundane – which outfit to wear? to life-changing – should we fire that employee? 

The key to making sound choices lies in mastering two crucial aspects of emotional intelligence (EQ):

  • Reality testing: This is the ability to step back and assess a situation objectively, separating your perception from the facts.
  • Impulse control: It’s the power to pause, take a breath and consider the consequences before reacting on emotion.

Let’s unpack these superpowers and see how they play out in real-world leadership scenarios.

The reality check: Seeing beyond your biases

Imagine you’re a manager, and an employee files a complaint about you.

Emotions can easily cloud your judgment.

Here’s how reality testing can help:

  • The impulsive reaction: You see the complaint as a personal attack and decide to fire the employee immediately.
  • The reality check reaction: You take a step back. Is the employee truly underperforming and deserving of losing their job, or are they voicing a legitimate concern? Was there a lack of communication on your part? By objectively assessing the situation, you can make a more informed decision. 

This ties back to a concept called confirmation bias.

Our brains naturally seek out information confirming our existing beliefs.

The manager in our example might only focus on details that paint the employee in a bad light, neglecting any potential explanations for their behavior.

A reality check forces you to consider all angles before concluding.

Similar scenarios are often the basis of sessions with my clients.

Someone lodges an aggressive complaint in a meeting and the leader is caught off guard. They’re not sure how to respond.

Some hit the pause button.

Others don’t.

Our work is on how to best respond the next time.

Beyond the complaint: Avoiding the promotion pitfall

Reality testing isn’t just about reacting defensively – it’s also about avoiding snap judgments based on positive emotions.

For example:

  • The feel-good scenario: An employee nominates you for “Manager of the Year.” Feeling flattered, you’re instantly inclined to promote them to an open leadership role.
  • The reality check: You pause and consider: Have they consistently met their performance goals? Is this a genuine high-performer, or are they simply trying to curry favor after a rough patch? By taking a breath and looking at the bigger picture, you ensure your decision is based on merit, not fleeting emotions.

Taming the impulse: Why patience is a leader’s virtue

Impulse control is another crucial aspect of sound decision-making.

We’ve all had those moments where anger or excitement leads us to say or do something we later regret.

Leaders, however, need to be able to manage these impulses, especially in high-pressure situations. 

Here’s some tips on how to do that:

  • The interview trap: You interview a candidate and feel an instant connection. They seem like a great fit, and you’re tempted to offer them the job on the spot.
  • The controlled response: You hold off on the immediate offer. Do their skills and experience truly align with the job requirements? Taking the time to objectively evaluate the candidate could prevent a costly hiring mistake down the road.

Beyond the interview: Avoiding the ‘Full Moon Friday the 13th’ fiasco

Let’s face it, everyone has bad days.

You know those days when everything seems to go wrong and all you want to do is walk out? Impulse control helps you resist the urge to make rash decisions on these days.

  • The emotional escape: You’re having a terrible day and impulsively decide to quit your job. The relief of escape feels tempting.
  • The controlled response: You step back and take a deep breath. Is this truly the best solution? Consider the long-term consequences of such a decision. What are some other ways the problems could be addressed or avoided in the future?

Leaders need to be aware of their emotional state and recognize when their “fight or flight” response is kicking in.

Impulse control allows you to make well-considered choices, even when faced with overwhelming emotions.

Emotions: Friend or foe?

We are emotional beings.

Emotions aren’t inherently bad – in fact, some emotions can be incredibly helpful in making decisions.

The key is to understand which emotions are your allies and which ones can lead you astray. 

A few helpful feelings for decision-making:

  • curiosity
  • interested
  • engaged
  • safe
  • optimistic

A few feelings that might get in the way:

  • anger
  • suspicious
  • resistant
  • stressed
  • confused 

So, how do we harness the power of emotions while avoiding their pitfalls?

By embracing the two pillars of emotional intelligence – reality testing and impulse control.

These superpowers allow leaders to step back, assess situations objectively and make choices based on facts, not fleeting emotions.

Remember, emotions are neither inherently good nor bad.

Curiosity, interest and optimism can guide us toward sound decisions.

However, anger, suspicion and stress can cloud our judgment and lead to costly mistakes.

By recognizing our emotional state and utilizing reality testing and impulse control, we can become leaders who navigate uncertainty with wisdom and lead their teams toward success.

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