People are systematically emotional and irrational. Now that I've read Thinking Fast and Slow by 2002 Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and taught its principles for years, I have come to that simple conclusion I did not learn in school.
So what? Leaders can't motivate people to make rational decisions until they acknowledge the murky and turbulent sea of emotions on which their rational minds are floating.
You can't begin to connect with others' emotions until you come to terms with your own. And the Covid-19 pandemic has most likely churned up new emotions and exacerbated ones that were around before March.
For example, you might be even more stressed out about your company's long-term future than before -- and depending on your industry, the problem could be a plunge in demand that threatens your remaining cash or a surge in orders that requires you to scramble to keep up.
At the same time, your new emotions could include the fear that your employees will contract Covid-19 and spread the disease to your employees, suppliers, partners, and customers. Depending on your age, you may be stressed out about your children's schooling and/or your parents' health.
Before you can put your mind to work solving these problems, you must face these so-called ambient emotions -- what the Wall Street Journal defines as background feelings that are now causing "a dramatic shift in the underlying moods of millions of people."
Here are four ways to turn the brain fog spurred by ambient emotions to clear-headed solutions to the problems to your business problems:
1. Rank your ambient emotions.
The first step is to rank your ambient emotions. The Journal proposed rating such emotions on a scale of 1 = never to 7 = constantly. And its report on how to avoid bad financial decisions listed three such ambient emotions: fear, anger, and sadness.
For business leaders I would add others, such as stress about cash collections and meeting financial obligations, dread of cost cutting needed to survive, worry about the health of your employees and their families; and for some, fear of missing out on growth opportunities. No doubt, you can add others.
Once you are done scoring these ambient emotions, one -- your primary ambient emotion -- is likely to get a much higher score than the rest. Conversely, some business leaders -- likely not in the majority -- may not assign high scores to any emotions.
2. Discuss your emotions with peers.
Many business leaders create peer information sharing forums -- and if you have not done so, the pandemic is a great reason to do so. Such forums engage you with other business leaders whom you respect and trust to share business challenges and discuss what has worked and has not worked in solving them.
If you have such a forum, share with your colleagues your primary ambient emotion. Ask whether any of your peers are feeling the same one. Listen to their descriptions of how the emotion is affecting how they think and act. Discover insights from your peers and accept that you are not alone.
3. Recognize how your emotion will skew your thinking.
Research suggests that different emotions are likely to skew your thinking in different ways.
For example, the Journal reported that Harvard professor Jennifer Lerner has found that people who feel fear about Covid-19 may behave in a more risk-averse manner in seemingly unrelated domains -- such as driving more slowly on the highway.
Interestingly, if sadness is your dominant emotion, you may be inclined to seek immediate gratification -- say, for acquiring goods or services -- rather than delaying the purchase in order to obtain a lower price.
The takeaway? Knowing how your primary ambient emotion affects the way you think will break the magic spell that the emotion casts on your ability to solve problems rationally.
4. Engage rationality to make the decision.
Once you have completed these three steps, your ambient emotions will still be there -- but you will have freed the rational part of your mind -- what Kahneman called System 2 -- to consider possible solutions, evaluate their costs and benefits, pick the best options, and gather the capital and human resources needed to turn your solutions into tangible results.
Of course, you should bring your leadership team into the process of formulating and implementing solutions. What's more, before you ask them to engage with you in solving your company's business problems, your people must go through the process of acknowledging their primary ambient emotions.
I wish I had learned this when I was in school. But now you can benefit from the insights that can diminish the emotional turmoil of the Covid-19 pandemic so your company can make the best decisions.