In humans, irrational behaviour is perceived to arise from autonomously elicited emotional reactions in the face of challenging and stressful circumstances. Project management practitioners are often required to make difficult decisions in such circumstancesand are subject to internal and external emotional turmoil on a frequent basis. It must be realized that, while irrational is not a synonym for emotional, they are often, in language and culture, these two words, in fact, have very different meanings. Irrational is something that is not logical or reasonable while emotion is a natural instinctive state of the mind that derives from moods, circumstances, and relationships.
Emotional intelligence, in layman’s terms, means the ability to acquire knowledge of self and others’ emotions, and to apply this knowledge for self- and situational improvement, which includes improved decision making. At its core, emotional intelligence is emotional enlightenment.
Being emotionally “intelligent,” in the same vein, refers to the ability to vary one’s emotional state and subsequent actions in response to varying situations, varying requirements, and experience.
Classically, emotional intelligence is defined by Goleman (2004) as the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in both ourselves and others. Emotional intelligence, as opposed to inflexible rationalism, can be a tool for leveraging and regulating the automatic emotional upheaval in the face of a challenge for an effective decision-making process, and thereby effective leadership.
A purely rational decision, theoretically, is supposed to consider only the hard facts, discounting all emotion. Does this mean 100% rational, fact-based decision making? Is such a thing possible? In many cases, one does not have—or cannot procure—all the relevant facts, and yet, an impactful decision is expected in the face of uncertainty.
An emotionally intelligent decision considers the available facts with evidence first, and elements of emotional reactions second, to arrive at a decision. In such a decision, the emotional reactions of one’s self and other stakeholders are evaluated and investigated in situational context before the decision is made.
Evolution has bequeathed human brains with pathways that force us, mostly subconsciously, to evaluate facts in a “personal subjective reality,” which is informed by previously accumulated personal experiences in similar situations. We always attempt to look at a new uncertainty through our lens of previous experiences—this, by itself, inherently “colours” us with some element of a preconceived notion. Whether it is right or wrong for the issue at hand depends on our understanding of the context.
Thus, per the above theory, we humans carry a lot of assumptions about a lot of situations and uncertainties in our minds. The roots of these subconscious assumptions can be divided into two main categories—heuristics and emotional tags.
Heuristics are subconscious mental connections that allow people to make fast, short-term judgments. Psychologist Herbert Simon propounded the theory of “bounded rationality,” which postulates that during decision making, human rationality is limited. The theory states that a fully rational decision cannot be made due to inherent limitations of cognition, problem tractability, and time. Instead, the human mind, more than often, makes a satisfactory decision rather than an optimal one. This is known as “satisficing.” Heuristics enable this process of satisficing by making a fast, but at times, less than optimal decision.
Systematic errors in decision making that result from heuristics are known as cognitive biases. The mental processing of new evidence is not a simple step of input of information, objective logical processing, and rational output. Instead, the new information or evidence is passed through the heuristic lens and undergoes subjective processing based on the individual’s own experiences and interactions. Bias is a certain bent of decision due to heuristics. A biased decision, more often than not, is an incorrect decision.
The process by which emotional information attaches itself to thoughts and experiences stored in our memories is known as emotional tagging (Campbell, Whitehead, & Finkelstein, 2009). This, along with assumptions based on experience(s) that are stored in the memory as heuristic patterns, in large part, govern the action to be contemplated in the face of uncertainty. The interplay between the two also, by reflex, happens instantaneously. Heuristics and emotional tags together form the foundation of “bias.”
For a project management practitioner, on whom it is incumbent to regularly make decisions in challenging situations, the knowledge of these biases and their fallacies can be of great importance, not only to check self-biases, but also to understand stakeholder behaviours and inclinations. On a personal level, the project professional must overcome distorting attachments, self-interest, and misleading memories (Campbell, Whitehead, & Finkelstein, 2009). Despite personal inclinations, the project leader must consider team perspectives and deal with a set of group constraints to ensure success. The key is to take a step back in the face of a challenging circumstance and survey for objectivity, perceived objectivity, and subjectivity of the situation (for one’s self and stakeholders).
The act of stopping to think is governed in the background, and sometimes in the foreground, by risk attitude. Risk attitude is defined as the state of mind or chosen response to uncertainty influenced by perception (Hillson, & Murray-Webster, 2006). Risk attitudes differ from domain to domain, and do not exclusively derive themselves from the specific traits of the person (Weber, Blais, & Betz, 2002). The situational context, past experiences, risk appetite, and personality together contribute in varying degrees to a risk-based decision, and the difference in risk attitude is in part due to perception of situational risk, which in turn may be informed by heuristics.
It is incumbent on the project leader to consider multiple risk factors before making any critical decision. The accuracy and effectiveness of such a risk-based decision, in many ways, depends on the level of emotional maturity of the decision maker. Emotional literacy baselines and/or autocorrects the risk perception, thereby allowing the leader to take a well-rounded and balanced decision. Subconscious bias, in the form of emotional tags and heuristic patterns, automatically contributes to risk perception and is a major part of the immediate perception of uncertainty (Campbell, Whitehead, & Finkelstein, 2009). Instead of giving in to instinct, an emotionally enlightened project manager practices a certain level of self-management, self-regulation, and empathic behaviour to preclude a rash decision (see sidebar).
Enterprise risk attitudes are macro-organizational outlooks in the face of uncertainty, which are only one of the many feeders into the project manager’s own risk response and situational decision-making process. The attitude or perceived attitude of superiors for the challenge at hand, along with the distilled perception of risk, decides the stance taken by the decision maker in the face of uncertainty. Individualized flow of risk-based decision makingconsiders the rational and emotionally intelligent decision-making approaches in the context of risk and its perception.
Project managers are frequently exposed to situations where mistakes in risk-benefit decision making could have severe consequences. Many times, the easiest path is to be risk averse, but often options exist to take a mature, risk-neutral decision to maximize the opportunity of the situation.
Risk-based thinking integrated with emotional intelligence provides a structure to help analyse judgment in such scenarios. Successful project leadership relies on the manager’s ability to take emotionally intelligent decisions by weighing in on the situational risk and aligning risk perceptions. A large part of this includes self-awareness, self-management, and self-regulation of perspectives through open-loop feedback.
The interaction of emotional intelligence, decision making, and risk management is a complicated subject, but it is one that has significant potential to contribute to enhancing project leadership effectiveness. Emotionally intelligent transformational leaders have greater resistance to subconscious-bias-based decisions and unmanaged emotional risk attitudes. By practicing self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy, one can recognize and understand gaps in the decision-making process and enable oneself to take balanced, risk-based decisions. The key to risk-based, emotionally intelligent behaviour is to engender awareness of thought, choice, and mental and material consequences.
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