The Alternative to Heart

With a title like Leading from the Heart, one might want to ask “what’s the alternative?” In fact, there are only two places to work from for a human: the head or the heart.

When we are in our head, we are looking at the world through the lens of thought. It is rational, logical, and analytical. When making a decision in the head, I analyze all the variables relevant to the question I’m considering and then choose an option based on a logical assessment of those variables.

For example, I am taking a trip to Manhattan for a meeting near Grand Central Station, and I need a hotel. I want to be within walking distance, so I decide that I will look at price, location, and guest ratings. I look at those variables and choose a hotel with the highest average rating in my price range that is within a two block walk of my meeting location.

In this example, I decide what my decision will be based on some factors that I can consider in my mind. My decision is not influenced by how I feel about the hotel brand I picked or the neighborhood where the hotel is located.

If, on the other hand, I really love when I stay at Sheraton hotels, then I might pick a hotel just based on the name. I’ve never been to Manhattan and there is no objective reason for staying at a Sheraton—but I have had positive experiences at Sheratons in other places and so I just pick the nearest one and book it.

In the first example, I can explain in facts why I picked my hotel: It was in my price range, had good user reviews, and was only two blocks from the meeting location. In the second example, the explanation for my choice is simply that I like Sheraton, for reasons I can’t explain. It’s just a hotel that I feel good about.

At work, we have come to idealize the head-based approach. We value being analytical and using facts to defend our decisions. This is a perfectly normal way to manage operations of any organization. I have two vendors offering me identical widgets, but one is offering a better price and a quicker delivery time. In all other variables, they are basically the same. The rational choice is to go with lower cost and faster delivery (presuming that early delivery does not otherwise cause a different problem, e.g., needing to storage space, etc.).

If, on the other hand, I feel strongly that I have to pick one vendor over the other, and have no basis in logic to explain why I feel that way, then my heart is attempting to influence the decision. It’s basically tugging at my shirtsleeves and trying to get me to make a different decision despite what my head is telling me.

In this situation, we can go with the rational choice (decision made in our head), go with the feeling choice (decision made in our heart), or, as sometimes happens, go with the heart choice but come up with a rational, head-based explanation for our choice.

This third option, making a heart choice but explaining it as a head choice, is perhaps the most dangerous, because it’s dishonest. It is, however, the most common way that heart-based decision making is getting done in organizations today. The tyranny of the head has driven heart-based decision making underground, so people find data to support the decision that they want to make, oftentimes unconscious that their decision is emanating from the heart. Everyone feels safer this way, as some of the accountability for the decision is moved from the individual to the data.1

To illustrate the different approaches to decision making, I have to turn to a political organization, where a current example was easier to find. Former DNC chair Donna Brazile recently wrote a book about the 2016 presidential campaign in which she observed that the Clinton campaign manager and his team was data obsessed and didn’t know how voters actually felt. They thought they could win by being in their heads instead of actually listening to what was in peoples hearts. Brazile, by being in the field and talking to people, concluded that the Clinton campaign support was much weaker than Mook’s data suggested to him.

In politics, very little that is successful emanates from the head—it’s all heart. The election example is instructive because people are people wherever they are, and, absent specific reinforcement, few suddenly become more rational and less emotional in a business context. It’s a delusion to think otherwise.

In the corporation, head has dominated since at least the advent of the Industrial Age as organizations became larger and ownership became more distant from the people actually doing the work. In our current era of mostly absentee shareholders, ownership is abstracted into income and disconnected from the work that’s done and how it’s done.2 There is generally no cause for shareholders to consider anything but return on investment.

With owners and their hired management teams focused on ROI, it is only natural that, absent a conscious decision to do otherwise, corporations would be all head-based. There are two problems with this approach. First is that, as one gets further from the shareholders, i.e., gets closer and closer to the line staff, the institutional reinforcement to stay in one’s head diminishes. The second problem is that humans are evolving to be more heart-based. The combination of these factors argues for a new model that acknowledges when and how to apply each approach, head and heart, so that they are used appropriately, conflict is acknowledged and worked through, and a new equilibrium is reached in each organization.

  1. In most organizations, avoiding accountability is unconsciously or consciously desirable.
  2. It’s how even someone concerned about climate change could be invested in the stocks of oil and gas companies, for example.

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