The Heart of Problem Solving

If you are in business, you solve problems and make decisions for a living. You figure out how to transform raw materials into a finished product. Then you solve marketing, sales, and delivery problems. Throughout all of this, you make decisions about managing human resources. In business, the best problem solvers win.

How do you get to be the best problem solver? Some people believe in the stereotype of the hard nosed businessman. He claims to make decisions based on pure logic. Feelings, he says, just get in the way. This man is deluding himself. While logic is essential for excellent problem solving, it is not sufficient. Emotions play a critical though poorly understood role in decision making. The best decision makers integrate logic and emotion.

Suppose you have to fill a key position. You have two strong candidates. How do you pick between them? If you are smart, after thoroughly looking at all of their qualifications, after you have spent time with each person, and after getting input from others, you will listen to your gut. Maybe one person looks better on paper, but somehow he makes you feel uneasy. You notice a better rapport with the other candidate, a key to an excellent working relationship. Integrating your feelings with your logic helps you make a sound judgment.

This is quite different from listening to your gut before doing your homework. That is just impulsiveness. Your gut needs to be fed all the key data and often needs time to sift it through. Then your years of experience, of seeing various people do well and not do well, of making other difficult decisions, of sensing what matters to you and what doesn’t, will help you know which candidate feels better to you. You probably won’t even recognize all of the specific experiences you are using to help you make the decision, but they are serving you nonetheless.

For this process to work, you have to be willing to notice what your feelings are telling you, rather than believing them to be a nuisance. Emotional self awareness is a key part of emotional intelligence and a key aspect of making good judgments.

Judgment is the process of reviewing your past experiences to guide your current decision making. It involves both a conscious and an unconscious review of relevant memories. Memories are not stored solely on the basis of logic. They are stored with an associated feeling or emotion. Memories of decisions that work well might get stored with a sense of satisfaction and pride. Memories of decisions that work poorly may get stored with feelings of anxiety or discouragement. When similar situations present themselves in the present, those feelings help us remember how things have worked in the past. We can improve our decision making and problem solving by paying attention to the emotions our growing set of past experiences recall.

Awareness of your feelings is a skill. The more you practice it, the better you get at it. Successful leaders practice self awareness. They know when they are about to make a decision out of anger, and stop themselves short. They recognize when they are tired and tempted to take a short cut. They notice when a business deal does not feel quite right, which gives them the chance to stop and ask more questions.

Given the essential role emotional self awareness plays in problem solving, why do so many people, and company cultures, strive to ignore feelings? Basically, no one wants to make a fool of himself. We have all had experiences in which our emotions have gotten out of control. We know that when emotion alone takes control, our judgment can be awful. The outcome at best is that we feel sheepish and must apologize. At worst, we have a lot of damage to repair. Those who ignore their feelings are simply trying to avoid making fools of themselves. Their goal is sensible. Their strategy backfires. People are far more likely to over-react to unrecognized feelings than they are to feelings they understand. Self awareness, not denial, is the mother of self control.

The heart of superior problem solving is an effective combination of logic skills and emotional awareness. Companies seeking superior collective decision making will do well to promote emotional awareness as part of their cultures. Doing so will give them a leg up on many of their competitors. You can do a “quick and dirty” culture check to see whether your company culture promotes self awareness or if an adjustment would be helpful. Ask how you and others in your company would answer these questions:

• Are people excited to work here? (Real enthusiasm rarely exists in cultures that dishonor emotion.)

• Can differences be discussed? (This inherently uncomfortable but vital process works well only in cultures where the discomfort can be acknowledged.)

• Do employees constantly gripe? (Ineffective complaining thrives when the culture does not encourage emotional honesty because problems don’t get solved well.)

• Do we get many customer complaints? (Customers often “catch” feelings customer service staff find hard to share with their superiors.)

• How common are stress related illnesses in our company? (Stress related illnesses are indirect, ineffective, and costly expressions of emotion.)

Integrating reason and emotion to solve problems separates human beings from computers and from animals, neither of which are known for great decision making on their own. Give your company an advantage over your competition by making sure that there is room for both in your company culture. The example you set is the best place to start.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc. He can be reached at 774-1927, or by e-mail at

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.

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