How does our emotional state impact our decision-making ability in the workplace? Significantly, says Brett Solomon.

In a study, the universities of Ben Gurion and Columbia scrutinised over 1 000 rulings of judges presiding over parole applications. A startling fact was uncovered: 65 percent were granted at the beginning of the day, steadily declining to almost none in the afternoon. Approvals shot back to 65 percent again after the judges took a break, only to steadily dwindle back down again.

Jonathan Levav, the associate professor of business at Columbia, argued that there could be multiple reasons for this. However, the primary contribution is that judges, like all people, get tired during the course of the day. Other studies have shown that having to make repetitive decisions can be mentally taxing, causing people to become weary.

When we, like the judges, are fatigued, we are prone to resorting to the easiest way of doing something, or to choosing the simplest answer. It is far easier for the judges to reject parole requests and maintain the status quo.

This is equally true when it comes to our safety. When we are tired, we are more inclined to take the easy path even if it is unsafe. Therefore, in in these moments we need to be more vigilant.

In another study, Ozkan Eren and Naci Mocan examined 8 200 cases adjudicated by 207 different judges who went to Louisiana State University. They focused only on first-time offenders between the ages of ten and 17. Trying to avoid other mitigating factors, they excluded all serious offenders who had been convicted of murder, aggravated assault, or rape.

Eren and Mocan found that when the local football team, the Tigers, lost a game, the judges tended to hand down harsher sentences. Analysing 16 years of rulings, on average, 36 days were being added to prison terms after the Tigers had lost. This spiked to an average of 63 extra days on judgements the week following a major loss.

The implications are disturbing. We believe we are rational and that we make decisions based on sensibly working through the different alternatives and logically making the right call. The reality is that this is not the case at all.

We are far more emotional and susceptible to other factors, when it comes to decision-making, than we think we are. The way we feel at the moment primes our judgements. The same applies to safety. The way we feel at a particular time influences the degree of risk we are willing to take.

Caroline Comaford used the analogy that the pathway going from our emotional brain to our intellect is like a six-lane superhighway, but the route from our intellect to our emotional brain is similar to a single trail through the bush.

We are highly emotional beings – emotions drive our behaviour, influence our attention, determine our motivation, colour our memories and impact our relationships.

Because emotions fuel our decisions, we can be upset with our car breaking down and then take it out on a colleague who has done nothing wrong, even though the two are entirely unrelated. Leaders with high emotional intelligence are less likely to respond in this manner as they recognise the source of their frustration.

A world-renowned emotional intelligence expert, Daniel Goleman, explains that emotional intelligence is our ability to interpret and manage our emotions “so that they are expressed appropriately and effectively, enabling people to work together smoothly toward their common goals”.

Emotional intelligence helps us to understand the triggers of our emotions better and to manage our automatic reactions. This puts us back into the driver’s seat and enables us to stop and choose a response instead of just reacting. Being aware of our emotional state allows us to weigh up our options; we can be more mindful of the decisions we make, especially those that can impact our safety.

Joshua Freedman notes: “Emotions offer valuable data that help us see more clearly. When we stop fighting them, ignoring them, or feeling suffocated by them, we gain an amazing resource to focus our attention and motivate action.”  When we are aware of our emotions, we can use what they are “telling” us to guide our thinking and decision-making.

Emotional intelligence plays a pivotal role in creating a resilient safety culture and curbing unnecessary risk taking. Here are a few tips and recommendations to consider:

1. Be attentive to how you interact with others, knowing you can influence their mood. We need to avoid using threatening language, or behaviour that could cause people to feel they have to take short cuts. Don’t allow personal issues to boil over onto others.

2. Be a source of reason by reinforcing the key values that drive major decisions. Emphasise the importance of making safe decisions, irrespective of how you are feeling. Be resolute about safety when the pressure is on and in times of high stress.

3. Learn to trust your intuition by recognising your “gut feelings”. If something does not feel right, it most probably isn’t. Encourage team members to do the same.

4. Learn to manage your own emotions, particularly when you are stressed and fatigued. Know that in moments like these we are more inclined to take shortcuts.

5. Build healthy relationships by allowing others to share their opinions and voice their concerns when it comes to safety. Be open to bad news as this creates a learning environment.

6. Don’t let drama and negativity prevail – rather be solution orientated. Quickly address issues that can cause people to lose focus on working safely.

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