When to use Consensus for decision making


AUDIO (PODCAST) EDITION: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (about 10 minutes listening time–it’s a 4.6 MB download, which may take a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


Consensus decision making pays for itself when it delivers robust decisions backed by everyone in a group.

Business decision makers have a wide range of decision-making processes to choose from. Both the speed and the quality of decisions can be affected by the decision-making process.

The choice of how a decision will be arrived at should take into account the issue and the people involved in an effort to minimize the cost and maximize the quality of the decision. But many businesspeople automatically make decisions in whatever way they feel most comfortable, or simply perpetuate the ways in which decisions have been made before, without looking at the fit between the decision and the decision-making style.

Consensus is frequently discussed but often misunderstood as a decision-making style. For example, some leaders will assume that team members’ silence after hearing a proposal shows their consensus, where the truth may be they are simply reluctant to express their doubts.

Strictly speaking, a consensus requires the unanimous consent, or approval, of everyone participating in the decision. Partly because each participant has veto power over the decision, participation in a consensus decision-making process gives each participant a strong sense of joint responsibility for the process and the decision. Every participant receives both motive and opportunity to give their blood for the cause.

While the word “consensus” has a touchy-feely sound to some people, in practice it is no more and no less than a specialized wrench for the well-equipped business toolbox. To clarify the value of consensus decision making it helps to compare consensus to command, delegation, and democratic decision-making styles in terms of advantages, disadvantages, and how responsibility for a decision is distributed.

Centralized decision making (“command”). Probably the most familiar and, in recent years, most criticized decision-making style is centralized or “command” decision making, where a leader is directly responsible for every decision within a certain sphere of control. This style can have the advantage of enabling quick, coordinated action, particularly when a deadline is imminent. Its disadvantages can include depriving subordinates of the responsibility, learning, innovation, and personal rewards of making decisions themselves. It can also result in inefficiency or even bottlenecks at times if review and reconsideration are needed before subordinates will take action.

Distributed decision making (“delegation”). For decades now mainstream business thinking has emphasized letting go of the simplicity and familiarity of the command style in order to obtain the benefits of distributed decision making. In contrast to command, a challenging and critically important function of “high-delegation” leaders is to serve as facilitators of decisions made by their team members while resisting the temptation to reconsider and re-issue decisions themselves.

Delegation offers efficiency by reducing the number of people required for each decision, while maximizing ownership of consequences by the individuals who receive decision-making responsibility, boosting their motivation, focus, production quality, and follow-through. However, while delegation serves to distribute decisions across a number of people or groups, the act of delegation does not by itself offer an effective process for allowing a group of people to collaborate in making a single decision.

Majority vote decision making (“democratic”). Consensus is frequently confused with “democratic” or “majority vote” decision making, which it resembles to a certain extent. A majority vote is useful for bringing large numbers of people in on a single decision with minimal cost. It can also set the stage for debate between people who have strong views about a decision, particularly for people with comparable power in a group. Finally, a democratic process results in a decision every time a vote is taken (assuming a tie-breaker process is in place).

Democratic decision making has important strengths in a business setting–for example, when involving large numbers of people such as shareholder groups in a decision. It also has weaknesses. For starters, up to 49% of participants can still wind up being “losers” even though they were included in the decision-making process. This outcome is less than ideal when an organization is counting on everyone to implement a decision enthusiastically. In addition, a vote may be slanted by apathy, inadequate information, or the influence of authority figures who express compelling opinions. Even when discussions do take place before voting, many members of a group may choose to keep important questions, concerns, or alternatives to themselves.

Consensus decision making. Because a consensus decision is preconditioned on participation by everyone in a group, it maximizes “buy-in” and effort from group members during decision making and execution. By the same token, when things don’t go exactly according to plan consensus fosters a sense of goodwill that increases patience, adaptability, and willingness to participate in damage control. The consensus process also encourages discussion of potential obstacles already known to participants, allowing work-arounds to be built into a decision in advance.

Consensus can be very efficient from a cost per decision standpoint. When everyone in a group already has compatible views concerning a proposal, consensus can produce a rapid decision with little or no time spent on a wind up and pitch beforehand. As a project moves forward, leaders can ask for consensus input from teams to discover quickly what kind of support they have and make adjustments if necessary before things go very far off course. In addition, if participants represent groups, consensus can be scaled to larger numbers of people without equivalent costs.

Compared to delegation or command, consensus could take longer or dilute responsibility for follow-through. Other disadvantages of consensus might include taking the time to listen to those whose views don’t conform to mainstream expectations. In addition, it’s possible that a consensus process won’t result in consensus support for any specific course of action, and thus no action will be chosen, which could frustrate someone who wants immediate action.

The following examples demonstrate when consensus might or might not be appropriate. For a mid-sized company, firm-wide consensus would be a poor choice of decision-making style for redesigning the company logo if that project could be better and more cheaply decided by delegating it to one person or a small group of people with appropriate backgrounds. But to redesign an office floor plan for more effective and collaborative use of group space, consensus would be an excellent decision-making style because it solicits the best ideas and the most enthusiastic long-term involvement of everyone who will be using the space.

For any group where harmonious cooperation on many levels and unity on major decisions is essential, consensus decision making can be invaluable. For example, in small business partnerships partners can ill afford to harbor serious reservations or discord over important decisions. Thus, where one partner is leaning towards letting an employee go while another partner could go either way, using a consensus process can help both partners quickly lay out and review options, arrive at a joint decision, and feel supported, respected, and trusted by one another moving forward.


Tool summary: When to use consensus for decision making.

Use the command style for decision making when decisions are needed very quickly, as in a crisis, and one person will be able to make decisions effectively.

Use delegation to increase efficiency and maximize the contribution of every team member.

Use a majority vote to include a large number of people at relatively low cost.

Use consensus when you want high quality input and commitment, with follow-through, from a group.


Recipe for motivating and bonding: ask for a story


AUDIO (PODCAST) EDITION: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (it’s a 3.2 MB download, which may take a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


One of the joys of my consulting practice is getting to know people in many different lines of work and positions within their organizations, who face a wide array of issues involving decision-making, leadership, customer relationships, communication, motivation, and conflicts.

An epiphany I have had from this vantage point is that most people’s interpersonal challenges, limitations and strengths are startlingly similar. Several powerful and encouraging thoughts flow from this realization, among them the following.

1) Although we habitually point out and emphasize differences in culture, education, income, employment, and experience, in the ways we are “wired” beneath the surface to organize information and make decisions, we’re much more alike than we are different.

2) Our similarities give us extraordinary abilities to understand and be understood by one another.

3) We can accomplish a tremendous amount in combination with people who appear to have little in common with us using uncomplicated, more-or-less intuitive communication approaches and tools.

Here is a communication tool I call “ask for a story.” It’s based on the observation that just about everybody makes an effort to feel successful and effective when they are responsible for accomplishing something. A near universal way to tap into someone’s motivation is to simply ask them for stories about themselves, which helps increase their interest, focus, and commitment while building bonds between them and their listeners.

When to ask for a story. This tool can be used by a supervisor, by a subordinate, by a peer, with a customer, by a customer, and in any situation where one has the desire to change someone else’s perspective, and the ability to focus exclusively on someone else for a few minutes.

How to ask for a story. Simply ask someone to tell you what she especially liked doing recently. For example, you could say something like “Terry, what did you like about work this week?”

When she answers, listen for three things: what she says happened; how she felt about it; and what was important about it to her. Then, to help you understand these things, and to clearly demonstrate to her that you understood her, make your best effort to put into words what she said to you, paraphrasing what you heard in similar words, including how it seems to you that she feels about what she described.

Don’t add new ideas or information to what she said. It’s “about” her, not about you. Limit your response to showing her that you heard, and understood, what she said.

Continuing the previous example, if Terry were to answer you by saying “I really enjoyed completing the Coolidge project, I pushed myself hard and got a lot of compliments for what I got done,” you might respond: “So you really enjoyed finishing the project, and your hard work was recognized – you sound pretty proud of yourself!”

It can require a great deal of patience and self-control to listen without offering opinions, without getting defensive and disagreeing when you don’t agree, and without jumping in with your own story if you do agree. But everyone can listen like this if they choose to, and its effects are powerful.

What’s good about asking for a story? For people who work together the impact can be very beneficial. It can help the person telling a story trust and respect the listener, it can help the listener understand what motivates the story teller besides simply getting paid, and it will sometimes give people the insight they need to learn to improve their leadership, communication, and decision-making.

For sellers and those involved in customer relationships, the very same benefits arise: trust and respect are exchanged, motivations other than the purchase price and the thing being purchased are revealed, and feedback may be given which can help strengthen the relationship.

For anyone who has business relationships, and especially for those who supervise or delegate to someone else, I recommend asking for a story at periodic “check-in” intervals: daily, weekly, monthly, or whatever otherwise makes sense given the nature of your relationship. It triggers an internal sync-up which renews motivation, reinforces an important bond, and refreshes a shared sense of purpose.


Tool summary: Ask for a story.

Ask something like “What did you like about work this week?”

Listen for three things: what she says happened; how she felt about it; and what was important about it to her.

Paraphrase what she says, and how you think she feels about what happened, without adding anything about yourself.

Use in any business relationship as a periodic check-in, depending upon the quantity and quality of contact you have with someone.


Formalized story telling has been used for some time as a change tool by organizational development professionals. One notable format is “Appreciative Inquiry,” which tends to generate great results but can wind up becoming a somewhat involved process. Inspired by a cut-to-the-chase version of appreciative inquiry called “appreciative process,” I’ve used the even simpler, universally applicable “ask for a story” tool I describe here with excellent results in many different situations with virtually no time or budget overhead.

Conflict avoidance: presenting options and leveraging intuition

Insight Into Violence Helps Us Redirect Workplace Conflicts: Part 2

Business decisions are influenced by more than money and expertise. One such influence is the passion that people have for their work, their organizations, their workforce, and their customers. Unfortunately, the same passions that lead to outstanding results can also lead to devastating conflicts. As a result I am always on the lookout for techniques that help channel or convert business passions from destructive to constructive ends.

I recently read a book called The Gift of Fear, Survival Signs that Protect Us, by Gavin De Becker (Little, Brown and Company, 1997). De Becker is a consultant who provides threat assessment and security services for celebrities, public officials, and business people who are at risk of violent attacks from stalkers, disgruntled former employees, and common criminals. I found a number of ideas he presented particularly interesting from a workplace conflict standpoint.

In Part 1 of this “Notebook” entry I examine De Becker’s realization that threats to basic needs lead to confrontations. In Part 2 I examine his “tipping point” analysis for predicting confrontations and his observations about the role that intuition plays in decision making, then I close with pros and cons about the book from a business reader’s perspective.


Listen to the PODCAST: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (a 3.4 MB file, which takes a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


Predicting Confrontations By The Presence Or Absence of Options

Gavin De Becker has noticed that a person arrives at a tipping point and decides to act violently when four conditions are met: they feel justified; they perceive few or no alternatives; they believe the consequences will be favorable; and they believe they have the ability to succeed.

De Becker uses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an illustration of this tipping point for violent action, pointing out that those who commit acts of violence in the conflict believe they are justified, perceive no alternatives, perceive the consequences on the whole as favorable, and believe they have the ability to deliver violence.

But what if these perception can be changed, such that violent action doesn’t seem justified, alternatives could be shown to exist, favorable consequences are debunked or unfavorable ones given credit, or the ability to act is shown to be missing?

Similarly, to defuse workplace conflict and convert the energies involved into more productive collaborative action, we can question the basis for conflict by asking ourselves and others involved questions like these (in highly emotional conflicts a neutral third party might be helpful here):

On what principles do each of us justify what we propose to do in this conflict? How well can each of us poke holes in our own justifications?

What alternatives do we perceive to our own positions? If no alternatives are perceived to be available, can we brainstorm, do research, or consult a knowledgeable outsider to look for alternatives?

What consequences do we perceive to be likely to result, on the whole, from what we are doing or propose to do? What information, if it were available, would change our perceptions about what we expect?

Do we have the ability to succeed in what we want to accomplish? Do we have the resources we need to do what we want to do? Where do these resources come from, and who else needs to be involved?

The Role of Intuition In Decision Making

De Becker believes we must listen to our intuition to identify impending threats and find ways to avoid them. He lists several “messengers of intuition,” internal signs and symptoms which he believes are our intuition telling us something that we should pay attention to. These are:

  • nagging feelings
  • persistent thoughts
  • black humor
  • wonder
  • anxiety
  • curiosity
  • hunches
  • gut feelings
  • doubt
  • hesitation
  • suspicion
  • apprehension
  • fear.

Interestingly, De Becker believes our intuitions of danger happen in a flash, the result of a sort of early warning radar built into our brain specially developed to allow us to predict and avoid the violent behavior of other people. He carefully distinguishes such in-an-instant intuition of an immediate threat from states of general worry, dread, or anxiety that some people experience for days, weeks, or years at a time. He believes such ongoing distress results from unhappiness or discomfort with one’s surroundings or circumstances rather than an immediate threat from another person.

De Becker provided a couple of particularly good quotes to illustrate his views about intuition versus anxiety.

Concerning the topic of trusting intuition he quotes Albert Einstein as saying: “The solutions come to you, and you don’t know how or why.”

Concerning the problem that people may have with continually worrying about fears that never materialize, he quotes Mark Twain as saying: “I have had a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

Pros and cons about De Becker’s book

Pros: if you or someone you know works with or is somehow concerned with any of the following types of people, you should consider reading or recommending this book:

  • someone regularly responsible for disciplining or firing employees, or just one potentially violent employee
  • a law enforcement professional
  • a mental health professional
  • a celebrity or high-profile public figure
  • someone dealing with a stalker
  • someone dealing with a mentally or physically abusive caregiver or spouse
  • someone trying to overcome their fear of violence

Cons: there are many frighteningly detailed examples of violent human behavior in this book, so much so that it could induce anxiety and possibly even a bit of mild paranoia in some readers. In addition, if you strongly support the ability of U.S. citizens to possess personal firearms, you may find De Becker’s numerous examples of gun-related violence off-putting to the extent that he appears to have concluded that guns are part of a problem of violence in the U.S.

Recognizing the needs that lead to confrontations

Insight Into Violence Helps Us Redirect Workplace Conflicts: Part 1

Business decisions are influenced by more than money and expertise. One such influence is the passion that people have for their work, their organizations, their workforce, and their customers. Unfortunately, the same passions that lead to outstanding results can also lead to devastating conflicts. As a result I am always on the lookout for techniques that help channel or convert business passions from destructive to constructive ends.

I recently read a book called The Gift of Fear, Survival Signs that Protect Us, by Gavin De Becker (Little, Brown and Company, 1997). De Becker is a consultant who provides threat assessment and security services for celebrities, public officials, and business people who are at risk of violent attacks from stalkers, disgruntled former employees, and common criminals. I found a number of ideas he presented particularly interesting from a workplace conflict standpoint.

In Part 1 of this “Notebook” entry I examine De Becker’s realization that threats to basic needs lead to confrontations. In Part 2 I examine his “tipping point” analysis for predicting confrontations and his observations about the role that intuition plays in decisionmaking, then I close with pros and cons about the book from a business reader’s perspective.


Listen to the PODCAST: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (a 3.4 MB file, which takes a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


While Gavin De Becker’s work is focused primarily on avoiding violence, the principles he relies on to identify, deter, and defeat potential attackers are based on his broader observations about human motivation in conflict scenarios. De Becker’s observations about motivation are hardly unique — Maslow and Meyers-Briggs come to mind immediately as more widely recognized sources for such lists. But because De Becker’s observations are based on his career experience with thousands of violent and potentially violent individuals, I think his take on this may be uniquely practical for understanding and redirecting conflict.

De Becker finds that all of us, even stalkers and serial killers, tend to be motivated by the following simple needs:

  • establishing connections with other people
  • avoiding sadness from loss
  • avoiding rejection
  • obtaining recognition and attention
  • avoiding pain (even more than we are motivated to increase pleasure)
  • avoiding ridicule and embarrassment
  • obtaining the respect of other people, and
  • having control over our lives.

It’s easy to see how the same list of needs applies to non-violent people in the workplace when they are caught up in conflict with one another: even in the course of a purely business function, when our basic needs are threatened by something someone is doing or proposes to do, we naturally tend to push back to protect what we feel we need. Conflict is a likely byproduct when one or more people feels threatened, even when “it’s just business.” Consider the personal threats involved when issues arise like pay, budget, or being recognized for accomplishments or failures.

How does this help us convert workplace conflicts into more productive styles of communication? It suggests two steps we can take immediately after a conflict arises. First, we can work to identify the needs being put into play by the issue in conflict. Second, we can look for what can be added or subtracted from the issue in conflict which might reduce the impact on the needs of the people in conflict while still satisfying relevant business requirements. It’s like modifying a recipe for a pasta dish: There are many ways of maintaining the good taste of a dish while simultaneously reducing the sodium content by either substituting or changing the proportions of various salt-containing ingredients that were called for by the original recipe.

Having an open and honest discussion about the needs involved is not a trivial task. From personal experience I can assure you that people engaged in a conflict frequently fail to perceive (or admit to) the basic needs that have been challenged by “business” decisions or practices, or they identify such needs but underestimate intensity and influence. Even when a conflict is on its surface about dollars or hours or pencils or whatever, once emotions heat up you can bet that inside people’s heads and hearts there is much more going on. But when people are aware enough and feel safe enough to discuss personal needs, the payoff is that this can lead to approaches that reassure them or protect their interests so that they no longer take conflicting positions, while still satisfying business objectives.

One way to discover these needs is by asking questions like the following:

  • What are you afraid will be lost given the direction things are headed now?
  • What else do you expect to happen if the loss you want to avoid takes place?
  • How would you change what is happening–or what you expect to happen–if you could?
  • What else could be changed to achieve the same goals?
  • What about yourself would you change, if you could, to help?
  • Who do you feel connected to in this situation?
  • Who would you like to feel more connected to if you could?

(How to) Turn on the Charisma!

Deliberate Charisma: a built-in feature of the brain-face connection

You doubtless know that your body language can trigger emotions in other people, sometimes with a positive effect (for example, people around you will feel more cheerful if you seem happy) and sometimes with a negative effect (people around you will feel more anxious if you’re upset). To the extent you can select your own body language you can choose the emotional effect you have on the people around you. I’m calling this “deliberate charisma,” although it’s probably better known by the emotional intelligence term “resonance”.

If this sort of thing interests you I highly recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book “Blink” which describes some really fascinating research into the strong connections within everyone’s brain between the emotions we feel and the facial expressions we show — and vice versa. Gladwell interviews academic researchers who found that people who see other people smiling feel happier, and people who see other people frowning feel sadder, and so on. More surprisingly, these researchers discovered that people who smile feel happier simply because their faces are making smiles, while people who frown feel sadder — and this appears to happen even when the only thing influencing these people is their own facial expressions, without any other influence. One might go so far as to suggest that facial expressions cause emotions as much as emotions cause facial expressions; the emotional centers of the brain are just that tightly linked to the muscles of the face.

Another interesting finding backed by research is that the connections between emotions and expressions are highly contagious. Seeing one person smile can cause a second person to smile involuntarily, which can then infect yet another person when the second person’s smile triggers theirs. Of course, a smile is only contagious if it’s genuine, with the corners of the eyes crinkling and all — just baring one’s teeth at someone doesn’t have the same effect.

There are well-known applications for this knowledge, the most famous of which is “method acting.” Method actors induce an emotional state in themselves which gives them the realistic appearance of the character they are playing in order to generate a strong response in their audience.

What I am about to recommend to you, which I’m calling deliberate charisma, is a simple visualization exercise that you can use to personally project the emotional climate you choose for your customers and co-workers.

Here’s the trick: you can quickly and easily reverse engineer your own body language simply by remembering the sight of someone else’s body language. In particular, if you can recall a particular facial expression you have seen before that gives you a strong enough emotional response it will naturally bring out the body language you need to show in order to trigger the emotional response you want someone else to have.

I had an interesting experience the other day that proved to me that we can easily apply deliberate charisma to our everyday lives. In theory anybody can do it — see what you think.

On the day in question it was beautiful and sunny here in Seattle, but I was stressed, and by the end of the day it began to occur to me that I wasn’t much fun to be around. Even though I hadn’t given up trying to smile and make cheerful conversation the way I usually do, judging by the consistently distant response I was getting I suspected that something in my body language negated my attempts to be friendly. (As I later explained to my wife: “I had crappy resonance today.”)

While running errands at the end of my stressful day I remembered the connection between emotions and facial expressions and realized that I had a perfect opportunity to experiment on myself.

Since I wanted to be able to give upbeat emotions to others, I would need to induce upbeat body language in myself. To accomplish this I decided to visualize someone smiling at me. It felt weird at first, but after a minute I remembered meeting a beautiful tiny infant at my local Starbucks a couple of months ago whose intense smile and gaze was so contagious it left me grinning as wide as my face would possibly stretch.

Almost immediately I noticed a change. A hint of a smile opened out on my face, just a little, and all of a sudden my facial muscles thawed. I yawned, my face loosened even more, and I stood up a little straighter, like gravity had lessened slightly. Then I tried smiling for real — it was not only much easier than before, I felt different, too — better, lighter.

Then I tried smiling at the next person I saw (remember, this is Seattle: it’s OK to smile at strangers here, if you can believe it). The other person hesitated at first, then smiled back, unable to resist the impulse. Mission accomplished!

Whether or not you’ve tried this on yourself, please let me know what you think.

Who are you capable of being?

What do we mean when we say someone is being their best self?

We often hear people say things like “I did my best” or “I was awesome today!” to express their pleasure and pride. We also hear things like “I wasn’t on” or “I wasn’t myself today” to explain why they aren’t pleased with their actions. There’s a reputation issue here: people who aren’t satisfied with how something turned out don’t want to be known for it, or remembered by it. They want to be associated with successes, or what they consider successes, anyway, and they want to disassociate themselves from failure. Sometimes people try to deny any responsibility for failures. Instead they blame circumstances or other people. But there’s more to it than reputation.

Recently someone translating the book Primal Leadership asked me to explain what the authors meant by the words “best selves”, on page 197.

Primal Leadership is a book about emotional intelligence that looks at the impact of leaders’ emotion-handling skills on their business relationships. Here’s how the section containing these words reads:

“How can an organization transform itself from a place that discourages people’s best selves from making an appearance into a vibrant workplace where people feel energized and purposeful? That kind of change requires a great leap: from a thorough understanding of the reality to a profound engagement with people’s ideal visions–of both themselves as individuals and as part of an organization.” (pp. 197-198.)

I think the translator’s question is rather interesting: off the top of your head, what do you think it means — and how would you explain it to someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you? There are three things about it I find especially interesting.

The first is that each of us is aware of certain standards we set for ourselves, personally and professionally. We may or may not actually live up to our standards, and we may or may not apply our standards to other people. Our standards might include:

  • Being respectful to others;
  • Being accurate;
  • Being enthusiastic;
  • Being generous;
  • Being thrifty (not wasting money or other resources);
  • Being practical;
  • Being efficient;
  • Being useful;
  • Being a good decision maker; and
  • Being a quick learner.

To some extent our standards are imposed from outside – by parents, teachers, bosses, customers, or coworkers – but in the end we either internalize outside influences or reject them. We are influenced by outside standards, but the ultimate decision about applying these standards always lies within us individually. Otherwise all siblings, all fellow students, all fellow employees, etc., who have been influenced by the same expectations would share the same standards, and this is clearly not the case.

Of course, just because we have standards doesn’t mean we judge ourselves by whether we live up to them. Sometimes we simply don’t notice whether we meet our own standards. Sometimes we make excuses for our failures. And we all know somebody who talks about their standards often enough but regularly acts inconsistently. Advocates of both emotional intelligence and executive coaching stress that work performance and communication skills improve when people articulate their standards then compare their actions to their standards. When we discover inconsistencies between the two, we may change either our standards or our actions, or both.

So we all have a best self, although it may be unclear, even to ourselves, what to expect from that best self.

The second point that I want to touch upon is the way that our standards for our own conduct change depending upon the situations we are in, or more precisely, depending upon the role we play in a given situation. I find that the idea of “roles” is the simplest way to capture a snapshot of the different packages of standards we apply.

For example, when talking to an infant or a frail adult we try harder to be gentle and patient and don’t expect speed, precision, or consistency in response. By way of contrast, when we work opposite a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant, we expect and push for higher levels of speed, accuracy, and consistency. When talking to our boss most of us will talk less, and more quietly, and listen more attentively, than we do when talking with a subordinate. When talking to someone we love we will be more indulgent, whereas when talking to someone at whom we are angry we will allow little leeway.

So how our “best self” behaves may change depending upon our role.

The third point I’d like to bring up involves what I call the homunculus perspective. The word homunculus means “little human.” and it has a long tradition. In mythology, philosophy, psychology, and pop culture, a homunculus refers to a splitting of one being into multiple parts, with a question sometimes arising about whether one part is in charge of the other.

When I refer to the homunculus perspective I am referring to our tendency to speak of ourselves as operators or executive decision-makers living within our own bodies.

Perhaps the clearest example of the homunculus perspective in action is when we have conversations with ourselves. “I was just telling myself the other day…” is one common expression, or “I was debating with myself about whether or not to have another helping,” or “I had to stop myself from doing something stupid.” Seems ordinary enough, right? Of course, the interesting question at this point is: if YOU were the one doing the telling, or debating, or stopping…then WHO was it that you were talking to, debating with, or stopping? It’s harmless to talk about ourselves this way, and it helps most of us to think through conflicting impulses within our thoughts by treating them as if they were spoken by different people. So I like to think of the homunculus perspective as simply a metaphor that explains our internal debates in a familiar way, like a debate between different people — although I imagine many of us also attribute this apparent debate to our consciences, super-egos, internalized parents, God, or other sources.

So by talking about our “best self” as if we were talking about a separate person we can use the homunculus perspective to examine our standards and our actions and make value judgments about ourselves.

In conclusion, I think when the authors of Primal Leadership wrote the words “best selves” they were using the homunculus perspective metaphor to emphasize the expectations people have for themselves when they pursue high standards of conduct.

For a little extra spin on this topic, I recommend that the emotional climate of each workplace be designed to evoke the kind of “best self” behavior wanted by a company’s leadership. If the emotional climate is designed properly, everybody can easily step into the role of the “best” person performing their particular function.

Being intentional about emotions at work

What Are Your Strategies For Leveraging Emotions In the Workplace?

Do you have strategies for getting the most out of emotions in your workplace–strategies for yourself, for the work force, for the leaders in your organization, for your customers?

While doing research for a workshop on doctors’ communication skills I came across an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (“JAMA”) about using acting techniques to improve customer relationships. The JAMA article cites an intriguing look at the strategic use of emotions in the airline industry in a book called The Managed Heart, Commercialization of Human Feeling, written in 1983 by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Inspired in part by what I found in this book, I’ve selected eight ideas about the pivotal role of emotions in business that I want to share.

Point 1. Part of what customers pay businesses for, and part of what businesses pay their employees for, is a display of caring alongside the product or service being delivered. In particular, customers expect to experience a feeling that their well-being is valued by the company. As a bonus customers appreciate feeling personally liked by the company’s employees. If you are a business and want to give this sort of emotional satisfaction to your customers, the best way, and perhaps the only practical way, is to recruit, train, and lead employees so that they genuinely care about and even like your customers.

Point 2. Every emotion we experience is really a complex signal (like a command) to both our minds and bodies that triggers pre-wired responses according to our circumstances. Emotions prepare us for decisions and actions–and in hindsight this preparation is sometimes appropriate, sometimes inappropriate.

For example, a threat elicits the emotion fear, which prepares both our mind and our body for fight or flight by raising our blood pressure and alertness and reducing our reaction time while cutting off creative thinking, or for that matter, all thinking except about avoiding the threat. If the threat is physical, this is appropriate. If the threat is your boss saying she didn’t like your report, the response is inappropriate — or at least not helpful.

Point 3. We can learn and unlearn automatic emotional responses to certain situations. Back to the fear reaction, if we discover over time and repeat experiences that what we first thought to be dangerous is not a likely danger–turbulence while flying in an airplane comes to mind–most of us can unlearn our fear response. This happens when we compare each new occurrence to past occurrences which did not result in harm. In other words, if we don’t want a particular emotional response, we can retrain ourselves by associating a different emotion with the situation that triggers the emotion we don’t want. We can also learn, or teach others, new emotional responses. For example, if someone has had repeated experiences of feeling relaxed and pampered in a particular coffee house their memory will involuntarily summon up and signal the same feelings of relaxation and satisfaction whenever they are exposed to that coffee house.

Point 4. Emotions also automatically shape our physical appearance in a way that communicates what is on our minds. For example, the physical appearance of someone who feels threatened or otherwise highly stressed can be alarming to others, triggering in them a mirrored appearance of threat and stress.

Point 5. Emotions wind up being factors in many if not all business decisions. But contrary to our culture’s common wisdom, by themselves emotions aren’t necessarily rational or irrational.

For example, if you are about to be run over by a truck, fear is both rational and helpful as adrenalin is automatically dumped into your blood supply, boosting your escape power, while an instant vision of physical injury assists you with what we might consider a perfectly rational decision to jump out of the way. But what would happen without emotion? In the absence of fear you would be less well prepared to take appropriately rapid action. What if you tried to make a completely rational decision? You might first weigh the costs and benefits of changing your position versus getting hit by the truck. After this analysis, if you decided to move, then you would begin considering the most efficient route to take to get out of the truck’s path, taking into account practical factors like how far it would take you off of your intended course. In this instance a strong emotional reaction led to a better, more rational course of action than an in-depth analysis could have provided.

Emotions have a similar importance in business decisions. For example, when making a hiring decision your feelings of trust and rapport (or the absence of these feelings) aren’t absolutely quantifiable, statistically valid, or strictly logical. Nevertheless, they are highly relevant factors to weigh as part of your hiring decision despite their “irrationality” because the social fit of the person you hire will be important to your team’s long term success.

Point 6. As Hochschild examines at some length in her book, both sincerity and authenticity are looked for in relationships. Sincerity is about telling the truth to others, authenticity is about telling the truth to one’s self. The absence of either can cause turbulent relationships.

One of the most important functions of a leader, a sales person, or a coach is helping someone else uncover the authentic convictions or “truths” that lie within themselves. In other words, effective business people must be able to help someone make decisions that are appealing on an emotional or “gut” level as well as on a numerical or rational level. Decisions are certainly easier to explain when a valid comparison can be made between options on the basis of numbers alone. And of course, there is no doubt that preparation, including rigorous planning processes and the development of specialized expertise, makes an important contribution to many complex business decisions. But what happens when numbers aren’t available, or don’t answer the question being asked? In the real world there are so many intangibles and unknowns that pure numerical comparisons are of little value, or even misleading, for many business decisions.

For this reason your ability to facilitate people’s gut-level decision processes is a critical business skill which may be as important or more important than your ability to make quantitative arguments.

Point 7. Just as the author predicted in her book over 20 years ago, I believe that a whole generation has been raised by parents whose success at work has depended in significant part on their emotional self-management skills in managerial, teamwork, and customer relationship capacities. As a consequence, almost everyone now in the work force was raised in an environment where they were expected to explain their feelings and the feelings of others as a reason for making decisions and as a rationale for requesting action from others. We are persuaded by, and expect others to use, feelings-based arguments. Thus it’s critical for successful leaders and customer relationship representatives to understand the feeling rules or emotional expectations of the people they work with, then communicate effectively about the relevant emotions. For those of you interested in such things, this correlates to the concept of “self-awareness” in Emotional Intelligence and other contemporary leadership models.

Point 8. When she wrote The Managed Heart in 1983, Hochschild was a sociology professor at U.C. Berkeley. Along with her impressive first hand research, which focused primarily on flight attendants, and her valuable analysis of applicable psychological theories, she expresses concern about Management using emotional strategies in ways that are mentally and spiritually detrimental to Labor. Her book has a bit of an activist tone, opening with a quote from Karl Marx, and applying what might be considered a feminist perspective at times.

I respect the author’s viewpoint and echo her desire for responsible, ethical relationships in the workplace. But I also find that nearly everyone these days — whether male or female, self-employed, earning an hourly wage, or taking home an executive salary — is convinced that their personal success in business will depend in large part on their ability to apply the right emotions when working with customers and co-workers. I would also argue that improving our ability to promote the feelings we choose in business can lead to more efficiency by decreasing disagreements and poor decisions stemming from emotions, and thus more civility, improving everyone’s quality of life.