Project Management Decisions – Logical or Emotional?

For those of us who pride ourselves on making logical, data-driven decisions, recent neuroscience research says we’re kidding ourselves. A recent discussion posted by Paul McFadden in the LinkedIn Group, “NeuroLeadership in Project and Program Management Leadership” captured my attention. His post included a link to an article, titled “Decisions are Emotional, Not Logical: The Neuroscience Behind Decision-Making” by Jim Camp, on the “Big Think” Website. Mr. Camp cited recent research that says that in it’s final stage, decision-making isn’t made in the logic center of our brains, it’s done in the part of the brain that drives our emotions, the amygdala. This discovery was revealed by Antonio Damasio, a Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, in his book, “Descartes’ Error.” He and others studied the behavior of people who had suffered, damage to their brain’s emotional center. The studies revealed that although these people could effectively use the logic and thinking centers of their brains to understand the information required in preparation for making a decision, when it came to the actual point of making the decision, they were incapable of making one. Apparently, the emotions we have related to decision alternatives mark them with a “good”, “bad” or “indifferent” feeling that is the pre-requisite for us to make a decision. So, accurate and complete data, and solid logic are necessary to set the stage for good decisions, but at the point at which the decision must be made, it’s our feelings about the alternative courses of action that are the critical enabler.

This information started me thinking about the significance this new knowledge might have for Project Managers? The following are a few thoughts on why I think this is important, and how, by knowing it Project Managers can apply it to be more effective in their jobs.

PM “Soft” Skills. There is an on-going discussion about the relative value of “hard” versus “soft” Project Management skills. The majority of PM’s seem to agree that although both types of skills are necessary, it’s the “soft” skills that make the difference between success and failure in complex and difficult situations. I believe this research adds credibility to that belief. Similarly, there is much discussion and debate around the existence and value of Emotional Intelligence (EI), or Social Intelligence (SI) if you prefer. EI/SI is the ability to understand your own emotions and feelings, be sensitive to how others are feeling or might feel in a given context, and using this “sense” to inform your decisions and actions. I’m convinced that EI/SI may be THE most important PM skill and it seems to me that this research adds strong neuroscience evidence to support that conviction. Perhaps now, with a more informed awareness of the role that emotion plays in how we make decisions, we can more effectively build and use our “soft” skills.
PM Critical Thinking Skills. Critical thinking is a process by which we reflect on, and question, our own, and others, standard ways of solving problems and making decisions. Elements of the process include identifying and challenging assumptions and biases; thoroughly understanding context; creative development and exploration of alternatives; and thoughtful, respectful skepticism. These skills are important to PM’s. Based on the Damasio research it’s clear that critical thinking as I’ve characterized it here, may challenge emotionally anchored assumptions, beliefs, theories and practices. It’s clear then that PM’s who use critical thinking techniques might find that an appreciation of the emotional heritage of the assumptions and ideas that they are challenging will reduce any resistance to the adoption of alternatives.
Communications. In my experience, communications and relationship management is the most important and pervasive activity of a Project Manager. PM’s who understand how the people they’re speaking with really make decisions, should be able to build logical, AND emotionally compelling arguments to convince others to do the things that they think should be done to make the project successful.

What do you think? In what other ways might Project Managers leverage the findings of the Damasio research?

About donmcalister

I retired at the end of 2011, after a 39 year career in the Aerospace industry as a Propulsion Engineer, Engineering Manager and Program Manager. My professional interests and expertise are in the areas of Program, Risk and Knowledge Management. I'm passionate about life-long learning in a wide variety of topics and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge and ideas with those who are interested. I'm an Aerospace Industry Consultant. I serve my community as a Rotarian. My hobby is playing as a jazz keyboard.
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3 Responses to Project Management Decisions – Logical or Emotional?

  1. Jengiz Gocer says:

    Hi Don,
    I am all excited to become a part of this interesting topic tomorrow for OD. Group @ 11:30 am.

  2. Dan Vickers says:

    I appreciate this blog. I am a huge fan of developing our soft skills and our communication skills and I convery this message to fellow PMs whenever I can. However, you mentioned a skill above that I had forgotten about and its importance…Critical Thinking. Even though I use this skill I had not identified it as a PM skill. Thank you for bringing this important topic to my attention.

  3. Dave Nordling says:

    I think this article is spot-on. Many times, when faced with the same data in the same environment, rationale people of equal capabilitites can make very different decisions.

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