by Carly Chynoweth
Feelings are playing a bigger part in business decisions, and it’s not just because there are more women in the workplace.
Managers have always tended to be dispassionate, logical types when it comes to decision-making. Most of them have what psychologists call a “thinking” preference, meaning that they favour a rational, impersonal approach. Only a small number have a “feeling” preference, which indicates that they place more weight on the people and relationship aspects of decisions.
The past decade, however, has seen an increase in the number of managers who prefer to let their feelings lead the way, said Robert Terry, founder of Ask Europe, a leadership development consultancy.
In 2001, 85% of managers who completed the Myers-Briggs personality test were classed as thinkers and only 15% had a feeling preference. By this year the balance had shifted to 78% thinking and 22% feeling — still different to the split in the general population, which is more like 60/40, but a significant change, Terry said.
One of the reasons could be that there are more women in the workplace — they tend towards a feeling preference, although at an individual level there is huge variety.
“Empathy has definitely become more important over the past decade,” said Pauline Crawford, chief executive of Corporate Heart, a performance management consultancy. “A lot of it is about emotional intelligence, what I call emotional maturity … it has a great deal to do with women being more prominent in the workplace.” But the involvement of more women is not the only reason, she said. “Markets have changed, the nature of business has changed and the people at work have changed.”
Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal, which examines people’s emotional lives at work, agreed. “Manufacturing operated on the old chain-of-command model to get the job done on time,” she said. “But in the West now we have moved to a service economy and the areas of growth are in healthcare, care of the elderly, education and so on.”
These areas require a more collaborative, empathetic approach from businesses. “I quote a study in my book which found that hospitals that taught their nurses to be compassionate found patients spent two days less in hospital, which translates directly to the bottom line,” Kreamer said. “This is not touchy-feely claptrap. It’s business.”
Many men seem to understand this, Crawford said. What Men Think, Corporate Heart’s recent research about men’s attitudes to women in the workplace, suggested that men want to exhibit a more sensitive, collaborative leadership style, with 83% of the 114 men questioned saying that their own approach involved “using intuition and feelings on a regular basis” rather than being “tough, logical . . . and good at controlling emotions at work”. “These men want to be relationship-focused leaders. To do that, they have to possess a degree of empathy,” Crawford said. “When under pressure, though, people still go back to a get-it-done approach and that’s when the more overt emotions we see from women can get in the way.”
Nearly half of the men questioned felt that it was inappropriate to use feelings to make business decisions, and a slightly higher proportion said they did not value emotions that are openly displayed in the workplace. While both the thinking and feeling approaches have their advantages, the best decisions are likely to incorporate both elements, said Terry. This means that diversity of thought, rather than of gender or other external factors, is important in any group. “It is a feeling preference that we should be looking for rather than gender when it comes to board diversity,” he said. “You end up with better decisions when you have different voices being heard.
“I worked with the board of a retail business where the chairman was the only one with a feeling preference. The directors proposed closures that seemed to them a done deal. The stores were losing money, so the logical thing was to shut them. The chairman recognised the rationale for the proposals but wanted to know whether the plan took into account the effect on the employees and the communities in which the company operated. He refused to approve it until these factors were considered.
“They went away and did a lot of additional work . . . and the closures were handled in a more sensitive way. As a result there was no community action, no strikes and there was no blip in the share price,” Terry said. “That’s the contribution that the feeling preference brings.”